Film Review - Red Corner (1997)
'Red Corner' is a courtroom drama, a story about a terrifying ordeal, and a film about a most unlikely romantic liaison. Set in the Republic of China, 'Red Corner' stars Richard Gere as an American businessman, confident and assured when doing his job in foreign climes, but a helpless fish out of water when circumstances lead to his arrest on a charge of murder - a charge he vehemently denies. Bai Ling co-stars as the Chinese Party lawyer who is appointed to defend him in court.
The broad subject matter is perhaps a slightly clichéd 'one man against the system' story, but the setting and circumstances of an American being tried for murder in a Chinese court makes this an ususual movie.
This is my review of 'Red Corner'.
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WHAT'S THE STORY ?
Jack Moore is a businessman. At the start of this movie he is in Beijing, China trying to clinch a deal between an American satellite company and Chinese television. It's a delicate negotiation - there's a rival German bid. What's more, elements within the Chinese Government are less than happy with the 'pornographic' element of Jack's presentation. Negotiations proceed between Jack and Lin Dan and they follow the usual course of international negotiations everywhere. After the serious business comes a night of wining and dining - a night-club, a cultural show, and a fashion show on a catwalk. It is whilst at the fashion show that Jack's eye is caught by one of the models - an attractive young lady called Hong Ling. The two meet up and chat, one thing (and a few drinks) leads to another, and the couple wind up in Jack's plush Beijing hotel room. They spend the night together. A fateful night for both of them.
Jack is torn from his sleep a few hours later by police officers. He smells of booze, his shirt is blood spattered, and Hong Ling lies dead on the couch. He is confused. As he's dragged to the police station he doesn't know what has happened and what is happening to him now. But he does know one thing - he is being accused of Ling's murder. It is the beginning of a nightmare for an American caught up in a country with a different language and different rules. The assumption is that he is guilty and he is pressurised to confess. Confession will make things easier for him. If he claims to be innocent but is then found guilty - a foregone conclusion - he will be shot. He is brutalised by hellish prison conditions, nobody listens to him, and half the time no one is prepared to even explain what's going on. And when young lawyer Shen Yuelin is appointed to nominally represent him, his fears of an unfair hearing are compounded. She doesn't even bother meeting him before entering a plea of 'guilty'. He's not happy about it - she seems to want to get the trial over with. She's seemingly just towing the official line in Communist China.
Even the American embassy is powerless to help him. His fate seems sealed. He tries to dismiss Shen Yuelin and defend himself in court, but it's not practical and there is no one else, Jack Moore is in a critical situation he cannot understand and he has no friend in the world. He is forced to rely on his Chinese lawyer.
But slowly things change. Shen Yuelin does her job and investigates and certain anomalies come to light. She begins to believe Jack's story, and she agrees to alter his plea to not guilty. She negotiates for Jack to leave prison under a guarantee so they can revisit the scenes of the crime together. It becomes clearer that Jack may have been set up - a necessary victim in a business conspiracy which may well involve high ranking police or political figures. A bond begins to develop between Jack and Shen Yuelin as they try to work out what has happened. It seems a level of trust is growing, but also something else. Both begin to feel an attraction for each other - an affection which rapidly develops. However, despite the good intentions of Yuelin, Jack moore's fate still seems dire, until circumstances intervene. An incident involving an attempt on his life forces Jack to panic. He escapes his captors and he makes a desperate bid for freedom - a bid that ends in triumph as he makes it to the American Embassy and here he is granted safe haven. His troubles are over.
But then Jack learns exactly what the guarantee negotiated by Shen Yuelin involves. It's not a money bail - it's a guarantee based upon reputation. She has put her career and maybe her life on the line to help him, and his escape from Chinese justice will make her life impossible. Suddenly it is not Jack who is all alone in a friendless country; it is Shen Yuelin, and Jack has to make a decision whether to stay safe on U.S embassy territory, or re-enter Chinese territory and police custody - the only way he can repay Yuelin's faith in him, but an act which may well lead to his execution.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
Chi Yu Li
THE FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Jon Avnet
WRITER / SCREENPLAY :
- Robert King
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1997
RUNNING TIME : 122 mins
GENRE : Crime Drama
GUIDENCE : Some nudity, though not very explicit and not full frontal. Some brutal prison scenes
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : None
KEY CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCES
Only two performances really matter in this movie - between them Richard Gere and Bai Ling dominate almost every scene, and one or the other is ever present.
Richard Gere's character is Jack Moore, about as likeable as a rich and confident businessman reduced to panic ridden desperation can be. It's a good competent performance as Gere manages to convey quite effectively just how traumatising it must feel to be alone in a country without friends, bewildered and confused by a strange language and very alien customs, knowing that his life may hang in the balance and having no way to defend himself. It must be almost the loneliest feeling in the world.
Bai Ling, who hails originally from the Province of Schezuan, gives a really convincing characterisation in her first few scenes as a coldly clinical and seemingly unemotional lawyer, who may or may not have a heart, but who tows the Communist Party line. She defends Jack in the way she feels is best for him, but with little sensitivity to his predicament. Later in the fiilm we see the other side of her character Shen Yuelin, as belief in Jack Moore and affection for the American begins to develop and the tears flow as she reminisces about her tough past life. Whether or not this sudden warmth in relations is credible, Bai Ling certainly gives an endearing performance as a young woman trapped in a system with a guilt complex about the past.
Among other actors who should be mentioned, the catwalk model Hong Ling who is Jack Moore's date is played by real life model, TV presenter and actress Jessey Meng who hails from Taiwan. Byron Mann plays Lin Dan, a central figure in the business negotiations which Jack Moore is conducting, and James Hong plays his father Lin Shu, a minister in the Chinese Government. The presiding judge at Jack's trial is Chairman Xu, played by Tsain Chin. Xu has little time for Jack's protestations, but it seems that under the Chinese judicial system she is not in full control of her own courtroom, as she is answerable to Party officials. Robert Stanton is the American embassy official Ed Pratt who tries to help Jack. His role is not entirely sympathetic - he does his best for Jack Moore, but his hands are tied by diplomatic niceties and red tape. Bradley Whitford plays Jack's business associate Bob Ghery.
Reception of this film was not particularly good when it was released in America. Some felt that (despite the director's striving for authenticity as described opposite) the film gives a stereotyped account of Chinese justice, and it was seen by some as a vehicle for Richard Gere's own political views (pro-Tibet / anti-China). In the opinion of some, the film tackles an important subject without offering anything of real substance before descending into Hollywood-style romance and courtroom dénouement.
Certainly the end of the trial is a little rushed. All the evidence is produced in the last ten minutes of the trial and then the characters - the accused parties and the relative of the deceased Hong Ling - behave more like the actors in a cheap TV movie than Communist state officials.
One of Bai Ling's grandfathers was himself persecuted during the Cultural Revolution for his political affiliations. Bai Ling grew up in China and served in the Red Army in Tibet as a 'child soldier' between the ages of 14 and 17, though her main roles were in entertainment and as an army nurse (see the photo reference below). After visiting America in 1991, she obtained a visa which permitted her to stay, and she became a U.S citizen in 1999.
In the scene in Shen Yuelin's home, the photos are of Bai Ling herself. These include childhood images and also a photograph of Bai Ling when she was serving in Tibet. The layout of the room was also heavily influenced by Bai Ling's knowledge of domestic Chinese life.
Very little of this movie was filmed in China - indeed only about two minutes of movie footage (landscape and cityscape scenes) were shot in the country. Most other sequences were filmed on sets in America and many sequences were CGI generated from still photos taken in China. The director and co-producers had gone to China accompanied by Bai Ling to do as much research as possible. None of the shots involving Richard Gere were filmed in China as he could not gain entry.
How accurate is the drama? Director Jon Avnet believes from conversations with former prisoners in the Chinese penal system, notably dissidents, that the harshness of the treatment meted out to Jack Moore in this movie is an accurate depiction. Indeed, the suggestion is that it would have been even worse for a Chinese civilian accused of murder than for a foreign citizen. According to the director, courtroom sequences are authentic, though some speculation as to the precise nature of a trial against an American citizen is inevitable as no American has been charged with quite such a heinous crime in real life. Unsurprisingly, the film was banned in China.
Many of the minor characters in this movie are played by genuine Mandarin speaking Chinese actors flown into America to take part. The director wanted the accents and mannerisms to be true to the people of mainland China rather than those of Chinese Americans or citizens of Taiwan or Hong Kong.
The courtroom sequences have an austerity about them, and the judge's control or dismissal of any evidence presented creates a quite frightening impression of Chinese justice.
Believable settings always help to make a movie more attractive and the scene in Shen Yuelin's home is a touching interlude. Yuelin plays a pipa (a Chinese guitar-like instrument which creates a very beautiful sound), and we meet her grandmother, who lives with her and shares a bed in what seems like a tiny apartment. Without this sequence, the character of Shen Yuelin would have less depth, and would be harder to relate to.
Jack Moore, safely ensconced in the American embassy under diplomatic protection confronts Shen Yuelin with the question 'Why?' Why had this Chinese lawyer put her career on the line for him - a virtual stranger - when scepticism about his story had been her first inclination. Shen Yuelin says:
- 'I always assumed the worst about you. I've never questioned. I have always accepted things. It is the same as when I was a child.'
Jack Moore presses her for more information about her past, and it transpires that as a child Yuelin had witnessed her father persecuted during the years of the Cultural Revolution. The tears begin to flow:
- 'I - I watched my father be humiliated and I said nothing. I watched my father be spat on. I did nothing. I even watched my classmates pour black ink over his head, one after another after another. What did I do? I hid my head in shame while he was dragged away. I never questioned. I was blind. I am very sorry that I did not believe your innocence. But now I do. I do.'
This is a sentimental scene - the seemingly bureaucratic Communist Party lawyer is showing her human side. She's revealing how she's never before stood against authority - she's only done what she was 'supposed' to do. Now for the first time she wants to do the right thing - and prove Jack's innocence.
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Shen Yuelin spells out for Jack a very fundamental aspect of Chinese justice in which state takes precedence over individuals, and she explains why she initially entered a plea of guilty. This is key to understanding the attitude both of Yuelin and of the court:
- 'In our country, moral education of criminals is of great importance. Leniency is granted to those who confess. Severity's required for those who insist on their innocence.'
The film is not kind to the Chinese judicial system, but also takes a few swipes at American life, and this quote by Ed Pratt explains how things may look from the Chinese point of view, by turning the predicament around:
- 'If a Chinese guy woke up at the Plaza Hotel with a dead American girl in his suite, and the Chinese Government tried to muscle in on his trial ... I kind of see their point.'
Much of the emotional drama in this movie derives from the fact that Jack Moore is all alone in a hostile country, with nobody he can turn to. But when he realises that Shen Yuelin has put everything on the line to defend him properly, he realises that she is now in exactly the same boat. He reflects from the sanctury of the U.S Embassy:
- 'She's out there all alone isn't she?'
WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT ?
It is difficult to discuss the credibility of the courtroom drama given the criticisms of stereotyping and Hollywood style characterisations, but director Jon Avnet gives a narration on DVD presentations in which he describes the thinking behind each scene of 'Red Corner' and the advice he received from Chinese nationals. He clearly believes in the accuracy of his cultural details, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I can accept that the basics of the court and prison procedures may be accurate.
The relationship between Jack Moore and Shen Yuelin is almost as central to this story as the criminal investigation, and even more important in the success of the film. Seemingly at first there is little to connect the wealthy but desperate American businessman and the dour Chinese lawyer. But gradually it becomes clear that they have more than one thing in common. Both have incidents in their past that they are hiding from - Jack has engrossed himself in his work following the tragic death of his wife and child many years before, and Shen Yuelin has bottled up her remorse over the persecution of her father and her own reluctance to help him. In this film Jack begins his court case friendless and alone. But Shen Yuelin's efforts on his behalf mean that she too becomes increasingly friendless and alone. They have to rely on each other and trust each other with their very lives. The relationship develops:
- 'My duty is to prove your innocence - It is also my wish.'
If such a relationship seems unlikely in real life - well, so are fairy tale romances, yet that needn't stop one enjoying the story. Gere and Bai Ling have a good chemistry in their scenes together, and the story appeals for the manner in which two people of different cultures and beliefs come together in adversity and find common ground in their lives.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
'Red Corner' is a film which some will see as a missed opportunity to make a really hard hitting film about Chinese justice, or perhaps a really hard hitting psychological study of a man under duress, or maybe a really hard hitting story about the limited ability of an embassy to protect its citizens abroad. But I think it is unfair to condemn a film for what it was never intended to be. 'Red Corner' doesn't have quite such grandiose intentions. Despite the obvious distaste for the legal system in China, this film is meant to be an entertaining drama about an awful predicament and the unusual and warm relationship which develops out of that predicament, when two people of widely differing backgrounds are brought together. Watch it for what it is, and I think it makes for an enjoyable two hours of movie watching.
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