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Chinese remake of ’12 Angry Men’ faced its own legal drama

Xu Ang's '12 Citizens' adapts '12 Angry Men,' setting the story in a Chinese law school.

Xu Ang’s ’12 Citizens’ adapts ’12 Angry Men,’ setting the story in a Chinese law school.

(Juben Production Company)

China is starting to fall hard for Hollywood remakes. Chinese directors have redone such popular rom-coms as “What Women Want,” and next year there will be a version of the Julia Roberts hit “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

But of all the American titles one might expect Chinese directors to spark to as easy to adapt — and get past Communist Party censors — the 1957 jury-room drama “12 Angry Men” does not leap to mind. The classic tale of U.S. jurisprudence is a valentine not only to the possibility of justice under law, but also a representation, in miniature, of the democratic process itself.

In Sidney Lumet’s gritty original, lead actor Henry Fonda portrays juror No. 8, a holdout in a murder trial who methodically schools his fellow deliberators in the concept of reasonable doubt. He slowly unmasks their prejudices, one by one, until they vote to acquit a young ruffian accused of killing his father in a New York ghetto; Marquette University law scholar David Ray Papke describes the Fonda character as “a genuine American hero.”

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Despite those red-white-and-blue bona fides — and the fact that Chinese courts do not use the jury system — a remake of “12 Angry Men” is exactly what Chinese director Xu Ang has done with “12 Citizens,” showing this weekend at the Hollywood Film Festival. On Sunday, Xu will participate in a Q&A with the audience.

“Almost everyone said it would be sensitive — especially people in the film business, who predicted lots of difficulty,” said Xu, a theater director making his first foray into movies. “But the people at my production company said if we never try, we don’t know what’s possible.”

The release of “12 Citizens” in China this year came at a curious juncture. On one hand, Chinese leaders have lately placed substantial rhetorical emphasis on the need to make China’s often arbitrary and abusive courts more fair, transparent, professional and less influenced by corrupt local governments.

At the same time, China persists in holding people without charge for prolonged periods and denying their families information on their whereabouts; refusing the accused access to legal counsel; and broadcasting forced confessions on state-run TV before defendants are even tried. This summer, in a move that alarmed human rights groups and democratic governments around the world, more than 100 human-rights lawyers were detained, questioned or reported missing, and were later vilified in the state-run press.

Rod Beaudoin, executive director of the Hollywood Film Festival, said he selected “12 Citizens” because he was a fan of the 1957 Lumet film and was delighted by the parallels Xu was able to find in China — despite a radically different legal environment.

“More than anything, it pointed out to me how similar we are, no matter what country we’re from,” said Beaudoin. “I think, subtly, this film really points to the opportunity for massive change in China.”

Many skeptics inside and outside China question how much progress on legal reform is possible under an authoritarian, one-party political system. And there is particular hostility toward “Western” notions of rule of law: “Hostile forces take rule of law as their own weapon, hyping Western rule of law concepts … [in order] to deny the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and our country’s socialist system,” the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily said earlier this year.

It was against this complicated backdrop that Xu took on the remake of “12 Angry Men.”

Following protocol, he sent his script to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television for approval. They were a bit flummoxed, and took the unusual step of referring the screenplay to the nation’s top prosecuting body, People’s Supreme Procuratorate. A panel of 12 — a jury of sorts themselves — reviewed the work and came back with a surprising unanimous decision.

“They not only approved it, but they also wanted to invest,” said Xu. He received about $300,000, or half the budget, from the government and received the endorsement of the China Prosecutor’s Federation of Literature and Art.

Xu said he was drawn to the story because he sees it as a call to examine social biases, and because he’s disturbed that in the era of social media, the court of public opinion often renders verdicts before a suspect is hauled before a judge.

“Every person wants fairness and justice. But to get rid of prejudices is very difficult, and the general public’s notion about a person’s identity can really affect the outcome of a case,” he said. “That is wrong, and efforts to pursue the truth need to be respected.”

Given that China does not use juries — though it has experimented with a lay judge system — Xu had to devise some artifice to convene a jury in China.

His solution? Frame the action as a law-school exam about Western legal proceedings, with parents of students drafted to serve as jurors to render a verdict after a mock trial. The righteous juror No. 8, who keeps the gaggle of malcontents driving toward justice, is revealed in the end to have a particular professional background that viewers may see as crafty — or a sop to censors.

“Xu Ang is very clever. He knows instinctively how to skirt around danger.... The film easily could have been banned,” said Raymond Zhou, a prominent Chinese film critic. “I think the movie represents the artist and intellectual community who are advocating for more education about the law.”

In Xu’s version, the accused is a young man who was born to a ne’er-do-well hayseed from Henan province, an area seen by many Chinese cosmopolitan elites as a breeding ground for economic migrants who sully metropolises like Beijing. The defendant’s stepfather is also from the region, but in the go-go capitalism of modern China, hit it big in the pharmaceutical business. The alleged murderer is said to have killed his birth father after a blackmail attempt.

The movie explores common stereotypes about Henan natives and the nouveau riche, and delves into sensitive historical territory, referencing such tumultuous eras as the forced nationalizations of private enterprises after the 1949 Communist Revolution, and the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, during which citizens were at first encouraged to give their opinions about Mao Tse-tung’s regime, only to be hit in a crackdown the following year.

“In 1957 my parents and I, then 18, were labeled as rightists,” one juror recalls during deliberations. “We were criticized day and night, with big iron signs hung around our necks.... I wanted to die.”

As the debate intensifies, China’s yawning rich-poor divide comes into focus as a taxi driver and other working-class jurors square off against some white-collar professionals. “You insult the rich!” one juror exclaims. “You are poor because of your incompetence!” Confucian ideals of filial piety are also aired around juror No. 3, whose attitudes are shaped by his estrangement from his own son.

The messiness of jury deliberations comes in for direct questioning: As the drama builds toward its climax, one juror says in frustration: “If we had a jury system in China, we’d put people’s lives in the hands of an irresponsible guy like this!”

Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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