Xiao Wu (1997)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 48min

Taking rich inspiration from the Italian neorealists who preceded him by roughly fifty years, Jia Zhangke turns his camera to the streets of China during the 1997 transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong in his debut, Xiao Wu, marking the period with loud, public announcements declaring the introduction of harsh crackdowns on petty criminals. The titular Xiao Wu is one such delinquent, getting by on what little he can snatch from the pockets and purses of passers-by, all the while living with the threat of judicial punishment and social ostracisation hanging over his head.

As Jia’s handheld 16mm camera tracks Xiao down the provincial streets of Fenyang in long, unbroken takes, he strides along in long, lurching steps, only ever pausing to pickpocket the odd stranger. It is when Jia locks off his camera in static shots though that he allows us to properly appreciate the derelict architecture of the region, reflecting the cultural decay which consumes Xiao’s life. Dirt roads, half-finished brick structures, and neglected storefronts are consistently caught in the sorts of wide shots that were so frequently employed by neorealists before him, and which would similarly become a stylistic watermark of his filmography from this point on. It is equally in the interior spaces though where Jia exerts fine control over the arrangement of his mise-en-scene, particularly inside a brothel where intense, red wash lighting is only pierced by the bright television screen and an ornate, yellow bulb protruding from the wall.

Intense, passionate emotions evoked in the lighting of the brothel.

In visually marking this brothel as its own self-contained bubble separate from the world outside, Jia places significance on the relationship that forms inside it between Xiao and Mei Mei, a prostitute who similarly feels exiled from society. But where Xiao, having previously been left behind by his upward-moving friends, only finds misery in his future, Mei Mei isn’t afraid to dream bigger or express herself more honestly. While she sings karaoke without inhibition, he dwells in awkward silence, driven so deeply into his shame that he can’t manage a shred of self-expression.

And yet as this relationship grows we do notice a change take place within him, as he slowly opens up to the point that he can sing to himself in a bathhouse, and then later in a karaoke song with Mei Mei. The hope that he may find a way of connecting to this world in a constructive way beyond stealing from it makes his story all the more crushing when she picks up and disappears without warning, leaving him behind for someone better, much like his friends did. Suddenly the open, outgoing Xiao we glimpsed retreats back into his shell.

China’s rundown architecture signifying pervasive cultural decay in shots like these.

There’s no doubt about it – this period of cultural turmoil and globalisation is tearing traditional social structures apart through the most personal bonds, and those who aren’t able to keep up are left to suffer. In a later scene when Xiao’s newly-rich brother, Erbao, comes to visit, he brings with him Marlboro cigarettes which, though one of the cheapest brands in America, are considered a luxury in China merely by the fact that they are imported from the West. An argument arises between Xiao and his mother over her careless gifting of a precious ring to Erbao’s fiancée, ending with him being thrown out of the house, displaced by his now-favourited, wealthy brother.

Repudiated by all those who ever cared about him, Xiao is left to continue living the life he is most familiar with: pickpocketing strangers on the streets of Fenyang. The support for the strict curb on petty crime has gained mainstream support among many citizens, though these people clearly lack an understanding of how their harsh rhetoric of referring to small-time criminals like Xiao as the scum of the earth only reinforces the shame and isolation that provokes these illegal activities to begin with.

An homage to the ending of Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, right down to the actual bicycles lining the street.

After Xiao is caught pickpocketing his final victim, Jia pays homage to perhaps the greatest neorealist film of them all, Bicycle Thieves, in the following chase that sees the young man pursued down a street lined with bicycles. When he is eventually arrested and left handcuffed in a public square, Jia does not clue us in on what his eventual fate will be. What we feel instead is the overwhelming sense of humiliation that is forced upon him in this moment, as onlookers gather around to stare like the audience of a one-man freak show. Rather than cutting away in this final shot, Jia holds on it for a full three minutes, during which he moves his camera into Xiao’s own low-angled perspective. Suddenly, we find the accusatory gaze of the crowd staring right at us as well, implicating us in his shame. Though he has been spurned by his friends, his love interest, and his own family, the broad rejection from a society that wants nothing to do with him is the final, scathing blow, ensuring that no matter what happens from here on, there is no hope that he will ever rise beyond his station.

Ostracisation and humiliation in the final shot of Xiao Wu, forcing us to linger in this shame for several minutes.

Xiao Wu is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi Australia.