Skip to content


Classic Chinese Cinema: Xiao Wu (Pickpocket)

01 June 2012 | Chinese Films | by David Zou


Today I’m writing something very personal.Yeah,Brighter Summer Day,Chungking Express,Raining in the Mountain etc etc are my fave Chinese language films,but this one,Xiao Wu by Mainland China “Sixth Generation” director Jia Zhangke,is the only one which made me have a sudden impulse to make films,make films just like his.


The Intro Quotes

I know many of you may have never heard of this name,so I’m gonna quote some comments from two famous directors as an inro,forget about Zhang Yimou,Chen Kaige,but remember this name,and go to see his films,his cinema is the real China.

“Today,there is no other countries like China which is undergoing such rapid changes,and there is no other directors like Jia who can reflect it profoundly.

The radicalism of narrative style,the reciprocity between time and space,the ability to discover the inner connections among things,the sensitivity of understanding the relations between human and envoronment,judging from every aspect,Jia is so much like Antonioni”

– Walter Salles

“Jia’s Xiao Wu reminds me of the feelings I had when I started my career with my friends in the 1960s” – Martin Scorsese




The History Background

Let’s go back to 1996,Fengyang county,Jia’s hometown,let’s see what happened to a typical Chinese small town at that time.”When I went home,I find everything had changed so dramatically.It looked like everybody was having some kind of trouble,the relations among people left me cold,money and interest made the relations distant.A friend of mine,with whom I grew up together,seemed as his life had stopped,there was no dream anymore,everyday life became a cycle.That really provoked me a lot.Then I went to the streets,it made me feel more.All the old glossary stores turned into karaoke bars,there are big “tear down” signs on residential buildings everywhere.One could sense how profoundly the social transformation had changed ordinary people’s lives. It made me aware that I finally got some real great material for my films,how exciting!!”Jia recalls all these in his books.”At that time,there were two major types of Chinese films,one is commercial type and the other is ideological type,there was no one shooting films to record the time!! It’s a shame that no one did it is because the country was in one of the critical moment in its history!!”


The Inspirations 

“I did not know I was influenced by films of De Sica and Bresson until one day,an audience asked me whose films I liked,then I realized there might be some potential connections between  my creative process and their styles.In De Sica films,the first thing I feel is the concern for humans,this is the most basic element,equally important,he expressed it in a very cinematic way,I learned how to find the poetic level from the reality.Bresson did this in a extreme way,when I watched his Pickpocket in Hongkong,I was stunned,he presented a material world in a line drawing style,and behind that world,you could feel something spiritual”Jia recalls the two masters who had huge influence on his works.”And of course Chen’s Yellow Earth,that was the first time I was blown away by a picture and realized the possibility of cinema,after watching it I wen to Beijing Film Institute,that film changed my life!!”




The Characters and Stories

“We are saying that we are pursuing realism and humanism,but we did not accomplish that,the fifth generation did not,I did not,and the generation before me did not,because we are not allowed.But when I saw the character Xiao Wu,I clapped my thigh,yes!! this time someone finally did it right!! It had never been this accurate in the films of the fifth generation.A bludger from North,with no dreams and future,the gestures,the way he spoke and the language he spoke,were all right!! There were thousands Xiao Wu in China small towns,and Jia nailed the character in his student film!!”Famous Chinese Painter Chen Danqing says.Yes,as a Chinese,I could see so many Xiao Wu in the streets in everyday life,only Jia focused his camera on them,and still,he is the only one.The story of Xiao Wu is about a thief in a Chinese small town,lost his friendship,love and relationships one by one,and finally caught in a theft and was humiliated in the street,it’s better say he lost his principles rather than saying he lost all his relations.The chaotic street,noisy sound and relations he could never keep were all reasons that made a man pursuing something aimlessly.




The Features of Jia’s Cinema 

Facing the truth

“I love facing the truth,though sometimes there are weakness in our humanity in truth.I’d like to focus quietly,the only thing can stop it is the next shot.I have the strength to look through because I never avoid it.I have concerns for humans and the society,I’m loyal to myself,I want to try to communicate with my cinema in this faithless world.”This is how Jia looks at his own cinema.


Jia likes to use multi-media in his films,like the karaoke songs,the broadcast,the subtitles,one way,he uses all these to define the times in the film,it is a time people’s lives are controlled by media,that is the reason why the relations among humans become distant.The other way,he wants to use them to provoke people,to make them aware what they should accept and what they should not.

Non-professional actors

“For me,the first thing is to have a strong script,you must sort everything out,then the actors can act in a relaxed way,sometimes you even get more from them.You have to create comfortable environment on the set for them,to make them not fear the acting process,you need to build trust with them,you should observe them carefully as human-beings,then they will follow you”That’s what Jia thinks about collaborating with Non-professional actors.


You can find the film on Youtube here.(with English subtitles)





Other Brilliant Movie Posts On The Web

Like Our Facebook Page and Get Daily Updates
  • ” (Bresson) presented a material world in a line drawing style and behind that world you could feel something spiritual.”

    Wow, that is one of the best descriptions of Bresson I’ve ever heard. I had never thought of Jia as being connected to Bresson in any way but this is something I’ll have to keep in mind in the future. I really need to see Xiao Wu so thanks for the write-up.

    The first Jia film I saw was The World and it’s still probably my favorite. I loved his use of long shots and long takes, I loved the commentary on globalism and I loved the animated interludes. Then I saw Platform and felt like I didn’t quite get it. Perhaps it’s too Chinese. Then I saw Unknown Pleasures, which I liked but thought was derivative of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Goodbye South Goodbye. Then I saw Still Life, which I found a little boring and also felt like I didn’t quite get. I need to go back and try and re-introduce myself to Jia. There are a lot of American critics who think extremely high of him. What should I watch?

    • Mike,you should see EVERYTHING he made from Xiaoshan huijia to Still Life,and 24 City.

      The World is a fantastic choice from MOC,because it records the lives of people who left their hometown and went to big cities,which is a film many many Chinese could resonate,also just as you said,its commentary on globalism,which is step further from his early works,because his film becomes to have a world value.

      Platform is the biographical film of his,it is the life he has been through in his days of youth,yeah,you need a little bit Chinese history and culture background to understand it,so do some homework before watching it!!

      Unknown Pleasures is amazing because it captures the lives of Chinese young people,especially those in small towns,they have no dream and no future,it’s some kind of sister film of Xiao Wu.

      Still Life,as you know,won the Golden Lion that year,is the most obscure one in his body of works,because it has Chinese symbols all written on it,the four title cards “Cigarettes.” “Liquor,” “Tea,” and “Candy.”,all have deep meanings,you need to figure out that first.

      God,I need to write an Auteur piece some day,because I think Jia is the only Chinese Mainland director whose films make sense,and he is so little known to Westerners.

  • Pingback: 100 Film Facts About Me | Taste of Cinema()

  • Pingback: Classic Chinese Cinema: The Terrorizers | Taste of Cinema()

  • TheRatiocinator

    Xiao Wu is one of the most boring films I have ever seen. I am cool with art films of almost all types, but not films where nothing happens, where shots are held for 30 seconds that should last 3, and did I mention nothing happens? The ending is great, actually, but good luck hanging on until that point. I guess I missed out somehow on catching “the reciprocity of time and space” as one of the critics you mention above seems to think I ought to have done. Probably I was too busy wondering why on earth I was wasting my life watching this terminally boring film, wondering what I was going to have for dinner, or really thinking about almost anything, since this film was incapable of holding my attention. I would love to sit through the final 45 minutes with one of this director’s acolytes so that he could wow me with his take on how _wonderful_ it is. Maybe in context, in its day, it was somehow innovative, though I have trouble imagining even that. Now, though . . . .