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‘Streetwise’ (review)

Streetwise is another entry in the recent wave of neo-noir coming from Mainland China that includes some great films like A Touch of Sin and The Wild Goose Lake. The film was finished in 2021, but is getting a 2023 North American release, presumably because like so many of its contemporaries it was censored for domestic Chinese release but took its time going through the protocol for international exhibition.

Streetwise is not the visual feast the other two features I mentioned are, but it is competent in terms of direction and first-time filmmaker Na Jiazuo definitely has the mark of the Beijing Film Academy on him, whether he actually studied there or not. There are visual metaphors aplenty, and some shots that speak to the care in crafting images and telling stories non-verbally that has marked that school’s tradition since the “Fifth Generation” films of the 80’s. It is not visually arresting in the sorts of ways that contemporary Asian films noticed on a world stage these days are, but the care and craft is there for all to see and its blunt literary realism reinforces its narrative subject of emotional misfits operating on the edges of the Triads well.

I mentioned that this was a neo-noir but before you get too excited, this is as far from Hong Kong neo-noir as is stylistically possible.

It is dry, almost deadpan, and it moves at a pace that is not concerned with commercial attention spans. It has none of the flash or glamor that Cantonese gangster films have had since 1981’s Hong Kong Godfather, rather it portrays its subjects, young leg breakers for a local loan shark, as unable to function in human society in an unflinching terms. They cannot fulfill the emotional duties of sons, or lovers, or citizens, or even competent criminals and so the emotional damage they wreak is intercut with sequences, almost vignettes, of them hilariously failing at the basics of being criminals.

What makes Streetwise worthy of your time and what I’m interested to see responded to in other reviews is how all of this builds to one of the most powerfully destructive conclusions I’ve seen in a motion picture in some time, and how after an hour and a half of not much to care about in these characters, our indifference is ripped away and we’re forced to consider them in the tragic sense, as people the world has failed, but also in the cosmic and almost metaphysical sense as people unknowingly living to pass the time until they die.

It’s like seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and coming away with the kind of emotional catharsis you’d get at the end of the play from which it is derived.

I had never seen star Li Jiuxiao before this film, a cursory examination of his IMDB reveals that he’s both a teen idol type and a regular player for Guan Hu, the filmmaker behind several very successful Chinese war pictures and Na Jiazuo’s mentor. I really commend him here for dirtying himself up and playing a character who is in no way conventionally likable. That’s a risk that many Hollywood actors do not take early in their careers, much less Asian stars, whose home audiences are much less forgiving of actors playing “against type.”

I think the best way I can sell you, the reader who enjoys films but may not be familiar with this style of film, on giving Streetwise a go is to compare it to the film that kept popping up in my head as I watched this one: Park Chan-wook’s amazing 2002 picture Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

This film, like that one, takes on a detached, dry style even as what the characters are doing is very funny, and both films also play with familiar genre setups and archetypes but take them in radically new but logical directions.

Most importantly, both films construct their meaning in the interplay between the cosmic and the comic, the low and the high and dare to ask if the casual violence of a few idiots has something to say meaningfully about the human condition .

Highly recommended, as long as you can deal with the slow movement of the first hour.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Wang Donghui
Written and Directed by Na Jiazuo
Starring Jiuxiao Li, Miyi Huang, Ailei Yu, Baoliang Sha



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