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, Still Life), 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 UK by Axiom Films. The disc is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Presented anamorphically at the film’s original 1.78:1 aspect ratio with a stable, progressive encode, the transfer on this edition is nothing less than impressive. Colours are deep, rich and well-defined. Contrast is strong, perhaps a little too strong, as whites tend to glare in daylight scenes or look underexposed, and blacks sometimes lose shadow detail. This would however appear to be a consequence of the HD-Digital Video photography. The image is pin-sharp without artificial enhancement, showing fine detail throughout. Even on a single-layer disc, the image looks flawless, with no compression artefacts or macroblocking.
The film has previously been released on Region 1 DVD by First Run. It is also anamorphic, but has fixed subtitles whereas the Axiom is optional. The quality of the image here however is a vast improvement on the US release which was comparatively softer, exhibited artefacting, flicker and some minor pixilation and had a green tinge that muted the colours. A screenshot comparison between the Axiom and First Run editions can be seen below. The Axiom is shown first.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is strong and clear with wide stereo separation that is almost three-dimensional. There is depth and body to the sound with reverberating explosions heard at one of the industrial plants and in the noise of trucks and traffic - all of which contribute to the atmosphere of industrialisation underlying the film. The audibility of dialogue is variable, but this is in the context of the original sound mix.
Optional English subtitles are provided and are in a clear white font with a strong black border. There are no flaws whatsoever in the translation or grammar.
There is only one extra feature on the disc, an Interview with Diao Yinan (4:46). This is the same interview that is included on the US release, the director talking about his initial idea for the film and how it was developed in the script, and how he came to make his first feature. He also talks about the opportunities now for young filmmakers in China and the relaxation of censorship.
Also included with the DVD however is a fine 16-page booklet. Beautifully illustrated with stills from the film, it contains an essay on the themes of the film and how it fits in with the concerns of China’s Sixth Generation filmmakers. An additional essay looks at the history of Chinese cinema, its keyplayers and the important films of each period through each of those generations.
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. The transfer on the UK release by Axiom is a significant improvement over the US edition from First Run, serving the visual qualities of the film much better, and it is equally well supported with an informative interview and booklet that place the film into the context of modern Chinese cinema.