Roger Ebert Home

Article 20

A broken system validates itself in “Article 20,” a Chinese New Year legal thriller that also happens to be a domestic farce and, oh yeah, the latest movie directed by mainland hitmaker Zhang Yimou. Only a filmmaker as hawkish, conflicted, and masterful as Zhang (“Hero,” “Full River Red”) could have sutured together the malformed parts of “Article 20,” a state-approved crowd-pleaser about, uh, the legal right to self-defense. This movie, the highest grossing Lunar New Year title and this past weekend's biggest earner worldwide, was also co-produced by the office of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), so it’s maybe not surprising that Zhang’s latest climaxes with an interminable, teary-eyed speech about how Chinese citizens deserve better. “Article 20” is a deeply corny movie, but it takes a moment for that cartilage-deep corniness to become fatally toxic, thanks mostly to the collaboration between Zhang, his uniformly strong cast, and his unsparing editor(s?).

For a while, the highlights of “Article 20” are frequent and impressive enough to make you want to follow wherever Zhang and the gang are headed. SPP prosecutor Han Ming (Lei Jiayin) is a conflict-adverse doormat; he is also the audience’s surrogate. Han becomes reluctantly involved in the case against Hao Xiuping (Mandopop star Zhao Zanilia) and her missing partner Wang (Yu Hewei). Hao and Wang were victims of harassment, and, in Hao’s case, rape, after they borrowed money from Liu, a violent loan shark. Then, after Liu put Wang in a dog collar and viciously assaulted his wife, Wang stabbed Liu 26 times, leaving Liu to die a few days later in the hospital. Han doesn’t want to be involved with Hao or Wang; he’s still put in charge of their case. Han’s promotion understandably frustrates his idealistic colleague Lyu Lingling (Ye Gao). 

Meanwhile, Han tries to protect his anxious and hilariously meddlesome wife Li Maojuan (Li Ma) from the (unfounded) suspicion that he’s having an affair with Lyu. Unfortunately for Han, conflict is unavoidable given a tangle of perpetually escalating developments in both his home and professional life. Chief among them: Han’s teenage son Yuchen (Liu Yaowen) faces criminal charges after he challenges a well-connected school bully, who soon leaves the picture, and is mostly represented by his stubborn and high-powered father, Director Zhang (Zhang Yi). Han doesn’t want to be involved in this dispute either, but he is anyway.

“Article 20” mostly works as a comedy about marriage for the same reason that it mostly doesn’t when it’s a pandering procedural about how justice and fairness can and must prevail despite selfish individuals. In real life, Zhang’s recent movies have half-benefited and half-suffered from the mainland government’s close support. He still has a gift for cultivating broad and jet-black comedy in stories about reluctant middlemen, soldiers, and government functionaries who, despite themselves, must bargain with other go-betweens in order to save themselves. So it’s no surprise that the best scenes in “Article 20” revolve around Han and his wife, especially given Lei and Li’s chemistry and timing. 

The movie’s dialogue, credited to screenwriter Meng Li, is presented with a rat-a-tat screwball rhythm. Zhang and his editor—probably regular collaborator Yongyi Li—commendably spice up Han and Li’s arguments with a blessedly merciless pace. Han also has a number of winning lines that would be funny regardless of who plays opposite Lei. It’s still hard not to see Han and Li’s rocky partnership as the real draw in “Article 20” given how amusing their bickering often is. In a choice exchange, he whines that he only hid his work relationship with Lyu in order to maintain an “atmosphere” of peace with Li. 

“What kind of atmosphere do we have?” she snaps back. 

“Harmonious!” 

Eventually, the hectic rhythm of conversation in “Article 20” becomes more of a tired dramatic convention than an extension of comic ingenuity. Han and Li’s disagreements ironically become harder to take seriously as they grow more severe in tone. And, after a while, "Article 20"'s nature as a message movie outpaces Zhang's breakneck speed. This downturn was perhaps inevitable given the movie’s nature as an SPP-approved production. It’s still frustrating given how much promise and momentum Zhang and his collaborators develop whenever “Article 20” is more of a satire than a jeremiad. 

It’s hard, though not impossible to imagine a contemporary mainstream Chinese comedy that’s both pointed and hysterical in its social criticism. This year’s Lunar New Year racing comedy blockbuster “Pegasus 2” comes close (it’s also the holiday’s #2 grosser), and there’s lot of laughs in the recent office comedy “Johnny Keep Walking.” Then again, if a gifted figurehead like Zhang can’t finesse this sort of dicey material, then maybe no one can. Feel-good sensationalism isn’t always charming, but if you focus on what works in “Article 20,” you might enjoy yourself anyway.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

Now playing

We Were the Lucky Ones
Sting
Club Zero
Imaginary
Knox Goes Away

Film Credits

Latest blog posts

Comments

comments powered by Disqus