Film Reviews

Peking Soap Opera

Despite its muckraking pretensions, Red Corner is a rickety throwback to escapist adventures that featured beautiful foreign idealists spouting high-flown hooey to fighting Americans. The heroine, a scrappy Beijing defense lawyer, ends up whispering a whole succession of sweet somethings to the hero, a framed Yank. The banalities include (I paraphrase) "You will always be part of my life, Jack Moore," and "I will be your family on the other side of the world." Thank God "Jack Moore" is such a simple name: It gets stated in full so often that if it had more than two syllables, the film's running time would increase exponentially.

The movie aspires to political bravado. It condemns corrupt Chinese justice and equivocal Western diplomacy. Richard Gere plays Moore, the cunning corporate attorney for a telecommunications giant. At the start, he sews up a deal for the first American-Chinese joint satellite venture. (He smilingly persuades Communist officials that broadcasting prurient and violent Hollywood shows will demonstrate the decadence of capitalist values.) Then he celebrates by bedding down a local model. He wakes up the next morning with the police flashing lights in his face and the model dead in his hotel room. For geopolitical reasons, the American embassy keeps his crisis out of the press. He's a liability to his business, too: The scandal costs the company its contract. The one friend Moore has is his court-appointed defense advocate, Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling). Even she, at first, wants only for him to plead guilty. In China, as in Puritan New England, the motto is, "Leniency for those who confess. Severity for those who resist."

How about leniency for those who just want a good movie? Robert King was reportedly inspired to write the script after a shock he endured on a European trip, when Italian police jumped into his train compartment and tried to grab his younger sister. (It was a case of mistaken identity.) The root idea is to trap a complacent American in a cryptic legal system. But topicality swamps that notion when it's transferred to a setting as politically charged as contemporary China. The expose of injustice in Beijing overwhelms any swipes at American overconfidence, and the "thriller" elements are patchy and lifeless -- a waxy clump of litchi nuts.

I hated Midnight Express, in which Turkish jailers tortured an American youth, but I could see why it was "relevant": In the '60s and '70s, a lot of U.S. students hiked blithely from country to country with contraband in their backpacks. Is Red Corner meant to be a similar warning for crackerjack counsels of powerful conglomerates? Of course not. But the gimmick of having a hotshot WASP like Jack Moore run through a Chinese jail and court is so contorted it's insulting: an open admission that Americans wouldn't pay to see a human-rights drama otherwise. Although director Jon Avnet painstakingly details the brutality of Beijing trial and punishment, dropping an American into the mix confuses rather than strengthens his diatribe. You wonder whether some of the atrocities meant to be typical -- Moore is forced to watch a videotape of a mass execution -- are instead reserved for special guests.

I was astounded to learn that the entire Chinese legal code can be contained in one modest volume, and that Beijing's courtrooms are as dominated by women as New York's or Boston's are in my favorite network shows. But the intriguing marginalia fail to put any kick into the narrative. Since the mystery depends on last-minute revelations, it's catastrophic for the director to be "atmospheric" and trippy when he should be nailing down the crucial action. From the beginning, Avnet indulges in freak-out cuts and lighting; it takes a minute to realize that the girl sketching Moore at a nightclub table is the model he ogled on the runway. Their one-night stand is fractured and oblique, an avant-garde slide show. You can't comprehend what happened until Moore later lays it out for his lawyer. Even after Moore and Yuelin team up, Avnet lathers on would-be poetic suggestions, cross-cutting as if to imply a telepathic link between them, or punctuating the action with close-ups of butchered poultry when Moore's goose seems cooked.

Bai Ling's Yuelin shoulders the bulk of the script's earnest doggerel: Twice she says that emotion fills the bamboo in Beijing's Purple Bamboo Park. (Purple Bamboo Park, of course, is where she'll go to escape stress and renew herself.) She does spank the movie to life whenever her lines permit, particularly when she tests her concept of legal defense against Moore's. She's tough yet pliant, a willow who generally won't weep. But Yuelin eventually turns to mush. Ling's magnetic presence alone can't lend credence to Yuelin's bonding with her client -- an Apollonian love so swift and strong that before you can say Jack Moore three times, each risks safety and freedom for the other, or the Other.

Gere can't help prodding viewers to recall his off-camera protests against Chinese rule of Tibet. (This movie seems to have Tibet in it, even if it doesn't.) Unfortunately, as an actor, he's worse than self-contained -- he's vacuum-packed. His peaks of fervor are like imitation tantrums. And Yuelin and Moore's bouts of mutual self-sacrifice verge on the middlebrow camp of Contact. We discover that Yuelin must "speak up" the way she didn't when she saw her father shamed in the Cultural Revolution. And Moore must commit to another person the way he hasn't since his wife and daughter died in a crushed San Francisco taxi. If Ling's character can at least claim historical authority, Gere's is the stuff of Peking soap opera. The bombast and histrionics of Red Corner treat the melting of a big star's heart as the equivalent of the thawing of a nation.

Red Corner.
Directed by Jon Avnet.
With Richard Gere and Bai Ling.
Rated R.
119 minutes.

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Michael Sragow