Click Here For VENICE FILM FESTIVAL - 2004






by Harlan Kennedy


HOW MUCH world cinema tells us about the world!

This was a truth perceived and universally acknowledged at the 61st Venice Film Festival, where 2004’s most revealing and bewitching one-to-one contest was between Hayao Miyazaki's HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE and Jia Zhangke's THE WORLD.

Two fantasyland visions. One from Japan, one from China.

One from an aging lion who has seen the last twilight of empire, the other from a tiger economy spying new dominions in the streaks of a fresh dawn. One from a veteran animator hewing to handcrafted traditions, the other from a Sixth Generation youngster hewing Sino-realism into new shapes.

Miyazaki's HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, like his SPIRITED AWAY with its setting in an abandoned theme park, finds a tragic grandeur in the decay of fantasy. His film is captivated by the speed with which innocence turns to disenchantment and back again, by the spooky interchangeability of old crones and young women, of old warriors and young princes.

Zhangke's THE WORLD sees the theme park in which it is set, a fabricated global fantasyland, as a symbol of his nation's ambition. His China collects other countries like a headhunter, shrinking them down to a miniature Paris here, a Rome here, a New York there. "The twin towers were bombed on September 11th 2001, but we still have them," says a guide, pointing to the two look-alike scale-model monoliths. Says a sign nearby: "See the world without ever leaving Beijing." Says another: "We'll show you the world in a day."

Miyazaki is too old to be cynical, though full of foreboding. Zhangke is too young not to be fashionably cynical, though fascinated by the very pretensions and presumptions he satirizes.

The veteran Japanese, who put traditional animation back on the international map with PRINCESS MONONOKE, is all-accepting. The paint-and-brush techniques in HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE are as old as Disney. The ghosts of SNOW WHITE and FANTASIA move through its tale of a girl's friendship with a moving, clanking, breathing, puffing fortress. Miyazaki takes these arts to new extremes of comical or poetic expressionism. But where a young artist might do this rebelliously - believing the old ways are fatigued - the 60-year-old does it through love of the heritage he has received and embraced. There are no kitschy ironies placed like quotation marks around the wicked witch, the hopping scarecrow, the talking hearth-fire, the magical doorknob whose different turns change the very view outside the gingerbread street house of early scenes.

Zhangke - Yang to Miyazaki's Yin - is nothing but irony. He bombards what he sees as ersatz with missionary derision. Manufactured fantasy, THE WORLD argues, is a canker from the old world, from the western and so-called developed world. The new China has cravenly espoused the theme park as proof of its membership of the elite. It invites outsiders in so they can gasp at how China has 'captured' like spoils these exotic, historic cities. Venice itself is here, just around the corner from Ulan Bator. 

When Zhangke uses animation it is with sarcastic zest. He even deploys little cartoons. Sometimes they are mock-promos to hymn the joys of this ride or that attraction. Sometimes they take off from almost nothing, just a text message sent between characters. They are all like advertising spots, though, complete with jingles: born of a designing culture that wants you to buy what you don't want to buy, to dream what you are commanded to dream.

THE WORLD is about a culture of obedience that is modulating from Maoism to market capitalism. HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE is about a culture celebrating old freedoms, old anarchies, that have somehow risen again - and will keep rising - out of the battered machinery of dynastic and imperial tyranny. Miyazaki's castle is like an old warrior that has accreted organically the very paraphernalia and power symbols that once defined his life. (Two cannons for eyes etc.) Unlike the ordered, programmed eclecticism of Zhangke's theme park, HOWL's ambulant fortress cannot control its growth or select its accessories. It is in the all-powerful grip of fate, karma, history, as abstract as a hurricane, as surreal as an earthquake.

Which is the wiser, truer vision? Or is it different takes for different states? Jia Zhangke may well believe that China can be arranged and disposed like an amusement park, that its people really are gullible visitors or exploitable workers, forced to promote the ideal symbol of their nation: a consumer franchise that has consumed other countries! Planet China!

But for all the acuity of THE WORLD, one feels the movie slowly become its own message; that it is ultimately as finite, as closed as the self-dooming lebensraum it sees in China's attempt at a far-reaching vision. Zhangke extracts early magic from the power of people to fantasize and dream in their turnstile Toylands - to walk from Italy to Mongolia as they would from a city block to a city block - but then slowly, grindingly condemns it.

The Japanese filmmaker sees ruin, war and terror everywhere: he has lived through them. He sees them even in landscapes trodden by princes and pet scarecrows. But there lies the salvation. His heart and belief are with the princes and pet scarecrows.

For Miyazaki the last great fact of existence is recurrence. Eternal destruction, eternal renewal. His characters and living objects keep changing shape, keep being reborn, even as apocalypse rains or Armageddon’s flame. (The fire-bombing scenes in HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE seem plucked from real history. They could be London, Dresden or Tokyo). When the clumsy, foolhardy, bragging, lovable castle of the title finally collapses in a heap after the climactic battle, we discover that there is no 'finally'. A new mini-castle emerges, dancing along into a new future.

Jia Zhangke might think this was decadent sentimentality. His own film is devoted to the perfidies of fantasy, facile optimism and blue-skies thinking. But THE WORLD's belief in ephemerality as the writing in the sky is ultimately the reason why it, too, seems a little ephemeral. It goes nowhere by telling us there is nowhere to go. By contrast Miyazaki's film, as its title suggests, is about movement, and about a world where even the monumental and seemingly unbudgeable has the power of motion. While there is change there is life. And there always is change. It is the banner benediction of good times and the redeeming mercy of existence in bad times.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.