Made for a pittance with nonprofessional actors, formally unapproved in China and first proven in the USA in 1999, Jia Zhangke’s debut characteristic “Xiao Wu” depicted a deadbeat Chinese language protagonist and a backwater milieu few Westerners had ever seen.
That film, revived by Movie at Lincoln Middle in a brand new 4K restoration, is each downbeat and transcendent
“Xiao Wu” is ready in Jia’s hometown in central China, Fenyang. The title character is an aimless, alienated pickpocket — described in a New York Instances overview as “a nondescript younger man in a shabby metropolis who practices his commerce with out regret, compassion or evident worry though he’s identified to the police.” Some critics had been reminded of Robert Bresson, whose 1959 “Pickpocket” is a masterpiece of elliptical cinema.
Observational, primarily in medium shot and virtually plotless, “Xiao Wu” has a documentary high quality. The titular character, performed by Wang Hongwei, is launched whereas ready for a bus; as soon as aboard, he beats the fare with the smirking declare he’s a policeman, then casually picks the pocket of the passenger beside him.
An unlikely powerful man — certainly, one thing of a loser with thick Woody Allen glasses and a cigarette-lighter that performs a number of bars of “Für Elise” — Xiao Wu has his act down. The world, nonetheless, is altering. As native TV welcomes “the return of Hong Kong,” sleepy, half-urbanized Fenyang has begun to supply the fruits of the free market — karaoke, magnificence salons, low-cost sound methods.
Information reaches Xiao Wu that his former accomplice in crime, now a legit businessman trafficking in hostess bars and wholesale cigarettes, is about to marry. Xiao Wu is pointedly uninvited to the marriage and constitutionally unable to maneuver on from his prison life. The pickpocket is much less a product of the brand new China than an delinquent ingredient who fails to modernize. Requested by the karaoke hostess, Mei-Mei, whom he ambivalently courts, what he does for a dwelling, he tells her that he’s “a craftsman who earns his cash together with his fingers.”
Mei-Mei is sufficiently impressed to encourage him to purchase a beeper so she will be able to alert him when she’s free. Xiao Wu buys her a hoop as effectively. And every buy, in its manner, promotes his undoing. (Know-how is a part of the film’s subtext. Anticipating Jia’s use of science fiction parts in his later, naturalistic movies, TV subtly mediates essential points of Xiao Wu’s life.)
Exceptional for a film made fully with nonactors, “Xiao Wu” thrives on prolonged scenes of non-public interplay — Xiao Wu together with his former pal, his mother and father, the police and, primarily, the diffidently wooed Mei-Mei. Considerably, his single second of liberation happens when he finds himself alone in an empty public bathtub. Within the movie’s last scenes, society prevails. Xiao Wu himself turns into an object lesson, one other commodity within the market, contemplated by the group as a pop track asks, “Who’s the hero?”
As can occur with first movies, “Xiao Wu” has a purity distinctive in its maker’s oeuvre. However it’s also an auspicious starting to some of the spectacular careers in twenty first century cinema.
July 23-Aug. 5 at Movie at Lincoln Middle, Manhattan; filmlinc.org.