'12 Citizens’: Shanghai Review

Courtesy of Rome Film Festival
An amusing, well-acted adaptation that’s more theater than film.

Xu Ang's film plays like Sidney Lumet’s jury drama "12 Angry Men" with a Chinese flavor.

It’s hard to imagine Sidney Lumet’s famous 1957 jury drama 12 Angry Men being remade in China, and yet voila: 12 Citizens (Shier gongmin) is an astonishingly faithful adaptation of Reginald Rose’s original teleplay. (William Friedkin also directed a 1997 remake for television.) Given that the tale is all about the American judicial system in which an accused person must be convicted “beyond a reasonable doubt” by a jury of his peers, director Xu Ang and his screenwriters have to do some fancy parlaying to make the story work in a Chinese context. Funny and absorbingly conflictual, the film might be interpreted as a parable about Chinese society in the process of change and learning from its mistakes under the guidance of a strong, righteous leader. It won the audience award in the main section of the Rome Film Festival last fall and is a savvy festival entry.

Since the action takes place in one room (here a warehouse-like space furnished with a long table and 12 chairs) and it’s all talk-talk-talk, Xu deftly slips into theatrical mode with the drama. One of China’s youngest stage directors, whose plays have won international awards, he makes a crafty choice for his film directing debut, in which serviceable, unobtrusive camerawork takes a backseat to the actors and their verbal clashes. The conflict of personalities makes the film engrossing, and the boldly sketched characters keep things lively.

The screenwriters cut through the knotty problem of China’s legal system differing from the U.S.’s with the simple expedient of a mock show trial. A fake jury, composed of the relatives of law school students, has been assembled as an educational aid to explore the Western system, and their verdict will have no effect on the outcome of a real court case under consideration. Once this unlikely premise is accepted, the trial can go on.

A dozen male jurors from all walks of life and social levels sit around the table on a hot summer day, barely interested in the real murder case at all. They think they know all about it from what they have read in the newspapers and seen on TV.

A young man is accused of stabbing his father to death. A lady across the street who saw the murder through the window has come forward as an eyewitness, and an elderly neighbor heard the boy shout, “I’m going to kill you,” before rushing down the stairs. The case seems cut-and-dried, open-and-shut, and the verdict a foregone conclusion. On the first vote, 11 jurors raise their hands for a guilty verdict. Only Juror No. 8 (no names are used) votes not guilty.

A loudmouthed taxi driver, a prejudiced landlord, an impatient doorman and a bored businessman are outraged. But Juror No. 8, played by the heroically unflappable He Bing, explains it’s not right to send a boy to his death without a discussion. He might be guilty — but they have to return the verdict beyond a reasonable doubt and their decision must be unanimous. Bucking the preconceived notions and prejudice of his fellow jurors, he slowly picks apart the witnesses’ stories until one by one the others change their vote. Though one can take issue with the glib final revelation about Juror No. 8, which rather explodes the film’s progressive democracy-by-the-people facade, there’s no disputing that He Bing offers a haven of sanity in a sea of shallow thinking. He's an apt heir to Henry Fonda’s mantle in the original film.

The other reason to watch this film is the light it casts on Chinese society today, particularly the wide social gap that has developed. Yet the jurors are more individualized than New Yorkers. The poor resent the rich, the city dwellers look down on the provincials, and a brooding gangster with a terrible haircut blames the justice system for his woes. The whole cast, who seem composed of veteran stage actors, is a bit exaggerated and over-the-top by film acting standards, but they make their point clearly and concisely.

Production company: Beijing Juben
Lei Jia, Wang Gang, Han Tonsheng, He Bing, Mi Tiezeng, Li Guangfu, Zhao Chunyang, Zhanbg Yongqiang, Ban Zan, Qian Bo, Liu Hui
Director: Xu Ang
Han Jiangtong, Li Yujiao, Xu Ang
Producers: Wang Luna, Li Liangwen
Director of photography: Cai Tao
Production designer: Zhang Yu

Costume designer: Luan Liming
Editor: Wang Gang
Music: Zeng Yu, Zeng Shaofeng Huang
No rating, 106 minutes