Tuesday, July 09, 2013

NYAFF ’13: Beijing Blues

Fred Dryer would approve of this Beijing police detective named after his famous TV character.  Brother Zhang Huiling (Hunter) is a broken-down, asthmatic copper, pursuing workaday crooks on Beijing’s bunco squad, but there is no denying his work ethic.  After years of hard drinking and hard policing, Zhang encounters his personal Moriarty in Gao Qunshu’s Beijing Blues (trailer here), which screens today during the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival.

There is a lot of money on the streets of Beijing, but many of the flim-flam artists Brother Zhang’s team investigates prey on their fellow proletarian.  Shot in a hand-held, on-the-fly docudrama style, Blues is initially rather episodic, capturing Brother Zhang on the job, stalking and eventually busting assorted counterfeit pushers, traffic accident scammers, and fortune-telling hucksters.  However, the legendary con artist Gold-Digger Zhang has reportedly blown into town and dispatched his minions for an impending crime wave.  A street level chess match ensues between the two old dogs.

Having established his blockbuster credentials in recent years, Gao returns to the gritty aesthetic and unconventional casting of his kind of brilliant, NYAFF selected Old Fish.  Like the real life cop who played Fish’s protagonist, many of Beijing’s Finest appear in Blues, usually playing cops, logically enough.  However, most of the cast were well known Chinese bloggers and social media figures, including former publisher Zhang Lixian, who is sensational as Brother Zhang.  Zhang perfectly expresses his namesake’s world-weariness, as well as his steadfast commitment to principle, while still suggesting he is always an inch away from doing a full Howard Beale.

Gao could have easily trimmed some of Brother Zhang’s plugging away from the repetitive mid-section, yet his character is always engaging.  When Gao kicks it into gear, the tension truly mounts, but in subtly ironic ways.  Much like Fish, Blues consistently defies cop movie conventions.  While his earlier film presented a jaundiced view of the corrupt and ineffectual police bureaucracy, Blues lets Brother Zhang’s colleagues and superiors off the hook.  Instead, contemporary Chinese go-go-don’t-get-involved society falls under Blues’ withering glance.

Who knew China’s micro-bloggers, street buskers, reality show contestants, and screenwriters were such good actors?  From stem to stern, the entire ensemble appears true-to-life and completely believable in character.  Led by Zhang’s richly textured lead performance, Beijing Blues delivers entertaining idiosyncrasies and unexpected depth.  Highly recommended, it screens today (7/9) at the Walter Reade as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.