Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 09/18/03 12:22:55

"Digital video doesn't have to suck. In this film it rises to a new level."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Someone needs to take stock of the movement towards digital video. Too often filmmakers seem to think that having the cheaper means to make a film means they can make their film look cheaper. They couldn't be more wrong - digital video can look fantastic, as was evidenced by Kristian Levring's The King is Alive and Mike Figgis' Timecode a few years ago, PI shortly after that, and Quattro Noza more recently. While the problems with the medium are many, the one true beauty of using it is that it brings a new realism to what's on screen. It can look like found footage, or even old-time live TV. It can take you to the location it was shot and make you feel like you're watching a home movie of your visit. Usually though, it doesn't do anything of the sort. Usually, those first few frames of shaky, grainy video footage tell you, "Yep, this is going to suck." Diao Yinan's Uniform, thankfully, doesn't just break that assumption, it smashes it to pieces. Quite frankly, I've rarely seen a more beautiful piece of low budget filmmaking come out of Asia.

Wang Xiaojian is a tailor in a poor part of China. He's got plenty of business, but his family aren't real business-oriented. They feel a little guilty about taking people's money, so when Wang's father falls ill and needs hospitalization, he goes in on credit. As Wang tries to find more paid work at a factory, he finds himself caught in a labor dispute and beaten by sacked workers who think he's a manager. When he goes gambling for a few hours, he wins, but has his winnings stolen outside the casino by those who lost.

But it isn't all bad for Wang. A police officer who'd left his shirt to be cleaned never returns for it. Upon learning the man was killed in a traffic accident, Wang wears it late one night when his regular shirt is soaked in a downpour, and quickly learns that he can make a good living fining those who do wrong... And even those who do right.

And that's when he meets 'the girl'. She works in a pirated CD store, and as the two become attracted to one another and Wang continues his police officer charade to darin new levels, his dark secret is countered by one of her own.

This is a great film. I'm not talking great like 'Citizen Kane' great, or even 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' great, I'm talking a high quality way to spend 94 minutes of your life. Diao Yinan has managed to shoot this film almost as if it were a stageplay, with most locations looking small and fabricated despite their factual basis. Yinan brings the camera in close, keeps it mounted on tripods and dollies throughout (thank god), and brings a feel to the film that I can only describe in terms that might not make much sense.

See, in the old days of TV you had two ways you could get a show to screen. You could either shoot on film and show the transfer later on, which gave TV shows a movie-like feel (the Twilight Zone for example), or you could shoot live, using no tape at all and instead relaying the picture from camera to mixing desk to antenna. The live stuff invariably looked grainy, with colors that blended, detail that shifted, but it also had a wonderful feeling of 'right now' to it. Live TV today is just too clean and polished to recreate this, but the few old Twilight Zone episodes that were actually performed live make the difference between the two methods starkly apparent.

Uniform has that feel all over again, that feel of immediacy, of real people doing real things. Scenes run long, with no edits to keep things tight. You watch these people go about their business in a deliberate fashion, but not in such a way that you're yawning. There are things happening on screen here, even when they're not actually happening, which sets this film way above many other Asian low budget digi-video films at this same festival. The dialogue is kept to a minimum, the emoting likewise. Things just move along at a perfect pace, as our characters get deeper and deeper into the hole they're digging for themselves.

Where the film does come unstuck is in the last act - the characters seem to act against expectations, and for no real reason other than... I dunno... boredom? The end of the film is also a let down, copming out of nowhere and really not bringing a conclusion to the story being told. In movies such as Limbo or Adaptation or Punch Drunk Love, the sudden ending tells you that the true ending of the film was a few minutes earlier, but that you missed it. But in Uniform, there's no such catch. It just ends with a thud.

Which is a shame, for this is a movie that really is worth seeing, esepcially if you have ambitions at making your own low budget feature. I'm sure the cynical will pick holes throughout the film, as there are definitely ample places one could get picky, but as a look into the lives of a people we don't hear much about, and one that is decidedly non-political considering where it comes from and the time we're in, Uniform is a film I'd definitely recommend.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.