Chinese director Jia Zhangke's fourth movie is set in and around a Beijing theme park called the World. The place feels like Vegas, only everyone we meet here is a born loser. The park's monorail that takes people around the park passes an Eiffel Tower that's replicated at one-third the scale of the real thing. The pyramids, while impressive, aren't as intimidating as their source material. And that rendition of America's corporate landmarks as a single megalopolis isn't fooling anyone.
When one employee says in a phone call that she's on her way to India, she means she's going to get off the monorail and head toward the Taj Mahal-looking mock-up, where she'll meet some co-workers and vogue with them while dressed in traditional Indian costumes for a photo shoot.
Amid the sprawling theme park, there are love stories. The primary one involves Tao (Zhao Tao). She performs in the splashy pageant that's like a big world history revue, told through the featured civilizations' fashion senses. Her true passion, however, is for Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), one of the park's security guards. He moved to Beijing after she did, to be with her. They've been together for a while, but it's probably time to take it further.
But the city has its temptations. Taisheng finds himself smitten with a seamstress who makes designer knockoffs. Tao, meanwhile, keeps the depth of her dissatisfaction to herself, and eventually the rambunctious creature to whom we were introduced steadily transforms into a figure of solemnity. The fun she has is only for the stage.
What a forlorn movie this is! It has a romantic power that seeps into your bones, with its languid rhythms, general plotlessness, and fierce attention to surreal detail. Occasionally when characters receive text messages on their phones, Jia will offer a goofy cartoon interlude. A nutty sadness prevails, however. The director is becoming a master of blending the political and the personal with eloquence and deceptive lightness, following the trail blazed by his most apparent forefathers, the late Frenchman Robert Bresson and the Chinese visionary Hou Hsiao-hsien.
Jia, whose previous films include 2000's ''Platform" and 2002's ''Unknown Pleasures," doesn't want to convey the particulars of show business. The performers are more interesting to him as people than as entertainers. Actually, it's possible to leave the theater with no idea what gifts any participant in the theme park's shows possesses. Is sashaying onstage in elaborate costumes a talent? In ''The Lion King" maybe, but the World is a knowingly absurd playground based on the commodification of civilization. More to the point, it's a tourist trap, and the movie itself is Jia's most direct meditation yet on the stultifying potential of globalization and China's conflicted surge into it. Fortunately, ''The World" has other, more palpably emotional interests. We can get a jeremiad against constricting cultures and swollen economies just about anyplace, and I trust that if that were all Jia was up to, he'd have started a blog.
''Unknown Pleasures" was a marvel of social change and national woe evocatively presented as a youth picture. The malaise of that movie, set in the director's native Shanxi province, seemed to be a natural result of life in a provincial town. As shown in ''The World," parts of Beijing are as unsightly as the provinces, and Jia finds urban life more depleting, more depressing, and lonelier.
Yet ''The World" is not a work of tragedy. There are enough happy occasions to pick a personal favorite (even the downer ending is lined with heavenly silver). Mine is the simulated magic carpet ride our lovers take in front of a video camera. We watch the monitor as Tao and Taisheng pretend to joyously whoosh around the planet. Like all the settings in the film, these are cheesy and fake. But like every feeling in the picture, this moment of bliss, however brief, is real.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.