Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 21, 2016 6:35 pm 
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WANG YICHUN: WHAT'S IN THE DARKNESS (2015)

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SU XIAOTONG IN WHAT'S IN THE DARKNESS

Girls in trouble

Wang Yichun's debut feature What's in the Darkness, a girl's coming-of-age story in rural northern China in the Nineties, is also, or seeks to be, as Maggie Lee wrote somewhat grandly in her Variety review, "Perhaps the most acute and uncompromisingly grim murder mystery to come out of China in years." The interweaving of the two is a considerable feat, executed with surgical precision, a sense of period, and an eye for landscape and well orchestrated little human panoramas - police in tall grass investigating a crime scene, children and young punks in a classroom, a street market. Maybe we shouldn't be too disappointed if such an ambitious mix winds up being somewhat thin on atmosphere. One longs for the passion and nostalgia of Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day or the dreamy stylishness of Tsai Ming-liang's Rebels of the Neon God, both incidentally from the early Nineties when Wang's story takes place. Still her intermingling of ambition and restraint is impressive if not engaging.

What unites the two story lines, in a manner that's both ironic and chilling, is sexuality. The general mood of the provincial society is a mix of prurient and repressive. Adolescent schoolgirls are discovering theirs; the murder mystery is a series of related rapes and killings of young women. The two girls in the foreground whose contrasting life paths are in view, the shy Jing (Su Xiaotong) and sensuous, rebellious Zhang Xue (Lu Qiwei), are the daughters of two of the main policemen on the case, whose methods are also in sharp contrast. The effect isn't as schematic as it sounds, because Wang's constantly shifts scenes and keeps them short, which leaves time for many small plot threads and has a cooling down effect . Maggie Lee's claim that "the performances are superbly natural across the board" fails to account for how shrill and overstated is the acting of Guo Xiao playing Qu Zhicheng, Jing's father. He's a detective who studied forensics, and he aims to be scientific and logical in tracing down the killer, while Zhang Xue's father (Zhou Kui), also a detective, just wants to put somebody away ASOP.

The mutilated and raped bodies of young women keep turning up. Meanwhile Jing is drawn into such wicked things as nail polish and a hairdresser's by Zhang Xue. Zhang Xue has a raucous boyfriend; Jing is followed by a rather sweet kid, who yet gets rounded up briefly as a sex offender. Even Jing is caught with a group about to watch a sexy movie on a videotape, when morality police come in ard round them up. Jing volunteers at a retirement center, and even there an old man puts the make on her. She comes in for continual abuse from both father and mother (Liu Dan). He sees even Jing's straddling a bike as sexual now that she's maturing. There is no warmth, no comfort anywhere, except there is the charm of Jing's enthusiastic performances of pop songs standing on a platform in a vacant lot. The boy who is keen on her she catches tape recording them, and in the nicest moment after she's forgiven him and they've become friends, he climbs up on the platform with her and they do a duo performance.

[i]What's in the Darkness/黑处有什么 [Hei chu you shen me], 100 mins., debuted at FIRST International Film Festival, also Berlin, Titanic, Singapore and Melbourne, New York Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center (North American premiere) and also Mill Valley (15, 16 Oct. 2016), as part of which it was screened for this review.

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