Silent Witness (Quan Min Mu Ji): Film Review

A novel attempt for Chinese cinema in tackling the courtroom-thriller genre is weighed down by a denouement defined by an overarching belief in human goodness.

Chinese A-listers Sun Honglei and Yu Nan team up with Hong Kong star Aaron Kwok for a legal drama revolving around a tycoon trying to clear his daughter from charges of murdering his celebrity girlfriend.

With a story revolving around a powerful political figure and his offspring being put on trial, multiple testimonies being overturned at the stand and courtroom proceedings spiraling into a poisonous expose of trysts and sexual misdeeds, Silent Witness somehow mirrors the very high-profile trials in China of, first, former Politburo member Bo Xilai (who was arrested and indicted for corruption, among other charges) and then Li Tianyi (the son of a top-ranking general and one of five men charged and tried for gang-raping a young woman). Such proximity to actual events unfolding in the country probably plays a part in the film’s steady progress at the local box office -- its daily gross since opening on Friday was beaten only by the 3-D Smurfs sequel -- and director Fei Xing’s experiment with nonlinear multi-perspective storytelling has certainly offered something new in a country where courtroom dramas are rare and mostly driven by state-sanctioned ideology.

NEWS ANALYSIS: China's Bo Xilai: Prosecutors Seek Stiff Sentence as Trial Ends

While Silent Witness should be credited for making a step forward in trying to engage the mainland Chinese film industry with genre cinema -- in this case, the courtroom-bound crime thriller -- its flaws also illustrate the challenges of tackling such productions under a censorship regime that frowns on narratives deviating into any sort of moral ambiguity. While being entertained by all the intriguing twists and turns, domestic Chinese audiences will probably be let down by how Fei -- who also wrote the screenplay -- allows everyone to eventually emerge with their honor intact, when real-life events actually laid bare legal proceedings in which the accused, the witnesses and even the state itself are treading in pretty murky moral waters.

The film’s English title -- as per its more obvious Chinese counterpart, which literally translates to “Observed by the Entire Public” -- refers to how the trial of Lin Mengmeng (Deng Jiajia) is to take place: The proceedings -- which revolve around the university student’s trial for murder -- are to be broadcast live online and through Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter. The case has attracted much public attention because of the young woman’s background and the nature of the crime she is accused of. She is charged with murdering the starlet girlfriend of her father Lin Tai (Sun Honglei, Drug War), a tycoon with the checkered legal record of having been hit with multiple charges of fraud over the years.

The film’s first quarter is exactly as advertised on the can: It offers the proceedings as seen very much from above board, as state prosecutor Tong Tao (Aaron Kwok, Cold War) cruises to a seemingly easy conviction until defense counsel Zhou Li (Yu Nan, The Expendables 2 and Tuya’s Marriage) throws the case wide open as she manages to provoke Tong’s star witness, Lin Tai’s longtime subordinate Sun Wei (Zhao Lixin) into admitting he murdered the woman as an act of revenge against what he describes as Lin’s long-running affair with his wife.

The film has barely hit the half-hour mark as this happens, so the seemingly bizarre scenario of such a sudden breakdown in procedure, trust and allegiances is nearly destined to be a smokescreen: As the proceedings are rewound to the beginning and retold from different characters' points of view -- first from Tong’s, then from Zhou’s, and finally from that of the mastermind of the whole cover-up -- the courtroom drama on show at first is dismantled, as the strange developments that shaped those initial exchanges gradually get embellished and explained, while the individual characters are seen putting behind-the-scenes machinations into place.

Indeed, the lawyers’ pursuit of the truth offers riveting drama, in which the prosecuting and defense teams are seemingly being manipulated in a game plan unfolding out of their control. The sense of helplessness, however, could have been amplified if only Fei could direct his leads from playing up heroism or cynicism to the level of caricature: While Yu’s distant demeanor could be explained by the illogic that defines her character’s move in sacrificing her client (and then herself) for the greater good, Kwok’s performance as a one-man champion of justice and truth ranks alongside some of the more over-the-top turns he has delivered in his career.

But to blame the actor alone for this is perhaps unfair: Kwok’s performance is nearly inevitable given how the film peels away its intrigue to reveal a web of good intentions wrapped around the deceptions placed before the public and the court. It’s perhaps ironic that one of the more damning critiques in the film is how cynical lawyers are happy to whip up public empathy for their clients to help their case, because sensationalism works best for the masses, who (as Zhou says, with a smirk) are “good-natured people.” Silent Witness also plays with the "good-natured" imagination of the viewer, but elects to provide a denouement defined by incredible acts of self-sacrifice. In this sense, Fei’s film stays true to its title: For all its aesthetic merits -- Zhao Xiaoding’s camerawork has, with the help of Su Lifeng and Kwong Chi-leung’s editing, heightened the tension on screen as battles and schemes unfold -- the film can only offer a taciturn response to the eye-popping manifestations of ugly human nature unfolding in real-life Chinese courtrooms today.

Venue: Public Screening, Shenzhen (released in China on Sept. 13)

Production Companies: Beijing 21st Century Weike Pictures Investment, TIK Films (Beijing) Pictures, Anhui TV, Beijing New Film Association, Inlook Media, Beijing Maite Media,

Director: Fei Xing
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Sun Honglei, Yu Nan, Deng Jiajia, Zhao Lixin
Producer: Xiao Pingkai
Screenwriter: Fei Xing
Director of Photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Editors: Su Lifeng, Kwong Chi-leung
Music: Yang Chuoxin
Art Director: Chen Shikun
In Mandarin/Putonghua
No ratings, 120 minutes