“Something is wrong” a defence lawyer eventually asserts, witnessing a blatant attempt at perverting the course of justice right in front of her but otherwise unsure what to do about it when her opponents are so sure that they really are above the law. The directorial debut from screenwriter Jack Ng Wai-lun, A Guilty Conscience (毒舌大狀) is the latest in a series of films to put the judicial system on trial in pointing out that we are not in fact all equal before the law and the systems that are intended to protect us can often by subverted.
Subverting the legal system was in a sense what the hero, fast-talking lawyer Adrian Lam (Dayo Wong Chi-Wah), had been trying to do. After years on the bench, his career as a magistrate is going nowhere and he doesn’t really bother to show up anymore which is why he’s abruptly demoted to a committee dealing with potentially obscene material. Cutting his losses, he decides to join the private sector working for a sleazy firm representing the rich and powerful. His first case is supposed to be a walk in the park, defending a woman, Jolene Tsang (Louise Wong Dan-Ni), accused of murdering her daughter. As usual, Lam assumes the case will be easy to win and doesn’t really bother putting the work in, especially once he finds out the mother was the mistress of a powerful man, Desmond Chung (Adam Pak Tin-Nam), and assumes sorting out the murder charge will help him get in with the elite. Only Lam badly miscalculates and owing to his own hubris sees his heartbroken client sentenced to 17 years in prison for a crime she almost certainly did not commit.
It’s a huge wake up call for Lam who is suddenly snapped out of his cynicism and burdened by the guilty conscience of the title knowing that it’s his sloppiness that sent a bereaved young mother to serve out the rest of her youth in jail. Opening a small office of his own in a rundown part of town he resolves to serve a better kind of justice, but also determines to do what he can for Jolene in an effort to correct his mistake. He gets a chance when someone involved with the case dies and leaves a note explaining that they lied during the original trial, but as the wealthy Chung family is involved he finds himself frustrated at every turn. No one is brave enough to go against them, while their sleazy legal advisor Tung (Michael Wong Man-Tak) continues to manipulate the system to his own advantage.
Lam may have to play a little dirty, appealing directly to the jury and wilfully breaking court procedure to make sure they hear evidence which is otherwise inadmissible, but does so in the interest of “truth” which according to Tung has no place in a court of law. Tung may well be correct, objective truth is largely irrelevant when rhetoric and legal argument hold sway. What’s morally wrong might not actually be against the law, while doing what’s right might also get you into trouble. That’s where the jury comes in, Lam answers, as a kind of check and balance using common sense to temper cold legality and decide what might best serve a kind of moral justice rather than simply answer if an offence has been committed under the law.
But Tung calls the jury “laymen”, implying they are too stupid to understand legal complexities and are in fact a spanner in the works of justice. He objects to the introduction of “feelings” and preaches “fairness” while manipulating the system to his own advantage. Lam catches him out by needling at his elitism, pointing out that he may think he’s an elite now that he hobnobs with the rich and powerful but in their eyes he’ll never really be their equal in a world still ruled by old money. In a case Lam presided over in which a young man was accused of stealing a pair of ready meals from a convenience store where he’d previously been employed, he asks the defendant if he thought poverty was an excuse to do whatever he wanted, irritated by his attempt to manipulate his feelings by emotionally blackmailing him in claiming the meals were for his elderly parents and only taken because his boss had not paid his wages. Nevertheless, Lam had acted in the interests of “fairness” spotting that he was being asked to repay the full price in compensation when the meals he stole were actually heavily discounted and adjusting the amount accordingly. In effect Lam does something similar in defending Jolene, asking the rich if they think their power and status puts them above the law. The Chungs at least clearly think they do, doing their best to intimidate and frustrate the course of justice.
“Everything is wrong” Lam adds during his closing speech, decrying the influence of wealth and power not only in the judicial system but in society at large. Tung thought he could manipulate the prosecutor (Tse Kwan-Ho) in knowing him to be a stickler for letter of the law, but even he knows that sometimes you might have to break the rules to do the right thing and to apply the law incorrectly would not be in the best interests of justice. With strong comedic undertones and warmhearted charm, Ng’s farcical courtroom drama discovers that the real culprits are privilege, elitism, corruption, and ambition but that justice can be served if only we apply a little common sense.
A Guilty Conscience is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Magnum Films Global.
Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)