“The Coffin in the Mountain” – 2014 Busan Film Review

It is a tired cliché to state that “hell is other people.”  Yet as hackneyed as that expression may be, it does speak an ineffable truth that we cannot avoid; specifically, that a majority of human problems could easily be solved if each and every one of us could just learn to sit quietly in a room by ourselves. Although our daily interactions with others usually don’t result in catastrophic tragedies, the dull ache of having to come in contact with people who just downright bother us is something we cannot always escape for the obvious reason that no one has the luxury of living alone on their own personal island.

First-time filmmaker Xin Yukun tackles this theme of the messiness of human connection in “The Coffin in the Mountain” (殯棺, 2014) with more than a nodding glance towards Robert Altman’s use of naturalistic dialogue, complicated character threads that intersect with other players, and a large cast of idiosyncratic personalities. “The Coffin in the Mountain” is a picture obsessed with ritual. Events are replayed from varying viewpoints, props are emphasized through the use of close-ups, and the starts and stops of a funeral comprise a major plot point in the story.

Divided into three chapters and encompassing the lives of a few citizens in a small rural town in China, Xin’s film is seemingly devoted to ratcheting up the tension as viewers ponder when and who will be punished for the accidental death of a ne’er do-well blackmailer and thief. In the first story, the son of the village leader, Zongyao (Wang Xiaotian), comes back home to pay his parents a visit. Zongyao and his father don’t get along; both being bull-headed and stubborn, neither man can seem to even work up the strength to make eye contact with one another. Incapable of being in the same house as his father yet unable to go back to the city, he calls up an old fling, Huang Huan (played by Luo Yun), for a late night tryst, but shocking news from his girlfriend inevitably leads to the scared Zongyao in a skirmish with the sickly Bai Hu (Zhu Ziqing), resulting in the latter’s death.

The young couple runs away, but whereas most typical thrillers would have us follow these lovers-on-the-run to their inevitable tragic endings, the film slows to a lurch. Almost as if he was consciously attempting to buy some indie street cred – or maybe due to a lack of funds – we move to a tiny motel room and a small stretch of street where Zongyao, Huang Huan, and a few other characters talk and ponder. When the young couple do finally decide to abandon their initial plans of running away, instead going back to town and confessing to Bai Hu’s murder, the film shifts yet again from the documentary realism of a Jia Zhangke picture to that of a Kafkaesque nightmare world as various townspeople are entangled in Zongyao’s mess.

Yet while Bai Hu’s death and dead body play a big role in each of these three stories, Zongyao does not return until much later in the film. The second story is devoted to a familiar noir trope of an abused housewife who plots to murder her husband with her lover, but is surprised to find that her husband – or a body that has been identified as her husband – has made her idle fantasy a reality. The actress playing Li Qin, Sun Li, does a noteworthy job of playing a woman so long abused by her husband and men in general that when she finally does get her freedom, she is at a loss as to what she should do, moving almost like a zombie whenever the camera focuses on her. As an added counterpoint to Li’s situation a milquetoast grocer, Da Zhuang (Jia Zhigang), is introduced in the middle of Zongyao’s story. We later learn that he is in love with the comatose-like Li.  He even almost goes through with murder just so that he can be with her, but this added subplot, as heartbreaking as it is when Da is rebuked by Li at the end, adds nothing to her overall arc. We know long before the story’s conclusion that the battered and emotionally broken Li would never be with Da; how could she be with any man after so many of them have disappointed her in the past?

By the beginning of the third story, the plot boomerangs back to the start and we get a far clearer picture of the missing pieces of the puzzle. The focus is now on Zongyao’s father, Xiao Weiguo (Huo Weimin), and his problems in trying to not only cover up his son’s murder but also bury Bai Hu’s charred remains. Nothing goes right though. It seems the stoic man’s idyllic town is filled with nothing but incompetent fools, philanderers, and put-upon women; the last third of Xin’s film is a dark, edging on surrealistic, tale of one man breaking bad just once in his life for a very understandable reason. “The Coffin in the Mountain” is a promising, memorable debut that makes a few missteps due to the picture’s bulging cast of characters, but Xin leaves the viewer with a lot to ponder by the film’s silent but starkly powerful denouement.

“The Coffin in the Mountain” screens Oct. 5 (twice), Oct. 8 and Oct. 10 at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival.  For more information, go to www.biff.kr.