‘Streetwise’ Review: A Bleak Upbringing in a Brutal Town

This consistently impressive and profoundly sad film is Na Jia Zuo’s feature directorial debut, and he made it with more confidence than just a promise. The story is set in 2004 in a town in Sichuan, China, where not much seems to be happening other than crime and tattoos. Oh yeah, the local hospital is pretty busy too.

Li Jiuxiao plays Dong Zhi, a fresh-faced young man who is trying hard to pay off his sick father’s medical bills, i.e., involved in illegal debt collection for the local boss. His friend Ji-woo (Yu Airei), who shuffles around like an aspiring movie star, teaches Dong-ji how to slap people who don’t throw up their money. Attack in a way that you can’t counterattack, such as on your knees. Ji-woo plugs his companion’s nostrils with cigarette butts when Dong-ji gets a nosebleed from Dust-up.

The stern yet kind-hearted tattoo shop manager Jiuer (Hwang Meiyi) is a source of comfort for Dongji, but has a strictly platonic personality. For one thing, she is the boss’ ex-lover. Dongzi’s father is a business man who shows up at gambling halls in his hospital pajamas. After pushing his son down, he would give him enough kicks.

It’s a dark life Jia Zuo portrays it with a steady camera that pauses occasionally to silently capture the astonishing spectacle. A close-up of a pale snail crawling on the greenish-blue railing of a high-rise balcony. Palm plants sway in the orange evening light and seem to die in the gray morning. In Toko’s mind’s eye, Kuri is (probably) calm and beautiful. The perspective here puts this footage on a different dimension than your average coming-of-crime movie.

Unrated. Chinese with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. at the theater.

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