Guilty of Mind
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 110 mins.
Director: Xie Dongshen 谢东燊.
Psychological crime drama, centred on a profiler, is solid but unexceptional, let down by a dodgy script.
Huanhai city, northeast China, the present day, May. A postmortem for a horrifically murdered man, conducted by pathologist Qiao Lan (Wan Qian) and attended by police detective Tai Wei (Liao Fan), is suddenly interrupted by Fang Mu (Li Yifeng), a former student at the Institute of Criminal Psychology at Huanhai University, who identifies the killer among the onlookers from the hospital’s staff. After a chase through the city, the killer is arrested on the beach, though Tai Wei’s assistant, Li Yiman, is stabbed and ends up in a coma. Some time later, Tai Wei meets his new assistant, keen but inexperienced Luo Yi (Yu Lang), when he’s called to investigate the corpse of a champion athlete, Zhou Guangrong, that’s been found in a boat. Tai Wei asks the help of Qiao Lan’s father (Zhang Guozhu), a professor at ICP, in profiling the killer but he recommends one of his former students, Fang Mu, whom he says is brilliant…but a bit weird. Despite reservations, Tai Wei finally agrees to work with him. Qiao Lan reports that the corpse was drained of a lot of blood, and Fang Mu surmises that the killer drank it at the scene of the crime. He also gives Tai Wei a profile of the killer: male, aged 25-35, height not over 1.75 metres, slim, and with a blood disease. After checking local hospitals, Luo Yi identifies a suspect suffering from anaemia, Ma Kai (Feng Jiaqi); she and Tai Wei go to question him at an old fishing boatyard but after a fight he escapes in the dark. Tension builds between Tai Wei and Fang Mu; Qiao Lan explains to Fang Mu that Tai Wei’s father was a policeman who died in the course of duty, so Li Yiman’s condition is hitting him hard. Some time later, a designer is killed at her home, and her blood is found mixed with milk. Fang Mu also thinks the killer kidnapped a child, to drink its blood at a future date. Following Fang Mu’s intuition, Tai Wei finds the murder weapon a long way from the crime scene, but not the child. Finally, Ma Kai is traced but dies after falling from a balcony during the fight. Tai Wei and the police all celebrate the end of the case; but then Tai Wei realises the man he fought at the boatyard was not Ma Kai – which means a killer is still at large. And Fang Mu thinks he’s probably a doctor who was controlling Ma Kai’s addiction to blood. Unknown to Fang Mu, one of the people in the killer’s sights is Chen Xi (Li Chun), a ballet student whom he’s crazy over.
Though it tries hard, with jittery photography, lots of swirling visual effects, noirish setpieces and a propulsive score, crime drama Guilty of Mind 心理罪 doesn’t get under the skin like it wants to. Mainland cinema has a very mixed record on its comparatively new genre of crime procedurals/psychodramas: Guilty isn’t as creepy as the recent Blood of Youth 少年 (2016) but is far superior to Battle of Memories 记忆大师 (2017) with whose visual style it sometimes flirts. Centred on the hunt for a blood-drinking serial killer in which the police are helped by brilliant young profiler Fang Mu, it has good playing from the main cast but a screenplay with unbelievable leaps of logic and a habit of slipping into pulpiness. Helped by the popularity of the source novel (see left), and maybe by the casting of young actor-singer Li Yifeng 李易峰 (the son in Mr. Six 老炮儿, 2015) as the criminal profiler, Guilty has taken a nice RMB270 million in its first two weeks. [Final tally was RMB304 million.]
Lead written by Gu Xiaobai 顾小白, who worked on Under the Hawthorn Tree 山楂树之恋 (2010) and People Mountain People Sea 人山人海 (2011) but also scripted crime thriller The Witness 我是证人 (2015), the screenplay is based on a 2007 novel, first published online, by Lei Mi 雷米 (pen name of Liu Peng 刘鹏), who teaches criminal law at Shenyang’s Criminal Investigation Police University of China. The Mainland is currently in the grip of Lei Mi mania: Guilty just managed to get the jump on The Liquidator 城市之光, an adaptation by a completely different team of another novel in the series, which opens in late September, and a film version of a third novel is in the works. In addition, there’s already been two TV drama series (see poster, left), the 24-part Evil Minds 心理罪 (2015, directed by Wubai 五百, who made the very fine The Old Cinderella 脱轨时代, 2014) and 25-part Evil Minds 2 心理罪2 (2016, Cheng Hao 程浩).
Allowing for some age and cultural adjustments, Fang Mu isn’t that far from Tony Hill, the half-crazed British psychologist/police profiler of horrific crimes in the novels of Scottish writer Val McDermid (themselves made into a successful TV series, Wire in the Blood, 2002-08). Like Tony Hill, Fang Mu admits to a kick in looking into the darkest depths of the human mind; unlike Tony Hill, however, his profiling on which so much of the plot relies is – at least in the film – less scientifically deductive, more magically inspired: after looking at a corpse, cue whirly visual effects and “the killer is aged 25-35, male, height not over 1.75 metres, slimly built, with a blood disease.” Well, yes.
Fang Mu’s brilliant powers of deduction send whole squads of police off on goose chases that turn out to be not so wild – despite being based on nothing but intuition (“Which way?” “Turn left”) – and in the finale even to an offshore island, closely followed by his police detective boss, Tai Wei. The film plays with the idea of the killer being a kind of real-life vampire, and makes free use of fantasy sequences and an especially weird villain. As a serious, procedural crime drama, it’s very suspect, and finally opts for a pulpy, mad-doctor finale; as a study of two damaged characters hunting even more damaged ones, it’s rather more successful.
The human drama is actually propelled by the veteran police detective, Tai Wei, who acts like he chews rocks for breakfast and hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in ages. Tai Wei’s scepticism over the brilliant young student is slowly worn down but not erased, and can still erupt at a moment’s notice, especially as Fang Mu keeps on pressing Tai Wei’s buttons. With his trademark goatee/moustache and strung-out looks, Liao Fan 廖凡, 43 – a character actor who’s more recently become a leading man (crime drama Black Coal, Thin Ice 白日焰火, 2014; rom-com Only You 命中注定, 2015; period martial-arts drama The Master 师父, 2015) – has no problem playing weird or damaged; but for co-star Li, 30, as the young profiler, it looks more of a stretch. Li has problems overcoming his metrosexual looks to convince as a criminal-profiling genius, though in his character’s several set-tos with Liao’s detective he gives as good as he takes. Liao is in the driving seat in these heated exchanges – note, at the 50-minute mark, how he handles a drunken party scene that suddenly turns ugly – but Li holds his ground. It’s not an especially likeable chemistry, and their (not so) passive aggressiveness comes close to being overdone, but it kind of works and manages to drive the film between the procedural stuff.
Less credible is the relationship between the profiler and a dancer (played by Li Chun 李纯, good as the love-rival in Once upon a Time 三生三世十里桃花, 2017) with whom he’s obsessed: though she’s dragged back into the plot at a late stage, their story isn’t much more than a generic romance. With the role of Tai Wei’s eager-beaver new assistant (played by Yu Lang 虞郎, 23, better known on TV) going nowhere after a perky start, the female side of the film is held up by Wan Qian 万茜, playing above her age in the shadowy but crucial role of the police pathologist. Wan, 35, who was so good as the wife in the recent God of War 荡寇风云 (2017), appears to be coming into her own with a succession of solid parts (Paradise in Service 军中乐园, 2014; Hide and Seek 捉迷藏, 2016; The Insanity 你好，疯子！).
Guilty marks a complete change of pace for director Xie Dongshen 谢东燊 (previously known as Xie Dong 谢东) after his CNY comedy Better and Better 越来越好之村晚 (2013, co-directed with Zhang Yibai 张一白) and his remarkable rural drama One Summer with You 与你同在的夏天 (2004). Xie doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in the genre, though he makes the best of the dodgy script. Solid but unexceptional could also describe the technical credits, from the cold urban photography by Mainland d.p. Yang Tao 杨涛 (The Sun Also Rises 太阳照常升起, 2007) to the functional editing by Hong Kong veteran Zhang Jiahui 张嘉辉 [Cheung Ka-fai]. Action choreography by South Koreans Shim Jae-weon 심재원 | 沈在元 (Mojin: The Lost Legend 寻龙诀, 2015) and Seo Seung-eok 서승억 | 徐承亿 (The Laundryman 青天街一号, 2015) is realistically brawly but often obscured by dim lighting or rapid cutting. Much better is the grungy art direction by South Korea’s Jeon Su-a 전수아 | 全秀娥 (Haunters 초능력자, 2010; The Berlin File 베를린, 2013; the last two Tiny Times 小时代 films, 2014-15).
With its varied colonial architecture and modern showpieces like the Xinghai Bay bridge, the seaside city of Dalian, east of Beijing, stands in impressively for the fictional Huanhai (“C City” in the novel). The film’s Chinese title literally means “Psychological Crime” or “Psychological Guilt”.
Presented by City Image (Beijing) Film & TV Culture (CN), Wanda Pictures (CN), Shanghai SMG Pictures (CN), Tianjin Maoyan Media (CN), S&C Pictures (CN), Khorgos Le Vision Pictures (CN), Manshan (Beijing) Pictures (CN), Zhejiang Dongyang Tianyi Film & TV Culture (CN), Maisong Film & TV Investment (Shanghai) (CN), HLCG Media (CN). Produced by Maisong Film & TV Investment (Shanghai) (CN), HLCG Media (CN).
Script: Gu Xiaobai, Li Zhao, Cao Chen. Photography: Yang Tao. Editing: Zhang Jiahui [Cheung Ka-fai]. Music direction: Li Dongjun. Art direction: Jeon Su-a. Sound: Long Xiaozhu. Action: Shim Jae-weon, Seo Seung-eok.
Cast: Liao Fan (Tai Wei), Li Yifeng (Fang Mu), Li Chun (Chen Xi), Wan Qian (Qiao Lan), Yu Lang (Luo Yi), Zhang Guozhu (Qiao, professor), Fan Tiantian (Wang Tongying), Feng Jiaqi (Ma Kai), Xie Junjia (Meng Yang).
Release: China, 11 Aug 2017.