Cannes 2021 review: Streetwise (Na Jiazuo)

Dongzi works as a (rather shabby) debt collector in the city of Zhenwu, in order to pay his father’s medical bills and to help his friend (not really his girlfriend – but the former girlfriend of a mob boss, which is kind of an issue when you are yourself part of the underworld). This life is as complicated to live for him, as it is for us to comprehend in a plot summary. However, for us it also creates an appealing kaleidoscope of people, and through them of places and ways of life, to discover and explore; while for Dongzi, it only multiplies the number of sources of trouble.

The visual and human description of the life of the city’s off-the-radar population (petty thieves, forsaken underdogs and so on) is the one true point of interest of Streetwise (Gaey Wa’r), Na Jiazuo’s first feature, which is shown in the Un Certain Regard sidebar selection. Wandering through the streets of Zhenwu, finding new locations and faces, and catching them on screen in a style which is part documentary, part dreamlike, is clearly something that Na Jiazuo both likes and knows how to do. Dongzi is the first in a thread of individuals who, as soon as they become part of the story, bring their own background and part of the world for the film to delve into.

At first, this is a good thing for Streetwise, which becomes with each new addition more diverse and intriguing, like a citywide exploration where we never know what awaits us after the next turn: a hospital, a tattoo parlor, a police station. Nevertheless, things go the wrong way when it tries to tell a compelling story, explore these various characters, or fine-tune the tone. The ensemble movie aspect of Streetwise remains embryonic and never fully grows to an accomplished state – the short duration (one hour and a half) of the movie obviously plays a part in that. Too concise to do otherwise, the movie stays on the surface of the dramas and storylines, and constantly flickers between tension, melodrama, and off-balance comedy.

There appears to be still a lot of work to do for Na Jiazuo to achieve a fully fleshed film out of his story ideas and visual inspirations. As it is, only a handful of scenes are truly convincing: here a comical fight in which the debtors beat the debt collectors, there an unexpected car crash finally tying together the characters’ fates and justifying their presence in the script. Still, we spend the majority of the movie not as invested in it as we would like to be, always thinking that all of this has been made in the past in a more powerful way, and already knowing that the film will too rapidly fade from our memory after it ends.