Okay, so the title's ironic: The World is set in a theme park in Beijing, a park full of international attractions like Manhattan's skyline, a miniature Big Ben, and a faux Eiffel Tower. The park looks like the world, but the young people who live and work there know it's only an imperfect representation. Director Zhang Ke Jia's lovely and meditative film concerns itself with reality as it is created and lived: with imitation landmarks that are nonetheless beautiful, with technological gadgets that promise transcendence, yet deliver only distraction.
The story focuses on a young woman, Tao (Tao Zhao), a dancer for the theme park's musical revues. During the course of the film, she impersonates Indian, African, and Chinese women; but the glamour and sophistication she embodies onstage are at odds with her after-work life of sordid parties, seedy motels, and unsatisfying relationships. Her boyfriend, Tiasheng (Tiasheng Chen), also works at the theme park, but the relationship is obviously based on desperation and loneliness rather than any real connection (in fact, Tiasheng is pursuing an affair with another woman).
Writer/director Zhang Ke makes the most of the visual clichés offered by the theme park: Characters stare longingly at the (fake) Eiffel Tower, or brood in front of the miniature Manhattan skyline. The beauty of these images never quite overcomes the drab, gray tones in which the film is shot, a reminder that Tiasheng and Tao are as bored with "The World" as any employee is with their workplace. Here, globalization gives with one hand and takes with the other: technology offers no escape from the banality of life, only illusory relief. And while Tao is as likeable and pitiful as any post-modern hero(ine), grappling with loneliness and alienation, The World's setting is both bleak and familiar—a society grappling with modernization and all of its empty promises.