Made for a modest with non-professional actors, officially declined in China and first shown in the United States in 1999, Jia Zhangke’s debut feature “Xiao Wu” depicts a dead Chinese hero and a backwater environment. Few Westerners had ever seen.
That film, revived by film in a new 4K restoration at Lincoln Center, is both downbeat and excellent.
“Xiao Wu” is established in Jia’s hometown in Fanyang, central China. The title character is an aimless, aloof pickpocket – described in The New York Times review As “an un-described young man in a dilapidated town who practices his business without remorse, compassion, or apparent fear, though he is known to the police.” Some critics were reminded Robert Bresson, whose 1959 “Pickpocket” is a masterpiece of elliptical cinema.
Observational, predominantly medium-shot and almost plotless, “Xiao Wu” has a documentary quality. The titular character, played by Wang Hongwei, is introduced while waiting for the bus; Once aboard, he smiles claiming he is a policeman, then casually picks up the pocket of the passenger next to him.
An unlikely tough guy—actually, a loser with thick Woody Allen glasses and a cigarette-lighter who plays “Fur Alice” a few times—Xiao Wu plays his part. However, the world is changing. As local TV welcomes “Hong Kong’s return”, sleepy, half-urbanized Fanyang begins to offer the fruits of the free market – karaoke, beauty salons, cheap sound systems.
News reaches Xiao Wu that his former accomplice in crime, now a lawful businessman with bar hostess and wholesale cigarette smugglers, is about to marry. Xiao Wu is clearly uninvited to marriage and constitutionally unable to move on from his criminal life. The pickpocket is less a product of New China than an antisocial element that fails to modernize. When asked by Mei-Mei, the karaoke hostess, what he does for a living, he tells her that he is “a craftsman who makes his money with his hands.”
Mei-Mei is impressed enough to encourage him to buy a beeper so that it can alert him when it’s empty. Xiao Wu also buys her a ring. And each purchase, in its own way, promotes its destruction. (Technology is part of the film’s subtext. Given Jia’s anticipation of using science fiction elements in his later, naturalistic films, TV subtly mediates important aspects of Xiao Wu’s life.)
Notable for being a film made entirely with non-actors, “Xiao Wu” thrives on extended sequences of personal interactions – Xiao Wu confronts his former friend, his parents, the police, and, primarily, Mei-Mei. to lure. Significantly, a moment of his salvation comes when he finds himself alone in an empty public bath. The society wins in the final scenes of the film. Xiao Wu himself becomes an object text, another commodity in the market, contemplated by the crowd as a pop song asks, “Who’s the hero?”