When Night Falls: Locarno Review

When Night Falls - H 2012
Rough justice in modern China.

Liang Ying's docu-drama, which won two Golden Leopard awards at the Swiss film festival, has stirred up controversy in China for its exploration of a notorious real-life murder case.

LOCARNO - Closely based on real events, this stern docu-drama from the young writer-director Liang Ying offers an intimate psychological portrait of a grieving mother whose son faces the death penalty for a notorious multiple-murder case. Produced by the Jeonju Digital Project offshoot of South Korea’s Jeonju International Film Festival, the story casts a coldly critical eye on the Chinese justice system, and has inevitably ruffled feathers in Beijing. It also won the Golden Leopard awards for Best Director and Best Actress at the Locarno Film Festival last weekend, although this artfully understated tale of revenge may proved a little too cold for audiences outside festivals or Chinese current affairs circles.

When Night Falls is bookended with a montage of still photos showing the real subject of the story, the convicted killer Yang Jia. In between we see lightly fictionalized, elegantly composed scenes in which Yang’s mother Wang Jinmei (An Nai) sleepwalks through the last days of her son’s trial. Because the case has become a high-profile cause for human rights protestors, reporters and supporters shadow Wang constantly, often pushing her to the point of irritation. In between routine daily errands, she makes futile phone calls begging old friends for help, attends grim legal hearings and rages pitifully against the bureaucratic machine.

The grisly killing spree behind When Night Falls is not depicted on screen, only described in subtitles and fragments of dialogue. Yang Jia was an unemployed 28-year-old man arrested in Shanghai in 2007 for the petty crime of riding an unlicensed bicycle. After a rough interrogation, including alleged beatings, he tried to sue the police for mistreatment. When this failed, he stormed a police station in suburban Shanghai armed with knives and petrol bombs, stabbing nine officers, six of them fatally. Throughout his subsequent trial, his mother was incarcerated in a mental hospital by the authorities for 143 days, kept in the dark about her son’s crimes, unable to aid or defend him.

Yang’s divisive case earned unusually sympathetic media interest in China, inspiring street protests, tribute songs and intense online debate. The dissident artist Ai Weiwei even produced a documentary about him. Human rights groups protested irregularities in his treatment, notably an official refusal to examine the defendant for mental illness. Such was Yang’s folk-hero status that his trial was delayed during the Beijing Olympics to avoid negative coverage, but he was finally executed by lethal injection on 26 November 2008.

Filmed in long static shots, When Night Falls is the most discreet and elliptical kind of political statement. Indeed, the reaction of the Chinese authorities to Ying’s film has been more dramatic than anything he shows on screen. Effectively exiled to Hong Kong, the director has now been warned he faces arrest if he returns to the mainland. His wife and parents have been harassed by the Shanghai police, while shadowy figures even offered to buy the film’s copyright in order to prevent its Jeonju premiere in April. The screening went ahead anyway. Beijing’s clumsy attempts at censoring a low-key indie feature have only boosted its global profile and political impact enormously.

In the light of such state-sponsored bullying, it feels churlish to criticize When Night Falls for its minimal entertainment value. But the pacing is painfully slow in places, while the lack of factual background seems to undermine Ying’s intention to illuminate an infamous injustice. His thin script does not put a clear case for Yang’s innocence, fragile mental state, or mitigating circumstances. More detail, more context, more argument on both sides would have been very welcome.

The film’s English title is also a little clumsy, making it sound like a generic noir thriller – a more accurate translation from Mandarin is “I still have something to say”. This may well be true, but a better film could have told us a lot more about Yang’s shameful, sensational, shocking story.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival screening, August 7
Production company: Jeonju International Film Festival
Cast: An Nai, Kate Wen, Sun Ming
Director: Liang Ying
Producers: Xu Qian-chun, Peng Shan
Writer: Liang Ying
Cinematography: Ryuji Otsuka
Editor: T Wai-wing
Sales company: Jeonju International Film Festival
Rating TBC, 70 minutes.