Having dabbled with noir-ish ruses in his Venice-bowing 2014 debut Coffin in the Mountain, Chinese filmmaker Xin Yukun embraces genre cinema wholesale in Wrath of Silence, which sets a mute, vengeful miner against a world of corruption. Appropriating visual and narrative tropes from Westerns and film noir with invention and poise, the 32-year-old helmer’s latest is a powerful and fatalistic illustration of the Chinese rural underclass and its futile fight against oppressive social forces.
Taking his cue from auteurs like Johnnie To and Park Chan-wook, Xin has now established himself as one of China’s most astute makers of taut, gritty thrillers that still fit within the moral boundaries set by the country’s famously rigorous censors.
A fistful of fury.
Featuring remarkable performances from Song Yang as the unspeaking avenger and Jiang Wu as an amoral villain, Wrath of Silence should make quite some noise on the festival circuit after its international premiere in London. The film received its world premiere as the closing film of China’s FIRST Film Festival in July, and the rebooted (and now Chinese-owned) Fortissimo Films should be able to nudge it towards a wider release in the country than that of Coffin.
The story begins with miner Zhang Baomin (Song) returning to his dusty ancestral village somewhere in northern China after learning of his young son’s disappearance. He observes the doom and gloom around him like a cowboy in a spaghetti Western: Dazed men stuff themselves with food and drink in the local diner, while the village chief is seen smoking foreign cigarettes and stocking up on mineral water, a luxury in this far-flung village in China’s arid hinterlands.
These are small vices compared to those of the pic’s villain, Chang Wannian (Jiang). Beneath the expensive suits and shoes lies a mobster using both muscle and money to control all the coal mines in the region. In his first scene in the film, he is shown menacing a rival while a meat slicer whirls in the background. Coming somewhere in between these two very contrasting characters is Xu Wenjie (Yuan Wenkang), a lawyer under investigation by the authorities for his work with Chang.
Through a series of coincidences, Zhang meets Chang and suspects the tycoon is behind his son’s disappearance. Chang’s henchmen abduct lawyer Xu’s daughter to blackmail him into giving whatever material would help in the investigation about their boss — a move which eventually brings him into the miner’s orbit, as both search for clues regarding their missing children. While convoluted and contrived on paper, the plot unfolds smoothly and with a lot of flair, thanks to Xin’s own screenplay and Hu Shuzhen’s tight editing.
The contributions of Xin’s technical crew are crucial. Delivering very different looks to the three leading characters’ home turf — Zhang in his village house, Chang in his incredibly well-appointed office and Xu in a middlebrow apartment — production designer Lan Zhiqiang and lenser He Shan illustrate how China remains deeply divided in terms of how its wealth is distributed. Sylvian Wang’s soundtrack amplifies the sinister ambience of the seemingly accursed settings, while it also illustrates Zhang’s rage as he persists in tracking down his son.
Beyond all this, Xin’s masterstroke lies in his clever way of accommodating the Chinese censors’ well-documented demand that bad guys must pay onscreen. Justice might be served and the authorities might swoop in to seize the baddies and save the day, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to a happy ending for all. Deadly misdeeds can’t be undone. Ending with the sound of a crying woman and the thundering collapse of a coal mine, Wrath of Silence is as loud and devastating a j’accuse against social injustice in China as, say, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.
Production companies: Bingchi Pictures
Cast: Jiang Wu, Song Yang, Yuan Wenkang
Director-screenwriter: Xin Yukun
Producer: Gao Yitian
Executive producer: Huang Congyu
Director of photography: He Shan
Production designer: Lan Zhiqiang
Music: Sylvian Wang
Editor: Hu Shuzhen
Casting: Jiang Xiaolei
Sales: Fortissimo Films