Credit: CMC Pictures
by Noel Oakshot Featured Film Spotlight

Article 20 — Zhang Yimou

March 11, 2024

Well into his 70s and his fifth decade working among the most prominent figures in Sinophone cinema, Zhang Yimou continues with Article 20, a tragicomic legal drama loosely amalgamated from multiple real-life violent incidents involving the right to violent self-defense, a legal principle less firmly and generously defined in China than it is in the U.S. The film follows the battle over the prosecution of a man who killed a loan shark who had been brutalizing him and sexually assaulting his wife. It’s comparable to Australia’s The Castle in that it’s a heartstring-pulling legal comedy-drama setting law and precedent against an invocation of the spirit of fairness and the character of society, and has provoked much conversation in its home country. Article 20 levies a critique of corruption that folds popular dissatisfaction with bureaucratic institutions into the nationalism and anti-corruption posture that has characterized the Xi Jinping era. It was released on the New Year in the Sinosphere after the wild success of Full River Red’s same release slot in 2023, and low-key releases have slowly followed across the rest of the world, primarily to diasporic audiences.

In Article 20, we follow deputy prosecutor Han Ming (Lei Jiayin) as he works under ex-girlfriend Lu Lingling to untangle the facts of the aforementioned case, while internal pressure mounts as the father of the dead loan shark aggressively exerts his influence to force a conviction. Meanwhile, Han Ming’s son (Liu Yaowen) instigates a parallel battle when he defends a cowering high school classmate from a bully who happens to be the new principal’s son. These two threads gradually escalate, putting pressure on the prosecutor’s marriage and career. Riveting as it darts between farcical comedy and sickening thriller, Article 20 sharply articulates the conflict between laceratingly clear deontic moral logic and an amoral bureaucracy that functionally serves to balance the interests of different constituents. The tone and narrative schema heavily mirror last year’s Full River Red, shifting on a dime between riotous comedy and pointed dramatic urgency, and gradually unfolding into a grand ending. Aesthetically, it’s largely unadorned, drawing from the visual language of the Chinese TV and direct-to-streaming environment; the spaces the film inhabits are commonplace and universal, the photography direct and tonally naturalistic, evoking a universality of the characters and their conflicts. Lei, in particular, is becoming the new Chinese everyman, and much like in Under the Light, his long-suffering protagonist is downbeat but quietly shrewd and idealistic, and the actor’s performance as an underdog boxer in the even bigger New Year hit YOLO seems to capture similar archetypal energy. His wife in Article 20, played by Yolo costar Ma Li, is the film’s standout character, an authentic encapsulation of boisterous, immensely caring, but overbearing modern Chinese motherhood. Foreign audiences may find her particular overzealousness a little jarring, but this character is one of the most vivid and real articulations of this feminine archetype in a recent feature film.

Article 20 opens up a thematic delta between the latest run of directorial works from the Zhang family, with marked similarities to both Under The Light’s excoriating study of the violence of political corruption and daughter Zhang Mo’s Last Suspect, a devastatingly poor crime thriller about the knotted investigation into a homicide. The unmitigated disaster of that latter film’s gratuitous spate of rape scenes had this writer worried about how Zhang Yimou would handle similar material in a comedic context, but thankfully the violence is sparingly depicted. We only see the inciting incident during the final stretch of the film, and its tragedy is heightened by a subtle outward expansion of the visual language, from naturalism into the pronounced compositional deliberateness of classical Chinese visual arts, much like Full River Red unfolded from theatre into historical epic. In fact, the commonality between Full River Red and Article 20 is referenced directly in the film via a fourth wall break where a side character is seen watching Lei’s performance as the emperor in Full River Red when Lei (as Han Ming) walks into the room, also highlighting the rotating cast of players that have performed across so many of Zhang’s recent films, like a theatre troupe of sorts. One gets the sense that in process and in concept Zhang is attempting to draw upon the perennialism of Chinese literary and visual traditions.

Much of the divided international reaction to Article 20 has revolved around the triumphalist ending, in which Han delivers a rousing speech about how fairness should transcend legal convention, to the prosecutorial committee at the 11th hour, returning everyone to their senses and saving the day. Many have characterized this as a tacked-on ending that betrays an otherwise damning critique of the justice system — but it’s no such thing. The central thrust of Article 20 is that the function of the system will bend toward justice in the long run, and individuals operating within the system should follow their conscience, and whether they are meted out justice like the victims in the central case or punishment as in the conflict with the bully and Han’s son’s school, their actions are generating a better society. Article 20 is itself named after a law implicated in the defense case. Many who would object to the propagandistic content of this film argue that the Chinese system is totally censorious with scant freedom, and yet in the same breath expect a huge blockbuster to blanketly condemn the society and have no happy ending? A more literate discourse on Chinese media is beyond overdue.

Article 20 also marks a culmination of regular Zhang DP Zhao Xiaoding’s gradual retreat away from the big stylistic flourishes that have characterized his work and brought him international recognition in the cinematography field. Each of his films since his return from the ill-fated incursion into Hollywood that was The Great Wall have gradually receded in visual grandiosity and stylization, and moved instead toward the very light verité approach we find here. This isn’t just a question of scale or narrative content either. 2020’s One Second was in concept a much smaller scale film than 2023’s Full River Red, and yet the latter film is far more compositionally simplistic and theatrically oriented, and is even less ostentatious than Zhao’s work three decades ago on genre antecedent Her Majesty is Fine by forgotten (but good) Fifth Generation director Jin Tao. Article 20 is the most stripped of artifice that Zhao’s work has been arguably since his formative directorial collaboration with slightly less forgotten (and also good) Fifth Generation veteran Chen Guoxing.
Zooming out here, while Article 20 won’t go down among Zhang’s best works, this whole chapter is a major notch in his belt. Who else has turned out so many sophisticated large-scale features in the 2020s that have made billions (USD) at the box office cumulatively, have each been major cultural events, and have provoked wide-ranging conversations across society? Zhang has nimbly reinvented his approach for the new decade and powerfully reasserted his relevance as the leading filmmaker in the Sinophone world. He may already be the leading contender for most significant feature filmmaker of the 2020s, and by no small margin.

DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou;  CAST: Lei Jiayin, Liu Yaowen, Gao Ye, Ma Li, Zhao Liying;  DISTRIBUTOR: CMC Pictures;  IN THEATERS: February 23;  RUNTIME: 2 hr.