Pickpocket (1998)

As China urbanises, a man stagnates in this masterful and revelatory feature debut by Jia Zhangke, shot in 16mm and featuring non-professional actors. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #2,107

Dir. Jia Zhangke
1998 | China | Drama | 113 mins | 1.37:1 | Mandarin
M18 (passed clean) for nudity

Cast: Wang Hongwei, Hao Hongjian, Zuo Baitao
Plot: A small town pickpocket whose friends have moved on to higher trades finds himself bitter and unable to adapt.
Awards: Won Netpac Award (Berlinale); Won New Currents Award (Busan)
Source: MK2

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Society

Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

I’ve been wanting to see Jia Zhangke’s first full-length feature for some time, so I was happily surprised when it dropped on MUBI, in a recently restored version no less.  What a masterful and revelatory feature debut Pickpocket is. 

It is a must-watch for fans of the director, and for those who have not heard or seen any of Jia’s films, Pickpocket is a good starting point to get acquainted with the leading Mainland Chinese director of his generation. 

Featuring non-professional actors who are remarkably natural in their roles, one might mistake Jia’s film to be a documentary.  But as many of his future films would attest such as Still Life (2006) and 24 City (2008), Jia is a master of the docufiction form. 

Pickpocket was also shot in 16mm, which gives it that raw neorealist feel crucial for portraying the social and physical environment surrounding its subjects. 

Jia’s work is not difficult to grasp—as China urbanises, a man stagnates—and the way that he renders the story authentically (and also cinematically) is quite stunning to behold: a pickpocket, Xiao Wu, is left behind as the town he lives in begins its early transformation; at the same time, his friends have chosen the path of honest living, setting up personal enterprises. 

A sequence that truly impressed me was how he explicitly ‘borrowed’ the opening soundtrack (with dialogue and Sally Yeh’s iconic song intact) from John Woo’s The Killer (1989) as a non-diegetic sound overlay to his scenes. 

One thing I realised about Jia is that he loves to use classic Mandarin or Cantonese songs in his films, and in Pickpocket, we get, amongst others, ‘Heart Rain’ from Timi Zhuo as a recurring motif that accompanies a burgeoning romance between Xiao Wu and a bar hostess. 

Grade: A


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