Looking for another Lethal Hostage, then look again: Sun Honglei, Aaron Kwok and Yu Nan star in this courtroom crime drama…
In some quarters, writer/director Fei Xing’s big-budget follow-up to The Man Behind the Courtyard House has been hailed as a mainland ‘game-changer’ on a par with Infernal Affairs. Somewhat hard to believe in the opening scene, where a courtroom drama is played out with the subtlety of a Telenovela. And not a very good one at that.
Silent Witness opens on a high-profile case of the murder of a tycoon Lin Tai (Sun Honglei, Drug War, Lethal Hostage, Seven Swords) mistress by his daughter Mengmeng (Deng Jiajia). As the China watches the televised case, a wisecracking production team help introduce the equally prominent lawyers who represent the state and defendant; prosecutor Tong Tao (Aaron Kwok, Cold War, The Detective, Conspirators, The Storm Warriors) and defence attorney Zhou Li (Yu Nan, The Expendables 2, In Love We Trust, Jingzhe, Lunar Eclipse). The camera pings around the screen like a tennis match, as the overbearing score continually peaks at each denouncement, all with the subtleness of a very unsophisticated film from some 40 or 50 years ago. As we rally to a quick conclusion in the courtroom it appears to be an open and shut case, but wait… who really killed the mistress?
The high theatrics of the courtroom are deliberate, as these characters play their roles note perfectly as if on a stage, often manipulated by another – but it’s overplayed to a cringe worthy extent. Away from the courtroom, famed cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (House Of Flying Daggers, The Assassins, The Flowers Of War, Little Big Soldier) allows his camera to take in the performances, framing them with well with few cutaways, as the score dies away to nothing.
It’s here some of the cast get to shine. Unsurprisingly, Sun Honglei brings much humanity to his role as a heartless, corrupt mogul, though at the risk of changing him almost unrecognisably to an upright citizen. It fails to capture highpoints like Lethal Hostage and Drug War as he’s a minimal actor not well suited to melodramatic declarations. The real star of the show is Yu Nan; an equally minimal player her performance basically blows away everyone else on screen.
Elsewhere the cast are not as well represented. Kwok brings some post-Cold War glamour to his role, but is allowed little depth beyond his unerring, almost robotic aim to carry out justice. That could be pointed at his performance, but an unconvincing home life and pointless backstory give him little ammunition to work with. Similarly Deng Jiajia’s simpering performance as Mengmeng reduces her to simpering simpleton, rather than sympathetic character.
Much as Courtyard did, director Fei uses a device to rewind the action at certain points and replay it from a different perspective. Here paying reference to Kurosawa’s Rashomon via Zhang’s Hero, this time it’s not the details that change but the characters motivations behind them. Much has been made of this mechanism, which at least impressively keeps the plot moving through the 2 hour running time, but it holds few dramatic surprises other than letting some of the cast members show their talents off a little more. Unavoidable comparisons to Lethal Hostage point to a far more poetic, less showboating overlapping of time periods.
Criticisms for both Silent Witness and its predecessor The Man Behind the Courtyard House have been levelled at having to pander to the guidelines laid down by SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television), but that can’t excuse such a simplistic approach to cinema and a condescending tone towards its audience. But maybe in some ways maybe this really is a game changer. Here the guilty party gets off free – or at least that future is uncertain – on the understanding that they become a responsible, law-abiding citizen from now on. And that really is audacious for a SARFT-approved film, but maybe not in a good way.
If you were hoping that the snappy title was going to lead to another Lethal Hostage, then think again. There’s no doubting Silent Witness is entertaining despite it’s length, but it only builds towards histrionic melodrama in the final reel. No surprises there, then…