Wang Fen’s The Case (Xiang zi) begins by showing a river flowing into Li Jiang, an old Chinese city uncontaminated by the outside world. The movie feels green and humid, yet lively. This opening scene creates a mysterious sentiment that is heightened by the vigorous use of traditional Chinese percussion instruments. The director’s treatment contains many elements of “magic realism,” that is, the use of magical and surrealistic elements in a realistic setting. The main character is an ordinary man, and the plot is not complicated. But through mellifluous narration, such simplicity blends well with the film’s more surrealistic elements.
The story centers on a middle-aged innkeeper, Da Shang (Wu Gang), who finds himself in a difficult situation after picking up a suitcase that has floated down the river. Initially, Da Shang believes he can hide the suitcase from his wife (played by Wu Yujian), who suspects he is having an affair with a beautiful woman and tries her best to spy on him. By the end of the film, Da Shang realizes that he cannot hide the suitcase from his wife, and that his fate is not in his own hands.
Some viewers might think that The Case tells the simple story of an ordinary man through uninspiring camera movements and with an overdose of close-ups and two-shots. Some might regard the lack of panoramic long-takes, or witty and vivid conversations between the actors, as weaknesses of the movie. But director Wang Fen does not seem eager to explore the more expressive possibilities of the camera, possibilities which many believe give soul to a movie.
However, I view the director’s use of the camera as something special. The magic realism in the movie brings a touch of romance to the old Li Jiang city. The beautiful old buildings and spectacular scenery, unexplored and mysterious, serve as a stage for the primitive and instinctive struggles between urban and rural lifestyles and between the privacy and sharing of the couple. There is an evident theatrical treatment of the subject matter, with the sound, acting, camera movements all accentuating this.
The traditional Chinese percussion music in the film often serves to echo the fluctuations of emotion that Da Shang experiences, as well as generating tension and focusing the audience’s attention at key moments. The two actors, Wu Gang and Wu Yujian, are both very experienced. Wu Yujian plays Da Shang’s nervous wife with a theatrical acting style that creates a dramatic and impressive performance.
The plot has some interesting twist and turns towards the end. Da Shang’s mistress turns out to be a demon, and Da Shang winds up murdering his wife. Then everything in the film turns out to be a dream. Fortunately, the movie does not end there, and in the final post-dream scene, one of Da Shang’s neighbors opens his door only to see the very same suitcase floating down the river.
This ending suggests the suitcase is a magical object, and that it can change how people think and even change their fate.
“I think that the world consists of men, women, their needs and relationships. It cannot be just men’s stories or women’s stories,” Wang Fen said. Though the subject of relationships between men and women is a conventional one, it is also undeniably of universal interest. In The Case it also delivered with creativity and meaning.