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

In Na Jiazuo’s striking directorial debut, young people inhabit a place seemingly made up of those who owe money and the thugs who try to beat it out of them.

By Glenn Kenny

This consistently striking and deeply sad picture is the directorial feature debut of Na Jiazuo, who executes it with an assurance that makes him more than merely promising. The story is set in 2004, in a town within China’s Sichuan Province where not much is going on, it seems, besides criminality and tattooing. Oh, yes, the local hospital is pretty busy, too.

Li Jiuxiao plays Dongzi, a fresh-faced young man who’s busting his hump trying to pay off his ailing father’s medical bills — that is, engaging in illegal debt collection for a local boss. His buddy Jiu (Yu Ailei), who limps around with a wannabe movie star swagger, instructs Dongzi on how to slap around those who won’t cough up money: Don’t hit them in the face; strike in a way that won’t let them strike back, like on the knee. When Dongzi gets a bloody nose in a dust-up, Jiu plugs up his pal’s nostril with a cigarette butt.

The tough but tender tattoo-shop manager Jiu’er (Huang Miyi) is a source of solace for Dongzi, but strictly platonic — she’s the boss’s ex, for one thing. Dongzi’s father is a piece of work who storms into gambling dens while he’s still in hospital pajamas. After knocking his son down, he’ll kick him for good measure.

It’s a bleak life. Jiazuo depicts it with a steady camera that sometimes breaks from the action to show quietly startling sights: a close-up of a pale snail crawling on a greenish-blue railing of high-rise balcony; a palm plant swaying in the orange evening light, then looking ready to wilt in the gray morning; Jiu’er as seen in Dongzi’s mind’s eye (we presume), placid and beautiful. The perspectives here put this picture in a different dimension from the average coming-of-age-in-crime movie.

Not rated. In Mandarin, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.


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