My current research project as Lecturer in Film Studies at Nanjing University is a study of the cinema of Lou Ye, the Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker whose credits consist of Weekend Lover (1995), Suzhou River (2000), Purple Butterfly (2003), Summer Palace (2006) and Spring Fever (2009). In order to put Lou’s work into context, I have been viewing films by other Sixth Generation directors. The following review will be the second of three pieces (editor’s note: the first and third are here and here, respectively) for VCinema that consider Chinese films of social-political significance from the past fifteen years.
With regards to the cinema of mainland China, the early 2000s was a remarkably productive period for filmmakers that were able to take advantage of new digital technology and overseas funding opportunities, thereby sidestepping the restrictions of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television. Jiang Wen’s Devil on the Doorstep (2000), Jia Zhangke’s Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000), Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle (2001) and Drifters (2003), Li Yu’s Fish and Elephant (2001) and Li Yang’s Blind Shaft (2003) collectively announced the emergence of a new national cinema on the international stage, although the manner in which domestic distribution is effectively controlled by the government meant that most of these films were not commercially shown in their country of origin. Although these directors are often referred to as being representative of the ‘Sixth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers, some were more industrially established than others, meaning that they were as affiliated with the state-run studio system as they were with the politicised underground; Jian had been acting for almost a decade before making his directorial debut with In the Heat of the Sun (1994), while Wang had already made the transition from such independent productions as The Days (1993) and Frozen (1997) to the studio projects So Close to Paradise (1998) and The House (1999). It should also be noted that some of the directors who made their first features in the early part of the 2000s had also gained experience in the industry before ‘going underground’. Diao Yinan had written the screenplays for the Zhang Yang comedies Spicy Love Soup (1997) and Shower (1999), but his directorial debut Uniform is a more serious, if equally episodic, affair. Shot digitally in the director’s home province of Shaanxi, it was inspired by an incident in which a man pretending to be a police officer attempted to extort money by ‘apprehending’ Diao’s younger brother on a public bus and then soliciting a bribe from his relatives in exchange for his ‘release’.
Wang Xiaojian (Liang Hongli) is a fundamentally decent but not particularly hard-working young man living with his family in Shaanxi province, an industrial area that offers few career opportunities that are worth aspiring to. Most of Xiaojian’s days are spent working in the family’s shop which provides tailoring and laundry services to the local community, although they are often short-changed by their regular customers. Xiaojian’s father works at the town textile factory, but has fallen ill and may not be entitled to medical benefits now that ownership of the factory has changed hands, leaving the family with heavy hospital bills to take care of alongside daily living costs. Events take an unusual turn when a policeman hands in his work shirt to be ironed, but does not come to collect it; Xiaojian tries to return the shirt, but is informed that the officer has been injured and will not be back on the job for several weeks. On the way home, Xiaojian is caught in a heavy downpour, and swaps his soaked-through top for the shirt of his customer, leading him to be understandably mistaken for a policeman by Zheng Shasha (Zeng Xueqiong), a pretty young woman who works at a CD store. Xiaojian’s self-confidence gradually grows while wearing the policeman’s shirt, and he steals another officer’s hat and trousers in order to complete the uniform; it is then possible for him to pose as a traffic cop, shaking down drivers to raise the money necessary to cover his father’s medical expenses and embarking on a tentative relationship with Shasha. However, the occasionally evasive behaviour of his new girlfriend makes Xiaojian suspect that she is also seeing another man, and the tailor soon realises that he is not the only one who is living a double life.
Uniform has all the hallmarks of a writing exercise with Diao taking his younger brother’s unfortunate experience as a jumping-off point, then trying to flesh out the background of the man who tried to trick his relatives into handing over money, ruminating on both the reasons for attempting to carry out such a scam and how the man might have been able to obtain the necessary clothing to pass as a police officer. The relatively simple set-ups that Diao favours throughout Uniform may further the impression that this is the work of a screenwriter making the transition into directing, rather than that of a ‘natural’ filmmaker, but they also reveal a quiet confidence behind the camera. One scene in particular finds the director engaging a range of emotions within one long take: Shasha sits in the CD shop, clearly bored with her daily routine, but livens up when Xiaojian struts in wearing his uniform to ask her out on a date. Insisting that he is ‘busy with work’, Xiaojian exits and the audience can see his satisfaction with the arranged date, while also observing Shasha as she starts applying make-up in anticipation of her night out. Xiaojian walks out of the frame and Shasha starts to organise some CDS when a real police officer enters accompanied by a watermelon salesman who has recently been the victim of Xiaojian’s scam. She is asked if she knows anything about a ‘suspicious traffic cop’ and informed that there are no traffic posts in that area. The men leave and Shasha’s mood suddenly swings from romantic optimism to emotional confusion and perhaps also concern for personal safety. Such set-ups are entirely appropriate for a film about ordinary people whose unremarkable existences take unexpected turns due to seemingly innocuous decisions, but also have to deal with deep disappointment when reality infringes on the fantasy.
Diao is more interested in the change that occurs in Xiaojian’s personality when he decides to regularly don the police uniform than in the consequences of the character’s actions; Xiaojian is nearly caught on a couple of occasions, but manages to escape, while his deception is mostly presented as a means-to-and-end. Money is accumulated to pay hospital bill, although such treatment is becoming so expensive that extorting motorists for a few weeks still only covers a fifth of the costs. Xiaojian becomes assertive while wearing the uniform, not only finding the confidence to ask Shasha out on a date, but also summoning the physical strength necessary to dish out a beating as opposed to taking one. Yet there is still a lot of social commentary within this character study; in attempting to beat the system, Xiaojian merely becomes part of it as the drivers that he shakes down are as cash-strapped as he is. Diao presents a China where everyone is working an angle, from the medical workers who expect extra money just for carrying out basic duties to the real police officers who will happily harass an innocent bystander until he points the finger at a suitable suspect. Xiaojian’s impersonation of an officer of a law fits in with an unofficial economic system that is based almost entirely on taking advantage of the circumstances of others as a means of lining the wallet rather than serving the state. These abuses are handled by Diao in a low-key manner, reflecting the everyday reality in which they occur, making a series of observations about the knock-on effect of injustice rather than delivering one sweeping social statement.
Some of Diao’s production team previously worked on Jia’s Unknown Pleasures and, while the tone of Uniform is not as pessimistic, the province of Shaanxi is shot in a similarly flat, non-specific manner that suggests such opportunistic behaviour is not limited to this particular region. As in Unknown Pleasures, the central character in Uniform exists as a reluctant tour guide of a nation in transition, and the initial naivety of Xiaojian gives way to an understanding of his social-economic position; when he learns that his girlfriend is supplementing her income from the CD shop by working as an escort, he is initially angry at her deception, something of a double-standard considering that his identity is entirely fake. However, he ultimately accepts that she also needs to make money and continues to see her. Although little harm comes to Xiaojian or Shasha over the course of the film, Diao does seem to be questioning if his young lovers can survive in the China of the new millennium, either individually or as a couple. Both are willing to take chances in order to pay the bills and are capable of deceiving those around them, but they are also dangerously attached to fantasy; Shasha learns that Xiaojian is not really a policeman, but never confronts him with this knowledge, while Xiaojian finds out that Shasha is also an escort yet also keeps his discovery to himself, suggesting that they like the respective fantasies of powerful policeman and innocent shop girl too much to shatter the mutual illusion. However, their dual lives often drive them apart as Xiaojian is forced to flee while on a date with Shasha when two policemen try to arrest him for impersonating an officer, while Shasha has to cut her time in Xiaojian’s company short in order to see clients. Uniform is a fascinating study of a young man trying to achieve financial stability while elevating his sense of self-worth in the process, but also serves as a link between the films of the figureheads of the ‘Sixth Generation’ and the early efforts of those who would follow in their footsteps.