Review of Wrath of Silence directed by Xin Yukun, China 2017
Screened at London Film Festival 2017, seeking UK distribution in 2018
Review by Professor Robert Abrams, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York
Wrath of Silence, an ‘indie’ film from China tells a painful story. It is filled with starkly incompatible ideas and images, juxtaposing childhood innocence with adult criminality, the gentleness of sheep with brutal violence, vegetarianism with carnivorous gluttony. In the early segments of the film the viewer is subjected to scenes of sheep being slaughtered, butchered, and devoured, suggesting that people may be at risk for similar treatment in this savage world.
This clip from the film is not for the faint-hearted
Set in rural China, the film depicts a nation in transition to unfettered capitalism, where the landscape is being destroyed and replaced by a physical environment inhospitable to life. The water is poisoned by runoff from mines, and cities of ugly monotony rise from lifeless ground in the distance. In parallel, the social environment is also being degraded, with bullying kingpins in ascendancy. Corruption is rampant, and injustice is accepted without protest.
Zhang Biomen (Song Yang) is a restless wildcard of a man who has not conformed to the prevailing capitalist ethos. Both miner and sheep-farmer, he refuses to cede his mining license to Chang Wennian (Jiang Wu), the sadistic Mafioso-style strongman in his remote village. Biomen happens to be mute, his condition stemming from an event that occurred when he was a young man, and we sense long before it is confirmed that his injury occurred during a fight. That is because Biomen is at heart an angry man with a trigger-sharp temper, always gearing up for a fight, his righteous fury easily ignited. But now he has a serious proximal cause for rage: his school-age son, Lei, has gone missing while tending the family sheep herd, and Biomen has reason to believe that he has been abducted by Chang’s foot soldiers. Also, Biomen owes money to Chang, who has been scheming to bring the entire mining production of the village under his control.
As Biomen fights Chang’s henchmen at every turn the viewer begins to feel that his mutism is somehow fitting. Elective mutism, which Biomen’s is not, but is presented as if it could be, occurs in the context of psychological traumas. This condition arises when what urgently needs to be said cannot be spoken because the intense underlying emotions threaten to overwhelm psychic equilibrium.* In Wrath of Silence the distress is caused by an entity known as ‘nonfamily abduction of a child,’ a circumstance understood by child psychiatrists and family therapists to constitute a unique category of suffering for parents.** Parents are wont to blame themselves – and sometimes each other – for having inadequately protected their child, one of the most basic requirements of parenthood. For them, abduction of a child produces a state of tormenting anticipation, one that worsens with time until it is resolved; in that way, it is distinct from ordinary grief. What is particularly agonizing in cases of child abduction is the element of uncertainty, and as time passes there is an increasing likelihood that the abducted child will be recovered dead, if at all. Xin Yukun who wrote as well as directed the film, intended to tell the story of a father-son relationship that would be meaningful to worldwide audience. In the UK, the news of Madeline McCann is still followed with dread and anticipation.
In such desperate personal crises, powerful psychological defenses are called into play. Biomen summons up the defense that is most readily at his disposal—wrath. As suggested by the film’s title, it seems that Biomen’s seething rage, visible in his facial features, is actually augmented by his inability to express his emotions in words, and at least that proves useful for the moment; his anger gives him strength and an almost reckless courage. His ‘silent’ wrath manages to speak loudly.
Biomen’s wife, Xia (Zhou Tan), who is ill and whose expensive medical treatment has been the reason for the family’s debts, is equally miserable. But Xia suffers more quietly than her husband. For consolation she has a few sympathetic neighbors and her own mother’s prayers and talismans. Still she is deeply helpless; and helplessness is another key feature of parental reaction to nonfamily abduction of a child. In psychoanalytic terms, helplessness is a state in which there is no specific action that can be taken to relieve internal tension.* Sobbing, Xia rocks the family’s pet sheep protectively, perhaps a substitute for her missing son. With this gesture Xia is also clinging to a cherished value that is now under threat, respect for life, as she waits for Biomen to return home with her son. It is implied that the little lamb is one being, human or animal, that will be spared from slaughter.
Biomen’s inner struggles and suffering are mirrored by the larger social context in which aggression, greed and avarice are the order of the day. Biomen is not alone. Without revealing the conclusion of the film’s storyline, it can be assumed that cruelty and dishonesty will endure and cannot be eradicated by happy endings. Neither will Biomen’s silent rage dissipate anytime soon.
*Laplanche J, Pontalis J-B. The Language of Psychoanalysis (trans. Nicholson-Smith, D.), New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973.
**Spilman SK. ‘Child abduction, parents’ distress, and social support’, Violence and Victims: Vol. 21, No.2, April 2006.