Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Procurator

I can be kind of a broken record talking about why I'm very impatient for the various theaters in Boston that have shut down due to the pandemic and parent-company bankruptcy - the North Station ArcLight, the Showplace in the Seaport, and the Regal in Fenway - to re-open under new management (AMC and Alamo, respectively, have committed to the first two), and it's not so much that I want to go to them. It's because, with those 40 or so screens gone, Boston Common and Kendall Square have been shouldering much more of the blockbuster load, which has been less room for conventional foreign/indie stuff to play the Kendall and less room for Asian, independent genre, and other such things to play Boston Common.

Which means, of the various Chinese and Korean films to have U.S. releases in June, The Procurator got lucky - its U.S. release was slated for the week after The Flash and Elemental didn't do as well as one might have hoped, with the former on track to tank even harder in its second week, meaning theaters had some extra screens. So The Procurator gets four shows a day, better than any other Asian film has managed recently.

And, if my Sunday-evening show was any indication, it was awful quiet; I was the only one there until just before the trailers started to run, when maybe one or two others showed up, and there were a few others who popped in looking to theater-hop but retreated when they saw it was Chinese. I don't think Sunday night was particularly unusual, either; I'd done a fair amount of checking the app over the weekend and never saw another seat reserved.for a showtime. It's not surprising, although oddly ironic; despite being a release from China Lion, who pioneered releasing Chinese movies day-and-date or soon enough after their release in Beijing that pirated DVDs couldn't beat them across the Pacific, this came out two months after its Chinese release and I suspect that anyone in Chinatown who wanted to see it has seen it.

I joked, seeing how empty the place was, that this quiet reception was probably not selling AMC on opening One More Chance this weekend, which ticked me off. Yeah, it's been sitting on a shelf for years, but it's Chow Yun-Fat! Who doesn't enjoy watching Chow Yun-Fat in movies? But I suspect that had very little to do with it - they're going to need all the screens they can get for Indiana Jones this weekend, which doesn't leave a lot of room for other things to squeak in the way that they could this week. Maybe that will change once there are fancy screens a couple T stops away again; I just hope that happens soon.

Jian cha feng yun

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 June 2023 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

Is a courtroom drama something you can really do in China, given the restrictions placed upon filmmakers there? Technically, yes - The Procurator exists - but is it going to be exciting? Not particularly - what makes this kind of movie suspenseful is the possibility that the system isn't going to work, and this film doesn't make it feel like that's possible.

It opens with Xia Wei (Wang Likun), a respected history professor at Liuching University, accused of murdering Chen Xin (Bao Bei'er), a loan shark who had raped one of Xia's students (Liang Songqing) days earlier. Procurator Li Rui (Johnny Huang Jingyu), who had already been investigating Xin for other matters, is assigned the case, but he and partner Zhang Youcheng (Wang Qianyuan) find some things that don't quite add up. Meanwhile, Xia's husband Hong Junshan (Feng Shaofeng). one of the richest men in Liuching, hires Tong Yuchen (Bai Baihe), a former colleague of Li, for the defense, although he does not mention that he and brother Qiming (Su Suke) have been financing Chen's nightclub.

Co-writer/director Alan Mak Siu-Fai looks for ways to inject something into what looks like an open and shut case, with the most consequential probably being Xia's fuzzy memory, although that is seemingly more for the audience than the courtroom for all that the attorneys mention it. Aside from that, everything winds up too tightly plotted, without any room for even the slightest of red herrings, and attempts to make the title character interesting fall flat. He's just so dedicated, but not in a Western loose-cannon way, and a set of flashbacks to Li asking Tong out is painful to watch even without considering that Tong apparently quit the procurator's office at some point after being hit on by a colleague; maybe the dialogue sounds snappy in Mandarin, but the English subtitles are astonishingly stilted. And while "don't say a damn word" is good legal advice, it prevents the movie from getting into the melodramatic core until almost the end.

There a metaphor, somewhere, in the subject of Xia's classroom lecture about the "elegy stone", which must be broken to rob a grave but which can never be sold, because having one is tantamount to a confession, but Mak and co-writer Peng Zhao never quite find a modern analog for that sort of persistent evidence. Indeed, it winds up primarily used literally. There's also something more than a little gross about how the rape that started winds up being little more than the thing that uncovers The Real Crime. There are a few other interesting parts - Chinese films are often better at integrating social media into a story than Western ones, and this film is no exception - but other that fizzle. Consider a scene where the key to a storage locker gets a stylized shot , and the following scenes don't show Li puzzling out where it is, but just ripping some apparently very flimsy lockers apart. It's such a weird missed opportunity, and not the only one.

The film features a fine ensemble but never finds a center for it. Johnny Huang is playing the title character and Li Rui actually does some decent detecting, but the script delegates too much of it and is often afraid to give him too strong a personality - he's amiable, but not quirky, driven, or deceptively lightweight, and Huang can't do more than make him pleasantly average. The same goes for Bai Baihe, usually a highlight but given nothing to do here. Wang Likun feels like she should be the star as Xia Wei - Xia is connected to every point in the story and Wang always communicates that she cares, but the script spends a lot of time keeping her from acting. Feng Shaofeng and Wang Qianyuan know the assignment and are never boring, but the film needs more.

It's a movie that has all the pieces for a good crime story and murder mystery, but for whatever reasons, Mak can't put them together in their best arrangement. Instead, he seems to take the most direct path from A to B when the genre demands it be sneakily circuitous.

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