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Witness, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A blind-girl thriller worth seeing."
4 stars

It's a sign of how big the Chinese film industry has grown that they are now pulling one of Hollywood's signature tricks - not just remaking a foreign film for the local market, but luring the director there to do so. In this case, that would be South Korean filmmaker Ahn Sang-hoon remaking his 2011 film "Blind" as "Wo shi zheng ren" ("The Witness" in English-speaking territories), and it's a surprisingly good result. It is kind of minor pulp, but one with the emphasis in the right place.

As it starts, rookie cop Lu Xiaoxing (Yang Mi) is pulling her foster brother Lian Cong (Wayne Liu Rui-lin) off a stage for deceiving their parents about how he is spending his college money, and it goes about as poorly as possible, with Xiaoxing blinded. Three years later, she is in the back of a cab when it strikes a pedestrian, only to have the driver (Zhu Ya-wen) claim it was a dog. Fortunately, Captain Lu (Wang Jing-chun) is inclined to believe her, although even when another witness (Lu Han) comes forward with conflicting information, they don't initially realize that they're on the trail of a potential serial killer.

The filmmakers in general and Yang Mi in particular seem to struggle with how much of the Lu Xiaoxing we see at the start should persist into the rest of the film - she starts out a cocky, sarcastic hardass, and while a fair amount of that stubbornness persists through the rest of the film, what we see about her implies that she should be a world-champion blind lady (to quote Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark) by the time three years have passed, but Yang plays her physicality as far more tentative than her attitude when speaking. It's far from a fatal issue, as Yang mostly keeps Xiaoxing brassy and clever, but it's hard to miss how the title character could have worked a bit better.

She's just part of a fairly strong cast, too. Han Lu's Lin Chang gets described as a punk early on, and he gives the second witness the kind of snotty attitude that makes it seem a reasonable thing to say, but he also shows a quick wit and a believable pivot when things get serious. It's not quite his movie the way it's Yang's, but he's a strong second. Wang Jing-chun and Lai Yi are better than serviceable as the cops the witnesses are working with, and it's kind of a fun change-up that the senior investigator is the one more willing to believe the unconventional witness. Zhu Ya-wen is mostly kept in the shadows at first, probably to emphasize that, for as observant as Xiaoxing might be, he could still be anyone, but gets the chew some scenery and be blatantly monstrous once he's obviously the villain.

It's not a subtle performance, but it's not particularly a subtle script, and there's something right about this guy picking up on how he and Xiaoxing are presented as mirror images and ranting about it. His motivation and actual plan is over-the-top enough to be a movie on its own but it makes him both insane and formidable. Things do get a bit drawn out and overdone at times - the finale has a lot more flailing about than it needs, and the re-use of Lian Cong's song from the start throughout seems a very unlikely coincidence given where he is at the time - but it's a decent balance, tense and serious without being unrelentingly grim.

Not having seen Blind, I don't know how much Ahn has ported over from the Korean original verbatim, but I suppose that means he gets full credit for what works, and there are a few nifty things in the execution that make The Witness a more entertaining thriller than expected. For instance, it's a bit gimmicky when what's on screen is reduced sharply to try and present Xiaoxing's perspective, but it works much more often than not. And in a genre where a grinding, poorly-edited chase scene in the middle has lately seemed to be a requirement, this movie has two that are genuine fun, the second of which being fantastically creative and using smartphones as a feature rather than a thing to be avoided (although, boy, did one company apparently pay a whole bunch of product placement money to look like it's the only brand sold in China).

The film is wobbly enough at points to make me wonder if my favorable reaction indicates low standards - can a thriller really scrape by on a couple good chases, an air of confidence, and a lovable seeing eye dog? "The Witness" has more, but the other elements don't necessarily work without reservation. Still, this movie got me leaning forward in my seat a bit and feeling delighted at how certain moments played out, and that level of craft when a lot of thrillers sort of blend together has to count for something.

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originally posted: 11/02/15 17:20:04
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Directed by
  Sang-hoon Ahn

Written by

  Mi Yang
  Han Lu
  Jingchun Wang
  Yawen Zhu

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