Hong Kong / China, 1998
Review by Anna Bak-Kvapil
Posted on 23 May 2011
Categories Jia Zhangke’s Migrations
A no-budget, proudly rough-around-the-edges film that barely hints at the more colorful and surreal tangents Jia Zhangke’s work would eventually take, Xiao Wu must be contextualized as a film of opposition. In the mid 90’s, Chinese films receiving not only international attention, but also approval and financial support by the Chinese government, were usually slickly produced historical dramas. Xiao Wu, as modest and hushed as it appears now, was so offensive in the way it depicted everyday Chinese life that Chinese authorities banned Jia from making films shortly after its release.
In his first feature film – Xiao Wu was made two years after his hour-long student short, Xiao Shan Going Home – Jia builds on the work of directors, including Bresson, whom he obsessively studied and idolized during his film school education. The subject matter and the English translation of the title, Pickpocket, ask a viewer to draw parallels between Bresson and Jia. But Jia’s work has so often been compared to so many disparate cinematic giants – Bresson, Godard, Rossellini, Ozu – that belaboring his similarities to great art-house directors eventually begins to obscure the individuality of his work.
Xiao Wu follows the exploits of the titular character, a pickpocket who has long been making his living in the small city of Fenyang. Xiao Wu confronts friends who have chosen a respectable way of life, courts a beautiful karaoke hostess, Mei Mei, and tries to maintain his freewheeling habits and expensive tastes in an increasingly unfriendly social climate. Shot on 16mm, the film captures the rundown Fenyang in all its monotone drabness, with only the seductive womb of the local karaoke parlor awash in throbbing red light. A cast of non-professionals brings authenticity to a film that seeks to expose the real China to the larger world. It seems likely that, once the film crew leaves, they will go on doing exactly what they were doing during filming—stamping envelopes, pedaling bicycles, or staring into space over their shop counters.
Global accessibility to media and technology is such an ingrained assumption now that the advancements exciting the denizens of Jia’s Fenyang appear minute and sparse: the flood of pop culture engulfing China is just beginning to trickle in. But their society is teetering on the brink of a vast newness—new wealth, new media, new fashion. Even the smallest changes threaten traditional ways of life. When Xiao Wu shows his pager to his peasant family, they pass it around in a stolid circle, cradling it uncomfortably in their hands like an unstable hand grenade. The dangerous dreams of wealth and fame that popular culture incites are just beginning to bloom. Mei Mei accepts the fact that, although people tell her she looks like a movie star, she will never be one because she “knows herself very well,” but she also throws over Xiao Wu for a richer man and leaves town. The local news team conducts man-on-the-street interviews, and when Xiao Wu runs into trouble with the law, he is able to watch news coverage about himself, foreshadowing the “everyone is famous” power of reality television and YouTube.
While Xiao Wu is in nearly every shot, he remains a puzzling, mercurial, Keatonesque character. His actions are clownish, reckless, and foolish. He continues stealing even though everyone around him is aware of how he gets his money. He’s moody, rude to his friends, to Mei Mei, and to his family. But he also has an anti-hero swagger. By refusing to take on the demands of family and job, he can revel in small luxuries and poke fun at the duty bound lives of the townspeople. He spends his money with a devil may care flair, gleefully devouring an ice cream bar while buying expensive medical equipment for his sick girlfriend and gulping cup after cup of sake at lunch with abandon. Yet he fails to notice that the average citizen is also driven by money and the desire for luxury in a more strategic and socially acceptable way. While rebellious, he lacks larger ambition. When he strips off his clothes in an empty bathhouse, he relinquishes any power that has been attributed to him. Xiao Wu is so physically frail and vulnerable, and so childishly happy to sing to himself alone in the bath, that he reveals himself as an inevitable victim rather than an aggressor.
Jia has the rare ability to let shots unspool at their own leisurely pace, allowing fragile bubbles of time to grow, float, and finally, break. In one scene, Mei Mei lies curled up in bed in the apartment she shares with other girls, taking time off work because of a stomachache. Xiao Wu visits her, and stays with her until she feels better. Mei Mei eventually sits up, and begins to talk about herself, and then sing. The shot is, like many shots in Xiao Wu, composed from a room length away, maintaining a cool distance that provides a voyeuristic separation from the emotions of the characters. As Mei Mei sings, the loud sounds of the street beyond the flimsy walls of the apartment become more noticeable. Horns honking and trucks shifting gears pollute her sweet and elegiac song. Jia’s emphasis on the persistent babble of daily life is a reminder that the world outside is inescapable and impatient, invading and accelerating past even the most intimate human connection.