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From Asia, two unusual stories

Avant-garde styles shape 'The World' and 'Tropical Malady.'

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Asian imports are having a strong week on American screens with "The World," a Chinese drama, and "Tropical Malady," from a Thai filmmaker.

"The World" seems like a grandiose title, but it's really ironic as used in Jia Zhangke's new movie - his first to be released in its native China, as his previous three pictures were suppressed by the government.

"The World" takes place in, well, the world. Or rather, a replica thereof: the World Park entertainment center in Beijing, which contains less-than-life-size versions of landmarks including the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, and even the World Trade Center in New York.

Such an attraction needs a lot of employees, and young adults migrate from all over China to work there, giving up their local dialects to speak a standard version of Mandarin. "The World" focuses on a cross section of these folks, providing the interlocking stories and intertwined characters that are so popular in US independent movies.

Its fascination comes less from plot and acting than from Zhangke's style, mingling exquisitely shot dramatic scenes with animation sequences that spring up whenever someone's cellphone receives a text message. This is a brilliant, if challenging, film.

"Tropical Malady" comes from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, one of the few Thai filmmakers to earn international acclaim. Although he studied cinema in the United States, this did nothing to deflect his vision from Thai society, or from his yen for unusual storytelling.

"Tropical Malady" is far out even by Weerasethakul's standards. For about an hour it recounts the growing friendship (and physical attraction) between two young men in the Thai countryside. Then it shifts into the terrain of myth and folklore, transforming one of the men into a jungle warrior, the other into a ghostlike creature he must stalk and defeat.

Weerasethakul's latest has received mixed responses on the film-festival circuit, yet while it's anything but commercial, it's also anything but unadventurous.

Both films, which are unrated, contain sexual activity.


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