Review: ‘On the Beat’

It's sometimes difficult to tell the cops from the bad guys in "On the Beat" -- which is one of the points of Chinese helmer Ning Ying's scabrously black comedy of everyday life in a Beijing precinct. Theatrical sales look limited, but discerning Eurowebs should handcuff this one to their schedules.

It’s sometimes difficult to tell the cops from the bad guys in “On the Beat” — which is one of the points of Chinese helmer Ning Ying’s scabrously black comedy of everyday life in a Beijing precinct. Though small in scope and subtle in its ironies, this “BJPD Blues” will raise a chuckle from anyone who tuned in to Ning’s earlier fest sleeper, the opera comedy “For Fun.” Theatrical sales look limited, but discerning Eurowebs should handcuff this one to their schedules.

Though essentially an ensembler, pic notionally turns around young cop Yang Guoli (Li Zhanhe) who, following a regular lecture on police duties, is introduced to his beat of lanes and alleys by a hard-nosed older colleague. First up is getting acquainted with the area’s “granny police,” a collection of eager-beaver busybodies whokeep file cards on the whole neighborhood.

Life at the station is grim, all-hours stuff, with rough male camaraderie and sleep snatched here and there. Life at home on his day off is equally dull, with a nagging wife whom Yang quickly loses patience with for telling their kid dumb stories.

Yang’s first taste of excitement is an expedition to hunt down a rabid mutt; next up is a migrant arrested for street gambling who even manages to beat Yang with his three-card trick back at the precinct.

Pic’s straight-faced, ironic humor is an acquired taste, but as one small event follows another, Ning slowly builds a self-contained world of petty law enforcement in which the inescapable feeling is that the major crimes are either being totally over-looked or are all happening someplace else. Municipal [7m diktats,[22;27m prize-giving ceremonies for the best precinct, and blind obedience to the silliest orders are the most important things. The system is all.

The movie’s threads come together in the final set piece, in which a man is arrested at night for supposedly insulting a cop. Subjected to an intensive interrogation more suited to a major crime, the guy holds his ground in the funniest sequence of the movie: As there were no witnesses to the incident, the questioning turns into an elaborate exercise in saving face, on both sides.

It’s possible to read the movie as any number of things: a sly commentary on the Chinese obsession with bureaucracy and procedure; an allegory of the growing impotence of the once-feared police force as the country moves toward individual , market-based freedoms; or a cheeky riff on the blurred line between the lawmakers and lawbreakers.

Like “For Fun,” however, Ning’s movie is essentially a comedy of manners, here with a police station as the human stage. Though the humor is often biting , there’s a warmth for these hopeless characters that shines through the gruff dialogue (all in the distinctively slurred Pekingese accent) and downbeat setting of the capital’s drab environs.

Shot during Beijing’s dullest months, December to February, and given a deliberately rough, colorless look in hard wintry light, the pic relies totally on the natural playing of its nonprofessional cast, all real cops and residents. Helmer spent extensive time with the subjects, and in casting alone the movie is a minor gem.

For a small pic, budget was a relatively generous 3.5 million yuan ($ 420,000 ), raised from a variety of local and offshore sources. Chinese title literally means “People’s Police Story.”

On the Beat

China - United Kingdom

Production

A Francesco Cosentino/Han Sanping presentation of a Eurasia Communications, Euskal Media and Beijing Film Studio production, with participation of the Hubert Bals Fund of Rotterdam Film Festival, NCO (Netherlands), French Foreign Affairs and Cultural Ministries, CNC. Produced by Han Sanping, Francesco Cosentino. Executive producer, Zhang Zhongping. Directed, written by Ning Ying.

Crew

Camera (color), Zhi Lei, Wu Hongwei; editor, Ning; music, Su Cong; art direction, Cheng Guangming; costume design, Yu Baonian; sound (Dolby), Chao Jun; police consultants, Pan Yongzhen, Ma Weidong; associate producer, Chen Jiangong; assistant directors, Zhou Haiquing, Yu Ling. Reviewed at Beijing Film Studio screening room, Beijing, July 1, 1995. (In Telluride, Toronto, San Sebastian -- competing -- London, Thessaloniki and Torino festivals.) Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Yang Guoli LiZhanhe Wang Liangui Wang Liangui LiJian LiJian LiuJianjun Shen Zhen'ou Wan Jun Wan Jianjun Precinct Chief LiChen'gang Political Commissar Li Wensheng Divisional Chief Pan Yongzhen Yang's Wife LiLi Wang Xiaro'er Zhao Zhiming Liu, the Vagrant Liu Yingshu (Mandarin dialogue)
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