‘Wrath of Silence’ Pits a Mute Brawler Against the World to Give Voice To the Oppressed
A young boy tends sheep on a hillside in Northern China goes missing. His mute father looks for him with a special way of solving problems: Fisticuffs.
Director: Xin Yukun
Cast: Song Yang, Jiang Wu, Yuan Wenkang, Tan Zhou, Wang Zichen
Runtime: 120 minutes
Although the film’s title might suggest a cheesy 1980s action flick, Wrath of Silence 暴裂无声 strives to be anything but. Set against China’s financial boom in the early 2000s, the film is a gritty neo-noir action thriller critiquing the toll the country’s blinding economic progress has on its poor, with their fury just brimming at the seams.
With its unnecessarily convoluted plot, it does feel like director Xin Yukun loses his focus on the film’s handling of the themes about halfway through. However, Wrath of Silence’s beautiful cinematography, solid technical work, and incredible action sequences are sure to tide audiences over its long runtime.
Wrath of Silence centers around Baomin (Song Yang), a mute miner returning to his rural home to search for his missing son. He soon suspects that Wannian (Jiang Wu), an opportunistic mining tycoon, might have something to do with the situation. Along the way, he runs into Wannian’s lawyer, Wenjie (Yuan Wenkang), whose daughter is also kidnapped.
With each character, the film sets itself up to represent China’s main socioeconomic classes. In some ways, how it uses this crystal clarity to discuss its themes can be overbearing and even satirical. The thuggish capitalist Wannian is, at times, cartoonishly evil with his cigar puffing and overly lavish surroundings, sapping away some of the film’s grounded themes even if it does set up a very clear antagonist.
At other points, the film’s approach to symbolism rings out in poetic urgency. Wenjie, a mild-mannered lawyer and member of the middle class, finds himself helplessly dragged into helping Wannian with his criminal activities under the promise of money. While he does offer to help the mute miner’s family out in whatever way he can, it all frustratingly feels like lip service with how he – and the middle-class – is complicit in helping the upper class oppress the poor.
These frustrations inherent in its commentary are cathartically dissolved with the film’s heart-pounding fights. Quite literally representing the voiceless poor, Baomin brings new meaning to actions speaking louder than words as he dispatches waves of the villain’s thugs.
Breaking away from the gunfights and fantastical acrobatics familiar with Hollywood, the fights in Wrath of Silence are grimy and clumsy, deliberately feeling more like bar brawls than rehearsed choreography. Baomin is no martial arts master either; no roundhouse kicks to be seen here. With closed fists and on-the-fly use of his environment, Baomin often only gets by because of his sheer unwillingness to stay down.
Exhaustion, injury, and distance are all urgent reminders of Baomin’s journey, of which Yang does a spectacular job with portraying. Without a single word of dialogue, his intensity resonates in every wince and determined grimace, punching his way to the corrupt top with the resolute will of China’s oppressed.
There are efforts to paint Wannian in a shade of grey but it feels tacked on rather than fleshed out, ultimately making the character a one-dimensional antagonist. Yet, this is not to the film’s detriment. Wu is despicable as the villain, showcasing his brutality by contrasting a calm and calculating demeanour with sudden bursts of outrage and violence. His motivations may be clear, yet he remains engagingly unpredictable as the film unravels the depths he is willing to go to get his way.
Wrath of Silence is shot with just about the same dedication to clarity as its portrayal of characters. Much like the action, the dry, barren lands of northern China are a refreshing backdrop to most of the genre’s contemporaries. The different worlds its characters inhibit are detailed with excellent camera work that also emphasise each actor’s emotional range.
Each action sequence is frantically paced with fast cuts and shaky cameras, adding tension to the growing exhaustion of its brawlers. While most of the technical work remains straight-forward, there are still marvelous standouts that are welcomed in a film drenched in no-nonsense action. Rounding up the film’s technical proficiency is its potent mix of foreboding synthesisers and thumping percussion to draw viewers into the silent protagonist’s deafening fury and frustration.
Despite its clear setups, Wrath of Silence does take a few deviations from its seemingly straight-forward plot that ultimately muddles the film’s pressing themes. These detours feel convoluted – so much so that its characters had to explicitly spell out the plot by the film’s end. Still, the film’s ambition to be more does pay off in some aspects.
As rather infamously shown with the different endings of Infernal Affairs, due to China’s film regulations, villains have to be punished in the end. The film does comply with this restriction, but subverts it with an ending that heartbreakingly shows how justice is still far from the poor’s reach even if their oppressors are in cuffs.
Wrath of Silence is an engaging action flick that is a throwback to yesteryear’s films centring around a man with nothing to lose, and transplanted into the Chinese context to spectacular effect. Its handling of the themes may be too on-the-nose for some, but sometimes a punch to the nose – with the fury of the downtrodden so beautifully expressed here – is what is uncomfortably necessary for change.
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