Twenty years before this movie, critics and commentators of a progressive political persuasion were shaken by the popular success of Midnight Express (1978), scripted by Oliver Stone.
That cautionary, real-life account of an American in Turkey took a perennial literary form little treated in cinema – the tale of a cataclysmic holiday abroad – and gave it a mean, nasty sociological agenda. Consciously or not, the film pushed every narrow-minded, spiteful, racist and homophobic button available.
Jon Avnet's Red Corner is broadly in the Midnight Express tradition. But it is hard to get righteously worked up over this film's ideological sins, since it is so remarkably silly from start to end.
Nonetheless, from a cultural-studies viewpoint, the film is a fascinating document – a resolutely backward-looking gesture in an increasingly multi-cultural, internationalist world, where an open-minded negotiation of the "difference of others" (other peoples and their value-systems) has become an absolute necessity.
This time the setting for a typical xenophobic drama is China. Jack (Richard Gere), in a captivating sub-plot, is trying to bring American television programs to the country's inaugural satellite communications service. After a tipsy night of love with a local singer, he wakes up with blood on his hands and is arrested under suspicion of murder. The Chinese legal system quickly boggles Jack's mind: he is repeatedly advised that "it is better to confess than to resist."
The central relationship of the piece is between Jack and his court-appointed defence lawyer, Yuelin (Bai Ling). Their dialogue allows a war of opinions about the relative merits of Chinese and American society. Avnet and writer Robert King pretend to even-handedness – every time Jack rails against the injustice and inhumanity of the Chinese system, Yuelin hurls some well-aimed statistics about the crime rate in "dysfunctional America" – but it is ludicrously obvious which side the film is on.
Red Corner has the potential to become a late-night, bad-movie classic – an illicit genre to which Gere has previously contributed King David (1985) and First Knight (1995). A scene in which Jack must stall in court, taking over the questioning of a witness while Yuelin is detained in another room, is a hilarious piece of histrionics. Gere himself, often a fine actor, is here reduced to an endless repetition of his barest mannerisms: in particular, that narrowing of eyes, verbal stammering and head nodding which indicates intense exasperation.
In fact, Jack's exasperation is the keynote spectacle of this movie. For those non-Americans who go to big, commercial films to enjoy sometimes subversive anti-American thrills and laughs, Red Corner is a treasure trove. For Jack is, despite himself, the Ugly American par excellence: whining, egocentric, massively insensitive to any cultural expression that is not instantly familiar and reassuring to him.
In particular, every time the court translator's voice disappears in his headphones, he goes ballistic. Jack obviously has not yet caught up with the first lesson of Cultural Studies: respect your Others.
MORE Avnet: Up Close & Personal
MORE King: Speechless
© Adrian Martin February 1998