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Review: Xiao Wu – Pickpocket (1997)

Directed by: | 110 minutes | drama, , , | Actors: , , , , , Liang Yonghao, , , Zhao Long, Wang Reiren, Jinfeng Gao, Li Renzhu, , ,

“Xiao Wu”, the debut by young and committed Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, initially appears to be little more than a nice, but not very compelling story about a petty thief struggling to keep his head above water. But the story, the central character, and the theme slowly but surely manage to grasp the viewer, and to involve both intellectually and emotionally in the film. As a result, when the end titles roll by, this viewer is truly concerned about the fate of Xiao Wu (Hong Wei Wang), as well as his many fellow countrymen who have found themselves in a similar situation.

Because, although ‘Xiao Wu’ as a film bears the name of the main character and is indeed an intimate portrait of this man, this personal story is used to reveal a general problem or social situation that many Chinese of that period had to deal with. . The communist, Maoist era has come to an end and the market economy has emerged. Other criminals are now attempting to cover up their illegal activities by supposedly making it part of their “trade” or “enterprise,” such as his friend and former colleague, who now looks at him with the neck and money from Xiao Wu – as a wedding gift. – don’t take it because it would be dirty money. But Xiao Wu himself cannot hide under false labels. He was and is a pickpocket, who knows nothing else to do, but who has to watch out for the new, strict crime policy.

“Xiao Wu”, filmed in Fenyang, where the director grew up, comes across as very authentic. The film is very much like the neo-realist style, with its use of real locations, non-professional actors, long takes and -style camera work, and its focus on social change and malaise. It is the ideal style for Zhangke’s involved narration. Although it is a criminal, as a viewer you still feel sorry for Xiao Wu. He should of course look for an honest job, but the hypocrisy with which he is suddenly rejected, and the obstacles he encounters when he really seems to (can) face a different life, ensure that this character does arouse sympathy. Expressing his feelings of love for Mei Mei (Hao Hongjian), a girl from the local karaoke bar, plays a major role in this. It is touching how he increasingly thaws in her presence and becomes charmed by this woman, although he shows this mainly through his actions – such as fetching a hot water bottle when she is sick – than by showing his feelings through words or facial expressions. For a long time he did not dare to sing in front of her, but only alone in the bathhouse. When he finally dares to do this, together with her in the karaoke bar, it has great significance. He even has plans to marry her. Unfortunately, not everything goes as hoped. Even with his parents, he finds no comfort – his mother bluntly tells him she never wanted to give birth to him – and he turns out to be reliant on his old lifestyle. A lifestyle he will not be able to get away with in the new China, however.

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