As fascinating as it is frustrating, “Beijing Blues” reps a scattershot take on life in the Chinese capital as seen through its criminals, a motley but enterprising bunch. Accompanying a wizened precinct cop on his beat, Gao Qunshu’s drama takes a drily humorous observational approach to human behavior. Though the results are expertly shot, the on-the-fly aesthetics and amorphous structure dissipate tension before it ever comes to a head, with cases tumbling in and out in an exasperating jumble. Euro-centric fests will fall for the pic’s “offbeat” local charm, but most domestic auds will balk at its quotidian subject.
Like a benevolent Big Brother, middle-aged police detective Zhang Huiling (Zhang Lixian) tries to pre-empt crime by manning solo or group reconnaissance operations across town. Positioning his video camera in all manner of imaginative places, he’s managed to bust a gang that extorts money by staging car crashes; a swindler (Zhang Enchao) who poses as a fortuneteller; a peddler of knockoffs; a woman who scams passersby with counterfeit cash; and a pack of muggers who murdered a victim in cold blood, to name a few.
After Gao’s extravagant period productions “The Message” and “Wind Blast,” “Beijing Blues” marks the helmer’s return to the intimate grassroots filmmaking exemplified by his 2008 cop thriller “Old Fish.” The non-pro cast, played by celebs from Beijing’s cultural scene (including Zhang Lixian, a blogger and publisher), look and sound just like ordinary city-dwellers, delivering deadpan dialogue in northern slang with a rapper’s timing.
Amid his routine, Det. Zhang has a number of farcical encounters with high-strung individuals and frenzied mobsters who self-righteously thrash suspects while the police look on with arms crossed. A picture emerges of a metropolis whose inhabitants can be charmingly extroverted yet disturbingly aggressive, an implied comment on the pressures of city life. The moral ambiguity of such a society is underlined by recurring scenes of skeptical citizens unable to tell cops from criminals.
Gao, who has directed a number of police dramas for television, borrows that same down-to-earth procedural technique for “Beijing Blues,” often using surveillance footage or framing scenes from a cop’s p.o.v. to achieve an enhanced verite look. However, there isn’t a single cohesive subplot within the meandering structure; even a clash with seasoned crook Zhang Facai (blind folk singer Zhou Yunpeng), who taunts the detective by announcing his heist in advance, reaches an initially confusing and ultimately underheated resolution. Worse still, the pic maintains no clear timeframe, as crimes seem to be perpetrated concurrently all over the place, resulting in endless wild-goose chases through gridlocked traffic.
Whereas the episodic format of TV allows for extended character development and backstory, every thesp in “Blues” emerges as just a cameo. Zhang Lixian, whose worn features express the physical and mental toll of his taxing job, is the only thesp who comes close to demonstrating more emotional layers, mainly when he confides in his wife (film producer Xu Wen) about his frustrations.
Despite the script’s inadequacies, Gao (who took the director prize at the Shanghai fest) pulls it off with a key assist from d.p. Wu Di, who captures the edgy, eruptive action with marksman-like precision. His clean compositions give form to the capital’s chaotic landscape of serpentine traffic and hydra-like crosswalks and footbridges. Two lyrical folk songs add a hint of melancholy poetry to a picture that otherwise eschews music for a docu-like effect.
Pic’s Mandarin-language title translates as “Detective Hunter Zhang.”