Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 08, 2020 12:20 pm 
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A lurid movie about bullying full of ugly scenes of abuse

This debut feature about school bullying, murder, and bad parenting from mainland Chinese director Layla Zhuqing Ji shot in Malaysia for greater freedom is ambitious, but confusing, and doesn't shed new light on the subject. It seems overly busy, too much sliding toward horror movie genre, lacking in emotional depth, particularly after seeing another, much better new film about bullying in the NYAFF, Naito Eisuke's touching [i]Forgiven Children[/i].

Ji indulges energetically at first in in multiple platforms - present action, kids' group chats and messaging, individual interviews, flashbacks - conveying the busy media-dense atmosphere of such situations, but the action drops back to a simpler two-pronged narrative approach later with emphasis on flashbacks; the crime of murder somewhat falls by the wayside. The flashbacks show that the murder victim was a chief bully, the killer mercilessly bullied by a small group of vicious class misfits to which the victim belonged.

But things are further complicated by there being homosexuality in two of the main boys - though this is a theme not followed through on. And yet, though, anyway - how does this make sense, exactly? - they both seem interested in and in competition for the same new girl, an art school transfer. She it turns out was molested by a teacher, and she too is soon mercilessly bullied and teased at the new school for that by the girls. Both the girl and the boy are subjected to having their mistreatment filmed on smart phones. She and the bullied boy, the top student, become comrades in misery. (It was at this point, 45 minutes in, that I discovered this is a coed boarding school.)

The boys' social statuses and mothers are contrasted. The murdered boy's is a lowly masseuse with a drunken husband (not followed through on),while that of the killer, who was cruelly bullied, is a woman well off from the sale, we're told, of violent video games. Everyone seems to hate the "rich" boy for being uppity. I'm not sure the filmmaker is aware how ambiguous and confusing a lot of details are, such as the sexuality of the boys; the uppityness of the killer's mom.

Her interest seems more in shooting violent encounters and sudden actions, scary, penumbral scenes, shadowy interiors alternating with bright street or schoolroom exteriors, some of which are beautiful as lensed by dp Eunsoo Cho.

The school and the authorities come in for some harsh depiction. No one is ready to step in and prevent bullying, or make the classroom a human space. The classroom scenes are crudely stylized things out of a comedy film. The system is stark. Students are seated in order of GPA, top in front, lowest in back. All emphasis is on test score and rote knowledge. When the group bullying sessions come they're depicted in horror movie mode. They are trying to observe, and the mode they're in makes it hard to take them seriously, though not hard to be disgusted by them. The grasp on tone is very uneven.

While undeniably effective as crude fiction degenerating for a while into misery porn with hideous torture scenes, this film has too little sense of reality to work as a comment on current events, on which it's only an impressionistic riff, in any case. Since it's approach to these events is so crude, it also can't be taken seriously as cinema. But that doesn't mean it won't contribute to discussions of these issues, especially by Chinese audiences. An uncertain beginning for Layla Zhuqing Ji, who studied in the US but plans next to make a film in China, which she says has rich opportunities for independent cinema. That's all except for the censorship, I guess.

Victim(s) 加害者,被害人 ("Perpetrators, victims"), debuted at Udine (Udine Far East Film Festival) June 2020. Screened for this review as part of the virtual 2020 New York Asian Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2020).

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