Jing’s coming-of-age story is sort of a Chinese To Kill a Mockingbird, but her father is no Atticus Finch. Nobody
stands up for Qu Zhicheng, even though he is the only university educated cop
on the provincial force. He would like to apply Western forensic techniques to
their latest case, but they prefer to simply beat confessions out of the usual
suspects. Of course, this leaves them ill-prepared to capture the serial
rapist-murder terrorizing the community in Wang Yichun’s What’s in the Darkness (trailer here), which screens
during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.
Jing’s mother makes little effort to conceal her contempt for the Qu Zhicheng,
but she married him anyway, because he helped her survive the Cultural Revolution.
To some extent, Qu’s father never really left those times. He is still
preparing for the next famine. Lacking perspective, Qu Jing equates his thrifty
hoarding with embarrassing stinginess. However, they share a similarly macabre curiosity
that leads them to both investigate the serial murders, in their very different
her father chafe’s under the Party’s policies and bureaucracy, Qu Jing’s
inquiry is dominated by her awakening sexual confusion. Her suspicions first
turn towards a dirty old man she encountered when her school ensemble performed
for a senior center. As the mystery drags on, she will get sidetracked by her
frienemy relationship with the more sexually confident Zhang Xue and the relatively
innocent overtures of Han Jian. Unfortunately, the Qus’ inquiries intersect with
the discovery of a badly decomposed body assumed to be that of the long missing
of the Party’s institutions really take it in the shins during Darkness, including the corrupt and
incompetent cops, the stultifying schools, and the absurdly strident propaganda.
Unlike other films that have critiqued the Party’s venal graft, Wang really
calls out their hypocritical Puritanism. For instance, when the police bust a
group of teenagers watching a western style dirty movie, they can hardly wait
to review the evidence—and you know what that means.
Xiaotong is a heck of a revelation in the pre-pubescent Scout Finch role. It is
hard to imagine a more emotional complex and contradictory role for a pre-teen.
Despite her character’s reserve, she projects a full range of feelings, as well
as a constant sense of the girl’s natural intelligence (that even years of
Communist propaganda and pedagogy have yet to dull). Likewise, Guo Xiao makes
her ostensibly cringe-worthy father a figure of high tragedy, while Lu Qiwei exudes
dangerous sexuality as Zhang Xue.
From time to time, Wang gets indecisively stuck in-between
genres, but then there are scenes that literally reverberate with cultural and historical
significance. It is a bold film, anchored by Su’s shockingly mature
performance. Altogether it is quite an impressive debut for Wang and her
youthful lead. Highly recommended, What’s
in the Darkness screens tomorrow (6/27) at the Walter Reade, as part of
this year’s NYAFF.
Labels: Chinese Cinema, Coming of age films, NYAFF '16, Serial killer movie