Kevin Feng Ke's drearily earnest, minimalist prison drama "Letters From Death Row" seems unable to imaginatively follow through on the fascinating dramatic task it's set itself.

Kevin Feng Ke’s drearily earnest, minimalist prison drama “Letters From Death Row” seems unable to imaginatively follow through on the fascinating dramatic task it’s set itself. Though interesting as a quasi-docu glimpse into a generally unknown world, pic fails to touch the emotions (surprisingly, given the subject matter), instead keeping its questions about existence on the edge firmly in the abstract. Sideways glance at human-rights issues gives this item a contempo feel that could garner limited fest play.

Shot in an actual Chinese prison and without official permission, pic is mostly set in the comfortless cells of a high-security prison where criminals are awaiting execution. As an obedient inmate, Huang (Di Yueming) is called upon to write down the last thoughts of criminals about to die — a potentially rich vein the script fails to mine either as drama or as food for thought. Occasional moments of tension and some strikingly authentic-seeming images — a prisoner masturbates with handcuffs on — are not sufficient to break the general stupor, the result of lengthy dialogues that go nowhere and the feeling of a series of setpieces strung together rather than a dramatic whole.

Letters From Death Row

China-U.S.

Production

A Taozi, Kevin Feng Ke, Dream Machine Pictures production. (International sales: Dream Machine Pictures, Beijing.) Directed, written by Kevin Feng Ke.

Crew

Camera (color), Zhang Ji; editor, Fang Lei; music, Xu Xiang-rong. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Zabaltegi New Directors), Sept. 25, 2008. Mandarin dialogue. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Di Yueming, Su Li, Han Feng, Chen Chunyu.

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