Zhang Yimou’s box office hit is a legal comedy/drama made with the top Chinese prosecution agency


Article 20

Source: CMC Pictures

Dir. Zhang Yimou. China. 2024. 141 mins

“The law should make it more difficult for bad people to commit crimes, not for good people to take action,” argues the prosecutor at the centre of Zhang Yimou’s comedy-drama Article 20. The title refers to a clause in China’s Criminal Law which permits an individual to take action to prevent harm to themselves or others without facing punishment. It has rarely been used successfully, despite being in place since 1979, mainly because China’s legal authorities do not typically endorse self-defence, recommending that victims instead flee from their assailant(s). Produced in association with China’s top prosecution agency, Article 20 aims to tackle a contentious issue while ultimately complimenting China’s legal system. It’s a tall order, even for a filmmaker gifted with considerable humanism and political tact.

The main strength is the stellar cast, including performers who have worked with Zhang during a prolific streak of six features in five years

At the domestic box office, Article 20 has already  proved to be one of Zhang’s biggest hits with an impressive running total of $281 million since its release on February 10. Starting off behind Jia Ling’s boxing comedy YOLO and Han Han’s motorsport sequel Pegasus 2, it had taken the top position by week three in an especially competitive year. It should have legs beyond holiday social activities too, since it has generated heated online discussion regarding the right to self-defence and posted notably stronger holds than rival titles. Article 20 bowed in Australia/New Zealand on February 22 and the US/UK on February 23 and is the kind of mature drama that many viewers stumble onto when it hits streaming so international audience reach could broaden down the road.

Loosely based on real-life incidents, the story focuses on prosecutor Han Ming (Lei Jiayin) who is under increasing personal and professional strain. There is the case of Wang Yongqiang (Yu Hewei) who is accused of murdering the thug who raped his deaf-mute wife Hao Xiuping (Zhao Liying). The circumstances have troubling echoes of a case from years previously. On the home front, the academic future of Han’s teenage son, Yuchen (Liu Yaowen), is jeopardised when he injures the school bully while protecting a fellow student. Since the bully’s father is the Dean (Zhang Yi), Han Ming encourages Yuchen to make amends. However, his wife Li Maojuan (Ma Li) insists that their son did the right thing and does not owe an apology. 

Further complications are caused by Han Ming’s dynamic with lead prosecutor and former girlfriend Lu Lingling (Gao Ye). Their approaches clash since he keeps his head down while she remains a staunch idealist who has no qualms about challenging their superiors.

The main strength of Article 20 is its stellar cast, which includes various performers who have worked with Zhang during a prolific streak that encompasses six features in five years. Lei is a capable anchor who brings everyman relatability to the role of a disillusioned prosecutor with a bad lower back. He’s well-matched by Ma as the headstrong wife who sees right and wrong in more clear-cut terms with both leaning into spousal banter that goes off on amusing, borderline farcical tangents. However, the standout performance is arguably Zhao who overcomes one-note writing to express underclass desperation as a result of physical disability and economic strife.

As these character beats imply, Article 20 swerves in tone from serious drama to light comedy. International viewers may find this jarring, but it can be seen as a reflection the haphazard nature of life in contemporary China and how Chinese citizens rapidly absorb all manner of human-interest stories via social media. The screenplay (credited to four writers) achieves a semblance of balance, particularly in the strand involving the school Dean (a terrifically reserved Zhang Yi). These scenes cannily illustrate the veritable minefield that must be navigated when making an emotional plea within a system that prioritises social stability and therefore generally adheres to strict definitions of acceptable action.

Article 20 falters in its finale which finds Han Ming defying the legal odds in a courtroom speech that conveniently ties the film’s strands together. If this impassioned grandstanding is comparable to that seen in countless Hollywood tales of injustice, it still seems wildly fanciful considering how the film has stressed the difficulty of establishing self-defence within China’s legal boundaries. Han Ming’s hero moment also serves as a validation of the incremental process by which he has come to take this stand over the crusading spirit of his colleague Lu Lingling, who is sidelined in the closing stretch despite being the film’s legal conscience. 

Given the subject matter and contemporary setting (the film was shot in the manufacturing hub of Langfang Prefecture), it is not surprising that this is one of Zhang’s least visually distinctive works. Nonetheless, cinematographer Zhao Xiaodong sensibly foregrounds nuanced interaction and uses establishing shots to contrast the Langfang’s urbanisation with the rustic environs on its periphery. Steady pacing by editor Li Yongyi ensures that Article 20 is consistently engaging even when its mild criticism of China’s legal framework is less than convincing.

Production companies: Enlight Pictures, Ruyi Films, China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Beijing Lifeng Culture Development Co., TF Entertainment

International sales: CMC Pictures, info@cmcpix.com

Producers: Pang Liwei, Zhang Tingting, Li Chuanlong, Cao Xiaobei

Screenplay: Li Meng, Xi Yuchen, Ni Shengxiong, Zhang Yimou

Editing: Li Yongyi

Cinematography: Zhao Xiaodong

Music: Zhao Lin

Main cast: Lei Jiayin, Ma Li, Gao Ye, Zhao Liying, Liu Yaowen, Wang Xiao, Chen Minghao, Pan Binlong, Zhang Yi, Fan Wei, Yu Hewei