China (PRC), 1995
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival
Ning Ying's On The Beat is a pointedly funny "policier", but not of the usual kind. She uses real policemen on location as actors to show what life as a cop in 1994 Beijing is really like. And on first glance, it looks routine, sometimes silly, and not all that exciting. Her choice of actors and method suggests a sort of post-neo-realism, somewhere along the lines of Zhang Yimou's The Story of Qiu Ju (and Ms. Ning has even inserted a little tribute to Zhang's movie in her own). And her compassion and respect for her cop/actors comes across quite clearly. In her comments after the screening in Toronto, she cited the Chinese film censor, who told her no one would go see her movie, since it just showed a true picture of boring daily life. Well, not exactly.
First of all, the film is extremely funny. There is a madcap Keystone Cops-like scene of a fleet of furiously pedalling Public Security Bureau officers, chasing down a possibly rabid dog after letting it slip through an unattended gate (if you're looking for an action sequence, this is it). Police interrogations of the malefactors actually apprehended during the movie (a drunk, a man selling pictures of women in bathing suits, a possible stalker, a card hustler, and a dog owner who cursed a policeman) can turn frequently hilarious as the suspects toy with or exasperate their earnest, plodding, by-the-book interrogators.
The protagonist of the piece, Yang Guoli (played by a cop of the same name) teaches us all about the boredom and fecklessness of contemporary urban PSB police work as he shows recruit Wang Liangui the ropes -- an education that gives the film its narrative shape.
But the film has other things to teach us, more quietly. Ning Ying is obsessed with what she has elsewhere called the "Coca-Colaizaition" of China: the irresistable onslaught of commercialization, cheap Westernization, and the threat this poses to traditional culture (see her earlier feature For Fun). Here, she builds images of a traditional city under siege: a gate from the old city wall, marooned in a sea of traffic; a parade of steamrollers, behemoths of progress rolling down a narrow alley to some construction site, scattering cyclists in their path. Her most affecting scene is a lingering overhead shot of a beautiful traditional hutong neighbourhood: but, as the camera pans up, the screen slowly fills with a sea of the characterless, massive new apartment buildings that are colonizing Beijing.
The sound world of On the Beat, too, reflects the new culture: the film's soundtrack is largely the background noise of TV (constantly on in the police station), usually a barely audible American cop show (Hunter, in fact, with big guns a-blazing), offering its counterpoint to the scenes we're watching.
This film also might make us wonder why these cops have so little of importance to do. And an uncomfortably funny scene near the beginning offers an answer. Policeman Yang has taken Wang to meet the neighbourhood committee of his new beat. There, the "Seven Swans" (seven grannies on the committee) proudly, gleefully show off their amazingly detailed contraception files on the women of the neighbourhood, and brag about their ability to get a neighbour to abort an inappropriate pregnancy. Big laughs for these redoubtable grannies from the audience, but unease,too, underneath. When the people police themselves so expertly, what else is left for the People's Police to do? Police themselves, perhaps, as we see in the final scene. Or else catch dogs.
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all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer