Publication Date

Winter 2012

Document Type


First Page



While previous “law and film” scholarship has concentrated mainly on Hollywood films, this article examines legal themes in Chinese cinema. It argues that Chinese films do not simply mimic Western conventions when portraying the courtroom, but draw upon a centuries-old, indigenous tradition of “court case” (gong’an) melodrama. Like Hollywood cinema, gong’an drama seizes upon the dramatic and narrative potential of legal trials. Yet, while Hollywood trial films turn viewers into jurors, pushing them back and forth between the competing stories that emerge from the adversarial process, gong’an drama eschews any recognition of opposing narratives, instead centering on the punishment of decidedly guilty criminals. The moral clarity and punitive sense of justice that characterize gong’an drama are manifest in China’s modern-day legal system and in Chinese cinema. An analysis of Tokyo Trial, a 2006 Chinese film about the post-World War II war crimes trial in Japan, demonstrates the lasting influence of gong’an drama. Although Tokyo Trial resembles Hollywood courtroom drama in many respects, it remains faithful to the gong’an model. This highlights the robustness of China’s native gong’an tradition and the attitudes underlying it.

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