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Where EAST meets the Northwest

UNIFORMLY GOOD. As raw and gritty as the digital video on which it is shot, Yinan Diao’s Uniform vividly shows that it doesn’t take a Hollywood-size budget to make an artful, moving, and emotionally evocative film. (Photos courtesy of First Run Features)


From The Asian Reporter, V17, #29 (July 17, 2007), page 15.

A modern fable dressed in simple clothing


Directed by Yinan Diao

Produced by Hu Tong Communication Productions, Iku Ishikawa, and Li Kit Ming

Distributed by First Run Features, 2006

DVD, 92 minutes, $24.95

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Modern China is at a crossroads between communism and capitalism, its citizens torn between the universal good touted by their government and the self-advancement that lies at the heart of Western economics. Yinan Diao’s subtle, understated film Uniform offers a metaphorical portrait of this struggle, exposing the human nature common to us all, in the East or West. For all who think that Chinese cinema must bear the ideological imprimatur of its repressive government, or believe that great results cannot be achieved with low budgets, Uniform will wonderfully prove them wrong.

Wang Xiojan (Liang Hongli) is a humble tailor struggling to support his mother and ailing father, who cannot work his job at the nearby enamel factory. They live with their heads barely above poverty, and Wang’s income from laundry and alterations can’t sustain them all when the factory closes and his father loses his benefits.

Good fortune seems to offer him a way out when a policeman drops his uniform off, then gets injured and doesn’t come to claim his shirt. Caught in a downpour while trying to deliver the shirt to its rightful owner, Wang dons the uniform and soon realizes the power it confers.

The uniform not only allows Wang to project the confidence he needs to ask out Zheng Shasha (Zeng Xueqiong), a pretty video clerk, it also enables him to shake down unsuspecting motorists for lucrative bribes. But the economic drain of having a girlfriend and paying his father’s hospital bills turns his casual playacting into a serious occupation, and we know Wang’s ruse is bound to catch up with him sooner than later. When the real police question him about labor unrest, and Zheng becomes more distant, Wang begins to use the uniform for the power it brings him as much as the extra income. As his secret begins to leak out, he finds that Zheng has a double identity of her own, and their romance is quickly threatened by the playacting required by life in contemporary China — if not everywhere.

Just like his characters, director Yinan Diao does a great deal with few luxuries, shooting the film in digital video and on location in rundown Chinese slums. But the low-rent medium perfectly fits his message, and he achieves wonderfully subtle effects, framing scenes like a master filmmaker and creating the perfect dismal atmosphere for his urban fable. The story he tells is a universal one, about the difference between our inner selves and that which we project to others. Simply donning a policeman’s uniform shouldn’t change who Wang is, but it affects the perception of him by others, which in turn affects his own self-image. He is caught in a conundrum between who he is and who he seems to be, a struggle which we all face, yet which the director represents easily with a formal scrap of blue cloth.

Although the performances of newcomers Zeng and Liang are understated and muted, this is true to their characters, the story, and Chinese society as a whole. When Wang is berated and beaten during a police interrogation, he barely flinches, and the most agonizingly emotional scenes between the two lovers are likewise barely evident on their stoic faces. Even the film’s uncertain ending is a kind of emotional restraint, the most wrenching of conflicts still unresolved — or if they are dealt with, then understood only by implication.

As raw and gritty as the digital video on which it is shot, Uniform vividly shows that it doesn’t take a Hollywood-size budget to make an artful, moving, and emotionally evocative film. Those wishing for a film crammed with witty dialogue, fast-paced action scenes, or glittering special effects may find themselves bored, but anyone looking for a beautiful and deceptively simple fable of life in the modern world will be moved, and the images and lessons of Uniform will not leave them for some time.