Wednesday, June 17, 2009

ON THE BEAT (1995)

Ying Ning's movie, the second in a trilogy of films set in Beijing, isn't the typical Chinese movie that turns up on this blog. There's no kung fu in it, and though it's a cop movie, there's neither car chases nor gunplay. It isn't an exploitation or genre film in the usual sense of either word. But in some ways, as far as I'm concerned, it's as much a spectacle as the more sensational films that I review. In this case the spectacle is seeing a realistic-looking evocation of everyday life in the People's Republic that at the same time reminded me of COPS and a multitude of movies and TV shows about the struggles of the ordinary flatfoot -- though his Chinese counterpart usually has a bicycle.

It's really one of the most basic situations in cop cinema: a veteran is breaking in a rookie, showing him the neighborhood. In Beijing that means meeting with neighborhood committees to get the latest edicts enforced and taking notes during dull study sessions. They don't get to fight triads or spies or Falun Gong. Instead, they have to deal with the dregs of the city: a drunken bum with a bite on his hand; a cardsharp who does a Chinese variation on three-card monte; a seller of "pornographic" posters of bikini-clad women; and so on. It has a Jack Webb feel to it after a while, but without the stylistic tics.

The vignettes with the criminals are pretty funny in a hard-boiled way. I liked how the "pornographer" tried to justify his wares by explaining that cultured people put such stuff up on their walls to admire. That's fine, a cop concedes, but what do you think a hooligan would do with one of those? Well, you can't rape a poster, the culprit protests. "That's bullshit," the cop answers.

The scene with the card sharp is a comic highlight. He tries to pass himself off as a homeless man who lost his identity papers, but he was found with a bagful of money. The guy has such a thick regional accent that the cop has to tell him to write his name and other information with his finger on the cop's dust-covered desk. The cop makes him demonstrate his deal, determined to figure out how it works. He never does pick the right card. He's always calling the perp to his desk or ordering him back to squat on the floor, growing increasingly exasperated with him as he states humbly that he earns enough on the game "to eat." You make more money in half a day than I do!, the cop snarls. The back-and-forth of it developed a comic rhythm that made the scene increasingly funny for me. We later see the perp in the station's TV room trying to sneak a peek at an episode of Hunter (I think!) before the cops make him face the wall. All the while, the Chinese cops grouse about how U.S. cops have guns and drive cool cars, but they don't.

Ying Ning directs in an unpretentious style that's been compared to Italian neo-realism and reminds me of modern Iranian cinema. But there's a clear comic sensibility at work throughout, and she trusts the humor of her situations to emerge naturally. There's a moment when what looks like a whole battalion of cops chases a reputedly rabid dog through the neighborhood and across a frozen stream that makes you feel like movie history has come full circle. Nobody takes any pratfalls, but it looks like the sort of scene that might have inspired the Keystone Kops, or might have been a subject unto itself 100 years ago. Then she adds a brutal exclamation point (albeit in long shot) by having the cops catch the dog and club it to death.

In the lower right hand corner of this picturesque scene, policemen are beating a dog to death.

The movie seems to be saying that the tension between the cops' responsibilities and their lack of activity is often close to snapping violently. That comes through again in the climactic scene when the two partners have to deal with an incredibly obstinate civilian who refuses to confess to cursing the rookie out earlier in the day. The guy won't give in no matter how the cops bluff and bluster, and he dismisses the rookie out of hand. He doesn't look like the submissive thrall of an Orwellian state (few do in this picture), and even though our protagonists decide to go "good cop, bad cop" on him to get things over with, it still comes as a shock when the older cop suddenly starts slapping the guy, taking out tensions that have been building in his personal life throughout the picture. In a kind of epilogue that plays over the end credits, we learn that the poor cop has gotten fined and suspended for crossing the line, and that his superiors have fined themselves for failing to supervise him properly.

On the Beat was partly financed in Europe (including by the Basques, of all people) and earned some attention on the film festival circuit in the mid '90s. I don't know if it's one of those films that are allowed to circulate outside China but are censored at home or if it was widely seen in its home country. But the fact that such an unromanticized, really unflattering portrayal of the police was even completed or seen by anyone is a credit to China as well as to Ning Ying. Score another one for the Albany Public Library for acquiring this film.

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