Courting screen success

Why a new legal drama is a breakthrough for Chinese cinema

Fujq w

Ready to cross-examine the witness: Yu Nan plays the defence lawyer

The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. That kind of thinking seems to have inspired the producers of US legal drama The Good Wife – a show which derives many of its plot lines from real life court cases.

For example, in an early episode entitled ‘Lifeguard’ the law firm Stern, Lockhart and Gardner discovers that a judge has been sending huge numbers of juveniles to a detention centre. It turns out that the owner of this facility is paying kickbacks to the judge so that he can fill it with inmates and claim more government funds.

This was based on a real scam involving two judges in Pensylvannia, which gained notoriety as the ‘cash for kids scandal’ in 2008. One of the judges was sentenced to 28 years in prison and hundreds of his flimsy convictions were subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.

In China today another courtroom drama is causing a stir – this time because of its resemblance to two high-profile trials that took place in the last few months.

In this case, the format is a movie, not a TV show. The plot of Silent Witness follows a trial involving a powerful tycoon (played by Sun Honglei) and his daughter (Deng Jiajia), who is accused of murder. The ensuing courtroom battle pits their lawyer (Yu Nan) against the prosecutor (Aaron Kwok). Though fictional, director Fei Xing, who also wrote the script, has produced a timely film that contains plenty of references to real events.

For instance, the murder trial in the film is broadcast live on the internet and through weibo, resembling the trial of former Politburo member Bo Xilai (see WiC210). And similar to the trial of Li Tianyi, the son of a top-ranking general convicted in a gang rape case (see WiC184), Silent Witness tells the story of a fuerdai or ‘rich second generation’. A key theme: whether justice will be served in court because of the accused’s political connections.

Courtroom drama is a well-trodden genre in Hollywood but relatively rare in China. Court proceedings are normally a secretive process even for less sensitive cases. And even higher-profile Chinese trials have little of the drama of the US courts, usually being one-day pro forma hearings without witnesses and cross-examinations. Justice is dispatched with a minimum of fuss (former railways minister Liu Zhijun’s trial for corruption lasted less than four hours when it took place in June). And defendants are usually found guilty. Cases rarely hang on a knife edge.

But if comments on weibo are anything to go by, Silent Witness has struck a chord with moviegoers. Many say the film is fun to watch, with twists and turns. The unpredictable plot has generated a lot of approval. “Finally a suspense thriller that doesn’t reveal the ending at the beginning of the film,” one netizen lauded.

Film critics have been impressed too. “The entire structure of the film is very creative, something that’s not seen very often in domestic films. And even though a lot of scenes are inside the courtroom, it doesn’t feel boring. The non-linear way of storytelling is also very innovative,” says the Bohai Morning Post.

Legal experts are less convinced. Beijing Evening News say that lawyers who have seen the film report it’s frustrating to watch because it seems oblivious to the proper procedures of a Chinese court.

Some of the complaints are stylistic. For instance, Kwok, a stylish Hong Kong actor, sports a beard in the film (Kwok explained at a press conference that he grew it to look more “mature” for his role as a prosecutor). But Li Wei, who works as a prosecutor at the Third Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate, told the Beijing Evening News that this wouldn’t be acceptable since beards and long hair are forbidden for officers of the law. Similarly, make-up, nail polish and hair dye is frowned upon for their female equivalents.

There are procedural objections too, especially for a scene in which an anonymous video is presented as last-minute evidence. Legal experts complain that this is “unthinkable” because all the evidence presented in court needs to be identified and documented in advance. “The fact that this video from an unknown source was presented directly in court as evidence is totally ridiculous, no court would ever allow that,” Li sniffs, setting the record straight.

Li’s view is that the producers of Silent Witness are unaware of the standard procedures in a Chinese court, so instead chose to draw on courtroom dramas from Hong Kong and Hollywood itself for inspiration.

Not that cinema audiences seem too bothered. So far Silent Witness has taken Rmb200 million ($32.8 million) at the domestic box office (it cost an estimated Rmb68 million to make). In fact, director Fei told reporters that he’s already working on the sequel.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.