Perhaps groundbreakingly, and certainly daringly, “Soul Carriage” was shot by a debutante English helmer, in Mandarin, in China. But however well-intentioned, this minimalist item rises only occasionally to the Himalayan challenge it has set itself. Story of a blank-faced construction worker struggling to return a body to the family wanders aimlessly through a plot that gathers intensity only in its last half-hour. Perhaps more for the fascinating transcultural project it represents than for its merits, pic won the Altadis New Director’s award at San Sebastian, and could see extensive fest play in Asian territories and elsewhere.
In an overextended opening, auche, cash-strapped migrant worker Xinren (nonpro Yang Feng Jun) is offered an unusual way to make a buck by surly construction site boss (Jia Hong); a co-worker has died onsite, and Xinren is enlisted to return the dead man’s body to his family.
Following a bit of corrupt paperwork to make it look as though the death happened in hospital — the suggestion being that human decency is another victim of the China’s new capitalism — Xinren, in a reversal of his own migrant journey to the city in search of work, heads into the countryside. Pic becomes a sort of mini road movie, full of beautifully composed, color-rich shots of Zhejiang province’s often stunning mountain scenery, which is undergoing rapid, radical industrialization, largely in the form of hastily erected red-brick buildings.
Xinren finds he’s been given the wrong address, and almost spoils a wedding in the process. He is shuttled from false lead to false lead, gradually losing his faith in humanity, in an increasingly melancholy storyline whose rich potential for satire is mined only fleetingly. What we see instead are (very) long takes of Xinren wandering, Xinren smoking (more cigarettes are smoked here than are smoked in a year’s worth of American movies) and Xinren eating.
Wherever the increasingly isolated Xinren finds himself — in a cafe, in a bar — is always more interesting than Xinren himself: Perhaps because the first-time thesp is under instructions to keep it low-key, his expressionless features, while engaging at first, start to pall. Perhaps inevitably, and despite the helmer’s gargantuan efforts, auds remain outside the culture, looking in.
Another dramatic strand that remains underexplored, particularly over the flat final stretch, is Xinren’s identification with the body he’s trawling around. It would have been to the pic’s benefit to bring some of the other characters to more vivid life — Xinren’s relationships are limitingly non-interactive, and basically limited to his being shouted at. Flashback, too, is used hesitantly — only once, and to little consequence.