September 9–18, 2004
In the title of Jia Zhangke’s latest film, The World (2004), the noun refers figuratively in one instance to its setting in “World Park”, a Beijing tourist trap where replicas of international architectural landmarks cluster within its near 50 hectare landmass. Here, as in Shenzhen’s “Window on the World” theme park, the premise of travelling the world without moving is sold. But like a colossal snow globe anchored in a blizzard, the effect of sitting spheres of the global within the context of the local not only volunteers an awkward metaphor for the “glocal”, but also conflates an assembly of familiar icons into gratuitous spectacle.
International film festivals operate in parallel fashion, where the opportunity of seeing the world without having to leave the theatre is implicitly promised. Although film festivals would seem a wiser option to engage intimate representations of the world, as with playgrounds like “World Park”, both will nevertheless fail to appreciate the magnitude of the world’s true worth, whose articulation can only be illusory when pared down to a mutable construct beyond mortal grasp. Even so, visibly mainstream festivals have seemingly overcome this limitation by parlaying their repertoires – particularly ubiquitous world cinema programs – into principally humanitarian discourses, replete with politically correct attributes of diversity and tolerance as ideal surrogacies. In the process, they assume the imprints of civil society initiatives, however languid this may function within the dominant culture of corporatisation within the arts. Certainly, the “international” prefix contained in the names of big festivals envisions a venue to observe temporary armistice from corporeal hostility, in which a fraternisation of nations and cultures embodied by artistic expression and transnational capitalism is congealed in an attempt to celebrate the bankable rhetoric of the “global”. Ultimately, as museums with professed objectives to promote culture and the arts, film festivals necessarily classify the world for consumption through one of the most arbitrary of processes – programming.
At the 29th Toronto International Film Festival, held over ten days in September 2004, one publicity slogan inscribed “See The World”. Elsewhere, a trade and industry headline intoned “Window on the World” to highlight Toronto’s valued status as a gateway for world cinema to break into North America’s opaque theatrical market. Such discourse has its advantages. Marketing works wonders if the familiar can disguise its familiarity. Besides, where else but in Toronto – in a city which approximates experiencing the world – could such sensations be more resonant? Yet, as big festivals such as Toronto’s become increasingly esteemed as industrial apparatuses in the international film circuit, there is the sense that art has once more been enthralled by the wider workings of capitalism, so that economics will determine a film’s time and place in public consciousness. In spite of the uniformity of elaborate mission statements, the ineluctable detour of the role of festivals from those of cinémathèques or film societies – at least ones worth their salt – is by no means an accident. Now, as spaces in alliance with the politics of cosmopolitan cities, these festivals necessarily constitute and mediate flows of information on the level of the global and transnational, through which controlled notions of the world are assembled and projected.
My feeling is that as audiences, not only is understanding the world too elusive a bet to wager since our regard of it is mired through language and the discourse of film festivals, but that the way the term is made to appear natural further depoliticises its underlying dynamics, not to mention its limitations in popular imagination and articulation. For in invoking the “world”, it is impractical not to consider the multitude of discourses that shape its cogency – ones that include but are not limited to gender, sexuality, politics, and “race” et al., each of which in turn represent dynamic paradigms of social life. At the risk of advocating an argument for solipsism, I must qualify that while the world at large may be beyond comprehension, critiquing this construct’s essentialist nature so as to politicise these aspects of social life might mark a step in apprehending this chaos. For that, I turn to a select group of storytellers whose tales graced the recent Toronto International Film Festival, each of whom represents an account coaxed by history, conscience, or curiosity. From the 328 films (from 60 countries) that formed 2004’s arresting line-up, here are notes from these titles.
I begin with a disarming tale about two sheep, one of this lot’s most satisfying. Shanghai native Liu Hao has denied that his second feature, Two Great Sheep (2004), is politically flavoured, insisting that all that is there is there. But the film’s assured critical strategy, political sympathies and accent on realism easily betray his modesty. While it may not be intended as political commentary, what is presented is a neat ethnography of a Chinese village where its bureaucratic machinations are observed through an ensemble headed by guileless and henpecked farmer, Deshan. During a routine visit by the deputy governor and mayor, Deshan is singled out by the higher official in order to remind the village authorities to be more attentive to those less fortunate. He also bestows Deshan with cash, an episode that unwittingly heralds his selection by the village head as custodian of two sheep flown in from abroad. The livestock are a gift from an entrepreneur friend of the deputy governor, with the intention that he will invest in futures if it is demonstrated that the sheep can be bred well. Predictably, they impose anything but blessings. Deshan is shown to be exceedingly competent at his responsibility, but the compliant farmer is never spared the oily village head’s reproach for every conceivable problem, from acclimatisation to nourishment to bowel movements and even reproduction.
To Liu’s credit, the rendering of imperious protocol and communal stratification is achieved through situations both cleverly staged and understated. In a supporting gallery comprising disingenuous characters, those who need favours either bear lavish gifts or are too eager to light the cigarettes of others. Then, in a sequence involving a visiting television crew to profile the sheep, the village head instructs Deshan to adorn both their temples with ceremonial ribbons after he discovers head wounds on them due to fighting. Tell them it is a village custom, he connives, confident that none will doubt his lie. There is also Liu’s cyclical motif showing a solitary Deshan on a hill attempting to plow the earth before being abruptly called away to attend to the sheep – a remarkable device that recalls at least two of cinema’s quirkiest episodes: the bizarre entrapment in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), where people are never able to dine without external intervention, and the Sisyphean-like labours of the engineer in The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), where he is destined never to be able to intercept a signal on his cell phone unless he ascends a hill.
In a second village ethnography, this time in Burkina Faso, 82 year-old novelist and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé (2004) admonishes the widespread tradition of female circumcision ceremonies defended on religious grounds across Africa’s central and northeastern regions. Contrary to what commonplace vocabulary evokes as singular and homogenous, there are at least three different forms of female circumcision involving varying degrees of severity, although none can conceivably be mitigated. Nonetheless, liberal discourse has collapsed these practices into the category of “female genital mutilation” which it collectively denounces as a violation of human rights. While it is not clear which form Moolaadé represents, the objective of this ritual, alleged to “cleanse” young girls by retarding their libidos for future husbands to partake firsthand, corresponds with its most extreme manifestation. Called an “infibulation”, it is a procedure where the clitoris and part of the labia are excised while its remainder is sewn to cover the vagina, save an opening for urine and menstrual fluid discharge. Coitus is preceded by ripping the suture, as if it was a mini piñata.
In the film, six prepubescent girls due for a “purification” ceremony take flight. Two of them flee while the rest seek refuge with Collé Ardo, a woman they know had earlier opposed her daughter’s. She proceeds to pronounce the powerful spell of moolaadé (protection) on the girls, a symbolic utterance that she incarnates as a band of cloth lining her doorstep to “shield” them from harm. When one character reacts by saying that she does not want to be “burnt by the fire that Collé has started”, we are mindful of the mutinous impact this will have within the village since her impenitence not only affronts the salindana, the posse of ritual-guarding priestesses wielding murderous blades whom she calls “vultures that smell blood”, but also exasperates a fiercely patriarchal order. On top of that, as the second of three wives, Collé’s position is made dicier since her husband’s elder brother heads the village’s governing body, which claims “purification” as an inviolable Islamic mandate.
This existing conflict flares up when the head’s liberal, heir-apparent son returns from Paris and declares his interest in marrying Collé’s daughter, even though this flouts the custom that no man will marry a woman who is not “purified”; these females are called bilakoro and bear the stigma of ignobility in this social stratum. Part of Sembene’s voice is filtered through this man of modern sensibilities, who risks disinheritance if he disobeys his elders, who in turn will stop at nothing to defend the tradition’s sanctity. One of the film’s most commanding images represents one such veto, where a heap of radios is progressively stacked in a clearing and then set aflame.
It is for this reason that the conflicts in Moolaadé offer a persuasive metaphor for today’s epidemic of religious fundamentalism, blind faith and insularity. Commenting on his film in an interview with Samba Gadjigo, extracted from the film’s publicity material, Sembene notes:
[T]here are two values in conflict with each other: One the traditional, which is the female genital excision. This goes a long way back. Before Jesus, before Mohammed, to the times of Herodotes. It’s a Tradition. It was instituted as a value in order to, in my opinion, continue the subjugation of women… The other value, as old as human existence: the right to give protection to those who are weaker. When these two values meet, cross, multiply, clash, you see the symbolism of our society: modern elements and elements that form part of our cultural foundation. On top of these add the elements that belong to the superstructure, notably religion. These are the waters in which this group, this film, sails.
A final word on this extraordinary picture: Collé Ardo is portrayed beguilingly by the willowy figure of Fatoumata Coulibaly, the second heroine in Sembene’s planned trilogy of films. The first, Faat Kiné (2000), is an eponymous portrait of a Dakar woman who transcends the stigma of unwed motherhood by developing both a successful career, and in the process, a rousing denunciation of absent fathers. According to Sembene, the third installment, an urban perspective on government, will be called The Brotherhood of Rats.
The predicament of children who are left to fend for themselves is a running theme in a handful of other notable films. Hirokazu Kore-eda, for instance, presents the ironically titled Nobody Knows (2004) because now, everybody knows. Based on tragic events dating back to 1988, this is his imagined account of four young children of different fathers who were neglected and later abandoned by their mother in a Tokyo apartment. In a marked reversal of roles, none of the adults portrayed are remotely capable of parental accountability, and are accordingly shown as either juvenile or puerile. This mannerism is contrasted fittingly in a sequence demonstrating an admirable yet naive sense of maturity in the children, where they turn to botany to pass the long wait, prudently nurturing flora who will lead better lives. In spite of its apparent quietude, here is an extremely dark film which, in characteristic Japanese fashion, hides a forbidding core beneath the mask of cuteness.
Similarly, in Turtles Can Fly (2004) – the first Iraqi film to emerge after Saddam Hussein’s fall, Bahman Ghobadi imagines the days leading up to America’s most recent trespass on Iraq in a Kurdish refugee camp in the north, where these suspenseful hours are lived out through the sad eyes of young children – war’s most accessible victims. Among the hoard of orphaned kids are a second round of four who will carry this beautiful but devastating film: the bespectacled boy everyone calls Satellite, a precocious lad, natural leader and charismatic know-all, battered teenage siblings Henkov and Agrin who have travelled from a neighbouring village, and Henkov’s blind infant nephew, Risa. In his director’s statement, Ghobadi, moved by the plight of Iraqi children who live in a literal minefield but do not know better, comments:
Just as the world TV networks were announcing the end of the war, I began to make a film whose leading stars were neither Bush, nor Saddam, nor other dictators. Those people had been the media stars the world over. Nobody mentioned the Iraqi people. There hadn’t been a single shot of the Iraqis. They were mere extras… In my film, the supporting cast are [sic] Bush and Saddam. By contrast, the Iraqi people and the street children play the leading parts.
Letters to Ali (2004), Clara Law’s first documentary feature, confronts the scourge of Western superpower with as much cynicism, even as it transcends her theme of sympathy for the immigrant experience evident in Farewell China (1990), Autumn Moon (1992) and Floating Life (1996). As an immigrant to Australia, Macau-born Law might have once believed Western democracy to be worthy of embrace, but in this thoughtful essay film thinly disguised as impassioned protest, she tells us why this may no longer be the case. In 2002, Law read a newspaper story by a Melbourne doctor who related her family’s regular contact with a 16 year-old Afghan asylum seeker – pseudonym Ali – who was being held at a refugee detention centre on Australia’s northwestern coast. Moved by the shared sentiment that such custody was barbaric, Law and her partner Eddie accompanied the Silberstein family of six the following year on their 12,000km journey by road from Melbourne to Port Headland to visit Ali. The film captures the family’s resolve and empathy on this mission of mercy while at intervals, trounces Australia’s immigration policy by way of personal accounts from a former Australian prime minister, an insider to immigration policy, as well as Law’s friends.
Law’s subject recalls a filthy stain on Australian fabric in recent memory. Following America’s slap on the wrist during the only September in history she can be bothered to recall, Australia’s political ruling class, seeking re-election, had campaigned by denigrating the Middle Eastern hegira who had turned up on her shores in droves over a three year period from 1999. The propaganda worked. The spin on the matter as a national crisis threatening sovereignty had pandered to xenophobic proclivities and slippery slope arguments that the admission of immigrants would allow foreign cultural values to undermine those of Australia’s. In a classic example of information manipulation, Australian Prime Minister John Howard had reacted to an October 2001 incident where he had alleged that upon entering Australian waters, asylum seekers were seen throwing their children overboard in an attempt to hold authorities hostage and that footage of this had been captured. Although this claim was later solidly refuted, no attempt was made to retract.
“Australia is the only developed country in the world that requires all asylum seekers, including children, to be held in custody for an indefinite period of time”, intones an indignant sentence in the film’s brochure. Unfortunately, this is not true since Canada, also a developed commonwealth nation, practices the same. Nevertheless, while this skeleton of the Australian government may not be as barefaced as America’s institutionalised discrimination against Muslims and in particular, Arabs, their dehumanising stance on refugee welfare is no less alarming. Nor is the appalling diktat that children are not spared incarceration, taking place in any of the island’s several privately operated detention centres located on the fringes of sight. In response to my recommendation of the film, a friend from Sydney replied: “[In 2003] a survey revealed on the children overboard saga that 70% of Australians thought that the Prime Minister had lied. The galling thing is that the majority of them thought that was OK, i.e. the ends justified the means, no matter how mean the ends were.”
Public controversy did not evade the festival’s line-up; its version was milder but comical all the same. Animal rights activists, incensed by the erroneous belief that a video of a cat’s murder by humans was included in Zev Asher’s Casuistry: The Killing Of A Cat (2004), promised to sink their claws into proceedings if organisers failed to withdraw its two public screenings. Even the media’s highlight of their misguided labours could not placate the bleeding hearts, who showed up as expected just so they could be content with scratching the surface. Elsewhere, controversy was engineered from hype. Case in point, Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole in My Heart (2004), which was flaunted prior to screening as a shocker. Regarded as a trailblazer in his native Sweden, Moodysson has directed films about families in crisis, particularly where parental responsibilities are lacking. With his latest work, the lacking is non-existent, with awful consequences. In a squalid city apartment, a father and son live apart in spite of a claustrophobic environment. In one room, the elder male performs his fantasy as a domestic pornographer with two partners as they create their latest project involving bouts of erotic humiliation and sadism. In the adjoining room, the teenager withdraws from the escalating madness into his gothic universe, neither able to accept nor vacate his grotesque neighbours.
In representing humans in a paroxysm of voluntary self-destruction, Moodysson opts for the contrived flash and dazzle of editing gimmicks blended with hissing soundscapes to accentuate the gratuitous perversions that have enveloped these inhabitants’ lives. During one post-screening discussion, a visibly aloof Moodysson, sobered in a black getup and looking as if he had mistaken the festival for a wake, displayed much restraint when responding to the audience, although he has explained that he better appreciates his work being able to transcend anything he has to say about it. Which made the situation all the more revealing when a trade and industry daily later reported of Moodysson’s puzzlement at the Canadian audience’s moderate reaction to the film, implying that he had expected at least some resistance. As with most films that purport to challenge standards (of decency), these very often end up disappointing. A Hole In My Heart is not a disappointing film per se. However, its conventionality certainly is.
Lav Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) also dealt with the central issue of familial dysfunction, although this was expressed as a dire consequence of a country’s political vice and instability (see interview). However, at least one film parted the sea of familiar notions about family. At a time when definitions of family and marriage are being held hostage by the tyranny of interest groups – mainly those of questionable protestant leanings, along comes a picture that considers if fundamentalism is in fact the definitive immoral crusade. High up on Toronto’s list of indubitably provocative titles this year is Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family (2004), Susan Kaplan’s eight year portrait of a family that initially comprised two men, then went on to include a woman, and eventually two children, one by each man. In an unassuming way and without explicit intention to do so, this documentary, described as a “marriage-à-trois”, will nevertheless challenge many societal institutions and free-floating discourses responsible for the depoliticising of what is increasingly being invoked as “natural”.
In her director’s statement, Kaplan recounts how the project came about. She had known both men in her youth – Sam Cagnina, when she was 11 and Steven Margolin, during high school. 15 years then passed before Kaplan would reunite with both thorough chance. She would learn that during the interim, Sam had fallen in love with Steven and that later, at Sam’s urging and with Steven’s consent, the idea of adding a woman to the relationship was worth exploring. Thus, enter Samantha Singh into their lives after seven years of dating, mutual love now working three ways as opposed to two. Kaplan’s record of this union does not shy away from the notion that the personal is political. In fact, this film cannot escape being a political text given the contemporaneous drive by governments – especially desperate and God-fearing bodies – to buttress the hegemonic substance of their respective marriage acts to pander to the “moral conscience” of their electorates.
Even so, I wonder what else Kaplan might have had in mind when she decided to reference this curious relationship as “postmodern”, other than the fashionable connotation that pluralist values have superseded modernist ones. Might it also infer a sense of uncertainty – albeit in an interesting way – since pluralism necessarily means that anything goes? At the film’s second standing room-only public screening attended by Kaplan, Sam and Samantha (Steven had only made the first screening), emotion suffused the room as all parties, particularly Sam, recounted the years. This spell was broken when a comment from an audience member referred to the trio’s relationship non-judgmentally as a failure. Sam, with gentle indignation, quickly rejoined with a line that, at least for him, summed up the point of his participation: “But it didn’t fail.”
A no less intriguing relationship is at the heart of Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron (2004), which arrived from its Venice jackpot with much anticipation and while here, went on to score bonanzas for theatrical releases internationally. In English, the title refers to a type of golf club with a flat head used for close range shots. In the film, irons are rarely used to game but instead, serve as weapons. Its Korean title however, more accurately describes what is going on. Translated as “empty house”, the film hosts a gallery of vacant dwellings into which two people find themselves serially inhabiting. The first character is a man with the look of a puppy-faced teenager who indulges a hobby of illegal entry into middle class residences whose owners have temporarily vacated. He has no intention to steal or vandalise, but lives out a little of his time in each abode so that subversively, he is in fact guarding the premises till the owners’ return.
A clue to the man’s mania may be sensed in the quotidian activities he performs in these spaces: within these ideal constructs of “home”, perhaps he is approximating a sense of intimacy otherwise unattainable on his part. However, his chain of ritualised trespass is broken by the introduction of the second character when he falsely believes a luxurious abode he has entered is uninhabited. Amid the lush material comfort, he espies an older woman, a battered and broken model of spousal abuse whom he elects to remove from burden and invites to share his itinerant but dangerous world. This proves so liberating for her that she surrenders herself to his extraordinary care. But along with these characters, viewers of Kim’s latest work may likewise be at a loss for words by the time its fantastic denouement unfolds.
Although the title of Agnès Varda’s latest curio, Cinévardaphoto (2004), signifies an elegant conflation of medium, authorship and subject, the work is in fact a triptych of short films – two from the past and one fresh from the editing suite, all of which are indexed by a fetishisation for photography, but more importantly, a critique of the undying notion of memory. The first, Ydessa, Les Ours et Etc… (Ydessa, The Bears and Etc…) (2004) marks a culmination of Varda’s fascination with the work of German-born Canadian collector-curator-artist Ydessa Hendeles, whose art show in Munich’s Haus der Kunst had so mesmerised her that she paid her a visit in Toronto. Hendeles’ show, “The Teddy Bear Project”, installed over 3,000 black and white photographs from the past in a large exhibition room formerly a venue for Nazi activities. Space is not wasted here; the room teems with picture frames in glass cabinets and on the walls down to floor level such that kneeling or crouching is necessary to view. In these portraits of people paused in their quotidian rituals, all share the modest presence of a teddy bear. Far from innocuous, this motif bears an ominous significance greater than the casual homogeny it outwardly suggests.
The second film, Ulysse (Ulysses) (1982) introduces a still shot Varda had taken at random on a beach in 1954. Foregrouded on the shore’s large pebbles, a goat lies dead, its countenance betraying a traumatic end. Ahead stands a man, nude, his muscular frame looking towards the sea. To his right, a child sits on the pebbles, also nude. What can such an arbitrary moment signify across time, Varda’s puzzle proffers. In an attempt to find a solution to this, she tracks down her human subjects 28 years later to thaw this frozen moment, achieving startling results in the process. The last short film in the series is Salut Les Cubains (Hi to the Cubans) (1963), in which Varda assembles thousands of black and white photographs she had taken in Cuba four years after the rise of Fidel Castro. Here, over a commentary by Michel Piccoli and herself, she animates them into an indelible fresco of the Cuban experience in all of its swing and glory, corroborating Cinévardaphoto‘s enthused slogan, “When photos trigger films”.
Finally, memory – or the lack thereof – also marks a prevailing sensibility in this lot’s most daring attempt at genre reinvention, a treatise about the dead who return from their graves. Les Revenants (They Came Back) (2004) opens with an aerial view of a handsome cemetery in crisp daylight, its gates open and its permanent residents ambling out. Silent and listless, they march in unison to a muted drumbeat. This is the dawn of the dead since we soon learn that this is not an isolated incident but a worldwide phenomenon. Robin Campillo’s premise as a metaphor for the contemporary refugee situation in Europe is striking. As they migrate from the cemetery, the dead are intercepted in their tracks and placed into camps for classification and analysis while top-level emergency meetings are convened to assess the situation. In homes, loved ones reunite with their families as shadows of their former selves, this grave abnormality far surpassing any heartfelt reception from the latter, who for the most part, still identify as bereaved. Certain questions may be pressing: How did the dead surface from their caskets interred deep in the earth? Why do they appear unsoiled and incredibly life-like? What force has allowed for this inexplicable occurrence? Campillo’s debut instigates these issues but is not interested in answering them. Neither are the film’s living characters. Rather, the paradox raised seems to be: how can the dead and the living begin to cohabit in view of their contrasting interests, particularly when the dead will continue to exist at the expense of the living?
I end with further comment on The World, an endlessly fascinating yet frustrating work. Jia’s fourth film, after Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2002) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), also marks his first to receive state endorsement. This irony must be lost on the Chinese authorities because Jia still has his finger pointed at them accusingly in a timely reminder of how the country’s breakneck modernising is as brutal as its erstwhile hermetic ideology. Jia regular Zhao Tao returns as Tao, who together with her boyfriend Taisheng, are employees at “World Park”. Like other workers at the theme park whose lives we will learn about, they are out-of-towners who have been mobilised by the capital’s flood of employment opportunities and the promise of freedom and better lives. However, it is clear from the onset that beneath their chichi and cell phone savvy, they in fact represent pathetic peons of China’s capitalist gamble.
Much of the critical response to The World has located the common ground of artifice: “World Park” as a metaphor for an emerging society straying into the headlights of conformity even as it has yet to reconcile its troubled past; also, the extrapolation of how Tao and Taisheng are imprisoned by the conceit of selling the world despite being limited by worldly experience. The latter observation would be spot on, if only one is convinced that this delusion has gotten the better of them. In one scene that might justify this reading, Taisheng, taking friends on a tour of the park, points to a scaled-down Manhattan skyline across an artificial lake and comments eagerly that although New York may have lost two of its skyscrapers, the park’s own creations remain standing. Perhaps this is a line that annotates an artless dimension of his character, revealing him to be somewhat callous at understatement. This is not my preferred reading. Taisheng is no angel, but his conscientious demeanour displayed in two particular incidents late in the film for me solidifies Jia’s empathy for his characters, in particular Taisheng, who is smarter than he appears.
Yet, despite an absorbing subject that invites endless commentary on its symbolism, Jia’s direction is less than eloquent. Motifs of animation sequences feel tedious even as their inclusions are intended as purposeful. A particularly tragic moment is reduced to contrivance when its significance is hyperbolised with the superimposition of frame titles – although this is redeemed minutes later by a detailed portrait of an elderly couple’s reaction to the aforesaid. Elsewhere, title cards introducing sequential chapters throughout such as “Tokyo Story” and “A Paris Suburb in Beijing” – presumably to denote compressions of time and space – do not feel as effective as other flashes of subtlety. In one of these, opening with the Eiffel Tower as a posterior fixture, Taisheng confronts his colleague and berates him for dishonesty. They then move across the screen, and when the camera completes its pan, the two now foreground the pyramids and the sphinx. The message here seems to be that the dilemmas in life, such as those experienced by The World‘s characters, are timeless as they are omnipresent.
Moreover, it would seem that the romanticised onscreen exploitation of Tao and Taisheng is far from fictive. The Year of the Yao (2004), James D. Stern’s and Adam Del Deo’s semi-biography of Yao Ming, perfunctorily introduces China with blinking images of dragons and the Great Wall hurtling off screen, then glosses over the country’s turbulent history and political climate before lunging forward to embrace its most recognisable sports celebrity who has been tasked to carry, as has often been quipped, “the hopes and dreams of over a billion Chinese”. In the next 88 minutes, the adventure of Yao’s draft into the National Basketball Association (NBA) as a centre for the Houston Rockets takes the stage and will no doubt garner the same mix of enthusiasm and amusement elsewhere as it did during its world premiere in Toronto.
However, especially for non-basketball fans, perhaps Yao’s displacement from his native land into a culture radically at odds with his will be of interest instead, particularly the way he is framed via the “model minority” rhetoric – however slight this focus is, since this is soon eclipsed by the feel-good spectacle of his blossoming celebrity status and the pressures he has had to surmount in both his native and adopted lands. Underlying the noise of the NBA’s multiculturalist ethic is of course their shrewd strategy to objectify Yao’s personage and marketability in America so that this will in turn allow them and allied corporations to infiltrate the coveted Chinese market with the familiar tyranny of imperialism. As The World similarly demonstrates, the significance of “hopes and dreams” represents a concept that is only as meaningful as one’s value to the unforgiving forces that govern economic enterprise.