Architecture on Film: The World + Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land

Weds 19 November 2014, 7pm

  • The World, image courtesy Zeitgeist Films
  • The World, image courtesy Eureka Entertainment
  • The World, image courtesy Zeitgeist Films
  • Sean Snyder Dallas Southfork in Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania 2001. Installation, variable size © Sean Snyder. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery 

A pair of films exploring the meeting of dreams with globalised realities, amidst allegorical stage sets of architectural facsimiles.

The World

The landscape in the theme park is fake, but the problems the characters face are very real. The characters who live and work there appear to easily travel from one country to the next in a world without borders. But in reality, they are isolated in a secluded world of miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower, Lower Manhattan, Mount Fuji, the Pyramids. Replicas can be physically built, but not lives, nor societies, nor traditional cultures… More and more, I get the feeling that the surreal has become reality in Beijing. This is what I kept in mind during the making of The World. Because of urbanization, I think the city has lost its notions of the differences between night and day, the four seasons. We have gained speed by completely losing slowness.

Jia Zhangke

Set in a Beijing themepark composed of scale recreations of global architectural icons – from the Eiffel Tower and Taj Mahal to St Marks Square and the Twin Towers – The World offers a languidly mesmerising allegory of desire, globalisation and contemporary urban life, from one of Asia’s most significant directors (A Touch of Sin, Still Life).

From a narrative of a romance between a park security guard and a dancer of its folklorically costumed stage shows, the film poetically and acerbically critiques the aspirations and challenges facing a changing China at the cusp of the 21st century, and Beijing’s integration, or otherwise, into the global marketplace. Through tensions between the fantasy of civilisation and the deadlock of daily existence, the spectacular and the mundane, Zhangke creates a human-centered chronicle of societal transition and the lure of both capital, and capitals.

China/Japan/France 2004, Dir Jia Zhangke, 140 min. In Mandarin and Shanxi with English subtitles.

Dallas Southfork In Hermes Land, Slobozia, Romania

Artist Sean Snyder’s short film documents an architecture of mediated fantasy and geo-political exchange, through its tale of a Romanian oligarch’s Balkan re-creation of the ranch from US TV show Dallas - one of the few American TV programmes broadcast under Ceausescu’s Cold War rule. Photographic illusion becomes bricks and mortar, as the studio set is re-styled as reality.

USA/Romania 2001, Dir Sean Snyder. This film is in two parts: Video 1: 2min 27 seconds. Video 2: 4 min 41 seconds


Programme notes for The World by Aric Chen

Curator, Design and Architecture, M+, the new museum for visual culture being built in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District.

That Jia Zhangke is a “rare breed of filmmaker capable of combining stunning artifice with documentary truth,” as the critic Howard Feinstein has put it, goes far in explaining how Jia has become one of the most skillful and celebrated chroniclers of contemporary China; perhaps nowhere else than in the director’s native country are stunning artifice and harder truths so starkly contrasting and so tightly intertwined. Jia is deft at drawing out such contradictions, though at the same time, his is a context in which contradictions are not always seen as being contradictory at all.

Jia’s artifice relies not on historical allegory or folkloric myth, as so many Chinese films do, but rather on the very real artifice—the experienced artifice of daily life—imposed by China’s turbo-charged, top-down development and the jarring incongruities it creates with a society struggling to catch up. Using a hyperrealistic technique of long takes, lingering shots and awkward silences, Jia trains the viewer’s eye on this ponderous state of affairs, made all the more surreal by the filmmaker’s focus on the coal miners, migrant workers and displaced villagers who comprise the majority of China’s population, but who live on the margins of the country’s spectacular boom.

Released in 2004, The World centers on two migrant workers: Tao (played by Zhao Tao, a former dance instructor who Jia discovered in his home province of Shanxi) and Taisheng (Cheng Taisheng, also from Shanxi, where many of Jia’s films have taken place).  A performer and security guard, respectively, theirs is a romance set amidst the ersatz wonderland of the Beijing World Park, an attraction near the Chinese capital where replicas of the Eiffel Tower, Taj Mahal, Stonehenge and other landmarks have been reproduced for the enjoyment of tourists. “Give us a day, we’ll show you the world,” a neon-lit slogan promises.

In keeping with Jia’s penchant for blurring fiction and reality, it’s worth noting that the Beijing World Park is an actual theme park that opened outside Beijing in 1993. By the time Jia completed The World, nine years later, the venue’s expansive vision had become a fitting metaphor for China’s view of its changing place in the world: it was in 2001 that China formally joined the World Trade Organization, cementing the country’s integration into the global economic system, and that Beijing was announced as the host of the 2008 Olympics. Moreover, The World was Jia’s first state-sanctioned film—he had previously been black-listed—coming at a time when the Chinese government began to see cinema not just as a domestic propaganda medium, but as a potentially lucrative industry that could bolster China’s “soft power” abroad.

The World should be seen in this context of opening up—an opening up accompanied by growing global ambitions that have only become bolder in the decade since the film’s release. (“You’re protecting imperialist property,” a new arrival from Shanxi tells Taisheng, the security guard, among the park’s famous faux-monuments.) But whose ambitions are they? Though the Beijing World Park’s boss makes a brief appearance, the powers-that-be remain largely unseen. Like many of the grands projets one sees around China, Jia’s setting seems eerily empty, its main inhabitants being the workers who whiz around on the park’s monorail—looping around The World, but going nowhere at all. For many in China, the prosperous future is tantalizingly visible, yet still out of reach.

For Jia, the emptiness is both literal and figurative. However, in China, where even the shallowest gestures can hold the deepest pools of meaning, surface is often substance, and authenticity is a matter of perspective. The World’s setting attests to this negotiability of reality. Visitors to the park may be transported to an entirely fake world but, repurposed as an amusement park ride, the decommissioned airplane that takes them there is real. That is to say, authenticity does not require consistency. In architecture, the widespread mimicry in China of Austrian hill towns, Tudor villages and the Eiffel Tower—of which there are now at least three—has provoked both indignation and bemusement in the West. (The phenomenon is the subject of Bianca Bosker’s recent book, Original Copies.) But to see copying from a Western perspective would be missing the mark. In China, the point is not the thing itself—the “original” being copied—but rather the idea of it, physically manifested.

“That’s America. Manhattan” Taisheng says, pointing to a facsimile of the New York skyline and singling out its World Trade Center. “The Twin Towers were bombed on September 11. We still have them.”

With thanks to Eureka Entertainment and Lisson Gallery