07 Theme Parks and National Identity

Since we have the first review next week, we will not have time to discuss the readings. So please write your response paper only on the film,The World (2004) by director Zhang Ke Jia, streamed on My Courses, and the readings are now optional. We will come back to some of the ideas in these readings in the coming weeks. And I hope that Zhang’s film will be inspirational for your own creative work.

The World (2004) by director Zhang Ke Jia [This is a famous feature film on lives of workers in a theme park. Streamed on MyCourses].

Anagnost, Ann. “The Nationscape.” In National Past-Times: Narrative, Representation, and Power in Modern China, 161-176. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Errington, Shelly. “The Cosmic Theme Park of the Javanese.” In The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress, 188-227. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Raz, Aviad E. “Receptions of TDL Disney.” In Riding the Black Ship: Japan and Tokyo Disneyland, Harvard East Asian Monographs; 173, 156-191. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 1999.

12 responses to “07 Theme Parks and National Identity

  1. Anish Gonchigar

    In Jia Zhangke’s ‘The World’, the vapidity of the eponymous theme park is almost taken as a given. When Little Sister, a childhood friend of Taisheng, comes to visit, he never bothers to question the artificiality of a miniature Manhattan and Paris. The biggest cultural oxymoron that the film presents has nothing to do with whether the characters believe there is some elevating quality to this miniature world (the answer is simply no). Instead, the film speaks more to the transient lives of those who find work in such industries. All of the characters are recent immigrants to Beijing who, despite leaving their homes for more opportunities in a more expansive ‘World’, have found themselves trapped and isolated.

    Alienation is the recurring theme throughout the film. The mobile phone presents a unique visualization of this idea: though cell phones connect the workers with one another, they serve to amplify individual escapist ideals. When Tao reads a text message, the film briefly drops its sober cinematography for a brief, fantastical animated sequence. Tao eventually becomes close to one of the park’s Russian dancers, Anna, and despite the impermeable language barrier, the two find comfort in their shared isolation. When Tao realizes that Anna had been prostituting herself to earn money to visit her sister in Ulan Bator, this realization, coupled with the women’s inability to verbally communicate, causes them to both start crying. As the Beijing World Park tries heavy handedly to reconstruct a consistent, cross-cultural narrative, it is this simple, intensely personal moment that demonstrates genuine human universality.

  2. (I tried throughout yesterday but couldn’t access “The World” on MyCourses. However, I saw the film when it premiered stateside in 2005. So, in lieu of watching it again, I read Anagnost’s “The Nationscape” and am writing in response to both Jia’s film and Anagnost’s chapter.)

    As dramatized and animated in Jia’s “The World,” displacement isn’t merely a function of physical mobility. The workers of World Park are suspended in a dialectic of movement and confinement: while many made their way to the outskirts of Beijing, they can’t make it out to the big city or beyond. This stasis is part structurally reinforced–for example, when the two Russian women’s passports are confiscated for “safekeeping”–and part psychological paralysis–though not enslaved, the workers feel left behind as the rest of China seems to convulse with change. Moreover, scaled copies of famous landmarks that populate the Park raise into high relief its fictional relationship with the wider world and the fact that most of its workers will never be able to visit the places depicted. Appropriately enough, the film’s opening scene features card playing security guards who acknowledge that they are all losers. Far from exceptional, they constitute a fragment of the mass underclass prevented from crossing upward boundaries and who are always on the receiving end of someone else’s hegemony.

    In his post, Anish wrote about the prevailing theme of alienation. Isolated from others, the workers are also estranged from themselves, especially the performers who impersonate other ethnicities (I wonder what happens to them emotionally each time they channel these identities?). The workers try to find solace in various entertainments and technologies, none of which confer the longed for mobility. Their frequent text messaging is evidence of their desire to maintain a connected presence with the outside world and poignantly suggests dispersed attachments to friends and family who likely toil in similarly lifeless and low-paid labor. As the viewer knows through glimpses, the world that awaits the workers outside World Park is no better than the one where they reside.

    The aforementioned presence-at-a-distance dynamic coincides with Anagnost’s claim that miniature landscapes, such as Splendid China, are inwardly referential and compress within their space the nation in its total and timeless essence–total due to its detachment from the outside world and timeless “because it assumes the eternal verity of the idea of ‘China’ as bounded entity” (162-3). Just as different identities are performed in Jia’s “World Park,” Splendid domesticates and displays differences embodied by ethnic minorities and religious traditions. This presentation of the nation as “eternal unity” precludes historical emplotment and nullifies narrative progression, which reminds me of Jia’s largely plotless movie.

    China’s reconstructed “old towns” only appear more authentic than its theme parks. The former sells access to antiquity and the latter fantasy, but both ultimately enclose some illusion of lived experience for an expanding marketplace for such unknown knowledge.

  3. Hi Crystal and all:
    The film is viewable from the campus.
    When you click on the film’s icon, the “VF Now – Video on Demand” page comes up and the following statement appears : “Please be aware that access is restricted to on campus users only.”

  4. I did not realize until recently that the readings were optional, so my response discusses both the readings and the film.

    The material this week discussed theming as it is transposed into or adopted by other countries. We have examined previously the condensation of space and time present in amusement parks like Disney’s EPCOT center, with its displays from around the world presenting an essentialized image of national narratives. Disney also includes an American Main Street, capitalizing upon nostalgia for a perfect past. In the Javanese theme park and in Shenzhen’s Splendid China, visitors flock to see a similarly essentialized national identity. Indonesian architecture is made “typical, generic, and timeless” (197). It attempts to equally represent all of the country’s myriad diversities. Yet through these efforts, it masks political and social differences (219) through superficial imagery of “unity in diversity” (217). Splendid China replicates China’s tourist sites in one place, all in miniature, set against the backdrop of a modern day city. Controversial history is pushed into the background in order to create a fluid, controlled space.

    But who is doing the controlling here? In the American Disneyland and Disney World, as well as in Tokyo Disneyland, a corporation provides the context for Errington’s “hybrid fantasy architecture” (193). In the Indonesian and Chinese examples, it is the government appropriating for itself a single national narrative. It carefully creates boundaries amongst its own ethnic identities, giving physical form to imagined communities as it constructs a nationhood of its own making. In one, a private entity gives us a perfected view of the nation, while in the other, government itself takes control. Both create powerful, essentializing identities in their colorful landscapes for tourists. Does it matter who is doing the essentializing?

    Jia’s “The World” takes on from a very human perspective the efforts of theme parks to create ethnic identities. Anish and Crystal mention the transient lives of immigrants, trapped both physically (as the Russian women are coerced into giving up their passports) and mentally. The transience of identity is part and parcel of the parks ability to entertain. Workers are alienated from visitors and from each other. Visitors, as Raz suggests, are also asked to check themselves at the door, becoming instead an infantilized, passive, audience member. The park becomes a place to shed ones identity, and adopt those of other cultures, changing from one day to the next. At the same time that visitors are presented with carefully bounded and controlled ethnic identities, it is also a suspended reality where identity ceases to exist altogether.

  5. The main thing that stood out to me about The World (directed by Jia Zhangke) was how the character’s personal lives contrasted with the roles they played in the park. For example, the brother went around stealing money out of purses while dressed as a police officer. Niu’s character was controlling, jealous, and possibly insane despite his playing a prince charming type in puffy red pants. Despite being a security guard, Taisheng provided fake IDs and was dishonest and too forceful around women. This adds to the idea of the amusement park being an illusion, a false imitation of the world.

    Many modes of transportation were featured in this film: train, bus, car, cart pulled by a bike, and even an animation sequence of a horse. Cell phones also appear in the movie frequently. However, despite the availability of transport and communication, there is still a feeling of isolation to the characters, especially Tao. There is a language barrier between her and her friend, Anna, and Tao sees her boyfriend as her everything. Wei still marries Niu despite his possessive, unbalanced behavior. Despite the purpose of the amusement park as a way to see world without leaving the Beijing, it becomes a trap for its workers with its low wage and its removal of passports.

  6. Sarah Rovang

    Zhang Ke Jia’s “The World” presents a striking palimpsest of reality and unreality, a multilayered fantasy land where authenticity is always in doubt.
    I was particularly interested in the use of architectural space throughout the movie, especially in regards to the construction of views throughout the theme park. In “The Cosmic Theme Park of the Javanese, Shelly Errington claims that, “In imagining themselves, different types of polities use different symbols and different semiotic technologies in order to represent themselves to themselves, and, by representing, try to produce and reproduce themselves as they believe themselves to be” (Errington 190). Although the theme park of “The World” represents a global rather than national vision, Errington’s assertion still holds true – “The World” is in fact a highly specific commentary on the cultural development of China (specifically Beijing): by representing the rest of the globe, the creators of the theme park are in fact reproducing themselves. The theme park becomes a place that is not only a substitute for the sites, but (in true Umberto Eco fashion), a “superior” version. Unlike “real” Paris, the Paris of “The World” allows the visitor to view both the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower simultaneously. Additionally, as Taisheng relates to his friends, the World Trade Towers of the park’s Manhattan are still standing, rendering this miniaturized impervious and eternal in comparison to the actual city. Additionally, the iconic picture of a tourist supporting the Leaning Tower of Pisa can be reproduced in the park without having to see the real thing. The park imagines a world in which the wonders of the entire globe can be visually consumed, nullifying the necessity of the original. But as the film makes clear, this grand vision of “The World” is ultimately lacking.

    This ineffable deficiency comes through most Louis Kahn would call the “servant spaces” of the film. The underbelly of “The World” is a labyrinthine non-space which serves to conceal the magic animating the theme park. The hallways and dressing rooms behind the scenes convey a constriction of space and power that is consciously denied in parts of the park accessible to visitors. The illusion of power derived from the Eiffel Tower’s panoramic view is negated in an underworld of decrepit living spaces and petty criminality . The scene where Tao takes binoculars to a rooftop symbolizes an attempt to reclaim the impression of visual empire presented in the tourist spaces of the park. The disparity between the living conditions of the parks’ employees and their glamorous working lives as airline attendants, glittering stage performers, and uniformed security guards belies the fundamental socioeconomic of a particular place and time. The evocation of restriction and entrapment throughout the film conveys the frustration of living in a park where one can circle “The World” by monorail in 15 minutes, but getting an actual passport is nearly impossible. Only the few characters with money and power are permitted to travel and to move about freely outside the park – the rest must content themselves with the illusion of freedom.

  7. While watching Jia’s film, “The World”, I came to recall Sorkin’s exploration of Disney’s backstage spaces, places where access is limited in order to preserve the fantastical images in which Disney hopes to immerse its audience. I found that the scenes taken backstage were, 1.) obviously the most appropriate setting as it is our heroine Tao’s workplace, and 2.) especially crafted by the director to show the dirty underground that lies beneath the glamour of the clean and efficient park. As Sarah pointed out, these spaces and the events that take place there contrast sharply with those outside, helping to reinforce the aura of illusion and fakery present throughout the park. This is further intensified by the application of montage that Sorkin cites from Kuleshov’s description of “creative geography”, where the purposeful sequencing of images in a montage can create a powerful and shrewdly crafted experience of specificity. Jia’s juxtaposition of the work lives and the relationships between the characters purposefully show the disparity between the two with the addition of animated scenes to show moments of liberation and revelry missing from their everyday. This just feeds into the loop of the idea behind theme parks: the park creates a specific setting to create push the image of what the managers want their guests to see: an illusion of magnificent monuments and spaces, hiding the gritty reality backstage. The film’s use of montage functions similarly: Jia creates a specific series of images to create a story that he wants his viewers to experience: a film about the bleak lives and reality of what seem like happy workers in a Disney-esque themepark. If Disney’s application of creative geography is seen as another method of keeping the illusion, then would Jia’s animated sequences be the purposefully crafted technique to create the illusion of fleeting connectivity between the disconnected and alienated characters?

  8. Jia Zhangke’s film “The World” gives an inside view at the workings of entertainment at a “world” themed park in Beijing. The theme park presents miniatures of many prominent attractions from around the world, and in so doing synthesizes an experience of travel to many otherwise unreachable (for one reason or another) or inconvenient locations. As others have noted above, this illusion necessitates some behind-the-scenes spaces that exist outside of the themed space. I really enjoy how Jia Zhangke juxtaposes these two spaces with different techniques of sounds and film. The underground hallways and dressing rooms are often filmed and sound-recorded with more noise: both in the sense of greater reverb and more extraneous voices left in, and in the sense that the camera is handheld (shakier) and moves around quite a bit more. The film does a particularly good job of using sound to distinguish between different psychological settings for characters and their connectedness to their surroundings, using a varied soundtrack, repetitive/thematic elements like cell phone rings or radio calls, performance music, or loud voice reverb in hallways. To me, these elements of the film make a point about production in the themed space of the World Park: that the underbelly that the performers prepare in is necessarily less polished and produced than the illusion they are trying to create, and that their individual personas are often at odds with the illusion they need to create. Brian is right to cite Sorkin here; that access is limited makes for a barrier between produced and raw spaces that is an interesting thing to highlight filmically.

  9. I’m interested in The World’s representation of urban space. In the film, both the park and the city are oddly clean and empty, with only the occasional extra passing by. In the park, there appear to be many more workers than tourists. On city streets, there is hardly any of the chaotic traffic or crowds that one would expect in a city of 22 million.

    At the same time, privacy is an issue for the characters. They live in a world where everything is public: dances are screened on TV to 1 billion people and apartments are small and cramped. Finding a place for an intimate conversation is a struggle. However, the large “public” of individuals doesn’t seem to form any collective. Moving through empty cityscapes, the characters also seem to lack solidarity or community. Consider how one security guard steals from the performers, or how women compete with each other to meet wealthy men. “You can only count on yourself,” Tao’s boyfriend tells her.

    Overall, the film’s perpetuates a feeling of estrangement. Arguably, estrangement is the result of globalization which opens up new public spaces while removing real human connections. A similar paradox is exposed through the film’s commentary on technology. Cellphones and television allow for a constant exchange of thoughts and ideas, and the working class Chinese in the film are shown to be plugged in. They are knowledgeable about everything from the latest European fashions to American “show business” culture, even if they have never left China.

    However, non-virtual communication and movement (enabled by planes and passports) remains a luxury. One of the only ways a working-class woman can “go abroad” is to prostitute herself to make quick money, or else wait ten years for a visa. Tao’s struggle throughout the film to retain some form of authenticity (sticking to her sexual values, for example) while living in a world made of simulations, counterfeits, and dishonesty.

  10. The World by director Zhang Ke Jia, provides an insider glimpse in to the life of workers of theme parks, especially one called “The World” near the outskirts of Beijing. Divided into parts of smaller stories/episodes with subtitles such as “Ulan Bator Night,” “Tokyo Story,” the film revolves around Tao, a performer at the theme park, and Taisheng, and the people around them, most of whom are either working in the theme park industry or immigrants to Beijing who came to seek a better life.

    One of the things I found the most striking about the film was the contrast between the fantastical and visually beautiful performances on stage and the idealized representation of performers dressed in beautiful traditional clothes, and the real lives of the performers. I also agree with Jessica that I also thought the character’s personal lives contrasted with the roles they played in the park, which highlighted the fakeness of the theme park representation of the real world. The occasional shots of happy, innocent tourists posing in front of the smaller monumental buildings also contribute to highlighting the surreal character of the miniature world-themed park. One scene in particular struck out to me as representational of the relationship between the theme park and the workers of the park. The scene with a conversation between Taisheng and Tao’s past boyfriend in Taisheng’s car about how they have not been to Paris to see the real Eiffel Tower before, but know that it “looks just like the real thing” all highlighted the hyper-real relationship between the worker and the theme park. In other scenes too, when there are visitors, workers of the theme park proudly introduce different monuments around the world as their own, without really having been to any one of the real monuments. This blurs the distinction of the real and imitated monument, and made me wonder how authentic we can consider this experience of visiting a world theme park to be. Where does an authentic world visit experience start? How should we view the people who would come and visit the “World” in Beijing, “without having to leave Beijing”? Does the experience of visiting the theme park make visitors more knowledgeable and worldly? Or does it have the opposite effect, and because of the fakeness of the monuments, fail to provide the viewers with an authentic experience and knowledge?

  11. Michael Price

    In Jia Zhangke’s ‘The World’ we are given a glimpse of a truly miniature world- not just the theme park as a miniature college of scaled-down attractions from all over the world, but as a microcosmic social environment for the people who work and remain there. While some of the readings (such as the Umberto Eco piece) we’ve read over the semester characterize the theme parks of reproductions in America as assertions of triumph and independence over the originals (“more real, and there is more of it”), it’s pretty hard to find that sentiment in ‘The World’, where the park is a more overt compensation for the inability to travel, despite the desire. I was reminded of our class discussion of how an Eiffel Tower in Vegas may or may not signify differently from one in India (or, in our case now, Beijing). We see the desire particularly in Tao, in her wanting to see her ex-boyfriend’s passport, or her expressed envy of Anna’s ability to go abroad.
    What I thought was interesting though, was that most everyone who does manage to travel in the film does so because of other people – Qun waits for her visa to be reunited with her husband who in turn was brought by a friend. They live in Bellevile, a Chinatown in France- a larger-scale version of the same phenomenon. Anna makes her own sacrifices to be able to visit her sister, Little Sister is brought to try to get work by consulting Taisheng, and his family is brought upon his death. Tao, on the other hand, who perhaps dreams of travel, ‘has never known anyone who has been in an airplane’. I think the characterization of a world as a system of people- bigger and more geographically far-reaching in some cases, smaller in others, is an important contrast to some model of a world that would allow a theme park scale reproductions of global attractions to serve as any sort of legitimate stand in. As one of the characters in the film states, “people are one thing China doesn’t lack”- echoing both the percieved lack that would be supplemented by a globally-themed theme park as well as a people-centric antidote.

  12. anya ventura

    I found Anagnost’s article “The Nationscape” most resonant. I thought it was interesting how the boundedness of the miniature imbued a kind of visual and symbolic cohesion to what is in fact a contradictory and heterogeneous place: China. Embedded in the idea of the miniature world is the assumption of perfection contained therein; a world immune to the processes of change. Significantly, she writes: “a powerfully divisive force [the Potala site of Tibetan Buddhism] is hereby domesticated and rendered purely as display” (163). Splendid China crystallizes a timeless past and an “eternal unity” by virtue of its objecthood, which produces the necessary distance to affect the aesthetic gaze. Anagnost then further extends this argument to the aestheticization of the themed urban landscape, witnessed in the “old towns” whose antiquity has been colorfully offered up for both foreign and domestic consumption. I’ve found similar processes at work in Hong Kong, where the lifestyles, handicrafts, and architecture associated with the vernacular culture of 1950s and 1960s are consumed as part of the burgeoning heritage industry. Here, the idea of the “cultural tour” of the these old spaces has gained in popularity — “at once a re-creation of the ‘color and flavor’ (guse guxiang) of the past and marketplace, enclosed within a modern urban space” (166). I’m interested in how these aestheticized pasts are defined against a perceived sense of modernity. As Anagnost further writes: “as much a spectacle as it is a place of consumption and production, the heady reclamation of something ‘lost.’”

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