Cannes 2021 Review: Na Jiazuo’s “Streetwise” Takes the Road Less Traveled

“People don’t die that easily,” Jiu’er (Huang Miyi) tells Dongzi (Li Jiuxiao) in “Streetwise (‘Gaey Wa’r’),” having a pretty good idea about how long things last as a tattoo artist. These might be read as words of comfort for the young man who’s going to lose his father Qi Zhi soon enough, yet not quite quickly enough for his taste when he’s been left to care for him after his mother’s death, which Qi Zhi’s abuse was surely in part responsible for and has led him into a profession he’s wholly unsuited for as an enforcer for a debt collector. Whereas Qi Zhi was once feared in town as a gangster, Dongzi is not, more likely to hit a tree with his flying shoe than land a kick and apt to be beaten up by those he’s charged with pursuing rather than the other way around. Yet like Jiu’er and seemingly everyone in the Wuzhen Province that’s seen better days and is now run by low-level hoods, Dongzi sticks around out of a sense of obligation that is otherwise inexplicable, unhappy but content to bide his time until the burden is lifted.

Although his reasoning makes sense in context, the absurdity of the situation isn’t lost on writer/director Na Jiazuo, who approaches “Streetwise” as if “Wild Goose Lake” director Diao Yinan was tasked with helming an Aki Kaurismaki script, turning out a meditative and occasionally wickedly deadpan tale of criminals who are seen running from themselves more than any authorities. Dongzi’s boss Jun would actually object to this label, asserting after the job gone awry that starts the film that he’d never do anything illegal, merely returning people and money to their rightful place, but still it places Dongzi in any number of dicey situations where he’s woefully over his head, thinking nothing of clotting his bloodied nose with a cigarette. However, getting punched is somehow preferable to where he’s at with his father, who is hardly aging gracefully, carrying himself as if he still runs the town, but in the throes of serious illness.

Dongzi takes what comfort he can in the mentorship of the world-weary Xijun and Jiu’er, who once gave him something to look forward to when she ink him on the anniversary of his mother’s death and now offers him a place to stay, but longing after a future he could’ve had yet couldn’t possibly know is rough, so much so that when Four, a former lover of Jiu’er and now the town’s most formidable gangster sees him as someone to take his anger out on, it’s just another drop in the bucket. Mixing the aesthetics of pensive dramas such as low-key lighting with bursts of slapstick humor played out in carefully composed frames, Na’s suggestion of awkwardness as a part of loneliness is a refreshing wrinkle on what could be a more standard issue study of desperation as Dongzi feels like life is passing him by. Given how unexpected disappointment can be, the surprising quirks that keep things interesting seems equally truthful and while “Streetwise” contemplates feelings of isolation, it evolves into an unusual crowdpleaser.

“Streetwise (‘Gaey Wa’r’)” will screen at Cannes as part of the Un Certain Regard section on July 14th at the Debussy Theatre at 8:30 am and the Cineum Aura at 12:30 pm.