THE year 1950 was a banner year for cinema, with only a few of the landmark movies including Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Blvd” and Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.” But not much emerged from China’s mainland.
After the artistically rich 1930s, the local industry entered what was known as the “solitary island” phase. This meant, among other things, a dip in technical, and many times, artistic quality (a notable exception is “Spring in a Small Town,” 1948).
Nonetheless, there was some fine le cinema in 1950, such as “This Life of Mine” (“Life of a Beijing Policeman”).
How does it measure up? Although not as artistically rich as Wilder’s and Kurosawa’s works, it combines an interesting perspective of the self-perception of Beijingers in a tumultuous period, along with a riveting finish.
The film, based on a story of the same name by Lao She, is directed by and stars Shi Hui as an illiterate peasant born in the late 19th century. Through the narration of his inner dialogue, we learn that he sees his future as a laborer. Luckily, he is able to use a connection to become a police officer.
“We’re poor and suffering, but we’re honest,” says Shi.
From there, we follow the police officer, but equally as much his city of Beijing. Within the first few minutes of the film, we are given a tour of the city’s landmarks. Through the rest of it, the camera loves to linger on the decrepit infrastructure of the capital city.
“Better dead than live in times like these” is among the many morbid observations of characters who live through many of the major events of modern Chinese history.
If you’re not inclined to watch the film’s full 108 minutes and 31 second, I urge you to skip to 91 minutes and 41 seconds. The last 17 minutes of the film is one dramatic and moving scene and works as a stand-alone work. It encapsulates the entire film and is accomplished with fine acting of Shi.
Sadly, the tragic end of “This Life of Mine” can be seen as the beginning of the end for its director and star Shi. In 1957, with his career and personal life shattered by cultural upheaval, he committed suicide. His story, and that of the film, is sad, but there are compelling scenes.