Xiao Wu (played by Wang Hongwei) is the eponymous character of Jia Zhangke’s 1997 feature-length debut. He’s a small-time thief with longish floppy hair and wide-framed glasses, a diminutive frame and a rather reticent demeanour, not exuding much confidence except when picking pockets. This particular form of handiwork is his one skill and, in the absence of any other prospect in his desolate, half-decrepit hometown of Fenyang, it defines his social status and ultimately it defines him too.
Fenyang is also Jia’s own hometown, so altered upon his return after studying at the Beijing Film Academy that he felt compelled to make his first feature film there. But it can stand for any small provincial Chinese town, the maligned backward cousins of the affluent Eastern metropolises. Unable to adapt to China’s breakneck transition from Maoist regime to a state where the capitalistic drive continually increases the urban-rural wealth gap, Xiao Wu, like Fenyang, has been left behind. Over the course of the film, he’ll tentatively grasp, with more desperation than he’d care to show, for a new social role, a new definition beyond ‘pickpocket’, but will each time come up empty-handed. He is a character straddling a fine line between pathetic antihero and tragic figure. His is a journey of loss, each act in the three-part structure seeing him lose crucial ties; first his former partner-in-crime and closest friend, then his fleeting romantic hope, and finally the already damaged relations with his family are severed. Xiao Wu as ‘friend’, ‘lover’, ‘son’ or ‘brother’: none of the tags stick. On his return to Fenyang after an unexplained absence (it presumably involved picking pockets), Xiao Wu soon finds that the times they are a-changing. Not only are old buildings being demolished to supposedly make way for updated constructions (“I don’t see any new buildings in the city yet” one evictee tellingly complains), but the police are also making a big deal of their politically approved and much publicised crackdown on criminals. The petty criminals that is, the scapegoats of the kind Xiao Wu belongs to. Meanwhile the new breed of socially acceptable law-breakers, traffickers and black marketeers, are opening up clubs and restaurants where illegal activities take place, and becoming local celebrities as shown via the TV news reports periodically punctuating the film. Xiao Wu’s former gangmate and best friend Xiaoyong has evolved with the times and now belongs to this category, a now more sophisticated and respectable form of criminal. Utterly ashamed of all past connection with Xiao Wu, he neglects to invite him to his wedding. Ironically, it’s only through the fatherly police chief (who did get an invite) that Xiao Wu finds out about the imminent wedding at all.
Here, Jia’s impeccable observational eye for detail, already in evidence throughout his debut, reveals through purely visual means a whole depth about the bond between the two men. Two shots of their respective arms, half an hour apart, are enough. In the opening scene, the ink on Xiao Wu’s arm is inconspicuously revealed as saying “In times of hardship share the burden”. Later, Xiao Wu visits Xiaoyong on the eve of his wedding, to uphold a promise to his former friend. Xioayong’s frosty reception forces a frustrated Xiao Wu to angrily remind him: “Take a look at your tattoo”. Again, Jia makes no big show of it, no zoom-in or close-up, but repays eagle-eyed attention by showing that Xiaoyong’s arm bears a tattoo with an epigraph closing the couplet: “In times of happiness share the good fortune”. Two simple rhyming shots are thus so eloquent in creating the backstory of these former brothers-in-crime, and in informing us of the romantic notions of gang loyalty Xiao Wu adheres to – sadly for him, nobody else does it seems.
Dejected, Xiao Wu seeks solace in a brothel, where he encounters Mei Mei, a pretty working girl, who tells her parents she’s a jobbing actress, and a glimmer of hope for our pickpocket who duly falls for her charms. Going to meet her first in karaoke rooms, where he resolutely refuses all Mei Mei’s attempts to make him sing, and later in her small lodging which she shares with other brothel girls, Xiao Wu stakes emotionally in this budding romance. He doesn’t seem to realise however that such a relationship built around monetary payments can never be more than illusory, and before he knows it the ambitious Mei Mei has left town with another, richer, client. Jia would later be regularly referred to as displaying the influence of Antonioni in his films, but in the way the environment and landscape mirror the internal malaise of Xiao Wu, we can already see some connection. Just as the run-down town is in a process of transformation, so are the interpersonal relationships, and Jia knows how to make use of the locations to reflect the mood of Xiao Wu. Early in his courting, Xiao Wu, irked at being teased over his short stature, goes up a staircase to walk up one of the town’s decades-old elevated walkways and literally tower above Mei Mei. Xiao Wu’s mock bravado and insecurity blend into the crumbling architecture of the town. Later, in a scene coming after a high point of Xiao Wu’s romantic hopes, we see him at his most intimate and for the first time, at ease. Alone in a run-down but vast bathhouse, Xiao Wu relaxes in steaming water and, at last, sings – at which point the camera gently tilts up to take in the capacious interiors above his head, partly as if his own spirit is finally temporarily soaring, and partly to allow him this personal guards-down moment in privacy.
Yet, that Xiao Wu can only sing when alone, potentially says a lot about his position in Chinese society, when we consider the long-running theme of life in China being likened to social performance. Survival in the political climate of China, under Mao and beyond, has been looked as being dependent on one’s theatrical ability to outwardly present the socially accepted doctrine and opinions, no matter what one truly believes inside. This is seen in films like Farewell My Concubine (1993), To Live (1994) or to return to Antonioni, his own China doc, Chung Kuo (1972), as well as all of Jia’s later films, immersed as they are in the theme of public performance and the link between performance and life. The fact Xiao Wu cannot sing in public is another symbolic reminder of his stunted social status. With Mei Mei out of the picture, Xiao Wu has few places left to turn and heads back to his family, traditional agricultural workers. We soon get a sense of what he was running from all along, of the dead-end life of banal labour he escaped in favour of an altogether different kind of manual work. His familial relations fare no better than his previous failures. Caught in the midst typical family gossiping and one-upmanship caused by the preparations for his elder brother’s wedding (yes, another one Xiao Wu probably won’t be invited to), it only ends in petty arguing before his father chases him out the house. Just in time for a typical ironic Jia touch: as he leaves home more forlorn than ever, a nearby radio announces the reunification of Hong Kong with its own ‘parent’, mainland China (we’re in July 1997).
As it initiated the ongoing comparisons with Antonioni, so Xiao Wu also prompted critics to trace a lineage back to another European master whom Jia discovered studying at the Beijing Film Academy: Robert Bresson. No doubt Jia had watched Pickpocket (1959) and embraced the pared-down style. He also goes some way towards emulating the great French director with frequent close-ups of hands, visually representing Xiao Wu’s means of living, of earning his bread, but also the process by which materialistic exchange occurs. The thread of seemingly mundane objects exchanging hands runs through the film, a role quite fitting in the story of a handsmith stuck in China’s transition towards object-driven consumerist capitalism.
There’s the lighter which Xiao Wu absent-mindedly pockets off Xiaoyong’s table and then shows off to Mei Mei. There’s a ring he buys for Mei Mei, but after she runs off he instead gives it to his mother, who much to his anger only gives it to her other son’s fiancée. There’s the stolen ID cards Xiao Wu picks out of the wallets he thieves and (somewhat ironically as he is returning the symbolic identities of his victims while he remains bereft of one) slips into mailboxes, only for them to make their way into the hands of the bemused police chief. Most crucial of all, there’s the pager Mei Mei bought him so she can stay in touch but which will only be his downfall, when it rings mid-wallet-snatch, makes him lose his guard in the forsaken hope that Mei Mei is back contacting him and allows him to be caught red-handed. In fact, as he later finds out at the police station, the beeping was no more than an automated weather report (overcast for our Xiao Wu, for whom a humiliating demise awaits). But never mind Antonioni and Bresson; Jia’s films are deeply rooted within a Chinese context. Throughout his increasingly impressive body of work, Jia has cemented his status as chronicler of the internal hopes and dreams of his generation’s compatriots, without ever losing sight of the wider social circles they inhabit, and with a definite soft spot for those neglected, and abandoned by the forces of change. Xiao Wu was just a first step down a path that would be followed to its logical conclusions in The World (2004) and Still Life (2006), but what a first step it was. Armed with a 16mm camera, Jia and his cast and crew consisting of friends, non-professionals from in and around his hometown, and like-minded artistic renegades, shot this picture without any state permission. As a result it was only ever available within China via the underground world of pirate bootleg DVDs, where word quickly spread and a crucial boon to the Chinese independent filmmaking scene took form. Post-script: Xiao Wu would also retrospectively be seen as the first part in what came to be a thematic triptych, Jia’s ‘Hometown Trilogy’, completed by Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), both also set in his home province of Shanxi. In the former, the changing lives of a travelling opera troupe are chronicled over a decade spanning from 1979 to 1989, placing the characters in a period of great transition during Deng’s reform years and ending with total loss of idealism in the bloodshed and symbolic hope-crushing at Tiananmen Square. In Unknown Pleasures, we return to the present day and a pair of young men who never had idealism in the first place. They are of the first generation to be born in the post-Mao years, are stuck in a dead-end city with no aims or goals, and possess only the second-hand allure of Western and Hong Kong films and pop culture to afford them any hope of transcending their monotony.
Not unlike two other trilogies made by heavyweight auteurs from Asia who also emerged to worldwide acclaim in the 1990s, though just a bit before Jia, namely Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy (Where is the Friend’s Home?, Life and Nothing More, and Through the Olive Trees), and Wong Kar-wai’s trio set in 1960s Hong Kong (Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and 2046), Jia’s Hometown Trilogy is full of self-reflexivity and self-reference. While the Koker trilogy had an intricate Russian doll structure, with each film being about the making of the former, and Wong Kar-wai deftly made his group of characters recur through Proustian memory-holes across all three films, Jia inflicts his own brand of sly knowingness. Indeed Xiao Wu is not the last we see of Xiao Wu the character, hence the need for this footnote. As doomed and tragic as he appears at the end of the first film, he makes an unexpected return in Unknown Pleasures, to very different effect. Now, out of prison and a seemingly less romantic(ised) small-time crook looking to bully others, he no longer elicits our sympathy, which in Unknown Pleasures mostly sides with the out-of-luck Bin Bin anyway.
But here’s the punchline, in Unknown Pleasures, just as the character of Bin Bin is forced by desperation to become a seller of pirate DVDs, back returns Xiao Wu once again for his final of three short appearances in that film. He looks through Bin Bin’s catalogue and asks the young man if he has the DVD of the film Xiao Wu. When Bin Bin replies in the negative, Xiao Wu reacts with disdain, asking Bin Bin what kind of DVD seller he is anyway if he doesn’t sell that particular title. The self-reference of seeing the character of Xiao Wu reappear and ask for what we know to be ‘his’ film, as if within the world of Unknown Pleasures both the character and the film can co-exist, is both startling and playful. It plays on Xiao Wu’s own notoriety as a film following its success, while also commenting on the difficulties Jia’s films face in breaking ground within their domestic market, without official recognition.
In Platform, though also rife with small in-jokes and references (another radio announcement is heard, this time denouncing the ‘dangerous dissident’ Yu Lik-wai, who is none other than Jia’s regular cinematographer), Xiao Wu doesn’t make an appearance since Wang Hongwei is already playing another character. However as the minutiae of pop culture infiltrates Chinese everyday life slowly over the decade, Jia does stage one more deliberate act of self-reference through a cinema screening which the members of the troupe attend. This is the early 1980s, so no Hollywood imports in China yet, and instead they watch a rerun of the 1951 Raj Kapoor classic Awara, very popular over many years in China and supposedly one of Chairman Mao’s personal favourites. But, to come full circle, it also won’t be missed by anyone that Raj Kapoor’s protagonist is nothing other than… a pickpocket.