Viewing Diary: Tony Manero (Pablo Larraín, 2008)

June 19, 2015

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A couple of years back, one of my earliest reviews on here was for Pablo Larraín’s film No (find it here), which against the odds managed to be entertaining whilst firmly engaging with the political history of Chile. Recently, and in light of his latest The Club winning a Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, I revisited his second directorial attempt: Tony Manero.

Like No, it is set in the recent past, the brutal years of Pinochet’s grip over Chile. But whereas No took place in 1988, at the tail-end of the Pinochet years, Manero takes us to 1978, right in the middle of this dark era for Chile. The difference in mood is reflected through the formal differences in both films: No was filmed with 1980s video technology and was colourful and light, whereas Manero remains as dark in lighting as it is in tone.

1978 is also the heyday of the disco era, and some Dardennes-style handheld camerawork forces us to follow Raul (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro), a 50-something sociopath whose obsession with John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever effectively rules his life. He watches every repeat screening of the film, reciting the lines by heart. He dresses exactly like the character in his showpiece dancefloor scene, down to the colour of buttons. Most of all, he wants to be looked at by others as Manero, having no discernible personality of his own, and the ends to which he’ll go for this are shocking. This goes way beyond mere fandom, as we soon discover Raul and his fragile ego are soul-destroyed. He is a genuinely unlikable and unpredictable protagonist – and here Castro is quite incredible in his portrayal of this blank zombie of a man.

Meanwhile, in the background of the streets of Santiago which Raul struts down, there are constant reminders of the oppressive police state which Pinochet’s Chile was, and no amount of disco can secure an escape from it. This grim emotionally dead totalitarian society is exactly the kind of source from which would result a character like Raul. The parallels between Raul and the state of the nation are in evidence even down to the superficial worship of Western culture. Whether it’s US-backed free market economic reforms and courting the friendship of Reagan and Thatcher for Pinochet, or aping Travolta’s gyrating for Raul, in the end it is all cultural imperialism. Furthermore, much like in No, Larraín explores the hold television and consumerist pop-culture have on our aspirations, with the inclusion of a TV Tony Manero lookalike contest (a sort of Chilean ‘Stars in Their Eyes) that Raul becomes hell-bent on winning.

With its grimy look and central character, Tony Manero isn’t particularly pleasant viewing; no surprise that it took the less harsh but no less impressive No for Larraín’s full international breakthrough. Its uncompromising honesty however, regardless of what may or may not appeal to us the audience, makes its force as a commentary on Chile’s immediate past. Larraín had already emerged as a key new voice in Chilean cinema, with plenty to say and imaginatively unusual ways to say it, and continues to be a director to follow.

 

Viewing Diary: Lucky Luciano (Francesco Rosi, 1973)

June 9, 2015

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Lucky Luciano (Francesco Rosi, 1973)

In my piece on biopics, I listed examples of biographical films that steer away from convention. Francesco Rosi’s films about legendary mafioso figures (particularly Lucky Luciano and Salvatore Giuliano), with their oblique approach to the biography genre, easily belong on that list, so I put right their omission presently.

Rosi’s first mature masterpiece was Salvatore Giuliano (1962). With this film, his own style, appropriating neo-realism for his own purposes, fully came together. From the title, you’d be forgiven for expecting a biopic focusing on the notorious Sicilian bandit Giuliano, gunned down by police in 1950, leaving behind a disputed and divisive legacy. But in fact, the surface expectations of a biopic are misleading. We barely glimpse the face of the actor playing Giuliano more than a couple of times. Rosi cares not about Giuliano’s personal life events or individual traits, but about a whole society (in this case, Sicily), a whole system, and the tangled web of endemic deceit and corruption that straddles across every section of its processes. That is the true subject of his biopics.

Salvatore Giuliano offered us a panorama, taking in citizens, police and judiciaries from all angles and all walks of life, all of them in some way affected by the mystery of Giuliano’s actions and death. Amongst the corrupt shady dealings casting uncertainty over facts, one theme soon asserts itself: Italy’s North-South divide. Rosi himself hailed from the South (from Naples) and this was a recurring motif in his work, connected as it was to a political dimension: the post-war period of Italy’s USA-sponsored ‘economic miracle’ was the time of the stretching rich-poor divide widening across the affluent North and the increasingly left-behind South.

These concerns are all there again in Rosi’s Lucky Luciano (1973), another nominal biopic of a notorious crime figure in Italian history. Born in Sicily, but rising to the top of the mob in New York City by eliminating all his rivals in the 1920s and 1930s, Luciano stands infamous among the history of mobsters. He oversaw the modernisation of the mafia from a small-time family-run affair to a corporate syndicate of global crime with significant political and economic clout. But Rosi once again subverts the personal aspects of the biopic or gangster genre, by de-centering the narrative away from Luciano as the sole point of focus, and conducting nothing less than a filmic investigation, complete with extensive research, into the wide-ranging implications and reverberations of Luciano’s crime empire.

This time, the central figure is played by an acting heavyweight, Gian Maria Volonté, unrecognisably subdued in his performance, so we at least see more of him than we did Giuliano. But nonetheless he is at the edges of his own biopic, not much more than a cipher, his face enigmatically blank and rarely showing more expression than a faintly ominous smile behind its image-conscious sheen. This elusiveness works in making him distant, not just from the narrative spotlight, but from the federal agents who struggle to pin any charge that sticks on him, Luciano by now a master at camouflaging his nefarious activities, from murder to global narcotics trade, so that nothing can be traced back to him.

Most the film takes place post-1946, after Luciano was acquitted from a 30-year jail sentence, thanks to a secret deal with the U.S. government, and extradited to Italy. Rosi’s prime interest is history, the history of post-war Italy, the era of the economic miracle, of Fiat and booming industrialisation, and particularly how it, American involvement, and big-time crime like Luciano’s, are all inextricably connected. During the war, the U.S. authorities sought mafia help from Luciano among others to protect the docks of New York City, which were under the tight control of crime bosses, in fear of sabotage or attacks. They also extended their ties with the mafia by paying them to ensure smooth embarkation for their military forces in Sicily, and this alliance extended into the post-war period. As a reward, Luciano’s prison sentence was cut drastically short by Governor Thomas Dewey. Politics, business, the army, Rosi asserts, are all far more closely entangled with the criminal underworld than they would want us to know.

This history, of organised crime and corporate capitalism developing in tandem, is also the subject of Coppola’s first two Godfather films of course, which were released on either side of Lucky Luciano, in 1972 and 1974 (Coppola, much like Scorsese, was surely at that time under the influence of Rosi’s work). But whereas Coppola and Puzo afford the Corleones moments of pathos, letting us empathise and identify with even the most morally corrupt of them at various times, Rosi is extremely careful to avoid this.

He’s fully aware of Luciano’s mythologised status as a mastermind of crime. There’s a moment when U.S. sailors enthusiastically ask him for autographs, and Rosi even incorporates the strange episode of a Hollywood movie mogul’s failed attempt at turning Luciano’s life into a motion picture. But this is the antithesis of the individualised biopic, as Rosi deliberately gives zero psychological depth to Luciano, strips him of any glamour or romantic allure, and makes sure our thoughts never wander into considering how it might feel being in his shoes. Luciano is just a cog in the system, and whether it’s him, Giuliano, Al Capone or any other ambitious power-hungry mob boss, makes no difference to the big picture. Rosi lays out the patterns, the relations, the operations, between U.S. and Italian politicians, a U.S. Army colonel who fraternises with Luciano, business associates, other crime heads, lawmen, UN delegates, the pathetic informer (played by Rod Steiger, who’d already starred in Rosi’s Hands Over the City) who feels Lucky’s grip tightening around him…

These characters and many more go into making this political exposé of the tentacles of Power. Every scene feels like a piece of the jigsaw, and it is up to us to put it together. The remarkable thing about Rosi’s films is that for all their intellectual rigour, they are not theses delivering out rigid truths to the audience. There’s a palpable sense of mystery and unknowability, perfectly insinuated by Piero Piccioni’s tempo-switching opening and closing theme that manages to be both menacing and funky. Rosi poses many questions but acknowledges not having all the answers. We are supposed to be active in finding our own answers, encouraged to carry out our own research. There’s no doubt his biopic treatment was quite unlike any other, and sadly it’s hard imagining a producer green-lighting a movie project like this today.

Viewing Diary: Abhijan (Satyajit Ray) & The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger)

May 29, 2015

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Abhijan (Satyajit Ray, 1962)

Purely by coincidence, I notice that I’ve recently watched quite a few films with taxi driver protagonists: Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror, Ning Ying’s I Love Beijing, and now this atypical Satyajit Ray film that he only stepped in to direct after the assistant he’d written it for pulled out. When we consider Taxi the recent Berlinale winner by Jafar Panahi, Michael Mann’s Collateral, or that rather well-known Scorsese-Schrader collaboration, we begin to see that cabbie and their vehicle have, as profession and metaphor, been particularly well-served by the cinema. There’s something about the urban marauder looking at the city life through their windshield (itself not unlike a movie screen), while potentially interacting with any of its denizens across the back of their cab, makes the taxi-driver cinematically potent.vlcsnap-2015-05-06-23h32m37s155

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Abhijan though, the taxi belonging to Singhji (Ray regular Soumitra Chatterjee) works on different symbolic levels. Singhji is a proud descendant of the Rajput caste, a once impressive breed of warriors now scattered around India and without any of they bygon prestige. His beloved 1930 Chrysler may be his pride and joy, but it is also a constant reminder to Singhji of what troubles him the most: his ‘lowly’ status. The ancestors he romantically wishes to aspire to, and even hangs pictures of up on his rear-view mirror, had noble horses and commanded admiration. He on the other hand has a mechanical machine and an unglamorous job that others look down on. Singhji is thus torn between his excessive pride over his background and the shame of being no more than a lowly driver himself.

It won’t surprise anyone that the film eventually ends up teaching him the lesson that one’s actions are more defining than ancestry, but Ray takes a long scenic, and never less than engrossing, route to get there. For an unusually melodramatic film by his standards, complete with tautly edited car chases and a fight scene (albeit not the most convincingly staged fist-fight you’ll ever see, but we can blame that on the heat and fake beards), Ray enriches what would have been a conventional film into a rich character study. The narrative is meandering in the best way, taking enjoyable detours with events that don’t have ‘Crucial Plot Development’ marked all over them. The film also adds up to a convincing portrait of the diversity of life near in North-East India, taking in a host of multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-caste characters orbiting around Singhji, some good, some bad. There’s a pair of women, one a Christian teacher whose brother Singhji knew as a boy, and the other a forced prostitute, played by the beautiful Waheeda Rehman, who in their own way will afford Singhji a chance at redemption. This after his temptation by the threateningly malevolent Sukharam, who sinister smile and portentous gun-shaped lighter, are already signs that Singhji may be better off rejecting his propositions for making quick money. Then there’s also Singhji’s sidekick Rami, played by another favourite of Ray, Rabi Ghosh, who offers plenty of comic relief and monkeying around along the way, part of Ray’s easy-going narrative mode.

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A man of many talents, Ray also composed the fantastic rhythmic score himself for this. His mastery is indicated throughout by the way he has raised a formulaic plot, taken from a pulp piece of fiction, and made it into an entertaining, engaging character study. As is usually the case with Ray there’s a ‘message’, but it’s never didactically over-emphasised, and there’s some touches which it’s easy to tell he added in himself, which were not present in the source text. Most significant are the two large rocks in the badlands outside the town, which recur twice throughout the film, and where the action takes place. We are told their meaning, and that the locals have attributed to them the names of ‘Uncle and ‘Nephew’, making them redolent of the symbolic weight handed down through the generations, be it the burden of Singhji’s caste background or the intolerant prejudices society continues to foster. It might not be Ray’s greatest film, but if Abhijan is only ‘minor Ray’, as most scholars deem it, then no doubt his filmography has many more treasures left for me to discover.

 


 

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The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955) 

Determined to show off his acting credentials after losing out the part of Terry Malloy to Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra delivers a performance of Method-esque intensity as Frankie Machine, a likable junkie just out of rehab and set on going clean in order to become a drummer. Tackling the topic of drug addiction may seem blase today, but in 1955 it was bold indeed and Preminger was pushing the boundaries set by the now antiquated Hays code of moral guidelines, and helped tear them down altogether. The word ‘heroin’ is never actually used (only ‘score’ or ‘fix’) and never do we quite see a needle, but Frankie being presented as an all-too-human sufferer, a victim of his addiction, is what makes The Man with the Golden Arm a groundbreaking Hollywood treatment of its theme.vlcsnap-2015-05-06-23h11m44s154

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ol’ Blue Eyes aside, it’s the incandescent Kim Novak and her mix of strength and vulnerability who steals the show. Even in her scenes opposite Sinatra, your eyes gravitate towards hers, scintillating with emotion and intelligence. It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s such a beauty too, a short-haired blonde exuding authentic feeling as well as sex appeal – much like another screen icon who’d also become a Preminger muse just a few years later, Jean Seberg.vlcsnap-2015-05-06-23h11m38s113

 

 

 

 

 

 

Novak plays Molly, a positive influence on Frankie’s life, in some ways his good angel. The two are in love, but must remain apart due to Frankie being tied to Zosh, his infirm wife now wheelchair-bound due to an accident for which Frankie feels responsible. In contrast to Molly, the needy, unreasonable Zosh is a drag on Frankie’s mental state, consuming him with guilt, and offering no encouragement in him or his hopes for a new start in life. When he relapses, it has as much to do with him needing escape from Zosh’s negativity, as his frustration in not finding a drumming gig. Molly and Zosh are like the angel and devil on either side of his soldiers (as seen in countless cartoons though the archetype itself is taken from a Central Asian legend), enacting the tug-of-war that is his moral dilemma.

Usually, a central character in the midst of an internal conflict, and a host of supporting players orbiting around him representing different facets of his tormented personality, are signs the theories of our old friend Sigmund Freud are of potential use. Indeed, and even more so than was the case for the comparable schema of characters around Singhji in Abhijan, we can fit a Freudian blueprint on Man with Golden Arm. Frankie is the conflicted ego, on one side pulled towards the characters representing the super-ego’s order and righteousness, namely Molly and his affable but simple-minded sidekick Sparrow. Sparrow is his Jiminy Cricket, his conscience (not unlike Rami is to Singhji in Abhijan), the one whom he’s most ashamed to face at his lowest ebb. On the other side, Frankie is drawn in by the characters representing the id, tempting him to sink back into his base desires so they may better control, and profit from, him. Zosh fits into that category, as do two slimier characters: Louis, Frankie’s supplier, and Schiewka, owner of an illegal gambling den who pays Frankie to deal his card game. Both exploit Frankie, but with different strategies, like a good cop, bad cop of temptation into self-destruction. Schiewka is aggressive and bullish, but Louis, the more sinister of the two, is slyly sophisticated in the tricks he uses to lure Frankie. The 1950s was the decade when Hollywood went full Freudian, and this movie can be read as a fascinating exemplar of this.

The cast of supporting parts never feel too schematic though, thanks to a string of fine character actors. That said, I’m not sure the finale hit the right tones for me. The characterisation of Zosh is slightly clumsy because, as tragic a character as she is and though there is ample room to empathise with her, the film tries too hard to make her unlikable in order have us siding with Frankie and Molly.

In any case, the film oozes with the aroma of vintage Hollywood, not least for its Saul Bass credits and jazzy Elmer Bernstein score. Preminger’s mise-en-scene and fluid mobile camera, sweeping through the sets rather than relying on cuts, are also notable. One knockout scene, of Frankie’s first relapse, epitomises Preminger’s strategy: the camera tracks right into a close-up of Frankie’s eyes twice, once before and then after his fix. His pupils are first massively dilated and then reduced to a dot when his craving has been satisfied, with Bernstein’s brass notes swelling accordingly.

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Viewing Diary: Xiao Wu (Jia Zhangke, 1997)

May 21, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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. vlcsnap-2015-03-15-19h06m17s114 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. vlcsnap-2015-03-15-19h07m24s14 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). vlcsnap-2015-03-15-19h04m42s193 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. vlcsnap-2015-03-15-19h09m20s164 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.


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