By David Pountain
Director: Emmanuel Sapolsky
Emmanuel Sapolsky’s The Eye of Silence is a taut, unusually despondent revenge thriller but what really helps distinguish the film in a very crowded, typically undemanding genre is how fundamentally engrained its drama feels in the changing values and rampant commodification of our globalised era. The relation between the raw human animal and the glamorously artificial civilisation we’ve built for ourselves strikes a consistent thematic presence as Chinese Francophile Amelie comes inadvertently into conflict with a new urban Darwinism based on sex and materialism. Though the film’s execution doesn’t always live up to its surprisingly ambitious ideas, it is nonetheless a compelling and unique feature debut that ought to raise curiosity about what writer-director Sapolsky could do with more time and a bigger budget at his disposal.
The film’s underlying notions of a new world and a changing Beijing are suggested in the film’s first two minutes when the noise of the city causes a Mao portrait to fall from the wall, cracking its frame. From here, we are brought into the brightly lit, hyper-sensory environment of China’s capital where Amelie and her best friend Coco pray to the party gods for a great night and handsome men. A bubbly, restless character who appears glued to her phone, Coco has no qualms about hooking up with horny ‘rassholes’ (rich assholes) for the sake of money and expensive handbags but on the night that she drags Amelie along to a small get-together with some wealthy businessmen, the evening ends in tragedy.
While party host Yi Bo and his friend An Peng do their best to cover up the role they played in this terrible incident, Amelie bears witness to much of what happens thanks to her rare ability to see in the dark. As some TV footage of a praying mantis implies, Amelie’s biological advantage grants a predatory streak to her quest to piece together what happened to her friend and eventually seek retribution upon Coco’s wrongdoers. However, she is just as often the prey as the hunter, with Yi Bo and An Peng resorting to increasingly ruthless and insidious ends to silence any potential threats.
Though the various flashbacks to Amelie’s childhood scattered throughout The Eye of Silence sometimes slow the momentum of the film, there remains a growing sense of dread, both in the intoxicated build-up to the awful inciting incident, and in the aftermath where Amelie’s grief and unease quickly mount as the reality of her friend’s fate dawns on her. Enhanced by the exquisite cinematography of Joel Alis, Sapolsky and co-writer/star Xin Wang turn Beijing into a city of lavishness, loneliness and limited personal autonomy, where the path of each citizen is dictated by oppressive circumstances, wealthy string-pullers and primal urges.
The harder edges of this dynamic are sadly neglected by the film’s style, which too often resigns itself to melancholic ethereality where a more viscerally gripping, perhaps even abrasive delivery may have been more suitable. Still, while the film’s attractively spacey mix of music and visuals proves insufficient in capturing the full, menacing picture of Beijing that its script and story imply, they do a fine enough job of embodying one part of the elephant that it’s hard to mind too much that we aren’t getting the complete beast.
In what may be a sign of time or monetary constraints, the film loses its cool somewhat in its last half hour, recklessly flying through scenes and plot points in a last-minute sprint to Amelie’s predetermined vengeance. The awkward pacing of this final section makes much of what we see either difficult to follow or difficult to believe – plus the film’s concluding note of pessimism doesn’t feel wholly earned – but this closing segment also offers enough highlights to carry us through to the end, most notably in the haunting final moments of retribution, which capture one wrongdoer’s panic and fear with uncomfortable intimacy.
Like this uneven closing stretch, The Eye of Silence as a whole is a film that promises more than it delivers but still ends up being better than what we’ve come to expect from our dark and brutal genre films. Many a director of both the mainstream and indie varieties could no doubt learn from the example Sapolsky has set here of a thriller that’s all the richer for keeping its thrills grounded in ideas that are expansive, thoughtful and worryingly relevant to our current times.