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Coffin in the Mountain
Xin Yukun 忻钰坤
Coffin in the Mountain

A tranquil and tightly-knit village community in early 21st-century northern China is stirred up by the discovery of an unknown burnt body in the forest, which draws all the apparently unrelated characters more closely together in spite of themselves. Everyone has a secret which somehow relates to the corpse. The villagers’ traumas, secrets and disorientation are caused by their particular social status and circumstances. They take advantage of the body's appearance and anonymity to disguise their scandals, hidden desires, or evil thoughts. This non-linear, multi-perspective whodunit reveals connections between the protagonists and simultaneous events and stories related to the corpse in a series of chapters. Superimposed revelations of the suspense are complicated by this unidentifiable dead body.

The film depicts broken family relations caused by the migration of much of the rural population of working age to the cities. A migrant worker’s left-behind wife lacks social and financial security and, turning to extramarital affairs, plots the murder of her husband. A young woman lies about her pregnancy, aiming to secure marriage and escape with an urban resident. At the same time, land exploitation and environmental damage cause the Bai family's decline into poverty. Bai becomes a thief and leaves home to escape from his debts. His family hopes and supposes that Bai is dead and lies to his creditors. Ironically, this wish or “dream” eventually comes true. As a black comedy, the film’s grim humour depends on the fact that everyone is guilty of something which they want to conceal. They are moved around like pawns on a chessboard and are unknowingly manipulated by the unidentified body and a coffin. There is, in fact, only one murderer and one corpse, but under psychological stress, the people who have specific secrets and intend to commit a crime imagine themselves to be the criminal.

WANG Nashuyuan (University College London)


Director Xin's first two films, The Coffin in the Mountain and Wrath of Silence (暴裂无声, 2017) are both based on real stories about a concealed village murder and cases of missing children in a northern township, respectively. Xin's work often features a gallery of protagonists and their accidental, yet somehow inevitable, encounters. They present a broad view of contemporary Chinese society, especially marginal areas and displaced people often overlooked or neglected by formal legal and administrative systems. Many of the problems experienced by the characters in Coffin in the Mountain come in the wake of the Policy of Reform and Opening Up (1987). With China's rapid urbanisation, development projects have caused "village hollowing-out" - the significant loss of natural resources and rural residents (Guo et al., 2013), Land exploitation and environmental damage and unequal resource allocations stimulate conflicts between rural communities and the state (Gates, 1996; Lin, 2001; Lin et al., 2010; Huang et al., 2011; Smith, 2014; Liu et al., 2018). Anxiety, fear, grievances and despair all threaten the stability of rural life (Liu et al., 2010; Gao et al., 2017), and violence frequently erupts as a form of resistance against authority (Chen, 2014).

WANG Nashuyuan (University College London)


With motifs of death and a dead body, The Coffin in the Mountain evokes the failing humanity of the Chinese rural community: the lost meaning of traditional funeral rites and mourning, justice and the disrupted social order, family relations and the overall cultural ecology. In the background the causes of discontent are firmly rooted in themes such as the huge impact of the urban- rural divide: the breakdown of rural families and marriages, youth unemployment, left-behind women, and failures in rural legislation. Rapid socio-economic transformation, urban prosperity and modernisation and rural-urban migration have greatly improved China’s economy but have also "hollowed-out" villages and fragmented traditional rural communities.

In 2017, Chinese prosecutors indicted 40 residents of one village for arranging 17 murders, with at least 35 more deaths under investigation, and dozens more victims may never be known (Hunwick 2017). Rural problems involve inequalities in “social stratification, ineffective law and punishment, flawed relationships between people and their behaviour” (Liu 2000: 16). In the film, we see the breakdown of the family: a wife seeking to murder her husband, conjugal betrayals and scandals, and siblings plotting to murder each other. Through the film’s meta-narrative, we see these obscure individuals behaving extremely badly but get a sense that it is not their fault; it is the state and the economic system that is driving them into madness.

WANG Nashuyuan (University College London)


The coffin takes centre stage throughout much of this dark satire and serves to dramatise the black comedy of errors. As the villagers lift the burnt body into the coffin, one of the village committee members casually picks up a blackened hand (Fig. 1). The shift between the long shots of the coffin in the forest and the close-up of the fragmented hand is profoundly uncomfortable and threatening. The charred hand resembles the dead wintry trees, the burnt grass and the vast, bleak woods as if each branch, leaf or blade of grass could be more unknown bones and bodies (Fig. 2). The boundless and strangely beautiful space is constructed out of monstrous tree skeletons and tangled branches strewn across the ground suggesting a labyrinth of danger.

Liqin carries the coffin back to the village committee as she learns that the burnt corpse is apparently not her husband's. As the committee members stand watching on the stairs, the corpse seems to point menacingly at them (Fig. 3). The coffin and the low-saturated colours of its surroundings contrast with the red characters on the door which read "Happily welcoming wealth, money and fortune". These good wishes provide an ironic frame for the plot in which everyone is trying to use the coffin and the corpse to disguise their own greed.

Villagers in rural China commonly experience psychological and ideological trauma, perceiving themselves as the left-overs of a fast-growing and rapidly urbanising nation. The desire for individual profit "disrupts senses of community embeddedness" (Parr at al., 2004: 406). The coffin appears again in the background as Bai's brother and sister-in-law plot to name the blackened corpse as Bai's to escape from paying his debts. Tragically, they are unaware that the body is indeed Bai's. We see the coffin and the funeral procession in front of Bai's house. The shape of the house graphically parallels that of the coffin (Fig. 4). It implies that the people who are associated with such a space are cold-blooded and soulless as if they are physically alive but spiritually dead, living in these coffin-like residences.

WANG Nashuyuan (University College London)

  • In a time of rapid urbanisation and eceonomic advancement, the notion of family and community is being destroyed by the overwhelming cult of material wealth. Do you agree? What evidence for this is in the film?
  • There are several motifs in the film associated with death and rural traditions, such as rural funerals and the use of fire in agricultural work. Compare the 3 funerals in the film, and think about what the film-maker is trying to tell us through their differences.
  • What are the effects of the film's non-linear timeline, episodic storyline and fragmented perspectives?
  • How significant are the coffin and the body to the various protagonists? What does the body represent for each of them?