The Sparring Partner (2022)
Director: Cheuk Tin Ho
Cast: Alan Yeung, Pui Tung Mak, Louisa So, Michael Chow, Jan Lamb, Gloria Yip
Based on a shocking case in real life, a young man partners with his friend to murder and dismember his parents. Pleading not guilty to the crime, defense attorneys face each other as nine jurors grapple with the truth. – IMDB
Based on the 2013 Tai Kok Tsui double homicide and subsequent trial, The Sparring Partner is the directorial debut for Cheuk Tin Ho who creates a film that looks at different angles and issues of the case and trial from the issues of the judicial system to the unfairness of laws to the simple expectations versus reality as the two defendants take two opposite sides of the spectrum based on their intelligence as the scheming genius Henry Cheung and the simple-minded and naive Angus Tong. As the case proceeds, the trial sets up three “sparring”: the two defendents, the lawyers and prosecution, the jury.
The director uses the film to portray how the court’s significance may not be in fairness as it may be a battle of appearances of the defendants; how well the lawyers can use their clever words to spin the situation or a detail; how serious the jury who mostly don’t want to be there is balancing the right and wrong of the situation between emotions and rationality. Those are the grounds that build up the story and after some research on the actual case, a rather truthful recount of what its based on but pushing it so that we do question the possibility that the results aren’t representative of the truth.
For that, the script delivers in spades as all these areas are balanced in its representation. The defendants fight for their own truths which we only see their version being played out at the same time, while the lawyers try to twist the details of the situation to their advantage and using the emotional parts to affect the jury’s choices. The jury’s side plays out from its small inserts to their discussion feels a bit like 12 Angry Men but only grabbing a segment of it from the the each of the jury’s background and hesitation to their initial discussion of their reluctance to be there and no taking it seriously to finally using their own views to dissect the situation and the evidence presented. On each level of the trial, there’s a strong sense that it can all dial down to an irrational decision and how much they respect the guilty is beyond reasonable doubt. The “sparring” at hand on all levels is the strength of this film. The script carries a lot of the intrigue and the foundation of what the director wants to present to the audience to contemplate.
While that’s the case, the film does have a decent cast. Louisa So as Angus Tong’s lawyer is probably one of the bigger names on the list and she delivers on her role very well as her role cements the case in favor to Angus, as the lawyer that uses his “disabilities” in her defense of what he is or isn’t capable of doing, spinning it into an emotional exposé. Whether its the truth or not, well, that’s for the further contemplation after that. With that said, both Alan Yeung and Pui Tung Mak playing Henry and Angus respectively deliver very convincing roles as the genius versus the simple-minded. Henry is a character that is easy to hate right from the start. On the surface, he is very self-centred and flaunts his knowledge and confidence despite his constant failures while soon realizing he has a personality disorder. On the other hand, Angus is one that we soon learn has a lot more depth to the character from his past experiences to the emotional denial of being involved. Jan Lamb’s special appearance as Henry’s lawyer is surprising as he is more known for his comedian side and still manages to deliver some sarcastic humor while still finding that darker side of the defense lawyer as he faces an impossible case to beat. Much like Michael Chow’s character as the prosecutor who is more fluent in English and uses it as comedic breaks as he constantly mixes up the different words which perhaps is more effective for Cantonese-speaking audience than those reading subtitles.
Overall, The Sparring Partner starts off a tad slow but soon finds its footing once the trial and the jury portions start unraveling. The film does run at over 2 hours so there are some dragging moments, mostly from the set up at the beginning. However, its nothing that truly deters the overall film as the message the director wants to show as well as the contemplative element with the ending still proves very effective. The performances and characters are intriguing and has depth especially for its two defendants. If there was something to criticize, it probably would be more along the lines of the cinematography and visuals. While some of it feels more arthouse and some which overlays the scene of the past being recounted and the present situation in the courtroom together which is rather effective. There are certain moments that feel a bit odd, specifically those with Henry’s character as it sometimes jumps to his being Hitler and speaking German for part of his dialogue and then skips back to the moments when he is auditioning (I think its an audition) for a porn movie and it cuts between a scene that feels much more serious than what is shown on screen. Perhaps its more of a artistic significance that I’m not quite understanding. Its a small part and probably points to a bigger element of the character but at times, it feels a little odd. The Sparring Partner is definitely a pleasant surprise.
*The Sparring Partner is currently showing in select theatres. You can find more info on Well Go USA HERE.*
*Screener received from Well Go USA*