The Sparring Partner’s Murder Trial is Told with Panache

Photo: courtesy WellGo USA.

Director Ho Cheuk Tin’s new film The Sparring Partner is a little like 12 Angry Men—if, that is, the jury included women, was set in Hong Kong, based on actual events that included the defendant’s dismembering his own parents, involved a second defendant, and took some extreme liberties and creative license with re-enacting the jurors’ experience. In other words, not much like Sidney Lumet’s cloistered courtroom classic at all. But The Sparring Partner does share its ambitions, its diverse and contested jury, and its deep concern over a judicial system that struggles to achieve its ends.

The basic facts of the crime itself are largely uncontested, given that the accused, Henry Cheung (Alan Yeung / Yeung Wai-leun), has already confessed. Not only did Henry garrot his mother and father in his small Hong Kong flat, but he dismembered their bodies, stuffing their decapitated heads in the icebox and parceling out smaller pieces into dozens of Styrofoam fast-food containers. The evidence is overwhelming, and the prosecutors have motive as well. Furthermore, Henry is an unrepentant, Hitler-worshipping, small-time porn actor lacking any remorse—or even, frankly, even any basic civility.

With the preponderance of evidence against him, a conviction should be no problem for the nine-person jury. Of course, viewers familiar with 12 Angry Men know all too well the trope of the lone holdout, the single juror who will hold up deliberations with endless questions and speculation, hoping to exhaust every possible alternative explanation: in the Lumet classic, it was that lone holdout juror who ultimately earned the accused an acquittal. In Hong Kong, though, the judicial system works differently, and a single “not guilty” vote won’t override eight others.

But the bigger question in The Sparring Partner isn’t Henry’s guilt or innocence. That’s a matter that seems almost beyond question. Instead, it’s the role of his alleged accomplice, Angus (Mak Pui-tung), a portly, greasy, unkempt, whiny man, prone to wailing outbursts and anguished laments. He’s Henry’s opposite: where Henry is cold and calculating, intellectual and snarky, Angus is emotive and reactive, lacking intelligence and nearly inarticulate. Angus too is accused of the same crimes as Henry, and the evidence suggests slight Henry could scarcely have managed the massacre and dismemberment on his own.

Angus’s case is far more difficult. He too confessed, but he was subject to a single violent blow from a Hong Kong police detective. Did that constitute torture? Perhaps, for the weak-kneed Angus, yes. Was Angus acting of his own volition—a willing accomplice—or was he under the control of the smarter, more calculating Henry? Discerning the truth of Angus’s collusion is more difficult for the jury to discern, especially when the character seems such a dullard, unable to explain himself beyond his basic needs. And when some of his actions make, upon investigation, their own kind of sense.

Mak Pui-tung as Angus faces the camera, his features in shadow.
Mak Pui-tung as Angus in The Sparring Partner. Photo: courtesy Well Go Entertainment.

The film’s jury deliberations are excellent, with each juror’s distinct personality demarcated from the others’ without the script descending into stereotype or cliché. Despite their differences, in many ways their work is truly collaborative, a pursuit of justice complicated, not derailed, by their disagreements. The cast’s performances are nuanced and realistic with a script that covers a lot of ground, both as the courtroom proceedings detail the gruesome crime and as the jury deliberates. Some scenes imagine the jury visiting the crime scene and re-imagining its sequences to harrowing effect: here, as well as in some scenes explicating Henry’s porn-and-Hitler background, the script by Frankie Tam, Oliver Yip, and Thomas Leung diverges from the details of the trial itself.

Those tangents aren’t unnecessary to the film’s plot or its general approach, and they do provide an opportunity to tell The Sparring Partner‘s story, a la Rashomon, from different and conflicting perspectives—accused, the lawyers, the jury—but they weigh down its narrative to the point where the film will feel way too long, with even the trial’s verdict deemed insufficient for the film’s conclusion. Even so, director Ho Cheuk Tin’s film doesn’t lack for ambition: it asks whether the court system can enact justice or whether it’s simply a stage for performances that may or may not sway a jury’s decision. And like the best judicial dramas, it asks viewers to contemplate how and whether a just verdict might be achieved.

Mak Pui-tung as Angus and Alan Yeung as Henry sit in Henry's apartment with barristers and jury members observing.
Mak Pui-tung as Angus and Alan Yeung as Henry in The Sparring Partner. Photo: courtesy Well Go Entertainment.

The film is based on an actual case: the murders of Glory Chau and Moon Siu  in the Old Holland Building section of Tai Kok Tsui, Hong Kong in March 2013 and the subsequent trial of their youngest son Henry Chau and his friend Angus Tse, who admitted having chopped up and cooked the remains so that the results would look “like barbecue pork.”

The crime, the investigation, and the trial were a gruesome affair. And so, The Sparring Partner, which is based on but not presented as a docudrama of the case, is not for the faint of heart—or, the weak of stomach. But those viewers who endure its sadistic defendant and confessed killer, its wanton brutality, and its conflicting perspective on what happened will surely find themselves questioning a system that purports to deliver justice.

The Sparring Partner debuts in select North American theaters Dec. 9, 2022.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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