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Richard Gere in real life is now persona non grata in China. Due to his outspoken support of Tibetan independence following the Chinese invasion of the country, the government continues to disallow his visas and reserves the right to arrest him should he set foot in the country.
It is only through clever filmmaking hanky-pankery such as computer composites of foreground and background that he is made to appear to be in China in Red Corner. Although such steps were not necessary for other actors and crew, the film on the whole has the feel of a fairly good court-room drama that has been uprooted and transplanted to China through the magic of cinema. It is as though someone used computers and special filters to see what Regarding Henry would be like if it took place in the Far East.
The Chinese setting of the proceedings is convincing and interesting in and of itself, but it's soon apparent that this story boils down to the same standards of courtroom action that American audiences have come to know and love. There is a slightly cantankerous yet, in her own way, endearing judge. There are rampant objections and questions of protocol. There is a question of missing evidence which the defense claims is crucial. There is witty repartee and cunning logic. There is independent investigation along lines the prosecution hopes the defense doesn't pursue, which very nearly gets the defense in hot water, thank you very much. There is even a surprise witness whose shocking testimony clinches the case.
It is impressive, then, that the movie is able to execute this tried and true genre with as much competence as it does, given the self-imposed hurdle that it all happen in China. Jack Moore (Richard Gere) finds himself in China negotiating a cable television deal with the government, and then just as quickly and easily finds himself in bed with a beautiful Chinese model--a surefire recipe for disaster. Sure enough, he awakens to find her murdered and himself under arrest for the crime. The ensuing legal battle is at the same time strange and unnatural for Moore and strangely familiar to the audience.
Ultimately, the transplantation to China of the plot is well done. The customs and protocols which Moore must battle through are realistic and convincing, sometimes even engaging, even if they are just a gimmick to put new complications in old situations. Director Jon Avnet does a good job of making the culture shock as real for the audience as it is for Moore. This is achieved mostly through the exploitation of the language barrier to show the foreign and conflicting pursuits of the two sides.
Throughout the film, Moore is shown waiting, about to explode, as the ubiquitous Chinese is translated for him. Meanwhile, the audience is just as lost as he is, relying in a similar way on outside aid to understand what's happening. In the courtroom, Moore relies on a earpiece for the barely audible translation, and the audience must get used to sifting through the mostly Chinese lingual hodge-podge.
This gets easier as the film progresses, as it must for Moore, and it's remarkably effective in creating a very foreign feel to the proceedings. All of this makes it possible for select Chinese characters who speak English to be used strategically to provide welcome patches of unmitigated understanding. Indeed, many of the key courtroom speeches, ones which illuminate crucial logical points or make important statements of protocol, are spoken in English for the benefit of both Moore and the audience. These islands of comprehension do not seem out of place, but rather achieve an almost subliminal elevation of importance and lucidity in the mind of the audience.
One of the movie's strongest points is the role of Shen Yeulin, the female court-appointed defense attorney for Moore, played by Bai Ling, making an impressive debut in American cinema. She at first is part of the overwhelming uphill battle Moore must fight to prove his innocence, as she is not convinced of his claim and tells him that a guilty plea will yield more leniency. The way that she eventually becomes convinced of Moore's story and becomes a staunch ally and hard-fighting friend on his side is genuinely touching.
Accordingly, the relationship between Gere and Ling is one of the few things that elevates the movie above the generic. The culture clash becomes all the more striking, as we see how the two learn to work together thus providing a foil for the isolation that all the other Chinese elements create.
As the case progresses, and more of the conspiracy is unveiled, Ling's character becomes increasingly determined to get to the bottom of the matter, to resolve her own moral qualms, and she increasingly puts herself in danger by helping Moore. This shift of focus is extremely well done and welcome. Both characters become fleshed out and more endearing as they each must break from their traditionally defined roles: Gere gets to be a concerned champion of another's welfare instead of just a victim, and Ling gets to be an endangered target and not just a calculating defense attorney. This role swapping strengthens both characters, and both actors are strongest when interacting with each other.
It is only at the end--when the precarious balance between courtroom drama and culture clash falls--that things fall apart. The climax of what promised to be a fulfilling logical legal setup is mired in the Chinese-English conglomeration to be easily understood. The end sequence consists of swirling and complicated plot ideas, none properly explained (at least not in English). Although the punchline of the scene is suitably shocking and unexpected, it will elicit more of a "Huh?" than a satisfied "Aha!"
And so, just as all the leads and threads of intrigue that the movie had developed seem to be about to come to fruition, the language barrier finally proves insurmountable in providing a satisfying conclusion. In the end, and at the crucial moment, the movie trips over the very crutch which it had used the whole time, and leaves the audience somewhat disappointed.
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