Sunday, June 26, 2016

NYAFF ’16: What’s in the Darkness

Qu Jing’s coming-of-age story is sort of a Chinese To Kill a Mockingbird, but her father is no Atticus Finch. Nobody stands up for Qu Zhicheng, even though he is the only university educated cop on the provincial force. He would like to apply Western forensic techniques to their latest case, but they prefer to simply beat confessions out of the usual suspects. Of course, this leaves them ill-prepared to capture the serial rapist-murder terrorizing the community in Wang Yichun’s What’s in the Darkness (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Qu Jing’s mother makes little effort to conceal her contempt for the Qu Zhicheng, but she married him anyway, because he helped her survive the Cultural Revolution. To some extent, Qu’s father never really left those times. He is still preparing for the next famine. Lacking perspective, Qu Jing equates his thrifty hoarding with embarrassing stinginess. However, they share a similarly macabre curiosity that leads them to both investigate the serial murders, in their very different ways.

While her father chafe’s under the Party’s policies and bureaucracy, Qu Jing’s inquiry is dominated by her awakening sexual confusion. Her suspicions first turn towards a dirty old man she encountered when her school ensemble performed for a senior center. As the mystery drags on, she will get sidetracked by her frienemy relationship with the more sexually confident Zhang Xue and the relatively innocent overtures of Han Jian. Unfortunately, the Qus’ inquiries intersect with the discovery of a badly decomposed body assumed to be that of the long missing Zhang.

Most of the Party’s institutions really take it in the shins during Darkness, including the corrupt and incompetent cops, the stultifying schools, and the absurdly strident propaganda. Unlike other films that have critiqued the Party’s venal graft, Wang really calls out their hypocritical Puritanism. For instance, when the police bust a group of teenagers watching a western style dirty movie, they can hardly wait to review the evidence—and you know what that means.

Su Xiaotong is a heck of a revelation in the pre-pubescent Scout Finch role. It is hard to imagine a more emotional complex and contradictory role for a pre-teen. Despite her character’s reserve, she projects a full range of feelings, as well as a constant sense of the girl’s natural intelligence (that even years of Communist propaganda and pedagogy have yet to dull). Likewise, Guo Xiao makes her ostensibly cringe-worthy father a figure of high tragedy, while Lu Qiwei exudes dangerous sexuality as Zhang Xue.

From time to time, Wang gets indecisively stuck in-between genres, but then there are scenes that literally reverberate with cultural and historical significance. It is a bold film, anchored by Su’s shockingly mature performance. Altogether it is quite an impressive debut for Wang and her youthful lead. Highly recommended, What’s in the Darkness screens tomorrow (6/27) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.