Writer/director Na Jiazuo arranges objects—and people, and places, and vehicles—with a keen eye for visual compositions, even when the people on-screen are only shuffling down alleyways and shooing away bored sex workers (“Want some fun?” “Have your own fun!”). Na also often cuts mercilessly from one scene to the next, leaving viewers to adjust their points of view as his drama frequently shifts its focus without ever really progressing. A sudden, anticlimactic ending feels simultaneously like too much and too little, which also seems weirdly fitting. “Streetwise” evaporates with its characters, who can’t picture the world beyond their riverside home.
“Streetwise” is not a slow movie, but it does move unhurriedly, and so do its doomed protagonists. They circle around and bump into each other but never really try to escape. What if you were simultaneously too comfortable and hemmed in by the people and the relationships that are obviously holding you back?
Dong Zi tends to be the focus of Na’s movie, but his problems are only symptomatic of his seedy, enchanting, isolated environment. Because Dong Zi’s father is the same kind of hustler as Xu Jun, albeit more slovenly and less motivated, and Xu Jun’s cut from the same cloth as Four, his abusive, faux-benevolent former pupil. So it stands to reason that Dong Zi can’t leave Jiu’er alone. She’s also stuck in place, but can’t bring herself to flee or take up more space. Dong Zi and Jiu’er aren’t happy together, but they do recognize themselves in each other.
Time moves deliberately, and its passage is eulogized through Na’s precise framing and hard cuts, the combination of which can sometimes feel jarring, like getting repeatedly splashed with ice water on a clammy day. Ambient noise on the soundtrack also reminds viewers of how lived-in and genuine this beautiful, melancholic hangout movie often feels.
“Streetwise” is one of a handful of recent mainland Chinese neo-noirs, a micro-trend that includes such recent standouts as the sweaty animated 2017 heist comedy “Have a Nice Day” and the neon-drenched 2019 crime drama “The Wild Goose Lake.” Na’s movie does not, however, feel like more of the same, despite some shared generic points of contact. Rather, “Streetwise” reflects its characters’ peculiar acceptance of lives that even they don’t believe they’ve chosen for themselves.