Review: Wrath of Silence (2017)

Wrath of Silence

暴裂无声

China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 118 mins.

Director: Xin Yukun 忻钰坤.

Rating: 7/10.

Engrossing drama of a miner searching for his lost son is stylishly played, plotted and shot.

STORY

Inner Mongolia province, northern China, Oct 2004. The irascible Zhang Baomin (Song Yang), who’s been working as a miner in Feng county, hurriedly returns home to Gufeng village, in Yingpanwan district, where his 12-year-old son Zhang Lei has gone missing. En route he remembers how he was the only villager to hold out against signing a land-requisition compensation deal with Hongchang Mining and how he stabbed butcher Ding Hai in the eye during a resulting fight. His wife Cui Xia (Tan Zhuo) tells him how Zhang Lei disappeared after taking out their sheep one day. Meanwhile, Hongchang boss Chang Wannian (Jiang Wu) has been making other acquisitions, forcing Jinquan Mining owner Li Shuiquan (An Hu) to sell over his company. Searching for his son, Zhang Baomin visits Jinquan’s mine, where Chang Wannian’s enforcers, led by Da Jin (Wang Zichen), arrive to sack the workers. After becoming involved in the fight, Zhang Baomin is taken to meet Chang Wannian, whom he suspects of being involved in his son’s disappearance. Chang Wannian icily invites Zhang Baomin to work for him after finding Zhang Lei; afterwards, Da Jin and his men beat Zhang Baomin up. Meanwhile, the lawyer Xu Wenjie (Yuan Wenkang) is under investigation by the authorities for alleged corruption while handling a lawsuit by Chang Wannian. In town one day, Zhang Baomin happens to spot Da Jin and follows his van to a remote spot; in the back he finds a child in a sack and runs off with it. But after taking the sack to a cave, he finds the child is not his son but Xu Wenjie’s young daughter, Xu Yuanyuan (Li Yazhen), who’s been kidnapped on Chang Wannian’s orders to force the lawyer to hand over some incriminating documents. Zhang Baomin texts Xu Wenjie with the news and arranges to meet him in a square in Yingpanwan that night. But then Da Jin calls Zhang Baomin that he has his son and wants Xu Yuanyuan back. Zhang Baomin goes straight to Chang Wannian’s office and fights his way in to confront him.

REVIEW

None of the flaws that marred The Coffin in the Mountain 殡棺 (2014), the debut feature by Mainland writer-director Xin Yukun 忻钰坤, are in evidence in his second full-length outing, Wrath of Silence 暴烈无声, a drama centred on a father’s search for his missing son that falls somewhere between commercial and arthouse cinema in consistently interesting ways. Where Coffin (finally released in the Mainland as Deep in the Heart 心迷宫) was an ingeniously written, murderous black comedy that was too often cramped by unnaturally arty direction, Wrath is a much more comfortable fit between screenplay and mise-en-scène, as well as benefiting from a name cast that brings that extra something to their roles. Wrath was reportedly written before Coffin but set aside by Xin, now 33, until he felt qualified to direct it. Though he hardly raised hopes in the meantime with his annoyingly oblique episode in the portmanteau Distance 再见 在也不见 (2015), the wait for Wrath has unquestionably paid off.

Set and shot in the dusty landscape around Xin’s hometown of Baotou, Inner Mongolia province, northern China, Wrath is immediately notable for its quiet assurance – in the striking visuals (courtesy Xin’s regular d.p. He Shan 何山) and in the trajectories of its characters, both of which have a punch that was missing in Coffin. The protagonist, mute miner Zhang Baomin, is immediately shown to be an irascible type with a short fuse, so as soon as he returns home, starts searching for his missing 12-year-old son, and bumps straight into some bad business involving a corrupt mining tycoon (actor Jiang Wu 姜武 in a squiffy hairdo), the viewer just knows it’s going to be a bumpy ride, especially as he’s played by Song Yang, a TV actor known for the arty wuxia movies The Sword Identity 倭寇的踪迹 (2011), Judge Archer 箭士柳白猿 (2012) and The Master 师父 (2015), all directed by Xu Haofeng 徐浩峰.

Xin gives his audience what it’s expecting, with some brawly action (staged by South Korean ace Yi Hong-pyo 이홍표 | 李洪彪) both inside the villain’s offices and outside a mine, as well as some meaty face-to-face exchanges in which Jiang’s corrupt tycoon is all repressed, psychotic violence. It’s a show-offy, generic role – even down to the character having a private passion for archery – but Jiang plays it just short of parody, bringing a real menace to the part as well as some humanity. The fact that Song, without any dialogue, doesn’t come over as an also-ran is a tribute as much to Xin’s direction as to the actors’ skills: Zhang Baomin’s muteness is cleverly got around at key moments (as in the use of text messaging) and rarely seems an impediment; but just as his muteness puts him on a separate level in society, so Zhang Baomin is a kind of law unto himself, charging around and ignoring many of the accepted social norms. With just looks and physical action, the personable Song makes him a convincing protagonist, every bit the equal of Jiang’s villain.

That’s important for the cleverly tooled plot to work, for the audience to be carried along by the main character. Wrath is in a single-act rather than conventional three-act structure, with one thing leading to another, the next turn in the story never clear (including a clever, poetic feint just prior to the finale), and the whole plot revealed only in the – literally – last shot. The rigour in the script is matched by He’s widescreen photography, which evokes the hard-scrabble, desolate territory in a picturesque way without taking over from the human drama; only in one shot – a breathtaking crane-up to reveal a large, modern city, as if rising from the waves – does the photography have a moment of its own.

Other technical credits are precision tuned, and supporting performances ditto, with Yuan Wenkang 袁文康 (the head monk in Brotherhood of Blades II: The Infernal Battlefield 绣春刀II  修罗战场, 2017) suitably equivocal as a lawyer who knows more than he’s saying. The only disappointment is casting an actress like Tan Zhuo 谭卓 (the girlfriend in Spring Fever 春风沉醉的夜晚, 2009; deaf-mute in Mr. Tree Hello! 树先生, 2011; the leads in Lotus 小荷, 2012, and The Mahjong Box 三缺一, 2016) as the protagonist’s wife and then giving her so little to do – though it’s not the first time this under-rated actress has been wasted in such a way (e.g. Cock and Bull 追凶者也, 2016).

The film’s earlier English title was Villain.

CREDITS

Presented by Bingchi Pictures (CN), Hehe Pictures (CN), Khorgos Taihe Digital Entertainment Cultural Development (CN), Black Ant (Shanghai) Film (CN). Produced by Bingchi Pictures (CN).

Script: Xin Yukun. Photography: He Shan. Editing: Hu Shuzhen. Music: Wang Yubo. Art direction: Lan Zhiqiang. Styling: Li Hua. Sound: Si Zhonglin, Li Danfeng. Action: Li Hongbiao. Visual effects: Huang Jinqi (Ruikai Culture Communication). Executive direction: Zhang Jian.

Cast: Song Yang (Zhang Baomin), Jiang Wu (Chang Wannian), Yuan Wenkang (Xu Wenjie, lawyer), Tan Zhuo (Cui Xia, Zhang Baomin’s wife), An Hu (Li Shuiquan), Yi Tiankai (Ding Hai, butcher), Wang Zichen (Da Jin, Chang Wannian’s chief enforcer), Duan Pengyu (Zhang Lei, Zhang Baomin’s son), Zhang Yuzhen (Tian Hongyan), Zhu Haijun (Shuanzi), Ma Guoqing (Liu Fu, village head), Ruan Chen Zimo (Ding Hansheng), Li Yazhen (Xu Yuanyuan, Xu Wenjie’s daughter), Song Ci (Cui Xia’s mother), Jin Ruogang (Xu Wenjie’s mother), Zhang Jian (workmate with news), Wang Lianguo (workmate in fight), Lu Xuexi (headmaster), Jiang Zhixin (mine guard), Yuan Lijian (Wang, lawyer), Wang Shiyu, Zhao Juefei (state investigators).

Premiere: First Film Festival (Closing Film), Xining, China, 27 Jul 2017.

Release: China, tba.