Director Jia Zhangke dropped beneath my radar, for some reason, until I saw Still Life (2006); that presented me with the enticing prospect of ‘catching up’ on some terrific films. It’s obvious to go chronologically so, surprisingly, I am; Xiao Wu was his first feature. Heavily influenced by Italian neo realists, and Bresson’s Pickpocket (France, 1959), Xiao Wu features location shooting and non actors in a tale of a pickpocket (also an alternative title for the film) who finds life in ‘new’ China is passing him by.
The film’s shot in Fenyang, a ‘middle of nowhere’ place, and one of the fascinating aspects of the film is this rundown setting and the people (who are real) in it. ‘Middle of nowhere’ in the middle of China is a long way away from most places but children play skipping in alleys, just as the do everywhere else in the world.
Although not as surreal as Still Life, the naturalism of the visual style – much of it handheld camera – doesn’t mean the mise en scene isn’t expressive. Greens and reds are prominent sometimes submerging scenes in colour expressionately reflecting the protagonist’s stagnation. Whilst his boyhood companions make something of their lives, though their ‘success’ is not something that Jia is necessarily celebrating, Xiao Wu drifts through petty theft unable to connect with women or his family: something common in all nations.
The film was initially banned in China and celebrated in the West; we like celebrating what others ban as it shows off our tolerance. Clearly the censors noticed the lack of celebration of China’s growing economic prosperity. As in Still Life we see characters who are living lives in transition, looking for roots where they no longer exist.