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.