AURELIA DOCHNAL reviews Xiao Wu (1997), Jia Zhangke’s first feature film.
As the camera aimlessly ambles around a dilapidated city, disjointed layers of popular tunes hang in the air. A karaoke bar; a locally-made stereo, one of the best on the market, blasts in the street; a lighter hums an electric rendition of “Für Elise.” The music in Jia Zhangke’s first feature film, Xiao Wu (1997), or Pickpocket as it’s known in English, follows the solitary wandering of the movie’s unhappy protagonist – who secretly loves to sing. Xiao Wu is haunted by his loneliness: he is alienated from his former business partner, his family, and even his short-lived romantic flame, Meimei, is swept away by dark-suited businessmen in a fancy car before he can say goodbye. The beep of his pager while he’s locked up in handcuffs at the tiny police station calls out to him from a cabinet – Meimei, his beloved karaoke waitress, is wishing him luck in his life. Each sound in this movie is an amplification of the alienation brought on by Fenyang’s rapid modernization. While Xiao Wu stalks around the city, director Jia Zhangke’s hometown, his best friend’s shop is being demolished. Cigarettes are constantly being lit, smoked, and discussed – their price, their origin, their quality. Cigarettes are how Xiao Wu’s former business partner made his fortune, and they are a mark of modern China, their stale smoke hanging in the air of each shot.
Watching Xiao Wu feels like watching a mournful farewell to its titular character, a last glimpse of his vagrant life before he’s again thrown into jail. There is no place for people like him, people who just can’t get it together, who can’t work the system for their own gain, in this new China, blue-tinted and ruthless. This is 1997 – China has opened up economically – there are opportunities to make it big, regardless of your chushen (family class background). Xiao Wu’s own family are peasants; his stooped and chain-smoking father sometimes tills the fields himself. Xiao Wu’s return to and subsequent expulsion from the countryside when he visits his family seems to be a way of saying: There is no room for you here. Pickpockets, who by the nature of their profession live as leeches on urban life, belong to some strange liminal space, idle in the busy city and worthless in the open country. This is Xiao Wu’s tragedy: he belongs nowhere, he belongs to no one. As the public loudspeakers in the center of Fenyang loop announcements of new official government policies, as the world around him transforms and warps into a series of sounds and flashing images, Xiao Wu is not quick or cruel enough to keep up with his surroundings. This mesmerizing film allows viewers to teeter on the cusp of the new millennium alongside Xiao Wu and experience the dread of the uncontrollable, unknowable impending future in a life adrift.