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Xiao Wu (Jia Zhang Ke, 1997)


    Set in the Fengyang province, Chinese director Jia Zhang Keís first feature Xiao Wu features young characters that suffer as they bear witness to a foundling capitalist system. Because they were brought up in the midst of a rapidly dissolving system (Maoism), they lack the ethical foundation that would have given them the morality to help to keep the developing capitalist marketplace free from corruption, and as such they find their jobs on the fringes of the law as either money launderers, racketeers, or, like the filmís would-be hero does, as a petty criminal. Every new freedom in the free market brings with it the potential for corruption, and as a result, the government responds with the first hints of fascism. Like the characters in Jiaís pseduo-sequel Unknown Pleasures, these characters are wholly uninformed about the massive upheaval going on around them. The film has a sense of humor about their oblivious malaise, however. Consider the scene where a seemingly omnipresent reporter interviews Xiao Wuís comrade in crime about the governmental crack down on petty street crime. He reacts with a stunned, ignorant silence, even though such an implementation would directly affect his attempts to earn a living. Later, however, when heís interviewed by the same crew about Xiao Wuís recent arrest, he perks up with recognition, calling his friend a bum. Jiaís characters seem to never confront politics unless they are made unavoidable by their daily lives, and thatís perhaps why the relatively rapid, but wholly obvious changes in their social environments seem to catch them totally off-guard.


    Due to the charactersí ignorance, their lives become a free-for-all, in which they lack the political awareness or concern to react proactively to the rapid changes around them. Xiao Wu himself seems entirely ignorant about the new moral standards that exist among his circle of friends (themselves hypocritically involved in gray market dealings), and as a result he faces ostracism for not attempting to at least put a more palatable exterior on his occupation as pickpocket. The message here seems to be that the competitive nature of capitalism forces its crooks to think big and turn their crimes into unassailable syndicates. Xiao Wu is as scorned for not better taking advantage of the newly available opportunities for deceit as he is for his immorality. The picture of the capitalist society here is unflattering because it is so willing to leave people in the society itís supposed to be helping behind. It replaces the government-sanctioned safety net of communism with a bunch of useless imported gadgetry. Jia parodies the cheapness of such trinkets by littering his sets with glittery debris, such as the flashy lights that decorate boom boxes and the novelty musical lighter that Xiao Wu swipes. The filmís sound mix features an endless blare of street traffic and loudspeaker announcements of political slogans, showing how inescapable the new way of life is. The most romantic sceneís serenade is interrupted with a loud horn from outside, and immediately it becomes apparent that the liaison is, at least on a metaphorical level, doomed. When Jia protracts the illusion of happiness for another twenty minutes or so from that point, he seems to be padding the film a little, even if its progression indirectly leads to the protagonistís downfall.


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Jeremy Heilman