Made for a pittance with nonprofessional actors, formally unapproved in China and first proven in the United States in 1999, Jia Zhangke’s debut function “Xiao Wu” depicted a deadbeat Chinese protagonist and a backwater milieu few Westerners had ever seen.
That film, revived by Film at Lincoln Center in a new 4K restoration, is each downbeat and transcendent.
“Xiao Wu” is ready in Jia’s hometown in central China, Fenyang. The title character is an aimless, alienated pickpocket — described in a New York Times overview as “a nondescript young man in a shabby city who practices his trade without remorse, compassion or evident fear although he is known to the police.” Some critics had been reminded of Robert Bresson, whose 1959 “Pickpocket” is a masterpiece of elliptical cinema.
Observational, primarily in medium shot and nearly plotless, “Xiao Wu” has a documentary high quality. The titular character, performed by Wang Hongwei, is launched whereas ready for a bus; as soon as aboard, he beats the fare with the smirking declare he’s a policeman, then casually picks the pocket of the passenger beside him.
An unlikely powerful man — certainly, one thing of a loser with thick Woody Allen glasses and a cigarette-lighter that performs a few bars of “Für Elise” — Xiao Wu has his act down. The world, nevertheless, is altering. As native TV welcomes “the return of Hong Kong,” sleepy, half-urbanized Fenyang has begun to supply the fruits of the free market — karaoke, magnificence salons, low cost sound methods.
News reaches Xiao Wu that his former associate in crime, now a professional businessman trafficking in hostess bars and wholesale cigarettes, is about to marry. Xiao Wu is pointedly uninvited to the wedding ceremony and constitutionally unable to maneuver on from his prison life. The pickpocket is much less a product of the new China than an delinquent ingredient who fails to modernize. Asked by the karaoke hostess, Mei-Mei, whom he ambivalently courts, what he does for a residing, he tells her that he’s “a craftsman who earns his money with his hands.”
Mei-Mei is sufficiently impressed to encourage him to purchase a beeper so she will alert him when she’s free. Xiao Wu buys her a ring as nicely. And every buy, in its approach, promotes his undoing. (Technology is a part of the film’s subtext. Anticipating Jia’s use of science fiction components in his later, naturalistic movies, TV subtly mediates essential elements of Xiao Wu’s life.)
Remarkable for a film made solely with nonactors, “Xiao Wu” thrives on prolonged scenes of non-public interplay — Xiao Wu along with his former buddy, his dad and mom, the police and, primarily, the diffidently wooed Mei-Mei. Significantly, his single second of liberation happens when he finds himself alone in an empty public bathtub. In the movie’s last scenes, society prevails. Xiao Wu himself turns into an object lesson, one other commodity in the market, contemplated by the crowd as a pop tune asks, “Who is the hero?”
As can occur with first movies, “Xiao Wu” has a purity distinctive in its maker’s oeuvre. But additionally it is an auspicious starting to one in all the most spectacular careers in 21st century cinema.
July 23-Aug. 5 at Film at Lincoln Center, Manhattan; filmlinc.org.