What really happened when a popular singer was murdered?
vt Silent Witness
China / 115 minutes / color / 21st Century Wink, Tik, InLook Vision, Shanghai Yinrun, Anhul, Beijing Media, Beijing New Film Association, Shenzen Dream Life, Beijing MaxTimes Dir & Scr: Fei Xing Pr: Xiao Pingkai Cine: Zhao Xiaoding Cast: Sun Honglei, Aaron Kwok, Yu Nan, Deng Jiajia, Zhao Lixin, Ni Hongjie, Chen Sicheng, Tong Liya, Weitong Zhou.
This is generally billed as a courtroom drama, and the description’s not incorrect. But it’s not complete, either. Most of the movie happens outside the courtroom, and in the convoluted narrative we’re given not one but three or arguably four interlocking interpretations of events. (This sounds more similar to RASHOMON  than it actually is.) The effect is rather like one of those old John Dickson Carr novels where the detective gives what seems a watertight solution to the mystery only to break it down, expose why it couldn’t be true, and then present a completely different explanation. But Quan Min Mu Ji isn’t a light-hearted Carr exercise; there’s a genuine noirish sense throughout that no one here is going to find a happy ending, that the best anyone can hope for is a choice of tragedies.
Yang Dan (Weitong Zhou) makes her point in the underground garage.
Singer Yang Dan (Zhou), unfaithful mistress of the powerful businessman Lin Tai (Sun), has been murdered in an underground parking garage, and the evidence is overwhelming that it was Lin’s daughter Mengmeng (Deng) who committed the crime. Mengmeng hit the chanteuse with her car; Yang Dan, thrown backwards against a wall, was killed when a protruding nail stabbed through the back of her head.
Lin Tai (Sun Honglei) on the way to court.
The movie starts outside the courthouse where Mengmeng’s trial is just about to begin. We’re introduced to Lin Tai and to grimly determined prosecutor Tong Tao (Kwok) and his opponent, hugely expensive defense counsel Zhou Li (Yu). Both characters are in their way stereotypes, especially the fashionista Zhou, but this is no bad thing. As the movie progresses we learn that Tong is far more than his gritty exterior and that likewise Zhou, despite her distancing, contemptuous persona, has both integrity and conscience.
Lin Mengmeng (Deng Jiajia) being led in.
We also learn that Tong and Lin are old enemies: many years ago the unscrupulous Lin drove the father of a law-school pal of Tong’s to suicide, and Tong has been trying ever since to nail the man for his shady business dealings. We’ll come to learn, too, that, while Lin is all the things that Tong accuses him of being, he’s far from without redeeming characteristics, being capable of love and self-sacrifice and also of engendering loyalty in those around him. If it’s a feature of the best courtroom dramas that they offer us a progressively greater understanding of and empathy with their chief protagonists, then Quan Min Mu Ji is among their number.
To begin with, the case seems straightforward enough. Among others, the witness Zhao Jun (unidentified), a party girl, recalls hearing Mengmeng drunkenly threatening to kill Yang Dan because of the singer’s repeated infidelities. With these early witnesses Zhou barely reacts when asked if she’d like to cross-examine, but with the next witness her demeanor changes.
Zhao Jun (unidentified), the party girl who overheard Mengmeng’s threat.
This witness is Lin’s chauffeur Sun Wei (Zhao). Suddenly barnstorming, Zhou extracts from him a confession that he has always hated his boss, Lin, especially since Lin has been in the habit of sleeping with Sun’s wife Hong (Ni). Given the chance to destroy the thing that Lin loved most in all the world, Mengmeng, Sun seized it. He found Yang Dan slumped against the wall and deliberately drove her head onto the protruding nail, then did everything he could to incriminate Mengmeng.
Sun Wei (Zhao Lixin) seems a straight-up sort of guy.
So that’s all over, dramatic courtroom confession in best Perry Mason style, case solved, it’s a wrap.
Except that we’re barely a third of the way into the movie.
Sun Wei finds the body.
Everything rapidly rewinds until we’re back outside the courtroom being once more introduced to Tong, Zhou and Lin. Now we follow events up to the point of Sun’s confession, but this time largely through the eyes of prosecutor Tong. We stay with Tong and his team after the confession as they begin to blow holes in Sun’s story, discovering that the chauffeur has recently been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and that Lin paid him a big chunk of money. The conclusion’s obvious: knowing he hasn’t long to live, Sun has agreed to be the fall guy in exchange for enough money to provide for his widow. But the timing of the payment seems wrong for that scenario . . .
Tong Tao (Aaron Kwok) briefly relaxes . . .
. . . with girlfriend Li Xiaoni (Tong Liya).
We also meet Tong’s girlfriend, art teacher Li Xiaoni (Tong). Mengmeng has been among the best of her students and she’s convinced the girl couldn’t be guilty of any crime of violence. We’re also startled to discover that Tong knows Mengmeng a bit more than he’s been letting on, having encountered the girl in Li’s studio.
Zhou Li (Yu Nan) pauses while questioning Sun Wei (Zhao Lixin).
And then there’s another rewinding, and this time it’s defense attorney Zhou whom we’re following through the case’s events. Although she’s fed evidence that Lin was indeed having an affair with Sun Hong (Ni plays the part with a sort of delicate tartiness that’s very effective), Zhou soon disbelieves it and, showing an integrity you’d not expect from the average defense counsel, decides to do a little investigating of her own . . . although she doesn’t entirely relinquish her self-interest:
“[Let’s] go find Lin Tai. The bastard should pay me my bonus now.”
Sun Hong (Ni Hongjie), the putative mistress.
It’s actually Zhou who manages to blow apart the whole story of Sun Wei’s guilt, and then likewise the charade of Lin Tai himself being the killer. Her clue here is when he angrily tells her:
“I’ll die behind the Dragon Back Wall! I’ll die in your hands!”
That leads her to an old legend about the Southern Dragon King—who sacrificed himself to save a loved one—and thus to a solution to the murder of Yang Dan. However, she finds herself powerless to do anything with her knowledge of the conspiracy she’s uncovered . . .
The shell of Lin Tai (Sun Honglei) begins to crack.
Some of the elements of that conspiracy are a tad implausible, although we have to bear in mind that Lin Tai is effectively of infinite wealth. It also seems unlikely that the defense team would be as eager to expose the client’s deception as is prosecutor Tong, but this may be simply a different cultural perspective: although the average defense team in the West might simply cackle all the way to the bank, things may be otherwise in China.
Zhou Li (Yu Nan) is a formidable figure in court.
Quan Min Mu Ji is quite a long movie, but it certainly didn’t seem so while I was watching it. Fei Xing’s directorial hand is magnificently assured. Working as he is with his own inventively structured screenplay, Fei (a pseudonym of the prolific TV writer Li Wenbing) shows masterful pacing in his direction, the various revelations coming all at just the right moments. He also plays very skillfully with our feelings toward his main characters, none of whom are quite the people we at first perceive them to be.
Lin Mengmeng (Deng Jiajia), guilty or innocent?
In this he’s helped very much by his cast, all of whom portray complex characters ably. The arguable exception is Deng Jiajia as Mengmeng, who seems to think that habitually blubbing like an anime schoolgirl suffices in lieu of depth of characterization. Aaron Kwok, I was intrigued to note, plays a very similar character in the only other Chinese (in this case HK) courtroom drama I’ve encountered, the same year’s Sheng Dan Mei Gui (2013; vt Christmas Rose), where he was cast as the prosecutor Tim Chen.
Tong Tao (Aaron Kwok) is determined to pursue matters to the bitter end.
Like Fei’s direction, the editing (done by Kwong Chi-Leung and Su Lifeng) and Zhao Xiaoding’s cinematography have clearly learned much from Western noir and neonoir; there are lots of rapid cut shots, accelerated action, false-color effects (done by Li Ang) and the like, as often found in mainstream neonoir, plus plenty of the more traditional upshots, high-angle shots and adroitly manipulated shadows.
Fei Xing’s earlier big-screen exploration of crime/neonoir was Shou Wang Zhe (2011; vt The Man Behind the Courtyard House), which I haven’t seen but am now extremely keen to. To judge by Quan Min Mu Ji, his work seems very accessible to Western viewers at the same time as maintaining its distinctive Chinese character. In short, this is no mean movie.