In ‘Xiao Wu,’ a Wandering Pickpocket in the People’s China

Made for a pittance with nonprofessional actors, officially unapproved in China and first shown in the United States in 1999, Jia Zhangke’s debut feature “Xiao Wu” depicted a deadbeat Chinese protagonist and a backwater milieu few Westerners had ever seen.

That movie, revived by Film at Lincoln Center in a new 4K restoration, is both downbeat and transcendent.

“Xiao Wu” is set in Jia’s hometown in central China, Fenyang. The title character is an aimless, alienated pickpocket — described in a New York Times review 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 were reminded of Robert Bresson, whose 1959 “Pickpocket” is a masterpiece of elliptical cinema.

Observational, mainly in medium shot and almost plotless, “Xiao Wu” has a documentary quality. The titular character, played by Wang Hongwei, is introduced while waiting for a bus; once aboard, he beats the fare with the smirking claim he is a policeman, then casually picks the pocket of the passenger beside him.

An unlikely tough guy — indeed, something of a loser with thick Woody Allen glasses and a cigarette-lighter that plays a few bars of “Für Elise” — Xiao Wu has his act down. The world, however, is changing. As local TV welcomes “the return of Hong Kong,” sleepy, half-urbanized Fenyang has begun to offer the fruits of the free market — karaoke, beauty salons, cheap sound systems.

News reaches Xiao Wu that his former partner in crime, now a legitimate businessman trafficking in hostess bars and wholesale cigarettes, is about to marry. Xiao Wu is pointedly uninvited to the wedding and constitutionally unable to move on from his criminal life. The pickpocket is less a product of the new China than an antisocial element who fails to modernize. Asked by the karaoke hostess, Mei-Mei, whom he ambivalently courts, what he does for a living, he tells her that he’s “a craftsman who earns his money with his hands.”

Mei-Mei is sufficiently impressed to encourage him to buy a beeper so she can alert him when she’s free. Xiao Wu buys her a ring as well. And each purchase, in its way, promotes his undoing. (Technology is part of the movie’s subtext. Anticipating Jia’s use of science fiction elements in his later, naturalistic films, TV subtly mediates crucial aspects of Xiao Wu’s life.)

Remarkable for a movie made entirely with nonactors, “Xiao Wu” thrives on extended scenes of personal interaction — Xiao Wu with his former friend, his parents, the police and, mainly, the diffidently wooed Mei-Mei. Significantly, his single moment of liberation occurs when he finds himself alone in an empty public bath. In the film’s final scenes, society prevails. Xiao Wu himself becomes an object lesson, another commodity in the marketplace, contemplated by the crowd as a pop song asks, “Who is the hero?”

As can happen with first films, “Xiao Wu” has a purity unique in its maker’s oeuvre. But it is also an auspicious beginning to one of the most impressive careers in 21st century cinema.

Xiao Wu

July 23-Aug. 5 at Film at Lincoln Center, Manhattan;

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