The Procurator – Film Review

A woman sits in the defendant’s chair of a Chinese court accused of a horrendous crime. Professor of history Xia Wei (Likun Wang) has been charged with the violent murder of wealthy businessman Chen Xin (Bei’er Bao). She reserves her right to silence and investigating this case will uncover a literal tomb of secrets.

Young public procurator Li Rui (Jingyu Huang) is tasked with investigating the murder and bringing the evidence to trial. The motive appears clear with the nightclub owner and loan shark Chen, suspected in the sexual assault of one of Xia’s students.

But things aren’t as simple as they seem. Xia’s husband Hong Junshan (Feng Shaofeng) had business dealings with Chen going back decades. Not only that, but the murder weapon is also a long-lost fragment of a lock from the tomb of a Tang Dynasty empress! The deeper Li digs, the more conspiracy he uncovers and those who will stop at nothing to avoid justice.

Back in the courtroom Li battles wits with defence lawyer Tong Yu Chen (Baihe Bai), his former girlfriend. Can Li make sense of this case or are some secrets better left uncovered?

Directed by Alan Mak, The Procurator is written by Peng Zhao, known for his work on court room TV drama, Court Battle. It was definitely Alan Mak who got me excited about this film as I’ve been a fan of his since he made the legendary Infernal Affairs trilogy which of course inspired Martin Scorcese’s The Departed. Working in a range of styles, Mak has proven himself one of the most versatile directors in Chinese cinema.

Firstly, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what exactly a procurator is anyway? The Supreme People’s Procuratorate is the highest national agency for investigating and prosecution of crime in the People’s Republic of China. This leads to what I find to be most interesting about The Procurator in that it follows an agent with full jurisdiction over the investigation of the crime. But he also acts as the lead prosecutor in the ensuing court case.

The story takes an especially non-linear narrative in its approach. Constantly jumping backwards and forwards between the crime, the investigation, the resulting trial, and even beyond, as we delve deeper into the characters’ pasts. Sadly, this can lead to some confusion over the continuity of events. At the same time, it heightens the drama as we’re never quite sure where the truth is in the legal tug-of-war between Li and Tong.

The human element of The Procurator is surprisingly deep with the friendship between Li and his colleague Zhang (Qianyuan Wang) being a standout. I do wish Bai and Huang had more scenes together though. The pair have a chemistry but we simply don’t see enough interaction to play up Li and Tong’s supposed romantic tension.

Mak has proven before he can shoot action as well as interpersonal drama. This film’s initial flowing single take courtroom shot is filmed just as stylishly as any of its intense bursts of action. However, as a screenwriter, Peng is clearly more in his element during the film’s trial scenes than in presenting a mystery plot.

Much of the time we already know details long before Li and his team discover them for themselves, at which point they’re artificially treated as a revelation. At other times, quite interesting tidbits are dropped suddenly on us with no build up. That said, elsewhere I enjoyed the script’s subtleties. The idea of a “curse” being weaved into the characters’ fates resulting in the tumbling of a house of cards was quite fascinating.

The Procurator is a stylish murder mystery with some refreshingly intriguing ideas and an exceptional cast. Peng’s script takes us in some unexpected directions while exploring aspects of the Chinese legal system that I personally was unaware of before now. While not every scene hits with the intended impact, Alan Mak’s strong direction ensures that The Procurator remains a thrilling ride.

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