What’s in the Darkness, winner of the Best Director Award at the 9th FIRST International Film Festival in Xining, China, and selected at this year’s Berlinale Generation, is director Wang Yichun‘s debut film and screened recently at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
The story takes place during the transitional months, between childhood and adolescence, when Qu Jing, a young girl living in commununist-1990’s China, finds her focus shifting back and forth between the items and ideas of childhood, and those of an older-realm. Meanwhile, a serial killer is lurking, and Qu Jing’s father, a police officer, whose education seems to be an ongoing joke for his incompetent peers, struggles to find the culprit.
The film could be considered a combination of genres, part drama -thriller -pre-coming-of-age -and in-parts-comedy, and it works well to portray the awkwardness of the pre-teen years, but without the usual pretentiousness of the boy-meets-girl industry-standard depiction of the same subject matter.
While the storyline weaves around the concepts of friendship, early-love-interests (perhaps fleeting-infatuation), and the characters’ somewhat casual lives under an authoritarian ruler ship, all of which work to paint the background picture for the film, it also explores the notions of cultural expectation and gender roles and dynamics, parenting during the difficult ‘tween’ years, and the inevitable plight of grappling with what cannot be controlled, growing up.
The brief window of time in which the story is set seems oddly inconsequential in theory, but through the lens of the protagonist, Qu Jing, the film manages to tell the tale differently – highlighting the influence of ostensibly trivial moments, and also drawing attention to a distortion of the appropriate seriousness reserved for more impactful situations and events, which is so often inherently a part of her transitional stage. But as the story progresses, and Qu Jing begins to feel her way through her circumstances, a process of conforming and aligning with the apparent expectation, if just ever so slightly, begins to take place.
Qu Jing’s story runs parallel to the mounting mystery surrounding the true identity of a serial killer scourging her small town. Glimpses of possible suspects appear more rapidly as the story’s plot develops, but the true focus remains on Qu Jing and her personal perspective and experiences.
The film offers thoughtful point of view shots that work to draw the viewer deeper into Qu Jing’s world, one that mirrors her inner tug-of-war, simultaneously curious and resistant. The raw and sometimes unkempt setting of hutongs, streets, and a school classroom littered with rubbish, combined with other moody shots, provides a certain authenticity that compliments the realism of the tale.
In terms of storyline, What’s in the Darkness offers a more subtle plot than most big-bang features – the complexity of twists and turns in this saga don’t play out hard and fast – and it does tend to lean more toward the ‘midday-movie’ side of things, but that’s not to say it isn’t intricate enough to be engaging, and its perspective of the subject matter is intriguing enough in its own right.
This, combined with its clever visual storytelling, makes What’s in the Darkness likable, perhaps even charming. Overall, a worthwhile watch.