'The Coffin in the Mountain' ('Binguan'): Venice Review

The Coffin in the Mountain - H 2014
Courtesy of Sea Level Production

The Coffin in the Mountain - H 2014

Sturdy plot and solid performances resurrect a multiperspective suspense drama after a stiff start  

First-time Chinese helmer Xin Yukun weaves a web linking lives in a small village over some mistakenly identified human remains

Just like most funerals, young Chinese helmer Xin Yukun's tri-linear feature-film debut stutters along in a mix of longeurs and lapses into extraordinary drama. Revolving around the fallout from the discovery of a charred corpse on the outskirts of a remote village, The Coffin in the Mountain's promising whodunit narrative is marred by sluggish storytelling and dialogue weighed down time and again by excessive exposition.

Still, credit's due for the 30-year-old filmmaker to have veered clear of the pomposity and gimmickry which define many a fledging wannabe auteur in Chinese-language cinema today. While opting for the scrambled-timeline approach in presenting his story, Xin veers away from overstylized mise-en-scene.

Such earnestness does allow his characters to become more humane and less like caricatures, but there's certainly a missed opportunity in deploying such noir-rich material (think Johnnie To's fatalist plots) for a po-faced drama soundtracked by a tingling piano. Still, there's enough substance and engaging performances to propel the film despite its slightly inflated two-hour running time; having already secured some plaudits at home with a best-film and best-director double-whammy at the FIRST Youth Film Festival, its international premiere at the Critics' Week sidebar at Venice could herald the start of a modest run in the festival circuit.

After two pre-credit sequences — a woman adorning the attire of a mourning widow and a driver preparing to stone his sleeping passenger — The Coffin proper begins with a first chapter titled "Pregnancy." Or to be exact, a phantom pregnancy which hails no kid but only chaos, as Zongyao (Wang Xiaotian) and Huanhuan (Luo Yun) scuffle with and kill a local thug who threatens to reveal this "scandal" (Zongyao is the spoiled son of the famously upstanding village chief Xiao Weiguo, played by Huo Weimin).

The half-hour which tracks Zongyao and Huanhuan's flight into town and their two-night stay there is a drag. Admittedly, it's necessary as it provides a time window for other things to happen back at home in order to move the story forward in their absence, but the couple's to-and-fros about their future is a listless lull, and a moment that finds the feckless (and clueless) scion pleading for his girlfriend to continue his family's bloodline as he prepares himself for death row is mawkish, soap-level drama.

What awaits Zongyao is not death but a Dostoevskian twist: He's left crestfallen after running into a funeral procession for the very man he thought he had slain. While not swiftly addressing this riddle, the plot thickens in the second segment titled "Secrets": here, the extramarital affair between the flirtatious father-to-be Baoshan (Shao Shengjie) and long-suffering Liqin (Sun Li), the woman seen donning bereavement clothing at the film's start, turns ominous as the former pledges to murder the latter's abusive husband.

Amidst all this is Dazhuang (Jia Zhigang), the bumbling (and decidedly downtrodden) grocer. The deployment of jump cuts in the sequences showing Dazhuang's inner struggle is a distinct improvement from the melodrama of the first act.

But it's the final third that salvages the film. Playing merely a bit role in the film's first hour or so, village chief Weiguo now steps into the breach, his initial comical running around to solve the dead man's mystery quickly turning tragic as he transforms from observer to participant in the whole charade.

Huo's performance here is superb, as Weiguo's stony veneer slowly dissipates with each and every shocking discovery of those around him and finally his own instincts. His physical transformation from the stoic pater familias to a struggling victim of tragic circumstances is nuanced. It's perhaps not coincidental that these two characters are presented as verbally inarticulate individuals, for it's in the wordless sequences that Xin's film shows potential.

Despite its obvious shortcomings, however, The Coffin provides an interesting example of a mainland Chinese synthesis between indie aesthetics and genre tropes. He Shan's handheld camerawork, meanwhile, would be stronger if it cut back on excessive movements too. It's all about getting his protagonists to speak less and imply more; if he does that, Xin will certainly find the style and balance he needs for a festival-bound future.

Production companies: 1984 Studio in a Beijing Sea Level presentation
Cast: Huo Weimin, Wang Xiaotin, Sun Li, Jia Zhigang, Shao Shengjie
Director: Xin Yukun
Screenwriter: Xin Yukun, Feng Yuanliang based on a story by Lu Nifan
Producers: Ren Jiangzhou, with Geng Hu, Quan Yingchun, Zhu Xin, Chen Junmei, Shen Qiyong
Director of photography: He Shan
Production designer: Guo Kai
Costume designer: Cao Ruichun
Editor: Xin Yukun
Music: Zhang Lei
In Mandarin

No rating; 119 minutes