Trained in theatre from his teens, Shi Hui hit his stride as a film actor when he joined Wenhua in 1946. After taking both comic and serious roles in a string of movies, often playing characters significantly older than he actually was, he directed his first film in 1949. Wo zhe Yibeizi was his second film as director/star, adapted from a short story by the Peking novelist Lao She which has been translated as The Life of a Peking Policeman. Like the story, the film is narrated in the first person: the unnamed protagonist traces his life in flashbacks as he lies, destitute and dying, on the winter streets of Peking in the late 1940s. The account of forty turbulent years in the city’s early-20th-century history plays fast and loose with some of the facts for dramatic effect, but the film’s fidelity to the sights and sounds of Peking’s street-life through the decades is scrupulous.
It’s a chronicle of defeats, the ‘little man’ buffeted by a succession of inhumane, authoritarian bosses, a policeman who looks for ‘natural justice’ but never finds it. The tone is often seriously gloomy. The production company Wenhua was still in private hands at the time, but the Shanghai authorities requested a more upbeat ending: hence the rather obviously tacked-on closing images of the policeman’s son (Li Wei, from Xiao Cheng zhi Chun) contributing to the communist victory. A big popular success in China, the film was invited to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
Based on a story by Lao She, the film described the turbulent period of the first half of the 20th century, from the end of the Manchu dynasty until the establishment of the communist regime. Against the background of a series of major events over which they had no control, it depicted the suffering of ordinary people, and helped the spectators, Chinese or foreigners, have a better understanding of the birth of modern China.
On one wintry night in Peking, an old beggar on the point of dying fell down on the pavement and his whole life came back to him. In a flashback he saw himself as a young policeman and he remembered all the extraordinary events that took place during his life: the fall of the Manchu dynasty and the foundation of the Republic; the conflicts between the war-lords; the students’ demonstrations against Japan’s ‘21 Demands’ in 1915; the reunification of China by Chang Kai-Shek in 1927 and the moving the capital to Nanking; the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the declaration of war in 1937 after the Marco Polo bridge incident; the surrender of Japan in 1945, and the civil war from 1946 to 1949.
Shi Hui played the main role in this first person story, moving from a fresh young man to a dying old man with an extraordinary veracity. His great talent as actor is demonstrated in all the films he has interpreted. We should not ignore that he was also an important director who continued to make films till 1957, but his promising career and life came to a sad end during the Anti-Rightist Campaign.
Marie Claire Kuo and Kuo Kwan Leung
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal racconto The Life of a Peking Policeman di Lao She. Scen.: Yang Liuqing. F.: G Weiqing. M.: Fu Jiqiu. Mus.: Huang Yijun. Int.: Shi Hui (il poliziotto), Wang Min (sua moglie), Li Wei (suo figlio), Wei Heling (Zhao), Cui Chaoming (Sun), Shen Yang (Sun Yuan), Cheng Zhi (Huli), Lin Zhen (signora Qin). Prod.: Wenhua. 35mm. D.: 109’. Bn.
If you like this, we suggest:
Marie Claire Kuo and Tony Rayns