What’s in the Darkness
China, 2015, colour, 2.35:1, 100 mins.
Director: Wang Yichun 王一淳.
Period coming-of-age film is a thoughtful, offbeat study of adolescence that holds the attention.
A sleepy town in Henan province, central China, 16 May 1991. The naked corpse of a young woman is found by the lake and is identified as that of a student who’s been raped. A cross symbol is cut into her thigh. One of the local policemen on the case is Qu Zhicheng (Guo Xiao), who studied forensic medicine at college; his boss is Cao, who simply wants a conviction as soon as possible. The whole town takes an interest in the case, including Qu Zhicheng’s quietly rebellious teenage daughter Qu Jing (Su Xiaotong), who’s always being scolded by her mother (Liu Dan). In her spare time, Qu Jing helps out at a local old people’s home, where one bedridden old man, Liu (Wang Zhengping), comes on to her one day. Qu Jing’s best friend at junior high school is classmate Zhang Xue (Lu Qiwei), also the daughter of a local policeman (Zhou Kui); but Qu Jing’s father considers the overtly sexy Zhang Xue, who just wants to get out of the town, to be a bad influence. Under pressure from above, the police arrest a suspect (Deng Gang) and make him confess; but then another female body is found by the lake with the same mark cut into her thigh. One day, while singing in a junkyard where she secretly goes to indulge her passion for performing, Qu Jing finds a boy, Han Jian (Gu Qilin), has been recording her. Her father arrests him but later lets him go as he knows the boy’s father. Meanwhile, Zhang Xue, who has been having trouble with a local lout, Zhao Fei (Jiang Xueming), who fancies her, is expelled from school and disappears. On 1 Jun, International Children’s Day, Qu Jing is honoured in a school ceremony. Soon after, Han Jian approaches her to go out on a date. But then another female corpse is found: already starting to decompose, it’s in an old air-raid shelter once frequented by Zhang Xue and Zhao Fei.
A junior high schooler goes through a disquieting summer as a serial killer stalks her sleepy town in What’s in the Darkness 黑处有什么, a first feature by Mainland writer-director Wang Yichun 王一淳 that shows a fine control of tone and nuance despite working in a well-trodden genre. Set and shot in Lankao county, Henan province, where Wang herself grew up, and marbled with autobiographical elements, the film is actually a coming-of-age story decorated with a crime background than the other way round, and won’t satisfy those looking for a whodunit set in rural China. But as a portrait of an “average” girl in her early teens, at the beginning of a crucial decade of change in the Mainland, Darkness is an entertaining, thoughtful and offbeat study of adolescence that holds the attention across its 100 minutes.
Born in 1977, Wang herself was the same age as her protagonist in 1991, when the film opens with the discovery of a naked female corpse by the town’s lake. It turns out to be that of a raped student, with a cross-like mark cut into her thigh. The local police have never had anything like this to deal with and, apart from Qu Zhicheng who studied forensic medicines at college, are at a complete loss. Under pressure from above, they arrest a suspect and beat a confession out of him, but when another corpse turns up it’s clear they’ve got the wrong man. As Qu Zhicheng wrestles with the case, his young teenage daughter, Qu Jing, wrestles with her adolescence.
As well as bringing some structure and atmosphere to an otherwise episodic and largely generic coming-of-age movie, the whole serial-killer strand, which floats in and out of the film, symbolises the “dangers” of growing up as a girl enters her teens and the individual way in which Qu Jing embraces them. The lake area is described as full of “nasty people” and somewhere Qu Jing shouldn’t hang out, though it’s clear she’s as much fascinated by the details of the sordid murders as repelled by them. The same goes for her relationship with her best friend, the more attractive and sexually mature Zhang Xue, who just wants to get out of the sleepy town. It’s made clear that Qu Jing has vague ambitions of her own – to be a pop singer, mostly – but she puts up with her mother’s incessant scolding, her best friend’s condescension, the hesitant approaches of a boy who fancies her, and even a bit of harrassment from an old people’s home codger, as she bides her time during adolescence. Like China itself in the early 1990s – as it morphed from a collective to a more individual mindset and structure – Qu Jing has a long way still to go and doesn’t want to rock the boat.
Another recent movie, North by Northeast 东北偏北 (2014), set a decade or so earlier, had a similar background of a rural community shocked by serial sex crimes but was played as a wry comedy and with the focus more on detection. Wang’s film goes for a much more subtle approach in which nothing is actually spelled out. As played by 17-year-old actress Su Xiaotong 苏晓彤, Qu Jing is a hard-to-read character who’s defined more by the people around her than by her own words: the only times she really lets out her emotions are in her secret singing sessions in a junkyard where she mimes to pop songs – a private world she’s shocked to find invaded by a boy who fancies her – and in a clandestine visit to a seedy KTV joint to cry over a Hong Kong melodrama starring Li Lizhen 李丽珍 [Loletta Lee]. Otherwise, on the surface she’s a model student who’s honoured at her school on International Children’s Day but is rendered speechless wheh she has to take the platform in public. The metaphor for the girl’s claustrophobic existence is typical of the whole movie’s approach – as is the sudden ending, which will leave some viewers feeling a bit shortchanged.
The characters around Qu Jing – all variations on coming-of-age film staples – are more clearly defined. TV actress Liu Dan 刘丹 is highly believable as the naggy-but-protective mother, theatre and TV actor Guo Xiao 郭笑 satisfyingly offbeat as the loving father who prides himself on his forensic knowledge (but is still out of his depth), and former child actress Lu Qiwei 陆琦蔚 (TV drama You Must Be Happy 你一定要幸福, 2007) a suitably sexy balance to the lanky Su as Qu Jing’s best friend. Technical packaging is very smooth, with the widescreen photography of Zhao Long 赵龙 (crime drama Witness 目击者, 2012, and horror Face Hunter 虐面人之死灵面膜, 2014) subtly conveying a sense of permanent unease beneath the summery exteriors. Period detail in props and manners is spot on without being showy, and resonant use is made of the classic 1970s ballad The Olive Tree 橄榄树 – a lament on physical and emotional dislocation – that was popularised by Taiwan singer Qi Yu 齐豫.
Presented by Hehe Pictures (CN), China Film (Shanghai) International (CN), Xiao Mi Pictures (CN). Produced by Hehe Pictures (CN).
Script: Wang Yichun. Photography: Zhao Long. Editing: Liu Guang, Chen Bingfeng. Music: Tu Xiaocha. Art direction: Zhang Xiaobing. Costumes: Xu Zhen. Sound: Wu Yue, Wu Yujie.
Cast: Su Xiaotong (Qu Jing), Guo Xiao (Qu Zhicheng, Qu Jing’s father), Liu Dan (Qu Jing’s mother), Lu Qiwei (Zhang Xue, Qu Jing’s classmate friend), Zhou Kui (Zhang Xue’s father), Jiang Xueming (Zhao Fei, Zhang Xue’s wannabe boyfriend), Wu Juejin (teacher), Gu Qilin (Han Jian), Wang Zhengping (Old Liu, bedridden man), Deng Gang (murder suspect), Ren Long (school head), Li Shiru, Liu Jieyi, Han Yuhua, Li Yudie.
Premiere: First Film Festival (Young Filmmaker Film Competition), Xining, China, 23 Jul 2015.
Release: China, 14 Oct 2016.