Young filmmakers making gangster-adjacent genre films is a time-honored tradition — it’s a mode of moviemaking with a built-in propensity for ready-made conflict, violence, stylized nighttime photography, and maybe even some doomed romanticism. Na Jiazuo’s debut feature Streetwise fits snuggly into this well-worn niche, a Jia Zhangke-inflected bit of social realism with a splash of Lou Ye’s expressionistic flair. While individual parts may hit some overly familiar beats, Na’s sincerity and facility with moody atmosphere make for more than simple pastiche.
After a brief prologue set in 2010, Streetwise flashes further back to 2004; 20-year-old Dong Zi (Li Jiuxiao) lives in Zhenwu, Sichuan Province, and works as an enforcer for low-level loanshark and genial scumbag Xi Jun (Yu Ailei). Despite being ill-suited to such work, he’s desperate to raise money to pay for his father’s (Yao Lu) medical costs. Unfortunately, father is a hateful, abusive man, seemingly disinterested in his son’s financial and emotional struggles. When he’s not out collecting money with Xi, Dong spends most of his nights hanging out with Jiu’er (Huang Miyi), the proprietor of a small tattoo parlor and the ex-wife of local crime boss Mr. Four (Sha Baoliang). Xi Jun answers to Mr. Four, and also happens to be stealing from him, while Mr. Four keeps a watchful eye on Dong and Jiu’er’s chaste but burgeoning relationship.
It’s not a lot of plot; all of this is established early in the proceedings with minimal exposition. Na is clearly much more interested in the downtime these characters spend with each other. There’s a quiet, even somnambulist vibe to much of Streetwise, as people traverse largely empty streets or convene in tight hallways and talk about where they’ve been and where they might be going. Everyone here seems constricted by something, and longing for something else. The film features frequent voiceover narration, read by the director himself, which further lends Streetwise an air of personal remembrance. Eventually, a main narrative crux reveals itself, involving whether or not Jiu’er is going to leave town for bigger and better things, and if so, whether or not Dong might follow her — or if Mr. Four will even allow it. The film ends with a title card that reads “dedicated to all souls in need of comfort,” which gives a pretty clear indication of where the filmmaker’s real concerns lay.
Working with cinematographer Li Jianeng, Na soaks his film in style. It’s very much a case of an artist cramming a lot of ideas into a single project, and if one sometimes wishes that Na could settle on a single visual scheme, he at least handles the various stylistic flourishes with aplomb. An early sequence in which Dong and Xi shake down a man for ransom money is filmed in a single static take, with a wall perfectly bisecting the frame. Xi sits on the left, chatting with the victims, while Dong wrestles with another man on the other side of the frame. It’s a fantastic setup, the stasis of the conversation interrupted by frantic, pummeling movement. Several sequences of Dong on a motorbike indulge in the smeary, blurry DV textures of early Jia, while a couple of scenes set at a karaoke bar allow Na to indulge in some woozy, colorful abstractions. Some bits are less successful, like an extreme closeup of a snail that lasts for what feels like an eternity, or the rather pat culmination of Jiu’er’s storyline. Still, despite such minor ills, Streetwise makes for an invigorating, auspicious debut, the kind of first film that suggests a particularly bright future for its director.
DIRECTOR: Na Jiazuo; CAST: Li Jiuxiao, Huang Miyi, Yu Ailei; DISTRIBUTOR: Dekanalog; IN THEATERS: July 21; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 33 min.