Jai Zhang-ke’s film is based in Fen yang, a small provincial town said to be in the backwaters of Shanxi province. Jai Zhang-ke grew up in this small town. The lead character in the film Xiao Wu is a member of a gang of pickpockets in the area. As the film progresses he appears to become one of the older and more mature members of the gang as many of his colleagues move on to other things. One of his former pickpocket friends, Jin is getting married and chooses not to invite Xiao Wu to his wedding as he does not want to be associated with his former co-criminal friend. Xiao Wu floats around, unhappy about this betrayal, but makes no effort to change his ways as he still continues to go about with his pickpocketing lifestyle. He finds himself a girlfriend, a prostitute called Meimei who appears to be very interested in him but however drops him when she finds someone better. Xiao Wu then visits his poor family but ends up getting into an argument with his parents over their use of his ring which he had previously bought for Meimei as a gift to his brother’s fiancé. He gets kicked out of the family house and he threatens to never come back. At the end of the film he is arrested and the last we see of him is when he is handcuffed to the lamp post in the middle of the street with a condemning crowd observing him judgementally. At the beginning of the film, we have seen that there is an immense clampdown on crime in the area. It, therefore, follows that Xiao wu has a tough time ahead of him.
In the first scene of the film, we see random bystanders waiting for a bus in what seems like a documentary style of shooting. These characters represent the average citizens of China going along with their everyday lives. We then get the same shot, but however, this time it is of Xiao Wu standing at a bus stop waiting for a bus. We notice a factory which is in the background of the shot. During the 1990s the Chinese economy was expanding rapidly as a result of mass privatisations and capitalism and the opening of the country to foreign investments for the first time in modern times. Companies from other countries were rushing to build factories in China to take advantage of low labour and other production costs. As stated earlier at this time capitalism was being introduced to China after a long era of communism. In 1997, a lot of the Chinese population were low paid workers which informed their relative poverty. The film properly depicts the National Identity of China at this stage of the 1990s as shown by the poor lifestyle of the people in the midst of invigorated economic activity.
When Xiao Wu gets on the bus he refuses to pay the bus fare. He lies by insisting that he is a Policeman. At this point in China’s history being a Policeman carried a strong sense of authority and indeed invoked fear. We can see that though the Bus Conductor did not entirely believe Xiao Wu’s story about being a Policeman he would not take the chance of incurring the Policeman’s wrath if indeed Xiao Wu turned out to really be a Policeman. He, therefore, walks away and Xiao Wu gets away with not paying the fare. It is evident therefore that in the 1990s there would have been dire consequences following from offending a Police Officer. The Chinese society is structured on ‘Confucianism’. Confucianism is based on the teachings of the Chinese scholar Confucius who lived from 551BC – 479BC. ‘Confucius developed a system of inter-reliant relationships— a structure in which the lower level gives obedience to the higher (extending from the family level to the national). As a result, Chinese culture tends to give a considerable amount of reverence for authority and age (though not necessarily sincere, especially in a changing modern China).’ A very important element of Chinese National Identity is shown here as exemplified by the fear and awe of authority which had its roots in Confucianism.
In the bus, as Xiao Wu attempts to pickpocket the man that is sitting beside him, the camera switches to a little picture of Mao Zedong which is hanging from the rear-view mirror in front of the bus. This brings us to the fact that China in 1997 was yet adjusting to its new capitalist nature after the end of the Mao era. Mao Zedong in his many years of rule over
China had achieved a god-like stature in the eyes of the Chinese people. He was the supreme leader. Seeing therefore Xiao Wu in this scene stealing in the presence of Mao Zedong appears to be mocking the presence of chairman Mao especially at this time were the era of his rule had come to an end. This is not the only time in which Mao’s politics is mocked in the film. When Xiao Wu goes to visit his friend in his shop, his friend’s daughter is seen playing with a mango. This can be seen as the representation of ‘The Mango Fever’ – On the 4th of August 1968, Mao had been gifted with some mangoes by the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada in what was supposed to be a diplomatic gesture of friendship. Chairman Mao described the mangoes as a “spiritual time bomb”. Not too long after, Mao had had his assistant distribute them to the Mao Zedong Propaganda Teams throughout Beijing, beginning with the one started at Tsinghua University and thereafter an article was published in the People’s Daily. I Quote:
“In the afternoon of the fifth, when the great happy news of Chairman Mao giving mangoes to the Capital Worker and Peasant Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Team reached the Tsinghua University campus, people immediately gathered around the gift given by the Great Leader Chairman Mao. They cried out enthusiastically and sang with wild abandonment. Tears welled up in their eyes, and they again and again sincerely wished that our most beloved Great Leader lived then thousand years without bounds … They all made phone calls to their own work units to spread this happy news; and they also organised all kinds of celebratory activities all night long, and arrived at [the national leadership compound] Zhongnanhai despite the rain to report the good news, and to express their loyalty to the Great Leader Chairman Mao.”
This article shows how the mango became a symbolic fruit in China and the fact that a mango has been tactfully placed in the film also represents how politics in China has been represented in this film. Outside of the two scenes mentioned above depicting the Mao era we also see that throughout the film many people are dressed in Mao jackets. This also further exemplifies the National Identity of China in the 1990s.
When Xiao Wu visits his friend, they have a discussion about the construction that is going on all around the town and how the building in which his friends’ shop is located is going to be torn down. This shows the economic transformation that was occurring in China at that time and its effect on the Chinese landscape as well as the ongoing industrialisation in the various provinces of China. Most of the redevelopments that were going on in various scenes in the film were as a result of the United Kingdom’s return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. At midnight on June 30 to July 1 in 1997 which is the year in which this film was released, the crown colony of Hong Kong was officially returned to China bringing an end to 156 years of British occupation and rule. After an official handover ceremony on the 1st of July, the colony became the Hong Kong special administrative region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China. The information of the return of China was announced over the towns loudspeakers for the town to hear. Xiao wu hears of this when he goes to visit his parents. National identity is once again shown through the events of the transfer of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China.
When looking at how the film represents National Identity in terms of customs and traditions, Xiao Wu’s friend’s wedding is a very good example. This is because it shows us how weddings are traditionally done in China. In preparation for a Chinese wedding the groom is responsible for all the costs of the wedding and this is what we witness when Xiao Wu goes to visit his friend to inquire about why he had not received a wedding invitation. In this scene, we see the staff preparing various Chinese traditional dishes required for the wedding ceremony and all the different drinks and refreshments that will be served to the wedding guests the following day. It is important that we observe that the bride is not present and that the groom is overseeing all the work put into the preparations for the wedding. This film represents the vast explorations of various genres of Chinese traditional music which is played throughout the film – A good example of National Identity.
The film highlights the apparent poverty among the lower classes in China of the 1990s. When Xiao Wu accompanies Meimei to make a long-distance call to her mother, it is revealed that Meimei was sent by her family to school in Beijing but because of the pervasive poverty, she is unable to pay her fees and therefore begins to work as a prostitute in a small Hostess Bar in Fen yang. From this illicit work, she is able to scrape funds together to make a living for herself and to meet the most important needs of her family. However, she lies to her mother saying she is at school. Her drive to make money to feed her family could be the main reason why she was quick to leave Xiao Wu when she meets a more affluent person. Meimei’s family is representative of the excruciating poverty experienced by the lower-class Chinese.
This film further provides a peak into a lower-class Chinese household and allows us to see the way they go about with their daily lives. In the scene were Xiao Wu goes to visit his family the father calls all the children together and asks them to contribute money for the elder son’s wedding. This reminds us that in Chinese marriages the groom’s family bares the entire costs of the wedding. Xiao Wu’s family is poor and struggles to put the funds together. No member of the family is forthcoming in making contributions. This angers his father especially as Xiao Wu is also making a big issue over his mother re-gifting the ring that he gave her to his brother’s bride. This is the ring that was previously Xiao Wu’s gift to Meimei before she jilted him. An argument ensues over Xiao Wu’s lack of ‘Filial piety’. In China, Filial piety mandates that the parents are to be provided for by their children. The pillar of the Chinese family structure is the concept of Filial piety. Filial piety is a central value in traditional Chinese culture. Its importance goes far beyond that of the biblical commandment “Honour thy mother and thy father”. Filial piety was and still is a value based on strict principles of hierarchy, obligation, and obedience. This is a classic example of Chinese National identity as shown in the film.
At the end of the film, Xiao Wu is made to suffer public disgrace as he is handcuffed to a lamppost in the middle of the town because he had finally been caught stealing. This form of justice was very common in China from times past. It must be borne in mind that this largely symbolic punishment of being handcuffed to a lamppost in the middle of the town is only for a short time. This is because Xiao Wu is a notorious criminal and therefore is likely to face a stiffer penalty upon conviction for his crimes. Xiao Wu’s punishment, especially in the handcuffing to the public lamppost, is another example of National Identity being brought into play. Essentially this shows the Chinese criminal justice system.
In conclusion, National Identity of the Chinese is portrayed significantly in several places in the film. National identity is represented in the culture; in their traditions; in the history of the people; in their values; in their politics; in the music; in the justice system; in the economy and in other areas mentioned above.