In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Conor Bateman looks at the debut feature film of acclaimed Chinese director Diao Yinan, Uniform.
Date Watched: 6th April, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 22
Diao Yinan‘s third feature, the gorgeously lensed noir Black Coal, Thin Ice, left me somewhat cold at its screening last year at Sydney Film Festival. The film, which came with the seal of approval of the Berlinale (it bested Linklater’s Boyhood for the Golden Bear), felt thematically engaging yet narratively dull, a by-the-numbers noir awash in beautiful imagery yet lacking in character. Story aside, though, it would be hard to say the film wasn’t well-directed; Yinan has an eye for the framing of buildings and a refreshingly relaxed approach to medium length shots. His debut feature, 2003’s Uniform (制服), whilst less obviously well composed, might in fact be a better film than his latest, a simplistic tale in the mould of Italian neorealism with subtle thematic underpinnings that deal with the state of modern China.
Uniform, shot ostensibly in secret in Yinan’s hometown of Xi’an, follows a young tailor, Wang Xiaojian (Liang Hongli), who decides to keep a customer’s police uniform after finding out the officer had been in a car accident and thus unable to collect it. Wang uses the uniform to dupe local drivers into paying on-the-spot fines that he can use to pay the medical bills of his father, a factory worker out ill from his job. In a less selfless move, he uses his uniform to woo a local music store clerk, Zheng Shasha (Zeng Xueqiong), who has some secrets of her own. As one would expect with a narrative like this, his dependency on the uniform increases as he neglects his work as a tailor and gains a stronger sense of self-worth; the notion that power is a surface level acquisition and easily transferable is paramount in the film. Where Yinan impresses, though, is in rejecting tension with regards to his identity. The film moves at a laconic pace, chararacters discover one another’s true motives and identities, and instead of it being treated as a dramatic reveal it is handled quietly. The duelling plotlines of dramatic irony intersect as the film reaches its end, and Yinan’s restraint from moralising is a refreshing approach to a narrative involving the degradation of personal ethics and self-deception.
It should probably come as no surprise than cinema from Asia is often widely underseen on Letterboxd; outside of big festival hits like Black Coal, meandering social dramas tend not to pick up stateside distribution and thus only people actively engaged in focusing on a national film scene end up seeing a film like Uniform. I’m not one of those engaged in modern Chinese cinema, though, and I stumbled on the film through Fandor’s partnership with the Global Film Initiative, a distribution and film financing company that aims to promote underseen films from international directors. In that vein of promoting underseen work, the GFI have put Uniform online, viewable for free on Vimeo.1 My personal lack of insight into the state of Chinese cinema means I’m only feigning at having perceived deep social commentary; what I can see is the neglect of workers and a realisation of the power in perception, but I’m sure there are much more incisive points about the state of China today and the Shaanxi province hiding amongst what is, to a Westerner, merely an engaging small-scale story.
Despite its low-budget production, the film has some very impressive cinematography; lensed by Dong Jinsong, who has shot all of Yinan’s features, the BetaMax quality is of no harm to the sense of visual style. We have an engaging mixture of handheld and locked off shots alternating between what is organic and false, playing with a quasi-documentary styling. When we follow Wang out onto the highway as he waits for his next victim, this blurring is at its most clear. The establishing shots, though, are what really stand out. Jinsong and Yinan are able to so effectively evoke a sense of place, using buildings and doorways as clever framing devices for Wang’s transformation, as well as toying with perspective; for the majority of the film we see the music store from one particular angle inside, yet after Wang finds out about Zheng’s other job, the perspective is completely shifted, as we look into the store from outside. It’s a simple shift but it’s not only a thematic device but also one of actual world-building, adding another layer of realism to the film.
This, of course, is even more impressive considering the film was shot in secret, and Uniform shows all of the hallmarks of ambitious and talented newcomers; it’s inventively shot and only sparsely punctuated by dialogue, allowing a distinctive visual voice to take hold over a narrative one. Having now seen Uniform, I want to revisit Black Coal again, and also seek out the film in between those two, 2007’s Night Train. I’ll implore you to do the same.