Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Aug 04, 2023 4:47 pm 
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LI JIUXIAO AND HUANG MIYI IN STREETWISE

TRAILER

Romanticism of local toughs in a fading Chinese town

This debut feature, a rare one from China to get an in at Cannes, as part of Un Certain Regard and a candidate for the Caméra d'Or, has wonderful loose atmosphere and some of it has family resemblances to Wong Kar-wai with a touch of Jia Zhangke. It creates a little network of plot-lines, but the raw material may not count so much as the atmosphere. There are frequent contemplative voiceovers (a Wong trademark), mostly from the young protagonist, also from others, and sometimes at odd times, like in the middle of a fight scene. Na escapes censorship and adds developing-China nostalgia by setting the action 17 years ago so it's not representing as presently happening such things as violent debt-collecting that are now illegal. But Na is also taking a nostalgic look, ("neon colored" and "rain-soaked," as Justin Chang says in his Screen Anarchy review) at ghost towns produced by the early millennium's rampant development phase. This is Zhenwu, in Sichuan province. If these guys are sort of losers, the town is sort of a loser too. This is a kind of homage to those who stayed behind (an early Jia Zhangke theme), as Na said to Patrick Frazer in an interview for Variety. Decay is beautiful, so is the light from a deserted city square shining in the backs of a young couple. So are green walls and green light and disintegrating neon, shot by cinematographer Li Jianeng. Here's the stuff that's going on:

Twenty-year-old "pretty boy" Dongzi (the go-for-broke Li Jiuxiao) provides the muscle for debt collector Xu Jun (Yu Ailei). The latter limps; somebody sliced his hamstring once. Jun tells Dongzi how to rough debtors up: don't go for the face, they could answer back. Catch them off guard, go for the knee. The action is set in this fading riverside town in Sichuan Province around 2004. The kid is trying to raise money to pay for treatments for his bullish, alcohol-damaged father (Yao Lu), who struts in PJ's and leather jacket: he was a former boss, and his son sort of hates his dominance, but still owes him loyalty. Dongzi is hanging with the beautiful but tough Jiu’er (the soulful Huang Miyi) who runs a so-so tattoo parlor. He's getting her to do tattoos; the notable one says "Dunno." (Subtitles are good, and slightly British, with flavorful words like "lads" and "sod off"). He's started "sleeping" with her, that is, in the same room. But it's strictly platonic, doubtless because her ex-husband Mr. Four (Sha Baoliang) is his boss's boss and still madly possessive about her. Unwisely, Xu Jun has been skimming money off the collections.

John Berra's Screen Daily review points out, as does Glenn Kenny's, that this film has a "Mile-wide melancholy streak" and also owes a debut to the producer, Guan Hu, sharing "the slow-burn feel" of Guan's "elegiac underworld drama" Mr. Six (2015) though told from the viewpoint of a "scrappy youth" rather than a "veteran mobster."

Despite nice surprises in scene changes, it seemed to me the initially appealing looseness palled a bit and one longed for more focus and more forceful plot developments over time in Streetwise. But its beauty and its atmosphere never flagged. And there is more that's special about it. There are several unique extreme closeups. Glenn Kenny points to one of "a pale snail crawling on a greenish-blue railing of high-rise balcony" and a shot of "a palm plant swaying in the orange evening light, then looking ready to wilt in the gray morning. As Kenny says, various "perspectives" "put this picture in a different dimension from the average coming-of-age-in-crime movie." There are lots of fights, lots of kicking around, lots of violence here too. But this is more than a calling card and one can see why Na Jiazuo got into Cannes. He'll be back.

Streetwise 街娃儿 (Gaey wa'r), 96 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2021. Screened for its US theatrical release Friday, July 21, 2023 at New York's Metrograph via Dekanalog Releasing and opens in Los Angeles Aug. 11, 2023.

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