Silent Witness (China, 2013) [NYAFF 2014]

The courtroom drama may be a rather hackneyed genre in the West due to the volume of fictional cases that have been tried on the big screen, not to mention in the countless legal series which fill up network television schedules, but in China it’s potentially the next big thing. As censorship restrictions severely limit the opportunity to create narratives that rely heavily on moral ambiguity, there have been few chances for mainstream audiences to enjoy the kind of dramatic grandstanding that occurs when sharply-suited actors get to yell ‘objection!’ or reveal the truth with cunning cross-examination. Silent Witness reaped healthy domestic box office returns due to its novelty value, although its convoluted mystery is actually a ruse for a state-approved morality play in which self-sacrifice is celebrated and guilty parties can be redeemed. The accused in this case is Lin Mengmeng (Deng Jiajia), the daughter of wealthy and possibly corrupt businessman Lin Tai (Sun Honglei) who has found herself on trial for the murder of her father’s pop star girlfriend. State prosecutor Tong Tao (Aarok Kwok) is confident of a conviction, although Lin has the benefit of a defense from expensive counsel Zhou Li (Yu Nan).

Writer-director Fei Xing is soon indulging in courtroom theatrics with Zhou’s questioning of Lin’s long-time chauffer resulting in a surprise confession that wins a victory for her client. The director then utilizes nonlinear structure as the film jumps around to show events before, during and after the trial from the perspective of its key participants, gradually revealing how they are all involved – in some cases unwittingly – in a master plan to manipulate the course of justice. With its high gloss aesthetic and seemingly inexhaustible supply of twists, Silent Witness sometimes plays like a trimmed-down version of a television miniseries which has had its subtleties jettisoned in order to compress the main drama into an easily digestible two hours. Taking his cue from small screen procedurals, Fei uses quick edits and blaring sound effects whenever characters enter rooms, get in and out of sleek vehicles, or receive cellphone calls to emphasize the high stakes involved, while the press circus surrounding the trial is used for quick exposition. Early cutaways to a television studio suggests that Fei is intent on crafting a suspenseful spin on Chen Kaige’s media satire Caught in the Web (2012) but their involvement is curtailed once he gets into the machinations behind the case.

As with most current commercial releases from mainland China, everyone here is well-groomed to point that characters are largely defined by their perfectly coiffed hairstyles, although Yu and Sun ultimately pull off credible performances as the gradual reveals allow them to add shading to their respective stock roles of ambitious lawyer and arrogant tycoon. Kwok is the unintentional stand-out, delivering a turn that can best be summarised as a continuous reaction shot. His crusading bluster is meant to contrast with Yu’s guarded coolness but often elicits laughter through a repertoire of theatrical gestures and exaggerated facial expressions which would be better suited to a genre parody. The behaviour of both lawyers is indicative of the film’s belief in fundamental human goodness as they prioritise the truth over their professional egos, thereby presenting an idealised take on a profession that, in todays’s China, is cynically regarded as a breeding ground for white collar opportunism. While its rarely more than moderately involving and too sanitized in its presentation of China’s legal system to be of interest in relation to recent real-life scandals, Silent Witness is smoothly engineered enough that you at least want to see whodunit, even if the redemptive coda takes the sting out of the tail.

Silent Witness is showing on July 6 at the Walter Reade Theater. The full schedule for NYAFF 2014 can be found here.