Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Article 20

And, with this in theaters, I think that we're probably through with Lunar New Year movies for a bit. Sony Pictures Classics apparently has the right to YOLO, the new comedy from the director and star of Hi Mom!, which was a massive hit in the People's Republic a few years back but never made it here. I'm curious as to what Sony's plan is with that - it doesn't scream art-house sleeper or sound like a movie that makes the leap to mainstream audiences - but I presume there are a fair amount of smart folks there. It may be as much about getting remake rights as anything, or they may just think it will do better in North America once the other LNY releases have cleared out a bit, especially with some locally-focused advertising.

Interestingly enough, no distributor really specializing in the North American market picked up Article 20, the fifth film in a row from a director who is still probably the best-known mainland Chinese filmmaker in boutique-house circles, with one of those (Snipers, made with daughter Zhang Mo)) not having made it here at all. It's perhaps not terribly surprising for this particular film - it's contemporary, aimed at a middlebrow Chinese audience, probably not that much more propagandic than the average American crime movie but more obvious about it, and not elaborate in the way much of Zhang's best-remembered stuff is - but it's certainly another data point in showing how this person who was often thought of as courting Western acclaim in China has become a mainstream filmmaker there, to the extent that foreign releases which once might have been quite lucrative are now pretty minor.

They do still draw an expat crowd, though; it was a pretty packed house on opening night, so it might stick around for another week, especially with not a lot but Dune 2 coming out. It's kind of interesting to see Zhang do something relatively stripped down - it's not surprising that he's a pretty good filmmaker without the eye-popping production design and grandiose action scenes, but you don't necessarily often see guys like him scale back unless they have to, and with Cliff Walkers getting a sequel and both Full River Red and Under the Light big hits last year, he probably doesn't have to.

Di er shi tiao (Article 20)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2024 in AMC Causeway Street #10 (first-run, laser DCP)

Truth be told, I would not have pegged Article 20 as being from Zhang Yimou at all if I'd gone in cold. After all, even his previous contemporary film, Under the Light, had a certain style to it, while this is almost aggressively... plain? Unadorned? It's the first thing he's done that feels like anyone could have made it, at least on the surface, that I can recall. It winds up solid and surprisingly entertaining, just not necessarily what you'd expect from a guy who can probably still swing getting a lavish production made.

This opens with a protest, as the associates of Liu Wenjing (Alan Aruna) block the local procurator's office, demanding the case against attacker Wang Yongqiang (Pan Binlong) move forward, as Liu being in a coma means nobody at his business is working or getting paid. Temporary staffer Han Ming (Lei Jiayin) manages to de-escalate the situation, and as a reward he's placed on the case, working under chief prosecutor Lyu Lingling (Gao Ye), who just happens to be his college girlfriend. The case is nasty - Liu was a piece of work, and the only witness who can testify that Liu was threatening Wang, the accused's deaf-mute wife Hao Xiuping (Zhao Liying), has gone into hiding. Meanwhile, on the homefront, Han's son Yuchen (Liu Yaowen) is in trouble at middle school because he broke the nose of a bully and won't apologize, leading the bully's father (Yu Hewei), to press charges, and Han's wife Li Maojuan (Li Ma) is not looking to compromise.

Of course, it's probably not the case that anybody could have made this movie. The story is very straightforward, almost to a fault, but Zhang and writers Li Meng and Wang Tianyi are good at jumping forward without a lot of fuss when need be and making what could be twists meant to shock play as something closer to the inevitable result of an ongoing investigation. Individual scenes are snappy and entertaining in a way that lubricates what could be a deathly-earnest mediation on justice, filed with characters trading rapid-fire overlapping dialogue and dealing with silly misunderstandings so that the clear parallels between every strand where people standing up against bulging and abuse being held accountable for the rules they technically violated are background music rather than a speech. Zhang and company are good at using reactions to make fine points - consider how Ming being sort of comically put-upon as his wife and her brother steamroll him at the dinner table plays very differently from the men in a briefing talking over Lingling.

The cast is also quite strong, enough that you can spend a lot of the film feeling at ease with them and then let that comfort steel your back a bit once the film focuses a bit more. It's strange to watch a movie about miscarriages of justice and think just how much you'd like to see the actors in a broad comedy, but that's what they manage here, with Lei Jiayin able to take character traits that are often kind of obnoxious - Ming is a reflexive compromiser who is lying about working with Lingling to try and avoid trouble - and make him seem pretty reasonable until he can reveal his better self. Of course, he's able to do that in part by playing off Ma Li, one of China's best comic actors who plays Maojuan with such a sharp edge to her affection for her husband that it's not surprising he still gets flustered by her after all this time; if banter is a tennis-match, she's returning every serve effortlessly while Lei Jiayin gives a good impression of watching them go past helplessly. On the other side there's Gao Ye, whose confidence as Lingling seems smoother (although she's clearly used to having to be aggressive because not everyone treats her as well as Ming) and whose teasing is kinder. The movie changes a great deal when Zhao Liying surfaces - for all that the audience gets used to all this being fun, her Xiuping never lets the audience forget that this is life and death for her.

All of this being so execution-dependent leaves it kind of vulnerable to the audience not quite being on the right wavelength when they watch it or slight misjudgments. I suspect that even the things which rubbed me the wrong way for much of the film - the seemingly cavalier treatment of Xiuping's rape for much of the running time as an example - were carefully considered and done with purpose, so that they could perhaps be exposed as taken for granted and part of a clear progression without overwhelming the rest of the story early on. A viewer's mileage may certainly vary on the ending, which features swelling music, an impassioned speech, and people bursting into applause - it's a bit of a cliché to call out a systematic injustice and then immediately assert that this will be handled better going forward, and maybe hits a bit differently in a contemporary Chinese film than, say, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or other Capras.

It's an odd film, really, both in how utterly Zhang Yimou's involvement is reflected less in visual style than understated (almost invisible) competence and in how a movie with this story is seldom this funny. If it's odd, though, it's also oddly satisfying, the sort of movie a viewer often feels too cynical to believe in that actually works the way it's supposed to.

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