First time writer/director Wang Yichun draws on her own experiences for What’s in the Darkness (黑处有什么, Hei chu you shenme), a beautifully shot coming of age piece with serial killer intrigue running in the background. Seen through the eyes of its protagonist, What’s in the Darkness neatly matches the heroine’s journey into adolescence with the changing nature of Chinese society.
In May 1991 a series of horrific killings rock a small, rural town. Schoolgirl Qu Jing (Su Xiaotong) learns of the first murder of young and popular girl from the village when her policeman father Zhicheng (Guo Xiao) is called to investigate. A crowd has gathered around the crime scene where local women gossip and speculate, assuming the poor girl must have been raped and then murdered to prevent her going to the authorities.
Unaccustomed to such violent crimes, the police get busy but predictably lack the expertise to properly investigate. Zhicheng is unusual among his peers as he has a university degree and is keen on deduction, but his colleagues think his efforts are just going to make trouble for everyone and quickly decide on a suspect to beat a confession out of so that they will be seen to have done something. This plan goes haywire when a second murder occurs whilst the accused is in custody leaving the police with no option other than to allow him to “escape”. When one of Jing’s friends, whose estranged father is also a policeman, goes missing the stakes are raised but the possibility of successfully solving the crime seems increasingly remote.
Many things were changing in 1991, even in small rural towns. Jing is a wide eyed, naive and innocent girl with an intense curiosity and an ethereal nature which sets her apart from her more ordinary schoolmates. Her best friend, Zhang Xue (Lu Qiwei), is a slightly older, more mature girl ostracised by her peers who have decided that she is, in some way, immoral. Living within an extremely repressed society, Jing has very little concrete knowledge about sex or relationships – she even had to look up the word “rape” in a dictionary after hearing it at the crime scene because she’d never heard it before. Her only other information comes from pamphlets about pregnancy (with which she seems to be strangely fascinated) and her attempts to get more information out of the supposedly more experienced Xue backfire when she realises they’re both as clueless as each other.
Jing’s big hobby involves heading out to a disused factory area and singing pop songs to an imaginary crowd (and a boy who’s secretly watching her from the shadows). When she and Xue visit a hair salon there are pictures of movie stars all over the walls and the TV shows the fluffy pop entertainment of the day rather the propaganda films Jing’s parents might be more used to. Having lived through the Cultural Revolution, Jing’s mother and father have experienced far more hardship than she could ever know. Jing can’t understand their preoccupation with food, but to those who’ve experienced the threat of starvation, the presence of a full rice bowl makes almost anything endurable. Trained to keep their heads down and make sure they eat, the villagers of Jing’s parents’ generation are determined to maintain the status quo, even if it means continuing to reinforce the old values in order to avoid reprisal.
The trappings of communism are everywhere from the school room where the kids rehearse patriotic songs under banners of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and of course Mao, to the security forces lurking in the background. Representing the state, the police force is staffed by a collection of lazy, corrupt petty officials content to throw their weight around in the absence of any real crime to deal with. Zhicheng refuses to engage in the same level of corruption as his comrades, but his honesty and steadfastness only arise resentment. Jing finds herself experiencing the same phenomenon when the headmaster finds out about her volunteering at the old people’s home and decides to give her an award thereby singling her out in front of her friends and irritating her harsh and grumpy teacher.
It’s at the old people’s home that Jing encounters her first randy old man when one of the residents she’s been asked to read to suddenly swaps out the book she’s been assigned for a probably banned erotic classical text with the only saving grace that Jing, even if she can read all the characters, does not quite understand what she’s reading.
Through Wang’s camera every man in town begins to look suspicious from the ice lolly seller eying up the behinds of the school girls as they walk away from him with their frozen treats, to an odd looking man with physical ailments who is often seen lurking in the background behind Jing. Visiting a friend’s house, Jing is unceremoniously dumped into a backroom when the older brother turns up with a porn film only for the house to be raided and everyone arrested. In a quest to finally find out what all of this is about, Jing buys a ticket for an adult movie from a man positively overjoyed at the idea of sending an underage girl into a room full of sweaty guys who all instantly turn away from the onscreen action to stare at the anomaly of Jing as she openly weeps at what she sees.
One of the benefits that communism claimed to bring was equality between the sexes. Women may hold up half the sky, but they still have to conform to an arcane set of social mores whilst they do so. Zhicheng forces Jing to ride sidesaddle on his bicycle rather than sit with her legs open and when she complains to him about the guy watching her sing, he tells her it’s all her fault for dressing in too alluring a manner. The murdered women are posthumously berated for their decision to be out on their own despite the fact that at least one of the killings must have occurred in broad daylight and when one of Jing’s schoolmates is feared to be the latest victim, their teacher reminds them that this is the kind of thing that happens when you fall in with a bad crowd. The police avoid serious investigation not only because they are lazy and corrupt, but because this kind of state sanctioned sexism is a tool they themselves (even if unwittingly) use to keep their womenfolk where they want them.
The identity of the murderer becomes irrelevant, this world is killing young women and it’s getting away with it because nobody cares. The women who die are written off as tainted, a lesson in failed femininity and evidence of what can happen if you don’t play by the rules. Little attention is paid to the perpetrator of the crimes who may also be a victim of this repressive environment as his desires are refused any other outlet than violence.
Although beginning in the vein of a serial killer movie, What’s in the Darkness is, at heart, a coming of age tale and social issue film. The era has shifted as the fear and austerity of the Cultural Revolution gives way to rising consumerism, placing a wedge between Jing’s generation and that of her parents. Wang rejects the classic procedural ending, leaving only questions in place of answers. As Jing stands alone with a little dog in her arms in the film’s final scene, she looks almost like Dorothy before the Emerald city as she plunges deeper into the reeds in search of answers, most definitely not in Kansas anymore. Jing’s eyes have been opened, her curiosity remains intact and unsated, as she alone remains unafraid to look at what’s really waiting for her out in the dark.
Reviewed at the BFI London Film Festival 2016
Original trailer (Chinese subtitles only)