Monday, May 20, 2024

Streetwise (2023) movie review and synopsis.

Writer/director Na Jiazuo arranges objects—and people, and places, and vehicles—with a keen eye for visual composition, even when the people on screen are just moving through alleys and shooing away bored sex workers (“Want some fun?” “Enjoy!”). Na also often moves mercilessly from scene to scene, leaving viewers to adjust their perspectives as his drama often shifts its focus without ever progressing. An abrupt, anticlimactic ending feels simultaneously like too much and too little, which also seems strangely appropriate. “Streetwise” steams with its characters, who can’t imagine the world beyond their riverside home.

“Streetwise” is not a slow film, but it moves unhurriedly, and so do its doomed protagonists. They surround and collide with each other, but never try to escape. What if you were both too comfortable and surrounded by people and relationships that are obviously holding you back?

Dong Zi tends to be the focus of Na’s film, but his problems are only symptoms of his grimy, glamorous and isolated surroundings. Because Dong Zi’s father is the same kind of weirdo as Xu Jun, albeit more jaded and less motivated, and Xu Jun is cut from the same cloth as Four, his abusive and fakely benevolent former student. So it stands to reason that Dong Zi can’t leave Jiu’er alone. She is also stuck in place, but cannot force herself to escape or take up more space. Dong Zi and Jiu’er are not happy together, but they recognize themselves in each other.

Time moves purposefully and its passage is glorified through Na’s precise framing and strong cuts, the combination of which can sometimes feel boring, like being constantly splashed with ice water on a wet day. The ambient noise on the soundtrack also reminds viewers of how alive and real this beautiful, melancholic film often feels.

Streetwise is one of a handful of recent Chinese neo-noirs on the mainland, a micro-trend that includes recent standouts like the 2017 animated heist comedy Have a Nice Day and the neon-drenched 2019 crime drama Wild Goose Lake. However, Na’s film no longer looks the same, despite some common points of contact. Rather, Streetwise reflects its characters’ singular acceptance of lives that even they don’t believe they chose for themselves.

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