Revolutionary justice shown on screen

A historical courtroom drama is perhaps Chinese cinema's best gift for the nation's first Constitution Day, which falls on Dec 4.

Spoiler alert: A Murder Beside Yanhe River takes the viewer back to 1937, when in Yan'an, Shaanxi province, the first widely influential public trial was held in the history of the Communist Party of China. A 26-year-old military officer, Huang Kegong, was charged with killing a female student after she rejected his marriage proposal. Huang expected Chairman Mao Zedong's amnesty, but it wasn't granted.

"It's a rare 'red' commercial film," said its director, Wang Fangfang, 35, during the movie industry's ninth Chinese Young Generation Film Forum earlier this month, when the film was screened to a small audience.

Wang is a longtime screenwriter, who released his feature-length film Champion, a biography on China's first Olympic gold medalist, Xu Haifeng, in 2012.

"It's not only a political thriller with a positive message, but involves love, ambivalent human nature and other elements that are popular among today's audience."

The film is a major breakthrough since the case hasn't been mentioned in Chinese mainstream media for decades. Hu Yaobang, a controversial name in New China's history, was the prosecutor in the trial and he is a major role in the film.

"Most of our team members are in their 30s, so it's a challenge for us to work with that unfamiliar part of history," Wang says. Shooting the film took some 45 days in unpleasant weather and tough living conditions last winter in northern Shaanxi, in the centre of China's loess plateau, which was China's revolutionary base at the time of the story.

"But the conditions may have perhaps allowed us to experience what those revolutionary soldiers had endured," says Wang.

Yan'an was then the capital of the Shaan-Gan-Ning border region, the Communist Party's base to fight against Japanese aggression. When the murder occurred, the region's superior court had only functioned for two months, and its legal system was still not complete.

The director points out that a highlight in his film is the detailed portrayal of the various major characters. That was why he chose to use many close-up shots of the protagonists to give a sense of their emotions.

Still, young moviegoers may not understand its solemn tone. Scattered laughter was heard in the small preview cinema during the forum.

However, with the handsome 32-year-old actor Wang Kai playing Huang Kegong, the film may have popular appeal. After the screening, there were some young female fans lined up to present bouquets to their idol.

Wang Kai was named this year's "most cutting-edge" actor by the forum, but he modestly attributed the achievement to his rival in the film: Cheng Taishen, 43, who plays chief judge Lei Jingtian, and is best-known for his performance as a Chinese migrant to Barcelona in the Oscar-nominated Mexican-Spanish drama Biutiful (2010).

"It's hard to say if Huang Kegong is a villain, or if Lei Jingtian is an almighty hero," Cheng says. "Their characters are complicated. Lei flinched in front of the trial at first. Huang was really a hero on the battlefield, but made a big mistake when he committed the impulsive act."

The film's screenwriter Wang Xingdong, 63, who is also the deputy director of the China Film Association, reveals that some young actors refused to take part in the film after they had read the script, because of its serious political theme. He says he went through many old files, including Chairman Mao's handwritten letter refusing amnesty, to be historically accurate.

"The film industry needs people who care about more than pure entertainment and money," says this cinema veteran known for his historical dramas, including The Founding of a Republic (2009).

"Film is a mirror of society, and the lessons from history are mirrors for today. When we bring such a story to the public, we not only aim to attract an audience, but we want to leave something for our country's juridical history."