Monday, April 26, 2010
Deliberating Life and Death Over Tea: Liu Jie's Judge (Touxi)
One aspect which immediately appealed was the fact it deals with social milieux rarely seen in Chinese features – the legal profession and Chinese prisons. One of the central character is a judge in a provincial Chinese city, whose marriage is falling apart in the wake of his young daughter's death in a traffic “accident” – an incident the police suspect was deliberate revenge for one of his court decisions. The judge's tale is interwoven with that of a young man imprisoned for stealing two cars. Unfortunately for the prisoner, the combined value of the stolen vehicles amounts to RMB 60,000, and theft of property over RMB 30,000 incurs the death penalty under Chinese law. The third narrative strand revolves around a wealthy business man looking for a donor so he can replace his failing kidney. The prisoner's blood type proves to be a perfect match.
The elderly judge (played by Ni Dahong) is an intriguing character. Although he's portrayed as an honest official – by all accounts a rare breed in today's China – the film doesn't shy away from portraying the corruption surrounding the Chinese legal profession. We see the judge approached on several occasions by parties looking to influence his decisions through “gifts,” and in one instance an aggrieved party tries to exact revenge on a defendant by persuading the judge to hand down a death sentence.
Although basically a sympathetic, the judge is also a rather stiff and unyielding personality. One of the film's most disturbing scenes depicts a meeting between him and two colleagues, in which they casually sit around drinking tea and off-handedly discuss whether the young car thief should be given the death penalty. While the law stipulates that the value of the vehicles he stole should incur capital punishment, the judges acknowledge the statute is an old one that makes no allowance for inflation (RMB 30,000 is less than USD 4,500 at the current exchange rate, although the story in set in the late-90s.). They are also aware that a looming update of the law will spare the man's life. Yet two of the judges insist on following regulations as they currently stand, displaying more concern for administrative procedure than questions of a moral, ethical or compassionate nature.
Reforms since the late 90s, the period in which Judge is set, have seen the power of lower courts to enforce the death penalty revoked. Nevertheless, death sentences are still handed down with frightening alacrity in the People's Republic, although no-one is sure exactly how many prisoners are executed each year as the figures remain a state secret.
The question of organ harvesting in Judge is dealt with in a relatively safe manner – the prisoner consents to donating his kidney in order to try and earn a reprieve, throwing up the question of whether this is legally permissible. After the court decides it is not, the rich man's lawyer pressures the prisoner to allow his kidney to be removed from his body after his execution, illegally offering to pay out the man's family as compensation.
This is as close as the film gets to questioning whether prisoners in China are actually executed specifically to harvest their organs, as some human rights groups claim. Judge stays within the realm of the acceptable by asserting a prisoner must give consent before his organs are removed, and the film never delves into whether the cavalier use of capital punishment is actually fed by the huge demand for organs.
Judge does, however, portray China's legal system as highly compromised, and I'm surprised Liu Jie was able to get away with what he has (the film was passed by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television [SARFT], which is why it can be shown in an official Beijing cinema).
Liu is to be commended for producing a challenging, thought provoking work that traces a skillful narrative path through a range of China's contemporary social stratum.
My one issue with the film was its ending. The final scene, while not exactly “happy,” felt a little too pat. I'll refrain from saying more to spare those who haven't seen the film yet.
I'm hoping to interview Liu Jie in the coming weeks, and ask about the challenges he faced making a film about the legal system in China.