‘What’s in the Darkness’: Film Review | Belfort 2016

WHATS IN THE DARKNESS - Still - H - 2016
Belfort Film Festival
An impressive first feature with a few hitches.

Debuting writer-director Wang Yichun delivers the portrait of a young Chinese woman growing up amid the backdrop of a grisly homicide investigation.

Rape, murder and the turmoils of puberty are all part of the same package in What’s in the Darkness (Hei chu you shen me?), an ambitious feature debut from distaff writer-director Wang Yichun that combines a serial killer mystery with a coming-of-age tale set in 1990's rural China.

Taking several cues from Bong Joon-Ho’s Memories of Murder, but not always mixing its disparate parts into a convincing whole, this polished if overlong effort offers lots to chew on in its portrait of a shy teenage girl whose growing pains are made all the worse by the bodies that keep piling up around her. After stints in Berlin, Melbourne, Taipei and Belfort, Darkness should continue its fest run while turning newcomer Wang into a talent to watch.

Jing (Su Xiaotong) is a quiet, unassuming student who sits in the back of class and keeps to herself. But like with any budding adolescent, there’s a major storm brewing just beneath the surface. Meanwhile, her policeman father Qu Zhicheng (Guo Xiao) — or “Sherlock Qu,” as his fellow cops mockingly call in — is investigating a series of killings in their otherwise peaceful enclave, where the corpses of two young women have turned up with signs of sexual trauma and strange markings on their thighs.

Initially, Wang does a good job mixing the murder plot with details about Jing’s burgeoning adolescence, such as in a sequence where she looks up the word “rape” in a dictionary, or another where she snoops around crime scenes with her school buddy Zhang Xue (Lu Qiwei) — an older student who seems to be much more in tune with her own womanhood, playing the cool cheerleader to Jing’s nerdy and naive daddy’s girl.

All of this is set against a backdrop of constant male perversion and stifling state paternalism, with Wang clearly saying that the former results from the latter. In one memorable scene, Jing finds herself at a friend’s house with a group of boys trying to watch a porno movie on a coveted VHS tape, only to have the police descend on their gathering and toss them all in jail. Earlier on, she volunteers at a retirement home by reading to an elderly man, who switches up her bedtime stories for erotic literature. It’s a dirty world for a girl to be raised in, and the mutilated bodies are shown to be just one aspect of a society that relegates women to the role of sexless objects who should stay home, shut up and cook dinner, leaving the men to do what they please.

If Wang offers up sharp criticisms of a culture that has hopefully evolved since the early 90’s, her narrative is a little too lose to tie its various strands together, meandering during a lengthy second act that could use some trimming. And while the homicide plot intrigues early on, the cops — except for Qu, who has a decent set of detective skills — are such a sorry group of nincompoops that instead of ratcheting up the suspense, they wind up more or less killing it. There are obvious nods to Bong’s Memories of Murder in this regard, but that film managed to keep viewers on edge through several nail-biting chase sequences, whereas Wang never seems to take the genre too seriously and uses it more for pointed social commentary or dark comedy.

Working with a modest budget, the director delivers a work that feels large in scope despite the limited means, with DP Zhao Long using sweeping camera movements to give certain sequences the breadth of an intimate epic. Production design by Zhang Xiaobing channels the austerity of a small town at a time when China was beginning to open up to the West, while a treacly score by Tu Xiaocha accompanies a selection of pop songs that Jing sings aloud to express her desire to finally grow up and be free.

Production companies: HH Pictures Co.
Cast: Su Xiaotong, Guo Xiao, Liu Dan, Lu Qiwei, Zhou Kui, Zhang Xueming, Han Jian
Director, screenwriter: Wang Yichun
Producer: Yang Wei
Executive producer: Tang Danian
Director of photography: Zhao Long
Production designer: Zhang Xiaobing
Costume designer: Xu Zhen
Editors: Chen Bingfeng, Liu Guang
Composer: Tu Xiaocha
Sales: China Film International

In Mandarin
107 minutes