Wrath of Silence (China, 2017)

To say that Wrath of Silence never quite tops its opening ten minutes is not meant as a criticism as Xin Yukun’s thriller is one of the most gripping genre films in recent memory. Rather, it’s testament to the expertise with which Xin and editor Hu Shuzen grab the viewer’s attention. Through an immersive exercise in time slippage, they establish the dustily evocative landscape of an Inner Mongolia province, the disappearance of a young boy, and a fiercely stubborn protagonist who gouges the eye of a heavyset butcher with a sucked-out shank bone during a village dispute. With its rustic soundscape of rustling wind, bleating sheep, clanging mining machinery, cooking meat, and particularly squelchy act of sudden violence, the film immediately transports the viewer to a world that is being impacted by modernity but still removed from it. Even if it unraveled thereafter, one would still be hooked for the long haul. Fortunately, Xin has a story up his sleeve that largely delivers on the bold promise of his masterful scene setting.

The assailant turns out to be Zhang Baomin (Song Yang), who has since left his home to work elsewhere after protesting a land-requisition compensation deal offered by a major mining company. After learning that his 12-year-old son did not return home after going out to herd the family sheep, he hurries back to the village. Zhang’s sickly wife Cui Xia (Tan Zhuo) is distraught, but her husband can only offer limited comfort, as he has been mute since biting off his tongue in a childhood fight. Trekking around the village and surrounding area with a photo of the boy, Zhang’s inability to speak doesn’t necessarily hinder his quest, which is as much a sign of the generally straight forward way of communicating in this neck of the woods as it is of the hero’s tenacity.

Making enquiries at a mine, Zhang gets involved in a brawl when company thugs turn up to sack the workers. Taking the side of the miners, Zhang helps to fend off the henchmen and cracks the windshield of their SUV in the process, which leads him to be escorted to the office of their boss, Chang Wannian (Jiang Wu). Although the CEO seems sympathetic to his situation and waives repair costs, Zhang suspects that something is amiss. While putting up posters in town, Zhang spots Chang’s top enforcer Da Jin (Wang Zichen) and follows him, only to become embroiled in a plot involving Chang’s efforts to gain a monopoly with assistance from corrupt lawyer Xu Wenjie (Yuan Wenkang). Dismissed as a rural nobody by Da Jin, the determined Zhang proves to be a sharp thorn in the side of big business.

In some respects, this is a postmodern ‘Chinese western’ with Zhang as the loner coming back to clean up the town. While his inability to speak makes him an outsider even in his own community, it’s Zhang’s unwavering personal code that truly puts him at odds with others. He even gets a scene where he brushes off the village chief’s attempt to welcome him back with cash and imported cigarettes. Played with earthy grit by Song, best known for his sturdy appearances in Xu Haofeng’s wuxia pictures The Sword Identity (2011) and The Final Master (2015), our hero may not be a gunslinger, but he’s scrappy and resourceful, able to turn whatever he can get his hands on into a weapon, not to mention able to use knowledge of the terrain to his advantage. The aforementioned fight at the mine and a later confrontation between Zhang and Chang’s henchmen at the industrialist’s office have the rough and tumble feel of a saloon brawl with Li Hongbiao’s choreography really selling every body blow. Splendidly shot by cinematographer He Shan, the film’s courts further western associations with its emphasis on vast landscape, but Xin doesn’t overplay his references to the extent of previous ‘Chinese westerns’ like Wind Blast (2010) or No Man’s Land (2013). Sylvian Wang’s electronic score helps in this regard, giving the action a contemporary texture that prevents the proceedings from slipping into homage and conveys how urbanization is encroaching on China’s ‘frontier towns’.

Wrath of Silence marks a considerable leap forward for Xin following his first feature The Coffin In The Mountain (2014), which demonstrated promise in its claustrophobic depiction of a small community under duress but was a curiously listless affair despite the effort that evidently went into establishing its remote milieu. While that film never found the right mix of genre tropes and social commentary, Xin’s follow-up proves to be a potent blend. As indicated by his padded peasant jacket, Zhang represents the bottom of China’s economic hierarchy while the well-groomed Chang is the wealthy elite, and compromised lawyer Xu is the desperately stretched middle-class.

By pitting the honest worker against the callous businessman with the tainted professional caught in-between, Wrath of Silence may not seem to offer an especially subtle take on China’s corruption problem. Events takes place in 2004, with Jiang’s lack of regard for industry regulations pointing to the mining scandals that occurred throughout the decade as corporations raced to drain the environment in order to achieve unprecedented profits. However, Xin’s screenplay and Jiang’s fine performance give Chang more layers than the average bad guy. He may trade in over-the-top intimidation, sport an eccentric hairpiece, and have a passion for archery, but the burly physique under the fancy suits and hands-on attitude to problem solving imply this tycoon has humble origins. When eating lamb from a hot pot cooker in his opulent private restaurant, he’s careful to make the meat doesn’t drip on to his shirt and is annoyed when biting into a piece of fruit causes juice to run on to his overcoat. Chang may have become accustomed to the finer things in life, but he’s still aware of how much they cost. None of this makes his villainy any less despicable, yet his insatiable greed is as much of a consequence of China’s economic acceleration as Zhang’s abject poverty.

Understandably mindful of potential domestic censorship pitfalls, Xin largely focuses on narrative momentum and the unflagging resolve of the individual. Nonetheless, tough points are made en route to the climax with the chilling parting shot serving as a barbed statement about injustice. While its likely to be packaged as an art-house item internationally, Wrath of Silence is propulsive genre fare which announces Xin as a director to watch.