Sheng Dan Mei Gui (2013)

vt Christmas Rose
HK / 90 minutes / color / Bona, Creative Alliance, Distribution Workshop Dir & Story: Charlie Yeung/Young Pr: Tsui Hark, Jacob/Cheung Chi-leung Scr: Philip Lui Cine: Henry Chung, Chung Tung-leung, Chan Chi-ying Cast: Aaron Kwok, Gwei Lun-mei, Xia Yu, Qin Hai-lu, Chang Chen, Liu Kai-chi, Wan Qian/Regina Wan, Patricia Ha, Theresa Lee, Joe Cheung, Wong So-foon, Serissa Boggos.

Christmas Rose - 0 opener

Jing (Gwei Lun-mei) is found helpless on Dr. Zhou’s floor.

Tim Chen (Kwok) followed in his father’s footsteps as a defense attorney but was eternally soured by a case in which his father, defending an accused rapist, inadvertently induced the accuser to commit suicide. Now his father (Cheung) is a terminal patient in hospital and Tim’s loathing for him hasn’t abated. We understand that for many years Tim has yearned to outdo the old man; now he suddenly determines to defect to the other side, to become a prosecutor, and it seems his filial detestation is one of his reasons.

The first case that he’s handed sparks off echoes of the one that drove the wedge between him and his dad. Crippled piano teacher Jing/Jane Li (Lun-Mei) has accused a doctor, the coldly aloof Wenxuan/Winston Zhou (Chen), of sexually molesting her during a gynecological examination; since the nurse (So-foon) had darted briefly out of the consulting room for the couple of minutes during which the crime was supposedly committed, there’s really no evidence either way.

Christmas Rose - 2 Zhou, sexual molester or concerned physician QUERY

Wenxuan Zhou (Chang Chen), sexual molester or conscientious physician?

For this reason defense counsel Zhaowen/Freddy Xue (Yu) is convinced his client will walk free. Yet Tim is resolved to put Zhou away, partly because of his own past, partly because he can hardly be unaffected by Jing’s timid, pretty helplessness, her palpable innocence. One damning fact in the eyes of the court is that Zhou was not Jing’s regular physician; in fact, she was giving piano lessons to his little daughter Ting Ting/Tina (Boggos) and, when Jing complained of malaise, offered her the examination.

Much of the action of the movie takes place within the courtroom, and these scenes are neatly if unambitiously played. There are also Rashomon-like flashbacks of the witnesses’ testimonies, enacting the various diverging truths that the past could hold. Outside the court we see scenes of the Zhous’ domestic life, as the doctor’s beautiful wife Ming Jun (Hai-lu) desperately tries to retain faith in her husband’s integrity, less, it seems, because she trusts him—despite her public declarations—and more because she wants to keep the family together. And we see Jing interacting, during the course of the trial, with others who love her such as her friend and colleague Miss Luo (Lee) and even Tim’s girlfriend Megan (Wan). We get the sense that, in her quiet way, she’s taken a shine to Tim.

Christmas Rose - 1 Zhou & Mrs Z feel uncertainty creep in

The seams start to pull apart in the marriage of Wenxuan (Chang Chen) and Ming Jun Zhou (Qin Hai-lu).

When Zhou is found guilty of the crime, Tim is on the one side triumphant but on the other increasingly dubious about his own successful case; his prosecutor colleague Uncle Nan (Kai-chi) seems to have similar doubts, and urges Tim to have the courage to address his haunting newfound reservation that justice has really been done.

Tim’s suspicions were earlier aroused when he discovered that the two origami roses that Jing gave him during the trial as gestures of friendship revealed, when unfolded, written messages that were only a hairsbreadth short of love notes. She was in the habit, too, of giving her erstwhile employer, Zhou, origami roses; what messages could they have contained?

Christmas Rose - 4 Tim

Eager to please, Tim Chen (Aaron Kwok) seeks a conviction. Yet is he too eager, and whom is he trying to please?

Like any good defense attorney, Zhaowen doesn’t give up just because his client has been convicted. Soon he uncovers the truth about how Jing became paralyzed below the waist; it was not, as she has claimed, that she crippled herself escaping from a male nurse who was abusing her at the orphanage to which her mother consigned her when she was 10. Zhaowen tracks down the long-lost mother, Qian Liu (Ha), and, on the basis of her testimony, persuades the authorities that the trial should be reopened . . .

Christmas Rose - 6 The shock witness, Jing's long-estranged mother

Jing’s mother, Qian Liu (Patricia Ha), is the defense’s shock witness at the retrial.

Sheng Dan Mei Gui has generally received less than stellar reviews, with critics complaining that the revelations in its final act strain credulity past endurance. In fact, anyone who’s read much modern crime/noir fiction (or nonfiction, come to that) will find those revelations perfectly within the bounds of credibility; the one plot element that’s risible is that Zhou is found guilty at the end of the first trial, because in reality there has been zero by way of convincing evidence offered of his guilt. All that Tim has been able to show is that Zhou touched Jing’s breasts and genitalia; as this was a whole-body examination, he could hardly have done otherwise. (We’re reminded of the setup of The HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE [1992], where Annabella Sciorra’s character thinks nothing of destroying the life of the gynaecologist who examined her simply because she got odd vibes during the examination.)

Led by Kwok, Lun-mei, Yu, Hai-lu and Chen, the cast give performances that are individually excellent and collectively quite astonishing; the support actors are generally very fine too, especially Ha in her small role. Lun-mei perhaps takes the honors for the shifts of characterization she displays as the horrific truths of her past emerge, yet Hai-lu’s restrained subtlety of portrayal and Yu’s skill in making it so hard for us to hate the man we’re supposed to hate are exceptional too.

Christmas Rose - 3 Freddy, whom little escapes

A tour-de-force performance from Xia Yu as Zhaowen/Freddy Xue, the defense lawyer whom little escapes.

This was the directorial debut of actress Charlie Yeung; while it would be exaggerating to say that she doesn’t put a foot wrong, it’s certainly a very creditable outing. The movie boasts no fewer than three directors of photography, which might lead us to expect something pretty sensational on this front; in fact the cinematography, while well polished and competent, strays little beyond journeyman (and there’s nothing wrong with that). The soundtrack is for the most part unobtrusive, which is exactly what it ought to be; every now and then, though, at moments of high drama there’s a gong or cymbal crash that made me roll my eyes.

Christmas Rose - 7 In court, Jing watched her carefully reconstructed life fall apart

In court, Jing (Gwei Lun-mei) watches her carefully reconstructed life fall apart.

We tend to stereotype HK crime movies as either martial arts fiestas or high-spirited shootemups. Of course, HK crime cinema has shown itself capable of far more than this, and some of its neonoirs are as sophisticated and nuanced as any you’ll find anywhere. Sheng Dan Mei Gui does, however, seem to be in quite a different category from other HK crime movies that I’ve seen; it has almost a French-style introspection and willingness to confront complex issues, a mature reluctance to take the easy way out. Hours after I’d finished watching it, I still found myself replaying scenes in my mind; that’s praise enough.

The Christmas Rose of the title refers directly only to a piano piece that Jing has been trying to teach Ting Ting; indirectly, it refers to those origami roses and the secret—taboo—messages they contain.

Christmas Rose - 5 In jail, Zhou despairs

Jailed, Dr. Zhou (Chang Chen) faces the loss of everything he holds dear.


5 thoughts on “Sheng Dan Mei Gui (2013)

  1. “We tend to stereotype HK crime movies as either martial arts fiestas or high-spirited shootemups. Of course, HK crime cinema has shown itself capable of far more than this, and some of its neonoirs are as sophisticated and nuanced as any you’ll find anywhere.”

    Aye John, how true. Woo falls under this sub-heading, but Hong Kong has a rich contemporary catalog. Beautifully written piece about a film that would surely have many fans if seen.

    • Thanks for dropping by, and for the kind words. As I said, the critical reaction the movie got was pretty mixed, so might very well not rate it if you come across it. It was right up my street, though!

  2. Pingback: Quan Min Mu Ji (2013) | Noirish

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