Director: Chi Yueh-chun 紀岳君
Studio: Broken Scene 斷境音像
Language: Mandarin 國語, Taiwanese 台語
Running Time: 95 minutes
Recommended. The story of one of Taiwan’s most infamous miscarriages of justice, and the fight to save someone from death row.
In 1995, a real estate agent named Huang Chun-shu 黃春樹 was kidnapped and then murdered in Taipei County (modern day New Taipei City). Police arrest Huang Chun-chi 春棋落 (no relation), who quickly fingers two accomplices — Chen Yi-lung 陳憶隆 and Hsu Tzu-chiang 徐自強. The other participants’ stories all agree that Hsu was the mastermind behind the operation.
After a period in hiding, Hsu voluntarily handed himself in, where he joined the others in being sentenced to death. But, was Hsu really involved?
Despite his relationship with the other conspirators, one of whom was his cousin, there are parts of the others stories which don’t add up. Then there’s the CCTV which proves he was elsewhere helping his mother when the murder took place.
Huang’s conviction was upheld in 2000. What followed was over a decade of appeals, retrials, and even a constitutional interpretation, before Hsu was released in 2012, and finally declared not guilty in 2016.
In Taiwan, the case of Hsu Tzu-chiang is one of the most famous post-democratisation examples of injustice, but it is unlikely that many outside the island have heard about it. This is no surprise; every country has their own cases to focus on. But that does not make Hsu’s case any less compelling.
A quiet man who is first shown in a state of despondency, the layers of Hsu and the people around him are slowly peeled back through the course of Condemned Practice Mode. Originally having little faith in justice or the people who try to help him, Hsu slowly gains hope from the people who are unwilling to give up on his case — working for years pro-bono to try and ensure justice is done. This is the meaning of the documentary’s title (which makes more sense when directly translated: Hsu Tzu-chiang’s exercises). Constantly having his hopes raised and crushed over and over again, Hsu has to endlessly overcome the hurdles of the judicial system.
As an outsider, this examination of Taiwan’s judiciary is particularly fascinating. Hsu’s case began just prior to Taiwan’s first fully democratic presidential election, and much of the justice system was still a hold over from its authoritarian past. The film makes clear that judges often stood scared of contradicting prior trial judges for fear of hurting their future career prospects. A judge interviewed for the movie says that he was not assigned cases after making a decision to acquit on appeal.
The film makes good use of storyboards and animations to depict the events on the day of the crime, helping to clearly explain to those unfamiliar with the case the various discrepancies which ultimately led to Hsu’s acquittal.
It’s clear that the process of making this movie was an emotional one for director Chi Yueh-chun — who reveals that he was married and then divorced in that time. That connection between him and his work is shown in the many small moments he spends revealing Hsu’s personality; no easy feat with a man who is clearly very shy (unsurprising after the best part of two decades in prison). Particularly notable are the scenes between Hsu and his son/grandson, whose live’s he has almost completely missed.
Overall, even if you are not interested in the intricacies of Taiwan’s justice system, Condemned Practice Mode still has a lot to offer. It’s a mystery, a true crime story, a tale of perseverance and of learning to live again.