As Chinese President Jiang Zemin charms the U.S. atop a wave of public relations and serene television images, MGM is brazenly releasing "Red Corner," a sometimes smart and often compelling romantic thriller about all that's wrong with China's repressive legal system, but also all that's wrong with presuming to understand another culture from the outside. Richard Gere plays Jack Moore, a smooth Los Angeles entertainment attorney who's dispatched to Beijing on behalf of "Baywatch"-like television programming, and it's his job to beat out a German satellite company with his banter and cunning. After taking a beautiful young woman to his hotel, Moore wakes the next morning to find himself in a foreign country, not speaking the language, covered in blood and sent to trial for murder. The American embassy can't help; his only recourse lies in his court-appointed, English-speaking attorney Shen Yuelin (Bai Ling). While conforming to customary Hollywood melodramatic conventions, "Red Corner" is the rare contemporary studio picture that dares offend any political entity. The movie's glimpse of the human-rights abuses of China's dictatorship is all the more impressive in that nothing could be shot there officially. Production designer Richard Sylbert's Beijing is mostly created through immense, detailed neighborhoods of back-alleys and battered walls, and through computer graphics.
Over a decade, screenwriter Robert King's script went through several studios, filmmakers and rewrite teams, including one-time director Wolfgang Petersen, the present director Jon Avnet, a restructuring by writer Ron Koslow, and a dialogue polish by the team who wrote Avnet's "Up Close and Personal," John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. "Red Corner" is the rare script that emerges from development hell. King first pitched the idea to Universal Pictures in 1989, where it was set in Russia and written for Robert Redford. King immersed himself in Russian law, but the failed Russian coup changed their justice system. "What was good for Russian dissidents facing stiff court sentences was bad for Los Angeles screenwriters who needed a totalitarian non-jury court system to set the script in motion," King says, laughing. Universal let the script go, and three years later, MGM took up King's idea to move the events to China. "As much as you want to pretty it up, the bottom line of the theory of engagement is that we want our businesses to make money over there. That's as bad for human rights as you can get.
"What's interesting about movies is that they are so dependent on the politics of the studio," King continues. "We discussed where else you could put it. China seemed interesting, not only because it was in the news, but I've always wanted to travel there. What worked for us was that the court systems are almost identical to the old Russian parliamentary system. Many of the laws were similar, such as allowing a defendant to question in court irrespective of what your attorney does. I hate the battle between scripts and movies. But having said that, more was made of that in my script. I'm only mediumly at peace with the movie, but the movie does play off the turn the hero makes when he finds he can argue in court."
"Personal" is usually a word only bandied about by independent filmmakers at film festivals trying to redeem their overextended credit cards. "I would say this started as a personal script because it was influenced by an incident when my sister and I were traveling through Italy. There were these men who didn't speak English who said they were cops and were waving guns around and trying to pull her out of our train compartment. It was a frightening thing, being in a country where you couldn't speak the language, and you are wrapped up in their system of justice. I then put it in the guise of a traditional thriller, a courtroom thriller. It needed to take place in a system where all your assumptions of jury trial, innocent until proven guilty, were turned on their head. Perhaps it's become more impersonal because other hands were involved, but the kernel is still there."
Why would the beleaguered MGM even make a film where they throw away a big chunk of the world market we hear so much about? "When [troubled] studios don't ordinarily have the ability to get top stars, like MGM, they can make controversial films. 'Red Corner' is mildly controversial -- I mean, this does not even get close to the conditions a dissident suffers in China. The only way the movie excuses itself is that Americans are treated with kid gloves there. It's taking the American best-case scenario and showing how bad that is. It's chancy of MGM to make this such a high-profile movie, but MGM also has to do this simply because they need to make controversial movies to get attention."
There was another chancy element to the production as well. "You have to respect Avnet and Bai Ling immensely. They smuggled themselves into China to shoot about twenty-five shots, including Gere's point-of-view in Tienanmen Square, shots of the Chinese Television building, [Ling] bicycling into the neighborhood where her character lives. The movie really needed those shots or it would seem claustrophobic. They just went in! They didn't tell the studio, they just did it. I can't believe it, actually. If they had been caught..." King allows the implications of that parallel narrative to hang in the air for a long moment.