J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Silent Witness

Evidently, the Chinese legal system is not overly concerned with potential conflicts of interest. For instance, nobody objects to a hotshot state’s attorney prosecuting the daughter of his longtime nemesis, even though she is also the beloved pupil of his art teacher wife. His integrity may very well be above reproach, but the defense attorney will possibly cut a few ethical corners that would be spoilery to address in detail. However, it is safe to say the media-frenzy trial is never headed exactly where the opposing counsels assume in Fei Xing’s Silent Witness (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

About the only cases Tong Tao has lost were his white collar prosecutions of slippery financier Lin Tai. Despite his history with her father, Lin Mengmeng still knows him as “Uncle,” but the evidence she murdered her father’s pop idol fiancée is so overwhelming, he must prosecute her anyway. Indeed, it is all so open-and-shut her defense attorney Zhou Li passively sits on her hands, apparently resigned to defeat, until she suddenly obliterates a key prosecution witness. It seems to be more of a game-ender than a game-changer, but there are several more stunning revelations coming down the pike.

Given the title, one might assume somebody out there saw something important. However, Silent Witness is rather more complicated than that. It is a direct descendant of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, but it clearly depends on the “flexibility” of the Chinese legal system to revise charges on the fly. A case like this would have probably taken decades to unfold in American courts, but it feels like Fei’s characters wrap it up in about a week.

Regardless, the series of shoes he drops are invariably clever. Yet, there is real drama at the heart of the picture. Considering his work in Silent Witness, viewers are strongly advised not to play poker with Sun Honglei. Even though we can tell his Lin Tai is nursing a secret, he still successfully pulls the rug completely out from under the audiences feet. It is a wickedly subtle slow build that completely upends viewers’ responses.

Yu Nan and HK superstar Aaron Kwok nicely anchor the film as the legal eagles navigating the schemes within schemes. Deng Jiajia is also quite compelling as the emotionally stunted Mengmeng. In a smaller but critical role, Zhao Lixin perfectly sells the first reversal as the unreliable witness, Sun Wei. In fact, Silent Witness boasts an unusually deep bench of intriguing supporting players, such as NYAFF special guest Zishuo Ding, who brings verve and energy to the film as Zhou’s associate, Meizi.

Silent Witness presents a nifty series of twists and turns that take on real emotional stakes thanks to the fine work of Sun and the accomplished below-the-titles ensemble. It is such an effective thriller, it would not be surprising if Hollywood started sniffing around the remake rights. Highly recommended for fans of courtroom dramas, Silent Witness screens tomorrow night (7/6) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF. New Yorkers looking for a way to beat the physical heat today with some smoldering tension should also check out Jimmy Wong Yu in the taut and evocative Soul (full review here).

Labels: , , , , ,