12 Citizens (2014) / Drama

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be PG-13 for language and thematic material
Running Time: 108 min.

Cast: He Bing, Han Tongsheng, Ban Zan, Chunyang Zhao, Gao Dongping, Lei Jia, Li Guangfu, Liu Hui, Mi Tiezeng, Qian Bo, Wang Gang, Zhang Yongqiang
Director: Xu Ang
Screenplay: Xu Ang, Li Yujiao, Han Jinglong
Review published February 5, 2015

1957's 12 Angry Men provides the inspiration for this Chinese art-house interpretation by first-time feature director and co-writer Xu Ang.

The circumstances: a young man is adopted into a wealthy family is accused of murdering his biological father, igniting the media and public debate.  The case becomes fodder for a Western-culture civics lesson for a school, which asks twelve citizens from different walks of life to come up with a verdict of guilty or not guilty based on the mock court case presented to them, and they must be unanimous in their response. It would seem open and shut, but one man (He Bing, Shower) of the twelve dissents, claiming that they owe it to those who are going to study law to really argue over the case and see if there indeed is no reasonable doubt that they young man committed the deed.

Xu Ang says that the twelve men we see were based on real people he has known in his life in Beijing, both in their virtues as well as their prejudices.  The one-set film definitely has a theatrical feel to it, so it isn't a surprise to learn that Xu Ang, as well as many of the actors cast, comes primarily from working on the stage instead of the silver screen.  Nearly all of what we see takes place in one solitary room around a large table for deliberation, and it is shot mostly (presumably) in real time.  It's not certain how the law students stand to gain from the argumentation, given that they aren't spectators to the discussion, but you have to assume it's important, or the film doesn't work.

As an experiment, it's interesting, perhaps more so to people in China, where jury trials don't exist, and a democratic form of civil discourse isn't always in play.  However, given that Western audiences are generally quite familiar with the Sidney Lumet masterpiece (which was an adaptation itself of a 1954 TV episode), 12 Citizens is more of a nicely presented curiosity than any sort of replacement, especially considering the fact that a real character's life isn't hanging in the balance of the decisions that are made by the twelve angry men, the dramatic tension is greatly reduced.  When eleven men get mad at the one because he wants to take the full hour to explore discussing the cast instead of five minutes, you'd think he was asking them to stay sequestered for weeks based on how irate they become.

12 Citizens is a conversation starter of a movie, and for that, it succeeds.  It's good for people to get together and discuss important issues, and to see and hear people from different points of view, rather than continuing through life with only one's own closed-minded opinion, or those who think like them, to go by.  As a film, it's an interesting and tension-filled take, especially as it delves into sociological looks at wealth and class that are distinctly Chinese.  Perhaps it's a bit too dramatic at times, which might have worked better as a stage production than as an intimate fly-on-the-wall peek, but the performers are quite good nonetheless.

If you haven't seen the 1957 Lumet version, absolutely see that first, but this Chinese take is definitely worth seeking out as a companion piece that offers more to explore than the several made-for-TV remakes that have come out over the years.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo