After hitching aboard public transportation on the way into town, a reckless pickpocket named Xiao Wu (Hongwei Wang) slouches into an open bus seat, sporting a jacket too big for him, a bright-wool sweater vest, and bug-eyed rims. “Make him pay his fare,” the driver tells the man nearest to him. “I’m a policeman,” Xiao Wu responds, barely bothering to register the presence of the citizen asking the young drifter to respect the daily dues he owes to society. 

Xiao Wu almost always has his grabby hands stuffed in his baggy pants pockets. He calls himself a craftsman, “one living on his skills.” In reality, he is a reckless vagrant, one embarrassed of who he is, and of who he has become compared to those he can’t help but compare himself to. He’s a young man of little life experience who demands personal services of an establishment before it even opens, expecting ownership of what he desires, after being surrounded by an onslaught of revolving media propaganda throughout his upbringing, paired with unrealistic expectations of masculinity. Xiao Wu seems never to have learned how to meet people halfway, and he can’t let anyone see him naked, always suspect that the other side of the exchange might be playing him.

The original title of director Jia Zhangke’s expertly controlled debut feature shares the name of its criminal protagonist, but is sometimes alternately known as “The Pickpocket,” or just, “Pickpocket,” which may initially seem like a lazy nod to slow cinema pioneer, Robert Bresson, and his landmark, 1958 film – which Paul Schrader famously has been stealing from for the entirety of his career – but Jia almost instantly earns the honor to share the title of Bresson’s movie. Shot for what would equate to around $50,000 U.S. dollars, “Xiao Wu” very much feels like a first film, but one from a filmmaker whose talent is immensely clear, ever present on screen, and incredibly mature for such a young artist (being in his late 20s when he made the movie.) 

After being introduced to our titular pickpocket, the film sets the stage for a number of the new ordinances effecting Xiao Wu’s hometown following the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong, cutting back and forth between a cast of local characters dealing with building demolitions, and a new provincial campaign urging the public to crackdown on criminal behavior. We meet some policeman – including the chief, who scorns Xiao Wu for his activities – a local pawn shop owner, Xiao Wu’s band of miscreants, and his, now-betrothed, former best friend, Xiaoyong, to whom’s wedding the young thief was not invited. Further rubbing salt in the wound, the occasion of his buddy’s big day is covered by a news crew. When confronting his friend about the ceremony – an authentically wrenching dialog scene, injected with mindful humor captured in a single take – he asks why such a success story is “doing it on the cheap.” “Mostly family,” Xiaoyong uses as an excuse. Well then, why was the chief of police invited, his old friend ponders. The groom brushes away the gift brought for him, refusing to accept a pickpocket’s dirty money. Xiao Wu leaves without taking the envelope back.

In an effort to fill all the empty holes his self-destructive choices have wrought, our lead starts spending his hard swiped cash on the companionship of a karaoke girl named Meimei – who he initially dismissively complains about to the club’s maître d’, refusing to sing a karaoke duet with her – before soon developing a foreboding addiction for her affections. The two bond over the uncertain nature of their futures, relating their circumstances to Faye Wong lyrics, sitting on the bed together. There is a marvelous sense of authentic human loneliness in all their interactions, the pair sharing a palpable fear that they’ll never be much of anything to anyone else, worried this might be the last person who could possibly understand them.

Capturing the drifting connection of alienated youth’s place in the larger, philosophical uncertainty of a world always changing faster than one can grow up, Jia’s debut often bears a sociological resemblance to Richard Linklaters debut film, “Slacker,” albeit, one with a central character that weaves in and out of a number of character’s lives, as opposed to a vertical, hand-off narrative. It also shares some similarities with a handful of Hong Kong and Taiwanese filmmakers emerging at the time, ones innovating the independent scene through new art house techniques during this period – auteurs such as Tsai Ming-liang or Wong Kar-wai. Shooting love-sick twenty-something-year-olds who’ve grown adept at feeling sorry for themselves, using formal techniques that expressively capture the life-ending struggles of romantic naiveté, or know just when its time for a frame to settle on quiet for the remainder of a conversation. Comedy and tragedy give way to genuine human awkwardness and raw heuristic failure.

Audiences familiar with Jia’s more recent works will certainly spot kernels of his recognizable cinematic framework – specifically, the complex, revolving relationship commonality, communication, community and commerce have with each other in mainland China, as the country’s relationship with global trade markets continually shifts its policies. He’s prone to rely on layered master shots, closely examining the structural relationship between citizens and spaces, and he certainly explores that in his debut exercise. Being shot on 16mm with a 4:3 frame, however, illuminates what an adept sense Jia’s eye has for catching and contrasting color palettes, for finding the precise depth of field needed in a handheld shot to make it feel ruggedly delicate. Some of “Xiao Wu’s” most resonant moments coincide with a near-perfectly timed cut to a close-up, using the full power of the frame – something increasingly uncharacteristic of the director’s works as his movies grow more sprawling and narratively ambitious.

In a truly sad moment that represents the most painful kind of life lesson, Xiao Wu gifts his mother a ring he recently purchased. “You must be tricking me,” is her instant reaction. The whole town knows she’s raised a youthful renegade, one carving out his identity by literally stealing I.D. cards from others before dropping them off in the police station’s mailbox; even his own mother can’t trust him. He shows little interest in partaking in real-world discussions with others because everyone he’s invested his heart in has shifted their policies of life alongside the nation, moving on while he feels stagnant, the strong stares only judging him, more and more. His aims at pleasing others have only led to further ostracization, having become an assumed criminal of his urban environment. People might as well assume “Pickpocket” is Xiao Wu’s real name.

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