Imagine a polyphonic ringtone, stomping on a human face - forever.
Not to be too alarmist, but - mobile phones, work of the devil, right? In addition to ruining more classic plot devices than any invention besides DNA testing*, this illusion of being constantly plugged into a communications grid - is this wise? I mean, what kind of person wants to be available all the time? Not the kind of person I want calling me, that’s for sure.
Mobile phones might wreck some suspense plots but as a trope they’ve been sorely underutilized in film fiction. Until that high school text-messaging sex comedy starring Hillary Duff that we’ve all been waiting for comes out, we’ve got to settle with Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang Ke’s The World.
The World is a narrative about the deforming effects the availability and control of technology have on the younger generation of Chinese**,told in the setting of an amusement park outside of Beijing that reproduces famous world-wide landmarks at reduced scale. You can see the skyline of New York (still complete with the Twin Towers about the height of two Yao Mings standing on each other’s shoulders),- The Eiffel Tower at 1/3 scale, and a miniature Taj Mahal.
While no Baudrillard has been (or will be) harmed in the making of this essay, I’d like to bring up his closest North American analogue, familiar to you all from his guest spot in Annie Hall, Marshall McLuhan. In McLuhan’s terms, a “media” is an ‘extension of man’ - anything that extends our senses or capabilities. In simplest terms, radio is an extension of our hearing, and automobiles (also a media according to McLuhan) extend our sense of touch/ability to act in the world. Media deform our perception of the world, like a lens. The procession of different media create different ruling narratives for each age. What happens, then, when a media is theoretically available but in practice unavailable to over a billion people? Have these people not had a pretty literal limb amputated?
The characters in The World, led by Tao (the charming Tao Zhao, the provincial pop star of Jia’s Unknown Pleasures) and her boyfriend Taisheng (Taisheng Chen) are constantly consulting their cellphones, riding in tiny cars or staring wistfully at airplanes flying overhead. The cellphone is used as an instrument of paternal control in romantic relationships. One character even considers buying a new Motorola with a GPS chip to keep track of his girlfriend, who keeps switching her phone off. Cellphones are a fifth column in your pocket, constantly betraying your actions either actively (storing your incriminating text messages for someone else to read) or passively (not being on). They’re the informers for the forces arrayed against Freedom.
Forces that also keep strict control over travel. An old friend gets a passport and arranges to travel to Ulan Bator, of all places, and Tao can barely comprehend it. One of the characters is tangentially involved in passport fraud, a crime that surely carries a severe (but unspoken) penalty. Even the Russian guest performers at the amusement park have their passports confiscated by their minder. Russia, now supposedly free, still exerts control over its citizens’ movement, and the only way out is through deceit and prostitution to the wealthy class.
Often, we see Tao riding a slow monorail - always alone or nearly so - a reminder of the other technologies that were supposed to liberate but have ended up merely moving us around in circles. Still, The World is a travel narrative, even if the characters never leave Beijing. There’s a destination you can reach from anywhere…
*and therefore exacerbating the already over-the-top narrative contortions of the contemporary thriller
**though, it seems to me in my non-expert way that ‘Chinese’ is a pretty poor blanket term to describe the different cultural, social and racial types that make up the 1+billion inhabitants of the PRC (not to mention Hong Kong or Taiwan)
The World opens July 1 at Cinema Village in NYC, and throughout the summer in other major cities. Check the Zeitgeist Films website for dates and locations