“Red Corner” is a half-engrossing, half-implausible political meller about an American caught in the crossfire between reactionary and modern-thinking factions in contemporary China. Portrait of modern Beijing from a Western p.o.v. and backdrop of the mysterious Chinese legal system at work create a degree of interest, and the performance by Chinese actress Bai Ling merits attention of its own. But too many of the incidents, as well as the very premise and the convoluted resolution, simply seem fantastical, making it unlikely that audiences will become nearly as engaged in the subject as the filmmakers obviously are. Pic’s domestic release is timed to coincide with this week’s visit to Washington by Chinese President Jiang Zemin in order to maximize attention on his nation’s human rights record, but this won’t improve the film’s muted commercial prospects.
Leave it to Hollywood to concoct a story in which an American businessman trying to import Western entertainment to the world’s biggest market is framed for murder while in the process of trying to make a deal. But so it is with Jack Moore (Richard Gere), an attorney competing with some Germans to consummate China’s first joint-venture satellite project.
Making the rounds of Beijing nightlife, Jack is easily seduced by foxy model and artist Hong Ling (Jessey Meng). But their night of pleasure has a grisly ending, as Jack is shaken from his slumber by policemen who drag him from his hotel bed, his body and clothes covered with blood and a dead Hong Ling lying nearby.
Informed by authorities that he will receive leniency if he confesses to his “crime,” Jack is confined to a bare, bedless cell and confronted by a Red Army general whose daughter was the murder victim before being put on trial before a strict female judge (Tsai Chin).
His court-appointed attorney, Shen Yuelin (Bai), whom he has not met before the start of proceedings, insists that only a guilty plea is acceptable since a denial of guilt will surely lead to a death sentence. But the outraged Jack will have none of it, insisting that the truth be investigated and uncovered despite all the cards held by the Chinese establishment being stacked against him.
And so begins Jack’s unlikely fight for justice, as well as his collaboration with Yuelin, a child of the Cultural Revolution who in those years silently stood by as her father was shamed by her radical cohorts, and who must struggle to embrace the concept of doubting accepted wisdom and questioning authority.
For those interested in cultural comparisons and the arcania of a very different legal system from our own, pic sustains interest through the long middle section, as Jack tries any ploy he can think of to achieve even an ounce of leverage and hope.
Press materials strenuously insist that extensive research and a battery of advisers were employed to achieve maximum authenticity in the courtroom scenes, and certainly there are very few Westerners qualified to assess their realism. But taken on their own terms, they command the attention and at least offer something different from what one normally sees in a mainstream film.
On the other hand, too many of the details come across as hokey invention that undercuts whatever credibility one chooses to grant the picture. After having been held in total isolation, Jack, an accused murderer, is suddenly allowed to tour all around Beijing with Yuelin to retrace his steps on the night of the murder. This leads to a traffic accident, a brazen attempt on Jack’s life and a highly improbable chase across tile rooftops leading to the safety of the American Embassy, which the hero is able to enter with a couple of swift yanks at the door.
For reasons of principle, and to rescue Yuelin from the peril she assumed as his defender, Jack dramatically steps back out of the embassy into the hands of the police, and the final act is devoted to the quite fanciful peeling back of the official deceptions that led to Jack’s frame-up.
Jack’s ultimate export to China is thus not sub-“Baywatch” titillation for the masses, as was his original intention, but a commitment to the Truth in a monolithic system rigged for the benefit of the state.
Dramatically, it is all rather self-serving, even if accurate in regards to the judicial system. Gere is forceful and determined enough as the targeted capitalist, although he does his usual self-satisfied preening in relation to his two beautiful co-stars.
As the second of these, Bai is compelling as she attempts to convey the emotional complexity of her character’s professional and personal dilemma. Although Robert King’s script offers her only tidbits of background, she successfully presents an intelligent, prudent young woman knowledgeable of Western ways but wary of them until presented with sufficient motivation to rebel against aspects of her own culture.
Picture is fascinating from a production p.o.v., since it was naturally not given official sanction to shoot in China. Director Jon Avnet and a “guerrilla” team grabbed numerous location shots in Beijing that effectively establish the setting early on, while production designer Richard Sylbert’s extensive re-creation of a Beijing hutong, or 16th-century neighborhood riddled with alleys, provides a distinctive center for some later action. Some digitally created shots further the illusion of actually being there.
Also contributing first-class work are cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, editor Peter E. Berger and composer Thomas Newman.