Chinese indie cinema classics: The Pickpocket

Indie classic examines China's mad dash to modernity

The debut of Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin at Cannes this May prompted the French evening paper Le Monde to declare, with the severe solemnity obligatory when making proclamations of such momentous pomp, that Jia is ‘without a doubt the greatest Chinese director of all time’. Forgive them the hyperbole; no doubt they have newspapers to sell and children to feed. Nevertheless, it’s as good an excuse as any to revisit Jia’s first film, which arrived unaccompanied by fanfare, but is as wry and resonant a critique of China’s unrepentant modernity – and to the individual marginalised by such – as any of Jia’s subsequent films.

The Pickpocket follows the story of Xiao Wu, the eponymous thief who finds it increasingly difficult to peddle his trade as the Government cracks down on the kind of petty flagrancy that Xiao Wu earns his living by. Set during the first toddling steps of modernity in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, the story finds Xiao Wu increasingly without a place in the rapidly changing town. His closest childhood buddy, now a small-time businessman in cahoots with the Government, refuses to invite Xiao Wu to his wedding on account that it will remind people of his own dubious past, and the karaoke girl Xiao Wu falls quite earnestly in love with turns coat at the first beckoning of a wealthy Shanxi bureaucrat. Xiao Wu, as perverse as it may sound, is the one ‘honest’ man remaining. This sense of perversity is Jia’s very point. In a society that has been systematically corrupted by the abrupt wealth manufactured by accelerated modernity, it is the little person, whose corruption is not sanctioned by the authorities, who suffers most.

The Pickpocket is available at
  • 4 out of 5 stars