The social and economic changes that China is currently undergoing is a boon for young Chinese filmmakers who, through the use of DV technology and a relaxation of censorship restrictions, are now able to make films that speak about impact of such widespread reform. Ironically then, the same freedoms that allow new directors to make their films are also the very same things that come in for criticism in their work. While people are no doubt getting rich as a consequence of the social and economic changes, the films of Jia Zhang-ke (Platform), Ning Hao (Mongolian Ping Pong) and here in Uniform (Zhi Fu), the directing debut of young Chinese screenwriter Diao Yinan, show that those in poorer and more remote regions are struggling to adapt.
The effects of the economic upheaval that China is undergoing is felt in the Enamel Factory in the town of Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province, which has been closed down to make way for a Textile Company. His father now out of work due to an illness which has seen him slip through the net in the transfer and re-skilling of workers, a young tailor Xiao Jian is finding it difficult to meet the cost of his medical bills. One day however, caught in a rainstorm, he pulls on the police shirt left behind by a customer and finds that he is automatically treated differently by the kind of people who constantly harass him on the street. Taking advantage of this, he pretends to be a traffic cop and by handing out on-the-spot fines, he obtains extra money to pay for his father’s hospital bills. Another benefit that he finds comes with the uniform is that he has more success with women, attracting the attention of a young woman who works in a CD store, Zheng Shasha. However, it appears that Zheng is also leading a double life.
Simply shot, in a minimalist style with no pretensions, the purpose of Diao Yinan’s film is quite clear and direct, showing the dehumanising and corrupting impact of poverty on one young man and, by extension, its impact on society when poverty is endemic. Despite the difficult circumstances that Xiao Jian finds himself in, the film doesn’t try to make us sympathise him and doesn’t make his actions likeable or excusable. A weak person, bullied and downtrodden, unable to speak up for himself or other people, he is not given respect or consideration, but when he finds the tables turned through the inadvertent wearing of a shirt, he in turn treats those around him the same way, lying, cheating and defrauding people. More than just a character study of the psychological impact of a uniform on one individual who finds a means of empowerment through it, Uniform also questions the same misuse of that power by the authorities. Xiao Jian is only giving out what he is receiving elsewhere. Which doesn’t make it excusable, but it does say a lot about the society the film is taking place in.
Filmed in the director’s home town, this is clearly a place and characters whose circumstances Diao Yinan knows well. The film is attractively photographed with a fine sense of situation - the bars, the gambling houses, the seedy nightclubs and the exterior locations capturing the urban desolation which reflects the circumstances of the characters who inhabit them. Impressively, for a playwright and screenplay writer, Diao Yinan underwrites the dialogue and keeps the performances simple, naturalistic and non-acting in the manner of Jia Zhang-ke (who is credited as Artistic Advisor on the film), but consequently every action and every scene has a strong sense of authenticity.
Uniform is released in the US by First Run. The disc is in NTSC format and is not region coded.
The film is transferred anamorphically at the original 1.75:1 aspect ratio, and the mage is reasonably good throughout. Digitally shot, the transfer does however look as if it’s taken from a theatrical print, or an intermediate source since there are no analogue marks or scratches on print whatsoever, but there is some loss of colour definition and sharpness in the transfer. Even the subtitles, which are fixed on the print, look a little soft. The image is a little dark, the colours tending towards a slightly greenish tint, but little of this causes any problem and works well with the low-budget nature of the film. The only real issue is the amount of macro-compression blocking artefacts, which cause a bit of flicker throughout and one minor instance of pixilation.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and is clear throughout, with no problems.
English subtitles are provided in a white font, but they are fixed on the print. In line with the transfer itself, they are a little soft, but clearly readable at all times. Translated by Tony Rayns, there are no problems with grammar or spelling nor, I would assume, with the translation.
The extra features are not extensive, but provide plenty of background and contextual information. In the Interview with Director Diao Yinan (4:44), the director talks about his initial idea and how it was developed in the script, as well as the opportunities for young screenwriters like himself to now be able to make their own low-budget films. The Director’s Introduction is a short text piece where the director puts forward his personal motivation for making the film. A brief Director’s Biography is also included. A 21-page PDF Discussion Guide is document is included in the DVD-ROM section of the disc, providing teacher’s notes, a synopsis, historical and cultural background information and talking points about the film. Much of the material is however fairly generic in its look at the filmmaking and storytelling techniques employed. The remainder of the features promote the Global Film Initiative that is helping new films from developing countries get a wider audience.
Uniform is a strong and solid piece of filmmaking - well scripted, attractively photographed and thematically sound, it tackles many of the issues that can be found in the films of Jia Zhang-ke, examining the impact of rapid social, cultural and economic reform on young people in remote locations who seem to have slipped through the net. Diao Yinan captures the same sense of closeness with the subject and an authenticity of tone, but with a greater sense of character study and without the longeurs that are normally associated with new Chinese filmmaking. Released on DVD in the US by First Run Features as part of a Global Film Initiative, there are some minor issues with the quality of the transfer, but the presentation is by and large more than adequate.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:48:47