In one scene in Jia Zhangke’s (贾樟柯) The World (世界) (2004), the jealous Niu (Jiang Zhongwei) considers giving his girlfriend Wei (Jing Jue) a new Motorola cell phone with a GPS chip so that he can keep track of her whereabouts when he isn’t around (he is increasingly annoyed because he keeps finding her cell phone turned off whenever he tries to call her). In another subplot, the protagonist Tao (Zhao Tao) inadvertently discovers her own boyfriend Taisheng’s infidelity via a text message sent to his cell phone by his lover (this latter plot twist mirrors the well-known premise of Feng Xiaogang’s (冯小刚) movie Cell Phone (手机) from the previous year, in which the protagonist’s infidelity is discovered by his wife as a result of an ill-timed text message from his lover).
We live in an increasingly wired world, and one consequence of that connectivity is that our own location within this digital matrix is increasingly visible to outside observers. For instance, it was recently announced that a graduate student at the University of Washington has discovered a way to transform the new Nike/iPod workout package into a tracking device, which anyone in theory could use to monitor a user’s location. A somewhat more surreal version of the same phenomenon can be found in a recent Wired article on Bo Stefan Eriksson, the driver of the Ferrari Enzo which crashed spectacularly at nearly 200 mph near Malibu this past February. As Randall Sullivan explains, one of the proposed signature projects of Gizmondo Europe, the failed company Erriksson was affiliated with, consisted of a handheld gaming device called a Gizmondo with a surreptitious, built-in tracking device, thereby allowing parents to track their children’s whereabouts. (The device was released in the US in October 2005, with little or no advertising, and by early 2006 had been withdrawn. How the company proposed to market the surreptitious tracking function to parents without their tech- and media-savy teenagers being aware of it, however, was never explained.)
In Jia’s The World, however, this linkage between cell phones and surveillance is ironic because cell phones, in the film, are explicitly marked as a space of fantasy, a momentary escape from the narrow geographic and economic spheres within which the poor, itinerant laborers who populate the film are trapped. The World is set in an Epcot-style Beijing theme park containing miniature reproductions of many of the world’s landmarks (e.g., the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, etc.), and the role of the park’s workers in creating an illusion of global travel stands in stark contrast to their own patent lack of mobility. For instance, in a scene which appears to trope on a famous love scene in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, the protagonist Tao, decked out as a flight attendant, makes out with her boyfriend Taisheng in an mock airplane which serves as a park attraction, though we later hear her remark that herself doesn’t know anyone who has flown on an airplane. Tao also constantly text-messages Taisheng, and the film signals the escapism of these text messages by switching to animated fantasy sequences (including one in which Tao appears in her stewardess uniform soaring over the park itself) but--like the mock airplane and, indeed, the theme park as a whole--the fantasy of mobility and escape evoked by these text message animated sequences is one which is necessarily circumscribed by the bleak reality out of which they emerge.