by Jason Suzuki
If you were to spitball the periods of recent Chinese history that would prove to be the most appealing for a film to be set, the early 90s, specifically 1991 most likely would not come to mind immediately if at all. Thankfully, first time director Wang Yichun has chosen this time frame, which holds autobiographical significance to her, as the period in which her film takes place. It's a time period that is still in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and just two years before is the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Values were starting to shift by the generation. What's in the Darkness focuses on a small town and even more specifically, one teenage girl to depict these changes and stagnations.
In a small manufacturing town in the Henan province, the day-to-day existence is interrupted by the appearance of a serial killer. From here Wang Yichun attempts this to be the setting for the story of a girl's coming of age whose puberty and emerging free thought proves to be just as disruptive. As the film goes on, where the mystery of the murders is mere backdrop to the mysteries of growing up, Wang Yichun proves this to be an integral creative choice to its investigation.
Jing (Su Xiaotong) follows her father to a crime scene. The body of a young woman with a cross carved into her thigh has been dumped in the field. Her father (Guo Xiao) went to university for forensics science but apart from the higher education, is just as average as his fellow low-level police officers. The lack of forensic equipment and the pressure from the higher ups to be beat a confession out of any suspect unsurprisingly produce little results. Standing at the perimeter Jing is only able to watch her father snap photos at a distance, her soundtrack to the site is the gossip of the townspeople whose imaginations the body has sparked. One neighbor reports the neighbor that the corpse had been raped. Later in class, Jing sits alone, reading a book. It's the dictionary and she is looking up the word "rape." This is the true introduction to Jing. One that evokes her shelteredness but also her quiet rebellion that manifests in her investigation into what else is out there beyond Communist China and what she is being taught.
Considering how young and how sheltered our protagonist is, the amount of all the stuff that is being pushed into her head is felt. People like Lei Feng and Lai Ning, poster men and children for the party in a post Tiananmen Square China, are taught in school. Jing escapes with books about pregnancy, fingernail painting, and pop music. Atop a broken down freighter she sings songs that incorporate English. The murder mystery pervades the film every now and then. Sometimes she hears movement in the distance, and other times the camera lingers on strange men staring at Jing and her slightly older, more sexually outspoken friend. When her friend disappears Jing becomes more directly involved in the investigation. But the answer she receives is that the world cannot be solved.
The parallel between Jing and her father is not put in your face at all thanks to Wang's direction which shows the emergence of a fully formed cinematic voice and any technical shortcomings are few and far between surely thanks to the time spent making the project from writing to production (it was a story originally written in novel form before being switched to the screen). The beauty of the father-daughter relationship is that it is there to not just give Jing an authority figure to question but we are witnessing her becoming her own person. The indirectness of the film is so enrapturing that these familiar coming of age story staples become so only in hindsight.
A string of unsolved murders in small East-Asian town, it is easy to see why comparisons to Memories of Murder would take place but really only until the finale of the film does it recall the final moments of Bong Joon-ho's work. What's in the Darkness is an exciting debut and is the start to Wang Yichun's hopeful career. Someone who will be able to depict periods of Chinese history and experiences not yet explored. New blood has been injected into the Mainland, unconcerned about which generation it falls into.
What's in the Darkness plays Monday, June 27 at the New York Asian Film Festival.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.