Tuesday 27 February 2024

The Current Cinema - Inveterate cinephile Barrie Pattison uncovers a new film by Zhang Yimou ARTICLE 20 (DI ER SHI TIAO, China, 2024)

 First up let me say that Di er shi tiao/Article 20 is a film that everyone should have a look at. This is not because it is satisfying as a dramatic entertainment or that it is an accurate depiction of contemporary China, though occasionally it is not without those qualities. It’s not even a good match with the taste of its target audience. The film has had an unspectacular reception there. What it is is an ambitious, officially approved presentation of the country from Zhang Yimou their most prestigious film maker.

This one is a film for what used to be called China watchers. Do we still have China watchers? The interest is in trying to figure out what the authorities want to tell their public. It is an extension of the line of long, over complex contemporary legal drama like Zhang’s 1992’s Qiu Ju da guan si/Qiu Ju or I Am Not Mme. Bovary. The real business of the film is the depiction of the Chinese legal system, which they tell us is flexible enough to prioritise intelligence and compassion over court precedent. So much for the rule of law do I hear you say? In a period where we see the sentences imposed on anti-democracy activists under constant outside criticism and we are told that decisions are made before trials, this is particularly informative.


Through the accident of ethnic screening, we get a chance to consider this under ideal circumstances – an impeccable English sub-titled copy running simultaneously with its home turf first release. 


Zhang Yimou

The opening recalls Zhang Yimou’s recent Jian ru pan shi/Under the Light, where one level-headed individual is able to handle a crisis. Here a truck blockade at the court house is brought under control by middle-aged (he’s already dyeing his hair) temporary prosecutor Jiayin Lei, whose presence of mind gets him put onto the case, despite the unease of boss and one-time college squeeze Gao Ye. Dim surveillance video shows villager Pan Binlong repeatedly stabbing Alan Aruna the demonstrators' now comatose employer. Unsavory allegations of the man raping the worker’s deaf mute wife Zhao Liying emerge. She has fled with their child. 


As if that wasn’t enough to sustain the film, Jiayin’s middle school boy Liu Yaowen has been in a fight with the son of local boss Yu Hewei and is hiding from investigation and a third case from Jiayin’s past has come back to require attention. The image of the girl with the smashed bike helmet on the hospital bench is particularly disturbing. The intervention of Jiayin’s assertive wife Li Ma proves disastrous. Keeping up with these intrigues for a couple of hours takes all the attention an outside audience can bring to it. The sensationalist material shown later undermines conviction.


I’m not the ideal commentator. I sat there thinking how flat-footed the lengthy scenes of domestic comedy were, while the Asian audience around me (quite a reasonable number for a mid-week matinee) guffawed at dialogue we were told meant “the noodles are cooking.” I was distracted by thinking about the Western films I’d seen, which aired the situations – the angry workers complaining that the legal proceedings involving their employer were delaying payment of their salaries in the 1979 Victor Lanoux Un si joli village…, the school bullies in Helmut Kautner’s one imposing U.S. film, the 1958 The Restless Years, the mobs in They Won’t Forget or When the Dalton’s Rode, or even the demonstrators outside Lou Grant’s paper, who don’t recognise him and ask for the names of famous editors, being offered Ben Bradley and Superman’s Perry White. This line of thought was really about as productive as Oliver Stone's showing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Vladimir Putin .


The good news is that the filmmaking is superior, outside a lachrymose western score complete with awful playout song. Crisp widescreen images effectively establish contrasting situations – the business-like court officials and the mean villagers, the ordered offices and the giant building site manned by a watchman on the lookout for building inspectors, street food and the boss’ banquet, with the ritual pouring of toasts. Curiously we don’t see police premises. The brother in law cop brings his documentation to our lead and shows up at scenes of group agitation. Let’s not worry too much about Gao Ye’s surprise proficiency in sign language. This one is the best depiction of present-day China I know.  The cast is familiar to their own audience and manages effective, unshaded characters. I must admit I found myself damp eyed at Jiayin’s address to the judgment panel, witnessed and relayed by his son to Li Ma with the endorsement “Dad is awesome.” Maybe Oliver Stone was right. At this point, we are not all that far away from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

NB - ARTICLE 20 is currently screening at 27 Cinemas around Australia including  Hoyts Burwood and Hoyts Broadway and Event Cinemas George Street in Sydney

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.