Wo zhe yi bei zi (This Life of Mine) (1950)
Director: Hui Shi.
Starring: Hui Shi (I), Heling Wei (Old Zhao), Yang Shen (Shen Yuan), Wei Li (Hai Fu), Zhi Cheng (Hu Li), Chaoming Cui (Sun Yuan), Xiu Jiang (Master Qin), Zhen Lin (Madame Qin), Ming Liang (Sun Yuanqin), Min Wang (My wife).
Beijing policeman and his family experience a very rough 50 years of life in China, 1900-1950
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Beijing. It has almost been 700 years since Beijing first became the capital of China. Many of Beijing's scenic places are shown. But what about the common person? They may be poor, but they are honest. For the past twelve years the government has not been kind to these people. There has been too much injustice and unfairness. The narrator, over 60 years of age, says he has works all day, but he still can't earn enough money. He is hungry since he hasn't eaten for days and he is sure he will soon die.
He remembers back 40 years ago to when he was just 22 years of age during the last days of the Qing Dynasty. (The Qing lasted from 1644 to 1912, with a brief restoration in 1917). At the time he was an apprentice paper hanger. The shop folded and he had a hard time finding work. He runs into his neighbor Old Zhao who is a police officer. Old Zhao wants to help him find some employment, so he is invited over to the house. The neighbor suggests he become a cop.
The narrator gets the job as a police officer. They cut his hair extremely short. He marches and drills and then stands guard on the Dazhi Bridge. Xiao Suo is the son of Old Zhao and he likes to tease the narrator.
The policemen has two children Daniu and Haifu. He tells his wife he has night duty and off he goes. A fellow tells him that something funny is going on. All the shops are closed. He tells our policeman to be careful. The fellow was right. It is eerily quiet on the streets. A man in a house tells the policeman to come inside. He says that there has been a mutiny. A house burns and a woman runs into a house followed by a man who pulls her from the house. The fellow then kills the man of the house with a large sword. Our policeman does nothing about this.
He does, however, go back out on the streets. He reports that Dazhi Bridge has been burnt down. Soldiers with queues (pigtails) are looting and killing. The other policemen just laugh at him. He sits down and asks another policeman aren't they supposed to do anything? The man says that they can't possibly handle a mutiny. He adds that no one would risk his life for $6 dollars a month salary. Our man wonders why then they even have a police force. A soldier kills a young boy very close to the policeman. They soldiers grab other men from bars and houses.
The Revolution of 1911. (The Wuchang Uprising of October 10, 1911 started the Xinhai Revolution, which in turn led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the creation of the Republic of China.) The policemen wonder what is meant by the word a "republic"? Old Zhao says he gets very upset every time he thinks about how those soldiers hacked his little boy to death. He cries.
Our hero is promoted to third grade officer and now earns $7 per month. He and another newly promoted officer will now guard the gates of Master Qin's mansion. They go to the mansion. Today is the daughter's tenth birthday. A man who works for Master Qin tells one of the officers to stay on post and the other to go to Master Wang for some opium. The policemen can't believe they are supposed to fetch opium. Our man wants to report them to the station, but his buddy tells him that the police chief is inside at the party. He tells our man to wise up! Our fellow goes for the opium.
The times are hard and the people in the neighborhood are having a hard time making ends meet. Our man is a second grade officer now, but he says he still only gets $7 per month. He tells his neighbors that the rich people he guards daily sure live well. They also have lots of Japanese visitors these days.
In a newspaper is the headline that Japan's 21 Demands are Unreasonable. The Chinese government accepts the 21 demands, but many are opposed to this and want the demands abolished. They start a boycott of Japanese goods. They also reject the Treaty of Versailles. Our fellow is given the task of making the student protestors go away from the mansion. He speaks with them and gets to know their leader Shen. The students consider breaking into the place. He tells the students he will ask the master again. He asks alright, but gets slapped down for it. The master tells him to tell the students to get away from here. Our hero relays the message. The students ask him if he wants China to be run by the Japanese? Our man doesn't really understand what is going on. The students say the rich are forcing the nation to accept the 21 demands of the Japanese.
Our man learns that the master has sent for soldiers to disperse the students. He tells the students, but the students say they are not afraid of the Army and rush into the building. The soldiers arrive and there are clashes between the soldiers and the students.
The May 4th Movement (growing out of student demonstrations in Beijing on May 4, 1919 protesting the Chinese government's weak response to the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, especially the Shangdong Problem, in which Japan took over from the Germans the Shangdong Peninsula rather than returning it to China). Students are on the march protesting! Our man says that the students overthrew Cao Rulin (Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs who was an important member of the pro-Japanese movement) and Master Qin was finished. All Beijing rejoiced and he became a police corporal. He took his daughter Daniu to Tianqiao. Bulletins saying "The Spirit of Li Dazhao Will Live Forever!" are hung up around the city. (Li Dazhao was a co-founder of the Communist Party of China in 1921.)
The wife asks her husband Master Qin to find a position for her brother, Hu Li, who says he can speak Japanese. The husband says he will put him in charge of the police precinct. Our hero is very upset. With the new superintendent, he has bee busted down three grades. The police sergeant says he himself is now a corporal. The new superintendent has brought in his relatives and cronies. The corporal tells him that Master Qin is back and bigger than ever. Our man is send to his mansion again.
The neighbor wife of Sun Yuan sells her baby girl to a woman for $30 dollars. The wife of the narrator dies leaving two children motherless. Our man asks Mrs. Zhao to help look after the children. He tells her he is going to go find the student revolutionaries. Master Qin wants the student leader Shen caught. Our fellow finds Mr. Shen and tells him he is in great danger. Two men looking for Shen come in and Shen hides in the out house. Then don't find Shen, but they find another student activist and take him away. Our man tells Shen he better get out of the city. Shen says he will be back in a few years. He leaves.
1927. There was another big change. They moved the capital to Nanjing. (In 1927, the Kuomintang (KMT) under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek made Nanjing the capital of the Republic of China and in 1928 KMT forces took Beijing.) In Beijing many of the shops were closed and the streets deserted. Old Zhao and his wife both passed away. The narrator's children are now all grown up. He is going to arrange a marriage for his daughter. He has a friend at the police force whose son is also a police officer and the two fathers come to an agreement that they will marry. The couple marry. That leaves his grown son to worry about. The son has been associating himself with Mr. Shen who is still in hiding. He hands out pamphlets. Haifu tells his father that he wants to become a policeman. Dad tries to discourage him saying that he endured years of abuse and humiliation. Haifu says that's because dad doesn't stand up for himself. He asks his dad to put in a good word for him at the police station. Dad thinks about it for awhile and then agrees. Now they both start laughing.
The narrator says that his son was a lot of help to him in those early years of his being a policeman. Mr. Shen often came over to the house and he became a good friend to his son. But dad could not really understand what they were talking about in such great earnest.
Shenyang (capital of Liaoning province, Northeast China). September 18, 1931. (The Mukden Incident near Shenyang gave the Japanese the pretext to create the puppet Manchukuo state made from Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia.) Students become politically active and talk about non-resistance.
The North-East and more trouble with Japan. Protestors demand that the army be sent to resist the Japanese. The police have to be called out and they use sometimes fatal force to break up the student demonstrations. Haifu makes sure that Mr. Shen is safe. At home the two men discuss what they will do if the Japanese take over Beijing. They talk about going to the mountains. Mr. Shen leaves saying he is headed over to the Marco Polo Bridge. (July 7, 1937, the bridge, located outside of the town of Wanping to the southwest of Beijing, became the scene of a battle started by Japan that gave them a pretext for the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945.)
Japan starts a war with China and they occupy Beijing. Haifu can't stand the Japanese occupation, whereas his father says he will work with them. Haifu asks his father if he wants China to be subjugated by the Japanese? Dad is quiet. Haifu tells him he wants to become a guerrilla fighter. Dad is afraid of being left all alone by himself in the house. He doesn't want his son to go. Haifu says they will discuss the matter later.
The Japanese come to the house with dad, who tries to hide the residence permit from them. They ask if there are any women in the household. Haifu says there are none. The Japanese grab the residence permit out of dad's pocket and ask about Xiaoyu. Haifu runs over to her place as they slap dad around. Dad has to take the Japanese to Xiaoyu's place. The officer goes in expecting a good time with the young woman. When he finds she is not at home, he becomes furious. He comes out and slaps the Chinese translator Hu. The translator in turn threatens the Xiaoyu's motherwith violence if she doesn't tell where Xiaoyu is hiding. He knocks the woman down and Xiaoyu in a nearby house lets out a gasp. The translator hears her and he goes in and at gunpoint takes her out against Haifu's wishes. The Japanese officer starts dragging her away. When Haifu resists, he is knocked down and held there with the threat of being stabbed with a Japanese sword. Xiaoyu screams and cries. There is nothing Haifu and dad can do.
Chinese women are forced to service the Japanese Imperial Army sexually as prostitutes. Now dad agrees to let Haifu become a guerrilla fighter. Dad gives Haifu $20 dollars before he leaves. Haifu splits the amount with his father. Mr. Shen arrives and Haifu leaves.
Mr. Shen is exposed and arrested. Eight years pass. Victory finally arrives for the Chinese. There is still no word from Haifu and Mr. Shen is still in prison. Those were hard years for the people of Beijing. What really hurt the narrator was that the U.S. Army let the Japanese war criminals go home to Japan. And Hu, the nasty Chinese translator for the Japanese, has been made the police sub-bureau head. The father of the dead Xiaoyu, Sun Yuan, wants Hu punished. But the narrator gives his usual cautionary tale about not resisting or causing a stir. This makes Xiaoyu's father mad at Haifu's father.
Sun Yuan accuses Hu of collaborating. Hu just laughs at it. He has Sun Yuan arrested and then beaten in a jail cell. Hu is there to taunt him. He says that he didn't become police chief without considerable political connections. The narrator, now over 60 years old, is there and he begs Hu not to burn Sun Yuan with a hot iron. Hu asks who he is and his memory is jogged. He asks the narrator if he has a son called Haifu? Yes. Hu then has our hero arrested. He then accuses him of being a communist and wants to know where his son is. Hu says he heard that Haifu joined the communist 8th Route Army. They start torturing Haifu's father to get him to tell them about Haifu. They place bamboo strips under his nails. In fact, they go through an entire routine of tortures. They even use water torture.
The narrator is finally thrown into a cell with Mr. Shen, who tries to comfort him. He says they will probably let him go in a couple of days, but he will probably lose his job. It's been ten years since they last saw each other. Our hero asks Shen why all this misery in China? Shen refers to him as a "servile creature" who has always served those in charge, regardless of who they were. He also says the Chinese have lived meaninglessly for 5,000 years. Shen says he has been working for the day when the people will have power. He says he is with the Communist Party? This shocks the narrator because he knows this means death for Mr. Shen. Shen says he is to be executed soon. Shen says he could survive until he can see Haifu come marching into Beijing with the Chinese forces. Then the narrator will be able to stand guard for himself and he will no longer be a slave.
The guards come for Mr. Shen. He gives the narrator a photograph to give to Haifu. The guards take Mr. Shen out and shoot him.
Haifu with the communists take over Beijing, January 31, 1949. There are scenes of happier days. The narrator is let out of prison. He is cold and miserable in the snow. He says: "Ah, this life of mine!" He sits down in the snow and freezes to death in the cold winter weather.
It's a good movie, despite the communist propaganda at the end. But if you don't let this bother you, you can fully enjoy the film. The film is a sad one. The sufferings in China are tremendous. Our hero, the narrator, tells his story. He is not a very intelligent man. He's a sweet natured guy that always cooperates with the authorities regardless of their political philosophy or even if they are Japanese. He does indeed have a servile nature. We follow the narrator's life as he endures one hardship after another. Life never really seems to get better for the Chinese common person. It just always seems to stay bad. Then things go from bad to worse when the Japanese take over. Now our narrator really has to suffer big time. He starts to become a little more defiant, but still preaches caution. And where does all this caution and cooperation (and even collaboration) get our narrator? Not very far at all. His son takes a different route. He stands up for himself and is more than willing to resist governmental excesses or neglect.
Hui Shi was very good as the long suffering policeman/narrator.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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