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Film Review: ‘Xiao Wu’ Brilliantly Captures The Alienation of China’s Underclass

15 February 2021

Film Review: ‘Xiao Wu’ Brilliantly Captures The Alienation of China’s Underclass

A small town pickpocket whose friends have moved on to higher trades finds himself bitter and unable to adapt.

Director: Jia Zhangke

Cast: Wang Hongwei, Hao Hongjian, Zuo Baitao, Ma Jinrei

Year: 1998

Country: China

Language: Jin Chinese, Mandarin Chinese

Runtime: 108 minutes

By the tail end of the 20th century, China’s radical and rapid embrace of marketisation was well underway. Yet as their country surged on, most in rural China felt left behind by the pace and shape of progress. This would be the prominent theme that has come to define the works of China’s Sixth Generation of filmmakers, with Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu 《小武》standing tall as amongst its finest.

It feels cruelly unfair how the film is a feature-length debut. Despite a meagre budget and a cast of amateur actors, Jia masterfully brings to life the anxiety that came with fast-paced change. The film brilliantly weaves the sights and sounds right from the eye of the quiet storm to create an ever-engrossing — and curiously relatable — story of youth alienation laced with sly wit.

Although his friends have moved on from their delinquent past, pickpocket Xiao Wu (Wang Hongwei) continues to wander aimlessly around his small town looking for easy pickings. A trigger for change happens when an old-time buddy, who has made it big as an entrepreneur, refuses to invite Xiao Wu to his wedding. A blooming romance with a KTV bar girl Mei Mei (Hao Hongjian) only further forces Xiao Wu to embrace his fears towards change.

Shot on economic 16mm film, Xiao Wu carves a dreamy yet enticingly rhythmical world out of Jia’s rural hometown of Fenyang. What is perhaps most apparent is the film’s use of sound. Snippets of bustle, conversations and songs create a relentless soundscape. The town’s cold stone walls, which gives the film a cold and dilapidated hue, only adds to the claustrophobia. 

All of this bears down on a petty criminal unsure about how to get by. The sounds of the street are as much of a character as any, often complementing the ongoing drama while chipping away at Xiao Wu’s tough facade. The pickpocket is a king of the streets, notorious for his petty crimes and admired by delinquents half his age. Yet, his confidence is constantly betrayed by his furrowing brows and closed body language.

Xiao Wu’s struggles to catch up with his successful friends is universally relatable. Where the film cuts even deeper is with how it parallels Xiao Wu’s story to the millions of Chinese who similarly felt left behind by the country’s rapid changes. It offers a less-than-flattering reflection of themselves, filled with self-deprecating humour and frank uncertainty. 

This is, perhaps, felt most pertinently through how Westernisation and modernisation infiltrated their world — not through large-scale cultural shifts, but through lighters that play Für Elise and expensive pagers; knick-knacks and luxury items that could have never existed before China opened its market. The film almost makes a cheeky point to note how karaoke, an invention from their sworn enemy Japan, is embraced and adored.

It’s a brave new world that nobody knows how to navigate, with their oversized Western suit jackets — awkwardly adorned by many in the film including Xiao Wu — serving as their only suit of armour.

What remains largely undisturbed by the outside world is the soundscape. Snippets from popular music, films, and television programmes come together to shape and reflect Xiao Wu’s emotions and doubts. Virtuosity in integrating sound into storytelling is highlighted in Xiao Wu and Mei Mei’s romantic subplot, with Xiao Wu’s reluctance to sing and the aforementioned novelty lighter leading to particularly poignant and memorable moments. Jia’s deft handling of sound remains a trademark of his works.

Being a debut feature with a cast of amateur actors does mean that there are a few slight missteps. Long static shots and shaky cameras create a documentarian feel. However, the film tends to overdo this trope to feel dragged out and unnecessary. While the performances give the film a deep sense of groundedness to accentuate its freewheeling nature, it holds Xiao Wu back from delivering on emotional resonance.

While both the film and its titular character move at their own pace, they do not wander without purpose. Xiao Wu is phenomenal cinema, melding what could easily been a cacophony of noise with a seemingly listless pace to beautifully capture the zeitgeist of a country. The film is a perfect gateway to the exciting works packed within the sixth generation of Chinese cinema.

The Asian Film Archive will be featuring two upcoming screenings of Xiao Wu, restored in 4K, on 24 and 27 February. 

Xiao Wu is also available on MUBI, a streaming platform dedicated to hosting classic and arthouse cinema. Subscriptions start at $13 per month, with special offers available for students. Check with your educational institutions for more information. For an even better deal, sign up as a member of the Singapore Film Society for up to three months MUBI Subscription and so much more. Visit their website for more information.

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.