Before the screening of Silent Witness, it was introduced as an example of what mainstream Chinese filmmaking is like in the modern era. Many of the films that play at the New York Asian Film Festival fit into some sort of niche, meaning we get a skewed vision of what Asian cinema is. There are the big films that duke it out with American blockbusters in the big theaters, and either they never hit our shores or they don’t show in places that most people see.
If Silent Witness is anything to go by, that’s a shame, because Chinese mainstream cinema is alive and well. The quality of its production is undeniable and its narrative is as compelling as anything to come from Hollywood in the past couple of years.
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Silent Witness (Quán Mín Mù Jī | 全民目擊)
Director: Fei Xing
Courtroom dramas have always fascinated me. In any given crime, there is a single objective truth: the perpetrator committed the crime, or they didn’t. It’s a black and white reality that’s mired by a whole lot of gray. Sometimes the crime was committed for legitimate reasons, ones that could allow the “criminal” to walk. Sometimes the real crime is hidden and some serious digging needs to be done. Most of the time, actual courtrooms are a whole lot less interesting than the ones you see in movies. But why would someone make a movie about a straightforward case?
Silent Witness isn’t a reflection of reality, straddling a line between the familiar and something ridiculous like the Phoenix Wright games (brilliantly adapted by Takashi Miike). In these stories, the police are basically useless, forcing the lawyers to go search out evidence in all manner of ways, going out on wild goose chases based on super-secret intel or even hunches. These aren’t things an actual lawyer does, but they make for a far more interesting story.
On trial is the daughter of the famous entrepreneur Lin Tai (Sun Honglei) for the murder of his girlfriend. Heading up the prosecution is Tong Tao (Aaron Kwok), a man who has been trying to convict Lin Tai for years. The defense is Zhou Li (Yu Nan), the most expensive lawyer in the country. It’s a battle that plays out primarily on the public stage, and it’s fascinating how it unfolds. Especially in the beginning, the film makes extensive use of a newsroom as a producer tries to create the most compelling TV drama he can. Choosing subjects and cameras from behind the scenes, he gives insight into how the media can manipulate a viewer’s impressions of people and an event.
It’s a fitting metaphor, because everything in the trial is every bit as manipulated. Unclear motivations, misunderstands, and false evidence are about. Twists and turns come rapid-fire, and by the time everything becomes clear, it turns out that nobody is really who they seemed. The biases that everyone brought into the courtroom painted very specific pictures of the characters, but people are rarely so black-and-white. Fortunately, Silent Witness knows this, and everybody is given some nuance to clarify and even redeem them.
And this gets to the part of the narrative that’s uniquely Chinese. While much of the film could really take place anywhere in the world, the true reverence for family (and not just family values) is foreign. There is an extremely strong bond between Lin Tai and his daughter, and that bond drives everything in the film. It’s kind of heartbreaking, really, but it all feels very natural and real. Bravo to the performances on all sides.
As an interesting aside, actor Aaron Kwok is from Hong Kong, and his Mandarin is not particularly good. You’d never know it from watching Silent Witness, though, because he had someone read out the ~60,000 character script and put it onto a CD for him to listen to. He memorized the entire thing like a song, and then acted on top of that. It’s a brilliant bit of theatre underlying the whole narrative. While I’m no expert on the intricacies of Chinese dialects, the shocked reactions from the crowd (which featured no small number of Chinese natives) when director Fei Xing mentioned it told me that Kwok pulled it off with aplomb.
As I watched Silent Witness, I kept coming back to the idea of the mainstream. I wondered whether or not this sort of narrative could be popular in the US, and I still don’t know the answer to that. Courtroom dramas make for good TV, but they rarely succeed on the big screen. If the film truly represents Chinese cinema, then that’s a sign of a film market that has excellent potential to grow with all kinds of narratives. If Silent Witness can succeed in theaters side by side with juggernauts like the new Transformers film, then the industry is going to thrive.
And that’s a future I’m looking to.