Dank, dark spaces and untamed tropical nature encroach upon a remote Yunnanese inn, where the appearance of a mysterious, floating case signals the return of dormant, irrational desires for the mild-mannered protagonist He Dashang (Wu Gang). Wang Fen’s The Case is a playful black comedy, with more than just a nod to Freudian-Surrealist symbolism, accompanied by a suitably absurdist, theatrical sensibility. The film is an enjoyable satire on marriage and relationships as social institutions, exploring private notions of libido, desire, happiness and trust.
He Dashang is trapped in a stifling marriage and runs a quiet Lijiang guesthouse under the constant scrutiny of his brutally distrustful wife (Wu Yujuan). The crushing tedium of his life is disrupted when he fishes out the eponymous case from a stream. After impulsively hiding it from his wife he soon discovers its unspeakable contents; an obscenity that he scrabbles to conceal – or should it be repress? – from his wife’s knowledge.
Simmering tensions soon escalate when a strikingly coquettish Lily (Wang Sifei as a noir-ish femme fatale) checks into the guesthouse with her near-wordless husband (Wang Hongwei). Unable to restrain himself, Dashang embarks on a furtive relationship with Lily that involves equal measures of counselling and spying. Are the new lodgers connected with the mysterious case? Why does Dashang’s wife seem to know what he has done, unnervingly, even before he realises? While these questions hang in the air, events spiral out of control before the film reaches its cathartic, and utterly divisive, conclusion.
Wang Fen’s debut achieves thrilling levels of suspense with admirable efficacy, which owes much to the uniformly strong performances, particularly from Wu Gang and Wu Yujuan as the spouses. Wu Gang is convincingly downtrodden and guilt-racked as Dashang, and it is difficult to believe Wang Sifei is anything other than the feisty, phobic Lily that she plays with such relish. Even the location itself, China’s most south-westerly province Yunnan, plays a crucial supporting role, its vegetation infusing the film with a palpable sense of organic life, reminding the viewers of the lawlessness of nature and its accompanying urges.
The Case is the best known of the first ten films (all by women directors) produced by the state-funded Yunnan New Film Project. Initiated in 2001, the project was established to mark both the centenary of Chinese cinema and to stimulate a new crop of indigenous filmmakers. The film’s overt eroticism and daring immorality indicate perhaps that China’s relaxing grip on censorship is softening further, and allegorically that the nation itself is succumbing to its own irrational desires.