Before he found success with the excellent courtroom thriller Silent Witness, Fei Xing directed The Man behind the Courtyard House, which despite its high-profile cast went fairly unnoticed. Much like Silent Witness, it starts out with a fairly straightforward narrative, whose conclusion arrives a bit too soon to satisfy. Then it rewinds itself not once but twice, each time revealing a new layer that helps not only to make sense of what we saw, but also to see it in a new light. And so after a first segment in which we see a group of backpacking students (Eva Huang Shengyi, Yu Shaoqun, Zhang Kejia and Zhang Shuyu) find shelter in a old traditional house whose sole inhabitant is cold, mysterious Chen Zhihui (Simon Yam) who claims he’s a distant relative of the old couple that is supposed to live there. What follows is a rote slasher where Chen kills the backpackers one by one by banging a nail in their skull, with no apparent motive. But then the film backtracks twice, and we are introduced to his backstory, and people he met in the days before : the old couple who lived in the house, but also an affable state investigator (Chen Sicheng), a recently-widowed hotel owner (Zhang Jingchu) and a desperate but determined ex-con (Wei Zi), among others. Slowly, Chen’s story takes fascinating, poignant shape.

The Man behind the Courtyard House is a bold film, in that it sets itself up as being disappointing in most genres it recalls : the slasher part is perfunctory and tame, playful scenes later on, as Chen Sicheng and Zhang Jingchu indulge in some seductive dancing, are tainted by the killing spree we’ve just witnessed, other scenes in the vein of more human and social drama are limited by the film’s genre shifts, and a moment of tight suspense comes rather incongruously as an epilogue. Scenes also border on the verbose, and while the film never gets boring, you’d be forgiven for doubting it cohesiveness while watching it. And yet, taken as a whole, it holds together in a fascinating exercize not only in defying expectations (which is a shallow goal in itself), but also more importantly in analyzing the buried layers of tragedies, expectations and values beneath the apparently murderous actions of a character. The title can be read ironically : at first Simon Yam’s character is so non-descript a character that “the man behind the courtyard house” is about as much characterization as can be found in him. But by the end of the film he’s so much more, and impressively conflicted and broken character.

The expert use Fei Xing makes of his cast is part of his artistic success. Simon Yam gives one of his very best performances as the titular character, matching the script’s layers with subtlety and a gaze that grows more haunting as we learn what it holds. Chen Sicheng is a perfect foil as the Yang to Yam’s Ying, and shares interesting chemistry with Zhang Jingchu, who makes the most of her small role, with affecting melancholy. Wei Zi gives a masterclass of acting in a single tense scene at the end, while Eva Huang and Yu Shaoqun serve an interesting purpose that can’t be revealed without spoilers. All in all, The Man behind the Courtyard House may not be perfect, and sometimes threatens to lose its audience with stark narrative choices, but it is still a bracingly original and layered film. Along with Fei Xing’s follow-up Silent Witness, it marks him as an interesting director, bold without forsaking mainstream entertainment value.

Long Story Short : A bracingly original and layered film that consistently defies expectations while building to something complex and interesting. It may border on pretentious at times, but Simon Yam’s superb performance pulls it through. ****

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