Red Corner is a provocative film that portrays both the emergence of a modern but politically dictatorial China and the development of an international movement seeking justice for those who defy the country's unjust political dictates. The movie broaches many topics significant to modern Chinese history as well as to Sino-American diplomatic relations. At the same time it raises issues of international human rights.
This riveting international thriller stars Richard Gere as Jack Moore, a brilliant attorney employed as general counsel to a large entertainment conglomerate. He is the best legal negotiator the West has to offer and his corporation sends him to China to close an enormously valuable satellite communications deal with the government. While in Beijing, Moore spends the night with the daughter of a high ranking Chinese general. When she is found dead, he is found covered in her blood.
Moore finds he can not negotiate his own life once he is arrested by Chinese officials. Not only is he accused of murder but he is abandoned by his American colleagues. Moreover, he is informed that if he is found guilty, he will be shot within a week and the bullet will be billed to his family. The Chinese court will not allow him to be extradited to his own country. He is to be tried as any Chinese citizen would be and an attorney, Shen Yuelin, played by actress Bai Ling, who was prohibited because of her role in the film from entering China, is appointed after no one else will voluntarily accept his case. Yuelin immediately files a guilty plea in order to save his life since Chinese law dictates, "leniency for those who confess; severity for those who resist." The court has already decided Moore is guilty and has informed Yuelin that he will be found guilty.
With no support from friends or a foreign system, Moore sets out to find the truth. With difficulty, he persuades Yuelin to take a leap of faith and go against her country's demands in order to find the true murderer.
The movie is thought provoking not only because it juxtaposes an American accustomed to great individual liberties against a conservative and limited foreign government, but also because it places a female Chinese attorney in the position of reexamining her nation's legal values.
The tone of the movie is set initially with a voice-over of Yuelin reminiscing about a metaphor her grandmother told her when she was a child. The bamboo "is waiting for the wind to touch it. It is filled with emotion. Listen to the sound and you can feel that." This metaphor symbolizes many untapped emotions. It symbolizes a female lawyer from China. For Yuelin, who routinely ignores the traditional injustices which occur in her day to day life, the bamboo symbolizes a yearning for ideal freedom. Yet, like Yuelin, idealistic Americans, who invest heavily in Chinese markets, also deliberately ignore the fact that the Chinese government finds no mercy for those who dissent. The metaphor also symbolizes the Chinese government officials who, wanting someone punished for committing crimes against the government, ignore or even suppress the most obvious evidence.
Is freedom worth the price? Beneath the obvious mystery plot, as a central theme, the film depicts China struggling with old traditions and new ways of life. In the fictional story, as well as in mainland China for the past two decades, freedom carries a heavy cost. While some Chinese seek Western modernization of China, many others are torn by the blatant realities of Chinese life.
The movie contrasts many of these dilemmas. While the Western world is virtually covered with satellites allowing Westerners to see almost anything on their television, what they see is not necessarily good. With such excessive, even obsessive, openness often come pornography and violence. At another point the comparative decay of cities is underlined. Although the streets of Beijing are filled with people, the bustling city is both safe and clean while New York City is portrayed as unsanitary and dangerous. Yuelin reminds Moore that although China has six times the population of America, China has only one tenth of the crime rate. Yuelin stresses to her client, "We [the Chinese] hold the welfare of the state above that of the individual." Yuelin compares other undesirable Western problems with Chinese attitudes. The infant mortality rate is higher in the United States than in China. In America, people are sometimes punished for the color of their skin. Many Americans make their job their first priority rather than their family. According to Yuelin, the Chinese culture values family more than anything else. In China, far less violence permeates society while, in America, which Yuelin ironically refers to as the "peaceful country," many are murdered each week.
Despite these negative factors, even Yuelin acknowledges that, the Westernization of China has its advantages. Modern China is a country attempting to hold steadfastly to its old values while at the same time embracing many new and foreign technologies. Visually, the movie shows these paradoxes clearly. Throngs of people on foot, riding bicycles, pushing carts, rush through Beijing while others drive past in the latest cars. In the cities night clubs, many dance to American disco music. Yet, during the intermission between dance numbers, men dressed as Chinese warriors engage in feudal battles. In a provincial market, some Chinese walk by in business suits clutching briefcases, and some talking on cellular phones. In the background, the market displays skinned and butchered geese ready for sale while the trinkets and baubles of the past are displayed on tables. In contrast to the Chinese businessmen hurrying past the people behind the tables have not adapted to Western values, and they stand at their tables each day hoping for just enough money to live.
June Truffle Dryer's China's Political System: Modernization and Tradition discusses this dramatic struggle of China to modernize and at the same time to maintain its traditional values. This dilemma raises many unanswered questions and generates a great deal of unresolved tension over China's future evolution. As a result, different groups in China have emerged, each with varied definitions of modernization. As Dreyer states:
Dreyer believes that, "As people acquire a new sense of being able to influence their own destinies they will demand a larger share of political power, and the modernized system will accommodate to these demands."
Another good source on modernization is China Since the Cultural Revolution: From Totalitarianism to Authoritarianism by Jie Chen and Peng Deng, which discusses various protest movements by political dissidents and the actions the Chinese government took to suppress them.
One of the questions subtly raised by Red Corner is how long can a nation do business with another country and ignore the country's policies that repeatedly deny human rights? In 1972, President Richard Nixon became the first President of the US to visit China. That same year, he established diplomatic relations with China, ending the hostility between the two countries which had existed since 1949, when Communist forces seized control of China. Nixon's motive was to gain an ally against the Soviet Union, but economic factors were also important as James Mann's recent study, About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China From Nixon to Clinton, points out. Since the opening of China in the nineteenth century, the United States has sought increased trade. As an economic consequence, the United States has often blindly watched China persecute innocent political dissidents, remaining silent for fear of compromising trade advantages.
Red Corner accurately portrays this expediency. When Jack Moore is arrested for murder, his American business partners return home declaring there is nothing they can do for him. When Moore attempts to persuade the American Embassy in Beijing to intervene on his behalf, officials tell him he will have to stand trial in China. When he escapes to embassy territory seeking asylum, bureaucrats express their fear that he may create an international incident. They actively cooperate with Chinese control of the news, telling Moore that they want to keep the press quiet because they fear strained relations between China and America.
Such caution is certainly prevalent today among Americans who rely heavily on trade with China. Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro in The Coming Conflict With China boldly write of the contradictory relationships the United States has with China and predict that such relationships will one day fail. Once allied by necessity, the United States and China no longer have to worry about the threat of the Soviet Union. Now, the only thing binding the two countries together is money, but this too, the authors believe, will inevitably one day cause problems. "The People's Republic of China, the world's most populous country, and the United States, its most powerful, have become global rivals, countries whose relations are tense, whose interests are in conflict, and who face tougher, more dangerous times ahead."
Beyond economic rivalry and pressure, however, such studies as well as films such as Red Corner broach the question of when will Chinese citizens have the right to live and to practice the beliefs they want to practice? In Red Corner, posters of Mao Tse-tung fill the city of Beijing. A person looks over a shoulder to find Mao staring back. In essence, "Big Brother" is still watching. Red Corner examines several other instances of government intrusion into the lives of its citizens. Yuelin recalls the Cultural Revolution and how it tore her family apart. She was attending a university when the government closed it down. The government blacklisted her father, a university professor, and one day students came to her home to harass her father, and she did nothing. "I just watched my father be humiliated, be spat on, and as they poured black ink over his head. I hid my head in shame," she recounts. When the mob took him away, she did not protest it but blindly went on to the next phase in her life.
Certainly, for many Chinese, the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s attempted to politically "educate" the nation. Many now compare the horrific purges that occurred to those of Stalin in the Soviet Union. The government shut down universities, censored books, and banned newspapers. It also ordered the execution of thousands. Nicolas A. Lardy's China's Unfinished Economic Revolution is an interesting study of the aftershocks still being felt in China.
Long after such repression, Red Corner brilliantly exposes the system's continuing legal injustices. The Chinese authorities place Moore in a small room where they force him to watch a video on the execution of prisoners. They reject his demands to contact the American embassy, informing him that they will try him as a Chinese criminal. They then take him to his cell, a small dark room with a filthy concrete floor, with a small hole as lavatory, and the only light provided by a small, high, window. When the authorities finally allow him to talk to embassy officials, they monitor the conversation and do not permit him to discuss the investigation. A police officer informs him that only Chinese lawyers can represent him. Moore does not meet his court appointed attorney until the day of the trial, and then she pleads guilty without conferring with him. When he is discussing his case with his lawyer, a hidden video camera monitors the conference. When the prison guards ask Moore to do something and he resists, they use shock treatment or beat him until he complies.
Moore's treatment is fictional but based upon the reality of how the Chinese government treats its citizens who question authority.
The film raises important questions about the future of human rights in China. How many will suffer? How many will die before other nations actively denounce this type of abuse? Will Chinese citizens ever unify against such brutality? Human rights violations are clear but often the charges remain unrebutted by either Chinese or Western officials. Many continue to turn away when the Chinese government repeatedly silences dissent
The Courage to Stand Alone by Ching-sheng Wei is a collection of letters written after the author repeatedly and ardently called for the democratization of China and was subsequently imprisoned in 1978. The book reveals the trials and tribulations Chinese political prisoners endured and still face today.
In one of his letters, Ching-sheng Wei writes an ambiguous poem about the mixed feelings aroused by the Cultural Revolution:
Nevertheless, despite raising all the right questions, Red Corner betrays the viewer in its conclusion. The powerful message the film offers stops abruptly and, in typical Hollywood mode, leaves everyone living happily every after, except for the bad guys. Reality would dictate a different story.
In modern China, the court would have found the American guilty, the government would have executed him within the week, his family would have been billed for the bullet. A less likely scenario might allow the court to find the American guilty, but let the American government step in to create the feared international incident. Who knows? The film does provide a happy ending and some hope for the future. Yuelin tells Jack Moore that his case changed her life, and opened her eyes to see the injustices in her country. Symbolically, walls are breached and the barriers break down when the court sets Moore free. Even in China, Red Corner seems to say, justice, truth and the American way, can prevail and there can be personal freedom. Maybe. But it will not be that simple for China or the United States.