Set in Fenyang, Jia’s hometown in China’s Shanxi province, Xiao Wu tells the story of its namesake, a pickpocket who struggles to gain a foothold in a rapidly modernizing world. While the gang members with whom he grew up have found fortune as entrepreneurs in the new marketplace, Xiao Wu (Wang Hongwei) sticks to his old trade and gradually finds himself deserted by his friends, family, and love interest. A master of mise-en-scène, Jia used a handheld 16mm camera to follow Xiao Wu’s sad, diminutive figure through dusty streets and ragged alleyways. While the community’s traditional way of life is still in evidence, ubiquitous building demolitions and cultural imports suggest the imminent arrival of a new, alienating world. Filmed on location and with nonprofessional actors, the movie evokes a realism previously little seen in Chinese cinema. By telling the story of one tragic hero, this deeply felt picture brings to the fore the experience of the millions left behind by the country’s monumental leap forward.
Since this independently produced debut feature, Jia has created an unparalleled body of work telling powerful tales of a society transforming at breakneck speed. His perceptive attention to fleeting sights, sounds, and emotions as well as changing relations between people makes him an especially penetrating chronicler of contemporary Chinese life.
Publication excerpt from From MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019).
In this film a streetwise youth and petty criminal named Xiao Wu navigates the shattered neighborhoods of the remote provincial town Fenyang without a moral compass. Alienated from his increasingly entrepreneurial criminal colleagues, at odds with the police and his family, and shaken by the fleeting tenderness of a karaoke-bar hostess, his defenses are stripped away until he is forced to face the emptiness of his existence. Authentically performed by an amateur cast, this debut feature by independent filmmaker Jia begins as gritty social realism but gradually develops into a piercing character study and cultural critique set in the incisively documented landscape of contemporary China. The film dramatizes the festering influence of the black-market corruption that, it suggests, has spread through the whole of Chinese society. Ultimately, Jia goes beyond realism to achieve an existential and spiritual quality that may be compared to that of the work of French director Robert Bresson.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights since 1980, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007, p. 150.
Xiao Wu is a pickpocket in Fenyang, a small provincial town in China. He is one of life's many losers, a man who cannot seem to connect with those around him and who is apparently oblivious to the changes, both economic and social, that are the hallmark of contemporary China. He takes up with Mei Mei, a young prostitute, but she soon drops him, and he is cast adrift, a victim of his own inability to cope with anything outside his immediate environment. Having been under pressure from the police to curb his thievery, he is finally arrested and taken away. There is no catharsis in the film's final frames, nor is there any sense that Xiao Wu is truly aware of how he has ended up the way he has. His interior reality and the outside world do not intersect, and so our "hero" is left to ponder his fate helplessly. First–time director Jia Zhang Ke made Xiao Wu on a minuscule budget, filming in the familiar confines of his hometown and using a cast of nonprofessionals. He also failed to get ofÞcial permission to make the Þlm, giving the movie the distinction of being an independent, underground Þlm in a country where such activity can carry a heavy penalty, both personal and professional. Xiao Wu's international success protected Jia somewhat, but can in no way minimize the fact that he and his entire company risked a great deal to create it.
Publication excerpt from In Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of The Museum of Modern Art by Steven Higgins, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006.