In this latest instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier moves away from Japan and takes a look at Chinese director Diao Yinan’s Uniform.
This week Eastern Premise places Uniform, the directorial debut from Chinese screenwriter Diao Yinan under the spotlight. Zhi Fu, otherwise known as Uniform, is just that, a tale of a by chance clothing finding that opens up a realm of new possibilities to its new owner.
China has not been a regular stopover on our travels so far and that’s not through choice but rather a lack of worthwhile films. I can recall the optimism and excitement surrounding Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum and Ju Dou in the late 1980’s and the works of other 5th Generation directors. At last China was wrestling free from the shackles of central government control and grasping the medium of film. In my opinion, this generation and the next did not truly break free and instead new measures and partnerships stifled true expression. Whereas the 5th focused on village and the harsh realities of rural life, the 6th generation migrated just like the Chinese youth towards the sprawling urban cities of new China and mass production.
For all its financial clout and growing influence in film, China’s output can at times consistently disappoint. I’ve endured several epic historical clashes of late, powered by vast budgets, hundreds of extras, expertly filmed and choreographed, yet they lack substance; a heart and soul, becoming instantly forgettable. Occasionally a worthwhile film does appear and more than often not, from an unexpected source, often outside the influence of the ruling powers. Such was the case with Uniform, released in 2003.
Jia Zhangke’s 24 City took the mock-documentary approach to what the ‘Made in China’ label actually means to its workers, whereas Uniform approaches this era from a whole new perspective, cataloguing the disillusionment with what China is becoming. Set in China’s Shaanxi Province, this area is a real-life hotbed of fossil fuel and technology production. The competition is fierce for corporate success and those seeking employment within such facilities. What might seem like an unskilled job of little importance can in this environment be a financial lifeline for the employee and their family. Even China is not immune to the winds of consumerism and when two factories are forced to merge into a textile equivalent, this causes a great deal of local fallout, pain and suffering. Amidst this sense of redundancy we are introduced to Xiao Jian, a street tailor who works from a small stall, repairing, making adjustments and laundering clothes.
Jian is fortunate to have such practical skills, but with his unemployed father’s health dwindling, the pressure is on his shoulders to support the family and meet the growing medical bills. With the hostile merger very much in the forefront of the minds of the area’s inhabitants, tailoring work beings to dry up as residents become more financially aware. This is a trait we can all identify with in our own current economic climate. Jian takes stock of his options and almost by accident, decides to take advantage of an unclaimed laundered police uniform with dramatic results.
At first he dons this alternate persona for a bit of fun and dishing out instantly payable traffic fines, taking sweet revenge on the types who have irritated him over the years. As more opportunities present themselves, Jian finds it harder to resist and loses himself to the uniform. From a relative nobody, the uniform transforms in much the same way as a superhero costume. A constant theme is one of pollution; factories and engines operate regardless of emission constraints. Jian uses this as a regular device to fine drivers on the spot; unbeknown to Jian, the actual pollution is within as slowly he succumbs to the uniform. Provincial corruption is seems is widespread in China whether its party members, government employees or policemen; everyone can benefit from their enhanced status. An added bonus for Jian is the effect the uniform seems to have on the opposite sex particularly Zheng Shasha, a local CD store worker. This unlikely relationship is one of deceit on both sides and is suggestive of the struggle to survive in this expanding society.
Diano Yi-nan may have started in film as a screenwriter for directors such as Zhang Yang and Shi Runjiu but his debut film confirms a talented director in the making. Shot digitally, Uniform is blessed with a clarity and sharpness of vision that this format can snare and enhance. Technicolor backdrops are evident throughout proceedings; even for the most mundane of scenes there is an explosion of colour and a confidence in placement and lighting. This rush on the senses takes us, or for me at least, to Kar Wai Wong’s stunningly visual and adorable Chungking Express. Wong may have had the characteristic collision of cultures in Hong Kong to call upon and in comparison Yi-nan prises far more visuality from an alien, decaying industrial setting.
Axion Films put together a decent package for the UK DVD release of Uniform including an excellent transfer. The low budget and independent origins of the film itself explains the lack of available additional materials, so while the only DVD extra is an interview with the director, this is theoretically most likely all that could be included. A worthwhile addition is a well presented limited edition booklet that is of a Masters of Cinema standard. Whatever Chinese generation, films that have a true voice are few and far between. Uniform remains a film that deserves to be seen.