Movie Review: “The Witness”

This review was first published in Shenzhen Daily on November 13, 2015

You can learn a lot about the art of storytelling from prehistoric tribes, who like us, were prolific at it. Living in a state of constant danger, if they heard the sound of rustling in the bushes, it was probably just the wind, but it could also have been a sabre-toothed tiger. Some may have been curious and adventurous enough to investigate the source of the noise, but the ones who survived to become our ancestors were the ones who sprinted.

Good storytelling takes into account that all human behavior is (on some level) logical, and that humans are profoundly conservative creatures who only do what they must. “The Witness,” a remake of the 2011 Korean thriller “Blind,” is about a damaged person who pushes herself to her own limits as she is forced to overcome an antagonist who harnesses technology, medical science, women’s desires, and the protagonist’s own traumatic past.

Lu Xiaoxing (Mini Yang) has lost her eyesight and career in the police force after an accident which killed her brother, a promising young singer. Her blindness causes her to get into the wrong car at the wrong time and witness a hit and run, an investigation on which she wishes to help.

The investigation also involves skater Lin Chong (Lu Han), who is an eyewitness, and a father-son detective team. Each has their reason for wanting to help, Lu Xiaoming can show that she still has something to offer the police force and perhaps save rather than condemn a car-crash victim. Lin starts by wanting a monetary reward but ultimately discovers a more protective side to himself.

The other storytelling lesson we can learn from our ancient ancestors is that people grow close to people, as those who were cast out from the clan had the lowest chance of survival. The relationships range from the comical (Wang Jingchun’s detective and his son), to the vaguely romantic (Lin and Lu), to enmity born of similarity (the villain Tang Jing and Lu).

Despite their differences, the characters end up working together in a plot that is as toned as a bodybuilder’s pectorals. If you removed one element, the ukulele played by Lu Xiaoming as a child, a song written by her deceased brother, or the dating app which the villain uses to snare his female victims, then the whole structure would fall.

Though there is good chemistry between the leading actors, there is a merciful absence of a love story subplot. In other films of recent years, including the baffling “Tiny Times” series and the dreary “You Are My Sunshine,” Yang has played vapid eye-candy who thrives under male domination. In the first two minutes of “The Witness,” she performs kung fu on a man but later shows the right amount of vulnerability.

After the villain is identified, there are two nail-biting chase sequences in the second act, though the final climax is a tad overstretched. This habit of over-long final action sequences which is common in Chinese thrillers (another notable example is 2013’s “No Man’s Land,” directed by Ning Hao) may be a bad habit that has been picked up from kung fu movies, which tend to have very little plot.

The acting in one scene which is key to characterizing Tang (Zhu Yawen) and drawing parallels between him and the heroine is overcooked by Zhu. However, during the action sequences he is delightfully menacing and beautifully photographed. Credibility is also stretched by the posthumous celebrity of Lu Xiaoming’s brother in the Twitter age when most things that are sensational one day are forgotten the next.

It is rare in any type of storytelling for something to be entertaining, thrilling and moving, often at the same time. “The Witness” pulls this off while having interesting things to say about how technology is revolutionising the ways we do everything from remembering the dead, to seeking one-night stands, and to committing and solving crime.

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