Dir: Conrad Clark. UK/China 2007. 82 mins.
A surprise winner of the Altadis new directors' award at the San Sebastian film festival, Conrad Clark's Soul Carriage is original in two important ways. Firstly because the 28-year-old British director's debut film is entirely set in south-eastern China , with Chinese actors and dialogue. Secondly because Clark, an anthropology graduate, appears to have immersed himself not only in the language and culture of his chosen setting but in the laconic cine-verite style of certain Chinese Sixth Generation fillmakers. If it weren't for Clark 's name on the credits, this road movie about a construction worker who is given the job of ferrying a dead colleague's body back to his home town could pass for an early Jia Zhangke.
Soul Carriage is not perfect. It has one of those passive heroes who's so relentlessly, cluelessly passive you want to slap him: but it's true that the frustration built up by his continually blocked efforts to return the body to someone who wants it needs a lost, unsophisticated persona to work, and eventually delivers some emotional payback.
The other off-putting aspect of the film during its San Sebastian screening was the quality of the HD handheld photography which - at least in the digitally-projected version shown at the festival - suffered from occasional blur and colour bleeding. One hopes that these problems will be ironed out once the film is transferred to 35mm.
Invited to Gothenburg after its San Sebastian premiere, Soul Carriage would probably benefit from further festival action (including a US berth, which is currently under discussion) before dipping its toe into the arthouse theatrical market.
The story focuses on Xinren (Yang Fen Jun), a worker on a building site in Shanghai who goes to the boss's office to ask for a raise (he doesn't even have the money for a beer) and ends up being given the job of transporting the body of a fellow labourer who fell to his death back to the rural village he came from.
Xinren's crass, bullying boss (Jia Hong) procures a death certificate from a moonlighting doctor, gives Xinren a wad of cash for expenses, and sends him off in a minivan with the body in the back.
There are shades of Ken Loach's Riff Raff, or Li Yang's Blind Shaft, in the story thus told, but although it begins in the murky world of unregulated manual labour, social denunciation is not the film's main interest.
Instead, Xinren begins an existential journey south into Zhejiang province, from the claustrophobic city to the supposedly more genuine countryside. But neither locale quite fits the stereotyped contrast: Shanghai is a place of dreamlike fragments - the brick-red building site, the entertainment tent where underage dancing girls strut their stuff for the workers, futuristic new apartment blocks that float on the horizon like zigurrats. And, as in Jia Zhangke's Still Life, the country is hardly innocent either: it's a place of tacky hostess bars decorated with fake leaves and half-built houses along grubby riverbanks.
Xinren follows one lead to the next, but nobody seems to want the body of his unlucky co-worker. As he grows more desperate, the pathos of the situation filters through, and the shallow chancer becomes mutely bound to his dead colleague, and increasingly determined to do the right thing by him.
Non-professional lead Yang Fen Jun - who the director discovered working on an actual building site - gives one of those performances that alternately irritate and compel because he really doesn't seem to be acting, but this also gives a rawness to the part that holds our attention and builds a certain quiet authority.
Written and directed by
Yang Feng Jun
Chen Jiao Ying