China, 2012, colour, 1.85:1, 96 mins.
Director: Gao Zehao 高则豪.
Promising crime drama jumps the tracks in the second half, despite fresh playing by Gao Jie [Jack Kao].
Xiamen city, Siming district, Fujian province, southern China, the present day. During a drunken dinner at a small harbourside restaurant, Song (Gao Jie) asks his friend Li Kangsheng (Chunyu Shanshan), an insurance salesman, if he can help him out financially, as he still owes RMB300,000 in interest on a loan he took out for his small noodle eaterie, as well as having expenses for sending his daughter Song Yu (Liu Zhenjun) to university next year. While going to the lavatory, he sees a body thrown out of a car and run over in a back street; he and Li Kangsheng try to save the young victim but he dies in Song’s van. Thinking the police won’t believe their story, they leave the body outside a clinic. Paying a vist next day, they bump into Xiaomei (Mo Xi’er), the waitress at the harbourside restaurant, who’s there for a pregnancy check-up; after discovering the dead man was her boyfriend, Song and Li Kangsheng decide to keep their mouths shut. Lin Heping (Jia Xiaoguo), the gangster to whom Song is in debt, visits him at work, and Song asks for more time. To force Song to sell his restaurant, Lin Heping has his men fake an illness after eating there, and Song loses his business licence. To raise the money and protect his family, Song considers buying insurance and committing suicide. Meanwhile, after learning about Xiaomei’s background and why her boyfriend was beaten up, Song and his wife (Du He) take her under their wing. Lin Heping then gives Song a final deadline for paying up, and Li Kangsheng warns Song not to try any more insurance scams. When Song learns more about Lin Heping and his intentions, he decides to take the law into his own hands and go for broke.
Veteran actor Gao Jie 高捷 [Jack Kao], everyone’s favourite Taiwan gangster, is cast against type with excellent results in Witness 目击者, a first theatrical outing by thirtysomething Mainland director Gao Zehao 高则豪 that starts more interestingly than it develops. As a small restaurateur who finally takes extreme measures to settle a debt with a gangster, Gao Jie shows he’s more than capable of playing a sympathetic everyman; unfortunately, the film fails to deliver on its opening promise, becoming dramatically disjointed and unbelievable, as well as falling prey to the same crime cliches it earlier avoided. The modest production, set and shot in Gao Zehao’s native city of Xiamen, Fujian province, southern China, made no impression (RMB9 million) on Mainland release, despite some critical attention.
With no preamble, the screenplay by Tang Qingfa 汤清发 and Wang Lili 王莉莉 (crime drama Out of Control 失控, 2011), establishes Gao Jie’s character Song as a weak but basically well-intentioned man who’s still paying off the interest on a loan for his small business and still has to put his daughter through university. As well as continuing pressure from his smooth-talking but ruthless creditor – nicely played by Taiwan theatre actor Jia Xiaoguo 贾孝国 – Song is also peripherally involved, through no fault of his own, in the death of a waitress’ boyfriend, a secret his best pal (Mainland actor Chunyu Shanshan 淳于珊珊, in a low-key but effective role) advises him to keep secret. Essentially Witness is about an average man driven to take un-average action; where the script (and ultimately direction) fails is in not making the transition believable and then falling back on filmy crime cliches that almost turn the film into a black comedy.
Cast against type, Gao must take a lot of the credit for making the film watchable: his Song doesn’t contain a trace of his usual screen persona and the character is utterly convincing, especially in scenes with his doting daughter and ratty wife, sympathetically played by Liu Zhenjun 刘真君 and, in a rare film role, musicals/TV veteran Du He 杜鹤. (Being set in Xiamen, Gao’s Taiwan accent is also perfectly acceptable.) Among the other supports, Mo Xi’er 莫熙儿 has some touching moments as an indebted waitress whom Song and his wife help. More’s the pity that, after setting out a rich array of characters, the writers lack the dramatic wherewithal to do them (or the themes) justice. Scenes where they’re obviously trying to bend the genre – as when Song and his pal tend an old woman in a nursing home – simply come over as arch.
The handheld photography by d.p. Zhao Long 赵龙 gives the production a sense of realism and immediacy, without overdoing things. Editing by director Gao Zehao himself is OK.
Presented by Beijing Minghan Tianxia Culture & Media (CN). Produced by Beijing Minghan Tianxia Culture & Media (CN), Xiamen Grand Canyon Advertisement (CN).
Script: Tang Qingfa, Wang Lili. Script editing: Wang Hongwei. Photography: Zhao Long. Editing: Gao Zehao. Music: Li Yaoshi, Lei Li. Art direction: Luo Jinghui. Costume design: Liu Qingfang. Sound: Li Junjie, Wang Chong. Action: Zhang Hai, Zheng Yiyang. Executive direction: Zhang Jingwei.
Cast: Gao Jie [Jack Kao] (Song), Jia Xiaoguo (Lin Heping), Chunyu Shanshan (Li Kangsheng), Xu Minghu (Xiaobiao), Du He (Song’s wife), Hu Xiaoting (Di, Lin Heping’s wife), Mo Xi’er (Xiaomei), Liu Zhenjun (Song Yu, Song’s daughter), Wei Junzi (harbourside restaurant owner), Zhang Hai (Daliang, Lin Heping’s chief enforcer), Li Jinghua (old woman in nursing home), Yu Yang (Lin Heping’s secretary), Zhang Chao (Xiaomei’s boyfriend), Li Junjie (doctor).
Premiere: First Film Festival (Opening Film), Beijing, 25 Oct 2012.
Release: China, 20 Nov 2012.