Monday, July 8, 2013

City of Contradictions

Beijing Blues (2012) - Gao
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Working with mostly non-actors and unobtrusive handheld cinematography by Wu Di, director Gao Gushu creates an intimate portrayal of Beijing that one rarely sees in films.
Beijing Blues is a police procedural shot in the documentary fashion, taking place in Haidian District's Shuangyushu neighborhood in Beijing in winter. Zhang Lixian, a creator/journalist of a popular online magazine Duku, plays steely eyed, asthmatic, diabetic police inspector Zhang. Armed with a handicam, Zhang patrols around wide, clean Beijing streets to apprehend law breakers. Mild mannered and persevering, he is our guide to the smoggy megalopolis that is as much a character here as any inhabitants in Beijing Blues.

Zhang's daily routine is not exactly an action-filled thrill ride. Rather, it's full of swindlers, petty thieves, and con artists. Working in teams, these low-end criminals prey on ordinary Beijingers in fake fender-benders, elaborate counterfeit scams, false proselytizing ... nothing too glamorous. With Buddha-like patience, Zhang and his colleagues observe these criminals in long stretches and catch them red-handed. He is well known and liked in the neighborhood. There is a funny sequence of him even being followed by another film crew making a documentary about him.

The film gets a narrative jolt about two-thirds of the way in, when Gold-digger, the master criminal and the nemesis of Zhang, announces that he will steal 300,000 yuan in three days and give the money to a neighborhood boy who's a victim (and a son of a con artist) of hit-and-run. With the New Year's celebration on the way, Zhang needs to track him down fast.

Gao observes everything without being judgmental. The excessive use by the police of CCTV, which seems to be in every Beijing street corner, is kind of unnerving. Also, relying on merchants' surveillance footage and the handicam recording seems to be the normal procedure in China. Law-abiding Beijingers too, condone and cheer on the apprehension of criminals without ever questioning the method of the law enforcement. Under Gao's uncluttered eyes, Beijing, the capitol of capitalism on steroids, is full of contradictions. It's also blisteringly beautiful in the snow.

Winner of Taiwan's coveted Golden Horse award for Best Film, Beijing Blues is indicative of a healthy indie film output from mainland China.

Beijing Blues plays as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2013 on July 9. For more info and tickets, please visit FSLC website.