NY Asian 2014: Director Fei Xing Judges the Court Of Public Opinion in SILENT WITNESS

A huge hit in its native China, SILENT WITNESS starts as a taut courtroom drama and then writer/director Fei Xing flips the script to turn it into something more. He spoke with me about this commentary on social media and the court of public opinion.

The Lady Miz Diva:  I was prepared for a courthouse thriller and then you made me cry. Was this what you intended with SILENT WITNESS?  Your previous film, THE MAN BEHIND THE COURTYARD HOUSE was also known for twisting genres.  Is that kind of cinematic bait and switch creatively pleasing to you?

Fei Xing:
Yes! {Laughs} This is why I like films. I feel like films should be a wonderful journey.  So I think the best films have changes and also surprises and also redemption and humanity.

How did the story of SILENT WITNESS come to you?

  The affairs in China.  The development in China has been really fast and because of that fast development, a lot of people in China right now, they don't care too much about humanity or things like that.  They are, all of them, chasing the money.  A lot of actually stupid stories, because of the media coverage, they become national topics that become a national discussion on social media like Twitter and Weibo.  So no one cares about the truth behind these incidents; they all care about this instant to be entertaining, like what we see is only the surface.

One scene that I thought was fascinating was when the lawyer Zhou Li, is planning the media coverage for the case to garner the most sympathy, as opposed to trying to find legal remedies to win; like she's a marketing agent instead of a lawyer.  Is that your comment on social media's ability to change the perception of the truth?

That was exactly the point.  The legislation in China is very special, and more of the time the mass media and also the public, they can kidnap the law because of the public point of view.

I feel like you're holding up an unflattering reflection to the audience, yet this film is a huge hit in China.  What do you think audiences have responded to?

One of the reasons the film is popular is because from a film, you can actually see how different people live their lives.

The movie has a very slick look that gives a very cool, modern impression, yet this story is based around very classical themes.  Was that also meant to throw the viewer off or bring them in more closely?

  This is my current and also future point of view on making films, because I want my films to be professional looking; it looks good, so it provides it an entertaining experience while people are actually watching it, but I also want to express my point of view on life through my films.  Maybe in a few years, like whenever the way I think changes, then I might use a more down-to-earth visual to express what I want to say.

I think one of the most interesting things about the ladies on the defence team is that they could've easily been all men.  Zhou Li's gender really doesn't come into play in the film, which is quite unusual in any film.

  Probably in East Asia, China has the highest female status.  A lot of men in China, they are afraid of their wives, so they listen to what their wives have to say.  So, in China, a film's box office actually depends on women's point of view, because most of the time, when people go to the box office, it's the girls who decide what they want to see.  There's a rising popular term in China now which is called "the female dude"; that's to say that this girl looks very feminine from the outside, but there actually a dude inside.  From the first draft that I actually wrote my screenplay, that character was a male.  When I was finalising the characters in my screenplay, I thought that I should put in more characters that females would like for marketing purposes.

Can you please talk about casting Mr. Sun Honglei as the tycoon trying to manipulate the law?

  When we finalized Sun Honglei playing this role, he already matched what I imagined in my head for Lin Tai.

One of my favourite cinematographers, Zhao Xiaoding {HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER} is the DP on this film.  What was your collaboration like with him?

  I casted him because he is one of the really few Chinese men who was nominated for an Oscar.  Originally, I wanted a cinematographer from Hollywood, but because of our schedule and also our budget, it didn't work out; so we had him, but he is a really good man to work with: He will ask me, "What kind of effect do you want," first? Then I'll tell him what I want and he will actually finish it with his experience.  We could've made it a little bit better, but our schedule was too tight.  We shot in two months, so that's why we could've done much better.

With Aaron Kwok's prosecutor, we understand that he is motivated by revenge against Lin Tai, but I'm not quite sure what the motivation was for the defense lawyer, Zhou Li's actions?  Why was it so important for her to find the truth?

So, with our original shooting, we had Zhou Li, and she is a divorced single mom.  And then we actually cut that when we were writing.  Why Lin Tai hired her to begin with - he knows that because of her background; she has a child that is mentally challenged, she is a mom who is divorced.  He knows perfectly that she will be really angry about the fact that he put his daughter on the spot.

What would you like people to take away from SILENT WITNESS?

In China, there is a policy where a couple can only have one child.  Because of that policy, most kids enjoy the full attention of their family and they are used to that and they take it for granted.  So I want the single kids in China to watch the film and learn to actually appreciate the love they receive and not take it for granted.

This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional
content, including exclusive photos from the festival there.

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