In connection with the Berkeley Art Museum exhibition “Mahjong: Contemporary Art from the Sigg Collection,” Pacific Film Archive has organized two programs around two significant mainland Chinese directors to run this fall. The first a near-complete retrospective of the much lauded Jia Zhangke, titled “Unknown Pleasures” after his 2002 feature; the second a look at the films of Ning Ying, who will be in residence this October for talks around town, titled “I Love Beijing” after her 2001 feature. The Jia program began with the (can it be any other way?) double bill of Still Life and Dong (both 2006), and continued with his debut feature, Xiao Wu, from 1997. I missed the following step backwards to Jia’s thesis film from the Beijing Film Academy, Xiao Shan Going Home, but I hope to see the rest of the arranged screenings and, perhaps, write more. There’s a lot to look at, lots to say.
An accomplished if ragged debut, Jia’s first feature, Xiao Wu (or Pickpocket), itches around restless, looking for things—an escape, maybe—with its eyes cocked at and always reigned in by the repeated traps of the social. The film shares its name with its protagonist, which conflates their aims, and makes this story of a petty thief in rural China that much more threadbare, naked and poignant. Xiao Wu (the character, played by Hongwei Wang, a Jia staple) moves through the film halfway between hip and idiot, his rudder constantly tacking to no port—of entry, of call, of departure—in particular. Like its Bressonian antecedent, Jia’s film details moving in the world, but its canal alley ways sit shuttered, a gallery of refusal, with little room to stray; only the vantage point offers a getaway and no character seems to look down those streets; freedom is too far to grasp. Instead, an aimless stroll back and forth, to and from the town and back, going nowhere slow: lie and hitch a ride, rob enough funds for a present, run around corners and drop IDs in the post, hang from the arm of an empty toll gate, hide behind a sneer and a pair of outsized glasses. Xiao Wu goes so, pickpocketing his way, appropriating and dropping identities, ignorant of which is his and how to define any kind of life besides this delusion of agency he adopted too long ago to shed and will not own, nor address.
Xiao Wu tells people like habit that he gave up his pickpocket way of life “years ago” but as we know from the beginning, Xiao Wu is a liar. Hitching a ride into Fenyang proper he skirts paying for a ticket with a line about being police; the tough asking for cash fades down the aisle away from the encounter and Xiao Wu smirks. Then he steals a wallet, elided off screen by a cut to a portrait of Mao, dangling from the rearview mirror of the bus. Xiao Wu is inauguration: not only does it begin Jia’s career, it’s been identified as the first in a cycle about the modernization of China in the late 1990s, and this cut to Mao following a theft is a canny joke. But, Jia says, this new China makes (is making) countless mistakes at the cost of its dispersed people. Things are bound to get lost. In this, it’s almost as if Xiao Wu is in cahoots with the government by depositing ID cards from lifted wallets in mailboxes around town: he ensures the state can keep tabs on people, and that people can hold onto some modicum of private space (via a thing that is not them but somehow defines them) in turn.
Most of the time, things go slack and Jia sits patient, letting the world play for us at a distance, so the handheld camera stands out more immediate. A walk away from karaoke with Mei Mei sees Xiao Wu hop onto the curb to get taller than her and, after she goads him, climb some stairs to assert his power over these spaces: I do what I want, I go where I want. But, of course, as soon as he performs any tangible desire, it’s robbed back. The world takes. Mei Mei asks him if he’s going to be her man from here on, he says yes, and she leaves town, leaves him with a pager that tethers him to nothing, a false hope. And his tunnel vision blinds him to what else is possible.
There’s no transcendence at the end. There’s little grace along the way, just hurt and booze and ignorance and a few fleeting pleasures often accompanied by pop songs that resonate more like siren calls. During one karaoke ditty, the camera follows its subjects, gets drunk: the image bleeds around a room unsure where to look among the pinball bodies; occasionally we see Xiao Wu laugh, arms attempting to close around a girl spinning through the space; mostly we see red walls and shadows jerking, the TV a blown out beacon white with lyrics and waterfalls, a false guide. We watch TVs with these characters throughout the film. Television is the ultimate arbiter, the final witness, of the public sphere in Fenyang, eager to give any news (banal or sensational) face in this town. What’s more, unlike the empty alleys stretching to the horizon, this is where people look and pay attention. Xiao Wu may live his life in the street, manipulating and poaching its figures, but he stands masked behind his glasses. He does not see correctly; his vision is off. Above all, he forgets that he is seen, that he is not invisible, that he is part of this world. No wonder he winds up chained to it, literally, as an example. Knotted and crouched, handcuffed wrist bent aloft and away from his body, Xiao Wu sits spectacle for Fenyang, an open sore for all to see trapped in street. His thread frays from the fabric. He sits in the gutter on display and the town gathers to look, to interrogate him with their eyes. Try as he might to shrink from this exposure, he cannot escape. He cannot blend into the town, nor can he master it, nor can he supercede its spaces of ruin.
Tonight the PFA will show Jia's 2007 work, Useless, to pick up the thread of another Jia cycle, this time in exclusively documentary terms/forms, often referred to as a "Trilogy of Artists," which began with 2006's Dong. Click here for more information.