Race Relations: Red Corner (1997)

Race Relations continues with Dawn Dabell looking at Red Corner starring Richard Gere and Bai Ling.

For this instalment of Race Relations, I take a look at a story of injustice within China’s legal system. A foreigner –  a white man – arrested for a crime he says he didn’t commit during a business trip to China… faced with a trial in an unfamiliar system and people who do not believe a word of what he says… the price of failure being his life, etc, etc. Just how easy will it be for him to prove his innocence in such a hostile and distrustful environment?

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American businessman Jack Moore (Richard Gere) comes to China to close a business deal involving a satellite communications system. He ends up spending the night with a beautiful young Chinese woman, but is brusquely awoken the next morning by the police, who believe he has murdered the girl (her corpse lies in his room, throat slit, and his shirt is covered in her blood). Requesting an American lawyer to defend him, Moore quickly learns that in Chinese law only a Chinese lawyer is allowed to practise. He finds his chances pinned on Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling), a court-appointed female lawyer, who explains to him that a guilty plea may get him a reduced sentence while a not-guilty plea will be seen as an act of unrepentance and is likely to result in him receiving the death penalty. She does not, initially at least, believe his innocence, and thinks he should serve time for his crime.

Gradually, Yuelin comes to change her mind. She uncovers evidence of high level political corruption, and learns that Moore might be the victim of a convoluted plot to discredit him as a viable business person. But can she gather the proof to have him acquitted in time? And can both of them survive when the entire system seems out to get them?

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The idea of being arrested in a foreign country is quite scary. To not know your rights, to be put in a prison cell without being able to request your own lawyer, to have someone appointed to defend you by the very people who put you there in the first place, to not understand the conversations being held in your presence in the cells or the courtroom… these matters seems pretty terrifying. And it’s that lack of communication and trust, that inability to feel that you are being tried fairly and honestly, which forms the core of what Red Corner is all about.

Some of the prison scenes are powerful: we witness prison guards turning a blind-eye while other prisoners beat and even try to kill the American ‘murderer’ in their midst, presumably with the approval of higher officials. The guards use a Taser on him, stamp on his glasses, wash his food bowl in a urinal, and drag him around like he is some sort of animal. Scenes such as this give the impression that at this time, in China, the legal system had little regard for human rights. The system seems more concerned with breaking a prisoner, forcing them into confession, while maintaining iron-like respect and sanctity for the power of higher authority.

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For a significant duration of the film, Moore’s lawyer talks about society as a whole and how his decision to not plead guilty is an insult to the system. It’s pointed out over and over that one man is not more important than the status quo. Yuelin even informs her client that “In China, we hold the welfare of the state above that of the individual.” Over time, though, Yuelin and Moore gradually begin to show respect for each other, and as the film progresses each helps the other to overcome many of their own feelings of failure. Yuelin feels guilt for not standing up for her father when society turned its back on him several years earlier… she stood by and watched as people bullied and harassed him, and government officials came to take him away for his liberal attitudes. By spending time with Moore, she is given the chance to redeem herself by standing up to the system, doing what she believes is right in trying to help prove this man’s innocence.

Respect and trust is also important in this society: rather than paying someone’s bail using money, here one stakes one’s reputation. Yuelin does this for Moore; she risks losing her career and her reputation by defending him, willingly putting her faith in a condemned man at a time nobody else seems prepared to help.

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Bai Ling is wonderful as the lawyer willing to put her own career on the line for a man she barely knows. As her feelings towards her client change, the audience can feel the strength of her emotions. Her performance here was so effective that Ling won two awards for it: one for best actress (San Diego Film Critics Society Awards) and another for female breakthrough performance (National Board of Review). Unfortunately the same can’t be said of Gere… he isn’t terrible in the film, but he’s visibly out-acted by Ling. It feels as if there is something missing from performance; he doesn’t generate the ‘wow’ factor (but then again, does he ever really generate this?) It’s imperative in a role such as this, where so much of the emotional engagement and impact of the story falls on the lead’s shoulders, that the leading actor should be on top form to milk the character for all its worth. Gere is merely adequate, but he needed to be dynamic.

The evocative score by Thomas Newman is a wonderful blend of the Orient and the west. It’s beautiful yet dramatic at the same time, and is used to great effect in the opening credits, hinting at a thrilling and suspenseful time ahead.
Interestingly, some of the background information regarding Chinese prisons and the way prisoners are treated was provided by people from China, something which could have proven dangerous for them if officials had found out about it. The video footage showing the execution of prisoners (seen several times throughout the film) is an actual video of true-life executions. Although the footage is grainy and not seen in close-up, it could be quite off-putting for some viewers to learn that it shows genuine executions. The video footage was provided to the production company even though it meant smuggling it out of China at great risk. Had the people who provided it been discovered, it would have endangered their own lives. A few scenes of the film were shot guerrilla-style in China, without correct permissions and permits being obtained from the government. Most of the movie was shot in LA, and none of the principle actors set foot in China apart from Bai Ling.

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Red Corner is a pleasing enough thriller. It doesn’t break any enthralling and mind-blowing new ground, but it does give audiences an interesting look at what can happen when two cultures collide in such a way. It highlights the importance of knowing your rights and having some sort of network when on foreign soil. It may only be a film, but in real life we hear all-too-often of people being arrested in a foreign country and left at the mercy of a legal system they don’t understand and which doesn’t want to understand them. Although not perfect, it’s certainly worth a watch.

FMV Rating: ***



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