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On the Beat
"On the Beat" marks the second entry in the "Beijing Trilogy" by director Ning Ying. Ying's film follows a local Beijing precinct as they combat such dangerous problems as rabid dogs, flim-flam men, and smut peddlers. None of these foes though compares to the boredom that drives them to tackle these issues with unrelenting seriousness.
Ying's approach to this very black comedy is nothing short of brilliant. Instead of employing professional actors to tackle these roles, she goes straight to the source and enlists actual policemen in this production, Li Zhanho and Liangui Wang as the burnt out veteran and fresh-on-the-job rookie, respectively. These men all come across as natural actors which brings an air of sadness to the story, since it confirms the absurdity Ying has written is likely not far from the truth. The humor is rarely broad and the subtle absurd nature of certain situations is easily lost, if the viewer forgets they are watching a comedy. An interrogation scene between a cop and suspect could have easily been lifted from any American production, only the crook here isn't a killer or rapist; he's a simple flim-flam man, hustling people for quick cash with card tricks. That doesn't stop the officer from putting 100% of his energy into finding out who he is and where he came from, not because of his dedication to the law, but because it's the only thing close to actual police business to hit the station in days.
Beneath and between the absurdity though lies a tale of real people in a depressed country. Despite the film taking place in the mid 90s, the conditions make the whole production look 20 years older than it actually is. It's a truly fascinating look at what life in China was like a little more than a decade ago. Ying's story also shows us that even a cop with uneventful work can be pushed to the edge and have a strained family life. Li Zanho's character is on the edge with a wife who nags him for working a late shift (likely something he has no control over) and a young son who thinks his father beats up criminals all day. It's a sad look at a man who gets no respect anywhere he turns.
Lastly, "On the Beat" stands as a testament to the miles of red-tape government often impedes its dedicated servants with. Every day in the lives of these men begins with their supervisor reading rules and regulations, are by-and-large the source of the film's darkly comedic moments. A simple dog-bite case turns is turned into Benny Hill-esque chase through the streets as two dozen or more officers try to round up all stray dogs, ending in a very morbid, but real reminder of the stress they are enduring and the pathetic wages they earn (approximately two US dollars a day).
"On the Beat" is presented with a non-anamorphic widescreen presentation of unknown aspect ratio (I would say it falls between 1.40:1 and 1.66:1). As wonderful as the movie itself is, the same can't be said for this transfer. It's riddled with print damage and reel-change markers. I am fully aware that Chinese films aren't preserved that well, so I do consider that in the grand scheme of things and the burnt-in English subtitle track would seem to indicate this is likely the best possible source material possible. It's slightly above a public domain release in terms of overall quality.
The Mandarin audio track is very flat and hollow and will never begin to challenge your sound system. On the plus side, it's distortion free and the emotion in the performances comes through clearly (a quality I highly regard). As mentioned above, there is a burnt-in English subtitle track.
None. It's a shame Facets wasn't able to get an interview with writer/director/editor Ning Ying. I'd love to hear her thoughts on her work here.
"On the Beat" is a very funny movie and a very insightful film that makes its DVD debut with technically disappointing results. It panders to no one and forces the viewer to look for the humor themselves. Ning Ying has made a truly memorable and worthy entry into genre of police films and deserves respect for taking a shot at government that isn't known for having a sense of humor. If interested parties can remember they are watching a black comedy, they should come away with a smile on their face. Recommended.