To Live and Die in Ordos (Jing Cha Ri Ji): Tokyo Review
Chinese filmmaker Ning Ying offers a take on the life of a state-celebrated, graft-free regional police chief.
Ning Ying's last major film, the 2005 chamber drama Perpetual Motion, was lauded for being audacious enough to have women speaking about their sex lives on screen. Whether that was to be her career pinnacle remains debatable, but her latest film unquestionably sees the filmmaker plummeting to despairing creative depths.
Based on an official feted, allegedly incorruptible police chief in one of the fastest developing regions in China, To Live and Die in Ordos is a piece of unflinching, visually banal hagiography which harks back to the oft-appearing state-backed films about nearly flawless men of iron who place their work before their families and their own well-beings.
The film's original Chinese title was Police Diary – which is the English title still appearing in the opening credits of the print shown at its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival on Oct. 19. With its backers including state and provincial-level propaganda departments, To Live and Die in Ordos hardly shares anything with William Friedkin's Los Angeles-set namesake; while also focusing on a law enforcement officer obsessed with getting the job done, Ning never really takes her film to a new level by probing the circumstances in which toiling protagonist is forced to work in.
Instead, the film's titular city – which has made headlines for the misguidedly lavish infrastructural projects built with the flush of its coal-fuelled wealth in the past decade – is basically spared from scrutiny, with even its sleazy businessmen shown as having recoiled from excess in awe of the just heroics of the leading character.
The Ordos authorities, who was credited as offering much help to the film's production, are likely very pleased, along with a dairy product manufacturer who has its new production line on parade, and its name shown on screen and referenced in the dialogue. (This is the same company who managed to have a character chugging from a carton of its product in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3.)
Tiring they could be, but it's not as if propaganda or product placements can't be given an aesthetic pleasing touch: the problem is that To Live and Die in Ordos simply doesn't work well in the multiple genres it purports to straddle. It's too linear as a biopic, too simplistic as a detective thriller, and too corny as a piece of human drama. It's questionable whether the film will connect with its domestic audiences, not to say of the chance of further festival appearances after its shows at Tokyo and then Vienna next month.
Hao Wanzhong (Wang Jingchun) is simple too devoid of nuance as a central character, with his transformation from middle-school chemistry teacher to ruthless cop never really properly addressed except from the wafer-thin testaments from his kin and associates. Given the wish to shape him as a super-detective, the modus operandiwith which he solves his cases are laughable (this is someone who would drive overnight to a village to catch an important fugitive in an age of helicopters), and the depictions of crimes and crime scenes are unconvincing (a murdered girl was still clutching a sweet, despite having been beaten, hacked and then drowned to death in a bathtub).
To Live and Die is most grating with its over-the-top attempts to stir emotions: the candy-girl image was just one in a litany of scenes aimed to remind Hao (and the viewer) of the harrowing challenges he confronts in the land of psychotic felons – the smalltime robbers and killers, mind you, and not the corrupt corporate nouveau riche of course, who are seen simply as crude men easily guided to the light by Hao's intervention.
Mistaking bombast as the essential key to move audiences, the film actually begins with a straight-faced, pompous rendition of Hao's funeral during which his son delivers – in a dramatic tone belying his young age – a stirring eulogy. Thus begins the reconstruction of the hero's life, shaped in the work of a cynical investigative journalist Hua Wei (Sun Liang) as he researches and interviews people for a feature article on Hao.
Hua started off declining the assignment, telling his superior that he has avoided writing about such heroes because of past experiences of having his subjects being later revealed as villains by diligent netizens. But as he roams the land talking to Hao's family and friends – his wearing of a vest emblazoned with the name of China's official news agency probably speaks volumes about what is to follow – he is converted: no one has a bad word to say about Hao, and the fact that Sun relies heavily on only official documents and Hao's 68-volume diaries probably offers some kind of foregone conclusion of his change of heart.
The only flaw allowed on screen is how Hao, the great get-things-done fellow that he is, once bellowed about how journalists should all be thrown into jail for raising doubts about how the system works – and of course this is quickly resolved as an law-graduate aide convinces him, in a little speech resembling an official policy dictum, about the importance of rule of law. It's too convenient a way to explain away probably the dark side of Hao's good-cop persona – an approach which is more suited to teledrama, which the film actually sometimes resembles with its hackneyed use of slow-motion, whiteflash cuts and freeze-frames.
It's perhaps a shame that Ning, whose Perpetual Motion has indeed given women more of a voice and presence in addressing taboo issues, would have Hao's wife, the schoolteacher Meng Wenjuan (Chen Weihan) as possibly the main hindrance for Hao's pursuit of spreading peace and justice in his realm. She is depicted as someone unsympathetic to Hao's (admittedly warped sense of) professionalism, yelling at him on the street, on the phone and resorting to emotional blackmail of sorts so as to get him to come home to dinner or spend more time with his son. Inevitably, like everyone, she would repent and admit – through a letter stored in Hao's near-empty safe at the office – that she understands him after all. Whether anyone else off screen would empathize with the artifice on show, however, is probably another issue – a matter which, given the film's treatment, is hardly one rivaling the importance of life and death.
Venue: Competition, Tokyo International Film Festival
Production Company: Inner Mongolia Blue Hometown Film, in a presentation with Inner Mongolia Film Group Corporation and Ordos Radio and Television Media
Director: Ning Ying
Cast: Wang Jingchun, Chen Weihan, Sun Liang, Hou Yansong, Bai Bo
Producer: Huhebateer, Mu Ren, Zheng Tao
Screenwriter: Ning Dai
Director of Photography: Sean O'Dea
Editor: Jia Cuiping
Music: Liu Sijun