Yinan Diao’s UNIFORM [5/10]

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

Uniform

The idea of a sad-sack loser acquiring a new confidence by impersonating a cop isn’t a new one – the most notable recent cinematic example is David Wellington’s Canadian feature I Love A Man in Uniform which garnered widespread theatrical distribution in 1993. Now young Chinese writer-director Diao takes the material down somewhat different avenues with his first feature, shot (by Dong Jinsong) on cheap-looking DigiBeta video.

Wang Xiaojian (Liang Hongli) is an unremarkable single man in his early twenties, a resident of Shaanxi province’s major city (and former Chinese capital) Xi’an. Having recently been laid off following the closure of the local enamel factory, he helps out his mother with her small laundry business – dad is a bed-ridden, near-catatonic oldster. Wang’s fortunes start to take an unexpected turn for the better when a cop drops off his uniform shirt for ironing. When the cop fails to pick it up the next day, Wang takes it to his apartment only to be told by a neighbour that the policeman has been injured in a traffic accident. Walking home, Wang’s clothes are drenched in a sudden rainstorm. He impulsively changes into the police shirt – and soon finds that his new guise has its advantages, not least in his wooing of shop-assistant Zheng Shasha (Zeng Shuoquing). But Wang isn’t the only one harbouring a secret identity…

The English-language subtitling for Uniform was done by Tony Rayns, the Anglophone world’s leading authority on far-eastern cinema. His work is as solid as his reputation would suggest – but there’s one amusing Freudian slip when Wang extorts some cash out of a trucker transporting a consignment of melons. Having pocketed an on-the-spot fine, Wang asks the driver to “give me a lift.” Except what appears on-screen is “give me a life,” and ‘getting a life’ is of course exactly what happens to our inexpressive ‘hero’ when he accidentally stumbles into his new identity as stern authority-figure.

Chinese cops, we soon learn, inspire rather more in the way of fear and awe than their Canadian counterparts in I Love a Man in Uniform: it’s the norm for officers to get those they’ve apprehended to “kneel” before them (though the action itself is in fact closer to squatting). And of course, as China is a famously repressive police-state, the whole cop-impersonating idea takes on levels of political resonance which Wellington’s film eschewed in favour of psychological explorations (Diao is closer to Argentinian entry El Bonaerense, which took the concept further by in effect having a cop impersonating a cop).

The idea of an illicit, underground production (and this is clearly not the kind of opulent, patriotic picture to find favour with the current administration) being made under the noses of the very cops it depicts is clearly an appealing one, and Diao’s use of his hometown Xi’an settings are emphatically Uniform‘s strongest suit. Dong’s visuals are suitably rough-and-ready, but it’s the sound design – credited to Zhang Yang – which really stands out, making evocative use of a wide range of “found” background noise such as machinery, traffic and trains, including one especially striking sequence set to the accompaniment of a level crossing’s steady warning-beep. This all provides a convincingly raw, you-are-there backdrop to what is, unfortunately, a decidedly underpowered and somewhat soporific “plot,” which builds to a predictably ironic – if nicely handled – climax as justice finally catches up with the opportunistic Wang (who identifies himself to real officers as a member of the “Beilin Squad” – perhaps “Blazin’ Squad” might have been a better option).

By this stage many viewers may have tired of the feckless Wang, who reveals increasingly unpleasant sides to his character as he settles into his “cop” role – he ends up wearing a full police uniform, though the circumstances by which he obtains this get-up are frustratingly opaque. This ellipsis is one of numerous instances where Diao strains for ‘arty’ effects – the score is sparing but haphazardly interjected (incongruous single drum-cracks abound) and the director certainly isn’t afraid of slowing down the ‘action’ to the point where low-key lo-fi ends up being no-key no-fi, as if torpor itself were some guarantee of film-making seriousness: it’s notable that the most effective scene, in which Zheng is roughly handled by a pair of thugs, is both the most kinetic in the picture and also one of the few where Wang isn’t around. The presence of eminent Chinese movie names Jia Zhang-Ke and Yu Lik-Wai – credited as “artistic advisors” is another example of the way Diao cloaks himself in garb befitting a ‘proper’ arthouse director – but as Uniform itself reminds us, this doesn’t mean we necessarily have to squat down in meek submission.

Neil Young
1st November, 2004
[seen 28th October 2004 : ICA London : public show – London Film Festival]

UNIFORM
5/10
Zhifu : China / Hong Kong 2003 : DIAO Yinan : 94 mins