By Hector Arkomanis.
This column is the first in a series that discusses films in the context of specific cities, times and histories. Each time, we start with a close-up of a film which is then related to thoughts about the city drawn from a wide range of sources including other arts, history and politics.
Worlds Within Worlds
Zhangke Jia’s The World (China, 2005)
If one wants to write about a contemporary city, it seems a good idea to first look east. In one way or another most international news headlines these days seem to revolve around China. But in that part of the world the present takes shape so violently that critiques of the modern city and speculations about the future of modern societies often become redundant almost as soon as they’re expressed. Still, theory is not impossible and film can be a useful tool for the theoretical deconstruction of real life.
The Worldobserves the people who work and live in an amusement park in Beijing. The park features replicas of famous monuments from around the world: the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids of Giza, the Twin Towers, St Mark’s, the Pisa Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Tower Bridge and others. The replicas are somewhat starved compared to their original counterparts, but to varying degrees: the replica of the Eiffel tower for example, is a third of the real tower, whereas the versions of the pyramids and the Taj Mahal rise just above a human being. The World Park is also divided into districts (Paris district, Tokyo district, etc), worlds within worlds. The advertising slogan of the park is “See the world without ever leaving Beijing”.
So, we’re looking at a miniature city that attempts to condense the world into a brief tour experience. Marc Augé has used the term non-places[i] to describe spaces which lack identity and can be found anywhere and everywhere. These spaces –airports, for example– are devoid of local colour, history, tradition and sometimes even of weather as they’re air-conditioned. Is the World Park a non-place? As soon as we think about it in these terms, its uniqueness is rediscovered: by collecting famous monuments from around the world, shrinking them to different scales and forcing them to coexist on the same site, this edifice has become something like a park of curiosities. Its arbitrariness has an underrated virtue: the visitor’s imagination is set loose by the geographical, temporal and cultural gaps between the exhibits. Amid what’s on offer, the mind drifts away to non-specific times and places. What place or time can be imagined in the space between St Mark’s and the World Trade Center? This discovery task is left up to the visitor for the brief time he has before the next exhibit re-fragments his imagination. So this is a cinematic space, a sequence created by a large, real life montage.
In the opening scene, a young Chinese woman in a bright green costume strolls through backstage corridors and dressing rooms where performers are going through their preparation routine, getting dressed, made-up and combed. She keeps shouting out the same question, robotically and with a piercing voice: “Band-aid? Anyone have a Band-aid?” So the dancer girl, China, the rest of us, the world, are in need of care. There is an open wound somewhere and a Band-aid proves hard to find. But finally she’s offered one and while everyone else rushes to the stage she calmly pastes it on her sole.
An audience is waiting. Young women dressed in colourful costumes step out on the stage and dance showered in blinding light or in fake snow. This is the lure of the capitalist revolution: fashion, spectacle, pop music and plethora of colours. The choice of this event to illustrate change is not arbitrary. Benjamin, like Baudelaire before him, thought of fashion as less sclerotic than, say, politics, social sciences or architecture:
Yet fashion is in much steadier, much more precise contact with the coming thing, thanks to the incomparable nose which the feminine collective has for what lies waiting in the future. Each season brings, in its newest creations, various secret signals of the things to come. Whoever understands how to read these semaphores would know in advance not only about new currents in the arts but also about new legal codes, wars, and revolutions. Here, surely, lies the greatest charm of fashion, but also the difficulty of making the charming fruitful.[ii]
How to make the charming fruitful remains a problem today. Later in the film, on the occasion of a couple’s engagement, the girls drink a toast to “World peace, women’s rights and faces without freckles and in honour of history’s great beauties: Yang Guifei, Pan Jinlian, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna”. The irrevocability of Westernization and radical capitalism is felt deeply in this innocent, humane moment. The young girls’ idolization of Marilyn and Madonna is a clear sign indicating that Chinese society has entered a one-way street.
Back to the opening scene: while the performance is taking place, the film briefly returns to the corridors backstage. The sombre, industrial-looking interior with low ceilings, exposed pipes and cracks on the walls is now empty. This is a sight of an abandoned life, a metaphor for China’s break with the past. The surge into the future is greeted by the audience’s applause: the distant sound of clapping from the stage hints at a peoples’ uncritical reception of the new era their country is entering.
The opening sequence concludes with a change of scenery and a striking image: on a bridge a peasant is carrying a bag with his belongings while a modern cityscape looms in the background. The comment on progress, globalization and their exclusive nature is easily graspable. But we have just been informed about the setting of the film, so the sight of an Eiffel Tower rising among the skyscrapers still holds irreducible strangeness. Jia is pulling the rag out from under our feet by giving us a familiar image to cling on to, which turns out to be what throws everything askew. From as early as the title of the film comes on the screen uncertainty reigns.
Public realm, private space
The film observes the workers in the public areas of the park, open to the tourists. It also follows them into their private quarters where they eat lunch, wash their clothes and so on. The boundaries between the two domains are repeatedly put to question. Early in the film Tao receives a visitor, an old friend from her hometown who turns up in the dressing room unexpected. Surprised to see him there, she asks him how he got in and he replies “Simple. I bought a ticket.” A serious issue is brought up, albeit in a humorous manner: that you can buy your way into someone’s home. Private space is turned into commodity; one can attach a specific value to it –in this case the price of a ticket. This abrogation of boundary is only the first of a long series that challenges our conventional perception of the nature of spaces.
Later we see some girls wandering around in the park dressed as stewardesses for entertainment purposes and two lovers making out in an empty airplane. The immobile plane – exhibited crudely, as if to say ‘these are the monuments you would see if you took this airplane around the world’– is a sardonic reminder of the Chinese citizens’ being deprived of their right to come and go as they please. With no option to leave the country, or for privacy, the protagonists recede to virtual space in search of an elusive happiness. “Party tonight, let’s try to be happy” reads one of the text messages which Tao receives. As it turns out, this refers to an event where the girls are hostesses to ostentatious businessmen in search of entertainment. They are not exactly forced to prostitution but lead to it and left with the choice to take it or leave it.
Whenever someone in the film receives a text message on their mobile phone, we are shown the text and then a sequence of animation which usually stands for the character’s fantasy: cartoon dreams of flying away contrast the closed state of China. These interruptions of action by text messages and animation suggest newly discovered space, not physical, but mental space negotiated and expanded.
Monuments to what
Nevertheless, in a rapidly changing world the human mind searches for fixed physical references. Monuments can respond to this need: their permanence[iii] is valuable for a reading of the city. They have persisted through hundreds of years, or even millennia, and in the process they have informed their surroundings and all the changes the historical city has undergone. So far so good then, but, as Jia’s film indirectly points out, globalization is shredding historical continuity to pieces. That is, if historical continuity were there to begin with, because The World undermines this notion too.
The replicas of the Gisa Pyramids oversee an argument between two brothers: the younger one is rebuked for his professional misconduct. He has been found stealing workers’ money and passports while supposed to guard them. This is a fitting metaphor: having witnessed several sackings during the past millennia, the original pyramids now stand void of the original treasures they were built to enshrine. However, the more immediate impression from the scene is one that makes no sense: namely, the sight of a Chinese person in uniform getting slapped in front of a Cheop’s pyramid twice his height.
In another instance, the replica of a Parisian arcade witnesses an argument between a couple. In this case, rather than opting for a surreal impression, Jia employs the literary and cinematic stereotypes of Paris as the romantic city where lovers break up and make up in front of famous monuments, in cafes, or in dimly lit arcades with second-hand bookshops. So at first glance the environment seems appropriate for the action, but this is where the destabilizing force of the scene lies: in suggesting that the replica of the Parisian arcade can serve as well as the original.
A tourist is having his picture taken while holding out his arms pretending to prevent the replica of the Pisa Tower from falling over. It makes you laugh at that shallow enterprise, the World Park, but sooner than you do, you realize this is the exact scene that takes place by the real monument several times every day. Still, the solitary figure of a shrunk Pisa Tower in a theme park in faraway Beijing evokes sadness. It reminds us about a simple fact concerning the secret lives of monuments: the cultural creed that conceived them and built them has undergone countless changes and in many cases the monuments’ religious, historical, political or whichever other significance has long disappeared together with their original surroundings.
The word monument is derived from the Latin monere -‘to remember’- so it implies that a monument is a lesson in History. But what exactly does one remember? The Eiffel Tower was a temporary structure for the International Exposition in Paris; to some, a great example of engineering; Parisian intellectuals thought of it as an eyesore and complaints flooded in to the authorities to get rid of it; to Russian Futurist poet Mayakovsky the Tower embodied progress, so in one of his poems[iv] he wanted to abduct ‘her’ and bring her to Moscow; Russian constructivist architect Tatlin perhaps drew inspiration from its exalted form for his Utopian drawing of the Monument to the 3rd International; eventually the French government utilized the tower for telegraphy and that saved it from demolition. By now it has become a ‘permanence’ in the city’s collective consciousness, with all its previous meanings combined into its current identity. But its latest function as the most visited monument worldwide has overshadowed these past meanings and so today the Eiffel Tower stands, above all, as a symbol of tourism.
“The Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11”, says one of the workers, “but we still have them here”. The Twin Towers’ migration to Mao’s land is perhaps symbolic of the handing of the sceptre for the biggest economy from the U.S to China. But more importantly it portends for the ideological mayhem of the 3rd millennium: histories, beliefs and symbols will be consumed and exhausted. Built on rich layers of irony, the monument that best describes mankind is still Babel –the eternal testament that “The world . . . lives on itself: its excrements are its nourishment”[v].
Epilogue: Ever-changing world
For longer than two hours the film unfolds almost entirely within the World Park and so we get used to perceiving this microcosm as the world. Towards the end, the action moves out to a bleak suburb where the pollution has turned day into night. Having subconsciously identified the world park with the film, now we feel as though we have moved out of the film and back to reality. It is early morning and together with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood we awake to grim shacks and industrial chimneys. The protagonist couple’s bodies are carried out and laid out on the street after having suffered a lethal gas overdose caused by a leak. The screen fades to black and just before the film ends we hear their voices: “-Are we dead? –No, this is just the beginning”. As the curtain of the film closes, another curtain opens to reality and to the daunting challenges China and the world are facing.
Hector Arkomanis teaches History of Architecture in London Metropolitan University, Faculty of Architecture and Spatial Design. He also teaches a course called Cinema and the City, which gave him the idea for the present column.
[i] Augé, M, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity(translated by John Howe) London: Verso, 1995
[iv] Mayakovsky, V, Paris (or Chatting with the Eiffel Tower). I have this poem in the form of a photocopy from an old book. I cannot find the book anymore or remember its title or its translator. I believe the book is not in print anymore.
[v] Nietzsche, F, Gesammelte Werke, vol. 19 (The Will to Power, book 4) p.371, in Benjamin, W, The Arcades Project (see above) p. 115