Pickpocket/Artisan Pickpocket

English Title: Pickpocket/Artisan Pickpocket

Country of Origin: China

Studio: Radiant Advertising, Hu Tong Communication

Director: Jia Zhangke

Producer(s): Li Kit Ming, Jia Zhangke

Screenplay: Jia Zhangke

Cinematographer: Yu Lik Wai

Art Director: Liang Jing Dong

Editor: Lin Xiao Ling

Runtime: 110 minutes

Genre: Drama

Year: 1997

Volume: Chinese


Xiao Wu is a small-time pickpocket in Fenyang, a semi-urban city in Shanxi province. His former partner in crime, Jin Xiaoyong, has gone into business and become a respected citizen, while Xiao persists in his thieving ways, displaying a mixture of arrogance and apathy that suggests he is impervious to hard knocks. When he learns that Jin is about to be married, though, he feels so hurt about not getting a wedding invitation that he confronts his old friend and pleads for one – which Jin refuses to give him, fearing that Xiao’s presence would remind the other guests of his own criminal past. Xiao compensates for this rejection by seeing more of Mei Mei, a waitress and prostitute who grows fond of him after he visits her at home when she is bedridden with a cold. She helps him rise above his shy and nervous temperament, but he withdraws again when she abruptly leaves town with another man. Visiting his family for consolation, Xiao is sadly disappointed by his mother, embarrassed by his successful brother, and finally driven from the house by his indignant father. In the final scene he is arrested for petty theft and handcuffed in a public square for all to see.


Jia Zhangke is an ethnographer as well as a storyteller. He makes both fiction and documentary films, and often blurs the boundaries between these categories, as in his 2008 docudrama 24 City, about people challenged by socio-economic change in Sichuan province. His first feature, Xiao Wu, gives a vivid indication of the path his career would travel: although it has a linear dramatic narrative, it was shot on video in a quick three weeks, with no screenplay and a non-professional cast. The result is at once an engrossing tale and a persuasive account of the lives led by restless youths in Jia’s home city of Fenyang, a place he knows in intimate detail. 

Jia has little use for the labels attached by critics to periods in modern Chinese film, but like other directors of the so-called Sixth Generation that emerged in the 1990s (including Lou Ye and Zhang Yuan) he favours modest production techniques – handheld camerawork, lengthy takes, unpolished acting and sound recording – that bring a sense of in-the-moment spontaneity to explorations of pointedly contemporary themes, such as the displacement of traditional Chinese culture by the utilitarian values of global capitalism. Among the symbols of this transformation in Xiao Wu are a couple of gizmos that represent consumerism at its least trustworthy: a stolen cigarette lighter that emits an utterly un-Chinese tune (by Beethoven) when activated, and a beeper that Xiao buys to keep in touch with Mei Mei, only to get arrested when it unexpectedly blares a weather report while he is picking a pocket.

Touches of this kind offer a grimly amusing commentary on the stupid side of capitalism. Jia’s criticism of modern materialism also resonates in references to gold throughout the film. Acquiring a packet of cash in an early scene, Xiao idly weighs it on a scale as if it were precious metal instead of a state-controlled paper substitute; later he buys a ring for Mei Mei and takes pride in knowing it is not copper but real gold; and his family visit goes into crisis when he learns that his mother has not treasured a gold ring he bought for her, but has given it to his brother’s fiancée, thinking it is only gold-plated anyway. While these metaphorical series might seem forced or didactic in the hands of a less able director, Jia makes them integral to the narrative, allowing their thematic implications to surface as organically as any other aspect of the film.  

Jia has acknowledged the influence of Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Robert Bresson’s metaphysical thriller Pickpocket (1959) on his work, and while he says he did not consciously think of these films while preparing Xiao Wu, the gritty naturalism of the former and the fatalistic structure (and masterly montage) of the latter are clearly among his reference points. Few film-makers have surpassed Jia’s ability to connect characters with their environments in loosely framed shots that might almost have been captured by a casual onlooker with a camera, and the unhappy outcome of Xiao’s criminal exploits is foreshadowed, mirrored, and confirmed by the steadily declining fortunes of Fenyang itself. Its character-centered intimacy notwithstanding, Xiao Wu is very much a story of today’s China generally, from the camera’s early glimpse of Mao Zedong’s portrait in a city bus to its final view of Xiao’s public humiliation for failing to obey the rules of the new autocracy called global capitalism – a system no less unprincipled than his poorly chosen trade, but infinitely more powerful and insidious.

Author of this review: David Sterritt