'Silent Mist' ('Chen Wu'): Film Review

Courtesy of Arizona Dreams
A slow, straightforward but stirring j'accuse.

Zhang Miaoyan's French-financed feature, which screens at Rotterdam this week, takes its inspiration from a series of real-life, unsolved rapes in southern China.

Three years after A Corner of Heaven indicted moral decay in China through a rural boy’s rite of passage, helmer Zhang Miaoyan is back with Silent Mist, another barbed critique about his country's social ills wrought large through sexual violence in a scenic small town. With its fatalistic worldview, slow-moving narrative, long tracking shots and rugged characters, Silent Mist has probably consolidated his standing as China's answer to Bela Tarr.

Like the Hungarian auteur, Zhang has been feted much more abroad than at home. More than a decade after his Busan debut Xiaolin Xiaoli, the 53-year-old director is returning to Rotterdam for the third time. Like Black Blood (2011) and A Corner of Heaven, Silent Mist was made with foreign financing and overseen by his longtime French producer Guillaume de Seille.

None of his previous films has ever been granted a release back in China, and this looks like no exception.The censors will hardly warm to the film's depiction of amorality and apathy bubbling beneath the picture-perfect landscape. But Zhang’s stylized reflections on the horrors of misogyny, delivered with visual flair, should generate a run on the festival circuit after its screenings at Busan and Rotterdam.

Silent Mist begins with two long takes seething with silent menace: first a three-minute gaze at the bustling banks of a canal as seen from a moving boat, followed by a six-minute tracking shot of women walking along the waterway. Here, the viewer is forced into the horrifying POV of a rapist out scouting for prey, and his three victims— a teenage student, a hairdresser's suave daughter and an earthy noodle shop owner — are shown entering and leaving the frame at various points.

Introducing the women in their usual environment allows Zhang to comment on the harsh circumstances that breed these crimes and hamper the victims' ability to recover from them. Because beneath the normality lies a town of malice. Those wielding power — such as the mysterious rapist lurking in the shadows, or the businessman bullying everyone in public — can get away with whatever they want; the disfranchised resort to shunning, sniping at and shaming their victims.

In a world devoid of sympathy or justice, the violated women are left to fester and grapple with their sanity and their fate. It's telling that the only one character seemingly uninvolved in all this is an old musician wandering around town in rustic attire — an outside observer of the dystopian modern world around him.

Compared to the director’s previous films — specifically Xiaolin Xiaoli, which also runs on a story full of sexual abuse and transgressions — this is perhaps the most abstract to date, to the point that most of the characters are not even mentioned by name onscreen. While based on a series of real-life, unsolved rapes in southern China, the film is light on specifics and heavy on atmosphere and symbolism. For example, the victims are shown trudging past rows of ducks, fish and sausages all being hung out to dry — which is where they were themselves at, becoming pariahs in a misogynistic society.

With tracking shots aplenty, Zhang and his co-DP Xu Zhiyong plunge the viewer straight into the nightmare entrapping these traumatized characters. Despite its hushed aesthetics, Silent Mist makes its point about China's social malaise, loud and clear.

Production companies: Rice Productions, Arizona Productions
Cast: Hu Chunlan, Zhao Zhuojun, Yang Xiaojiang, Wang Gufu
Director: Zhang Miaoyan
Screenwriter: Rice Zhang, Wang Lianggui, Zhang Miaoyan, Quge
Producers: Zhang Miaoyan, Hu Chunlan, Guillaume de Seille
Directors of photography: Zhang Miaoyan, Xu Zhiyong
Editing: Zhang Miaoyan
Sales: Pascale Ramonda
In Mandarin
101 minutes