First-time director Wang Yichun’s take on the small-town police procedural is one that is tender, subtle, and full of surprising levity. While it bears the trappings of a murder mystery, What’s in the Darkness is actually at its core a delicate coming-of-age story that isn’t afraid to flirt with the conventions of the procedural genre.
The year is 1991. In a small town in China, a body of a young woman has been found in the fields. The villagers jostle each other to get a better look, the protagonist Qu Jing (Su Xiaotong) included. Qu Jing’s father Qu Zhicheng (Guo Xiao) is a police officer that is in charge of the investigation, and through his involvement, Qu Jing’s interest in the case is piqued. A young girl still in junior high school, Qu Jing understands little about life outside of school and even less about issues of sexuality. While the quiet lives of the townspeople are unsettled by the series of rape-murders that happen at the fringes of the town, Qu Jing’s own inner world is far from tranquil. She is, as her father says, becoming “a young woman,” and that crossing of a threshold comes with all forms of emotional complications.
There are many times in the film when the serial rape-murders become a backdrop to the story and Qu Jing’s tentative dance with adolescence – her envy towards her more beautiful friend Zhang Xue (Lu Qiwei), her tussles with her family, and her tentative taste of first love – takes center stage. Sexuality in What’s in the Darkness is not so much portrayed as arousing lust within Qu Jing in the film as much as her sense of curiosity. The rape cases both perplex and intrigue the protagonist as much as the hesitant advances of Han Jian (Gu Qilin), a young boy infatuated with her. In a dream sequence that prefaces Qu Jing’s first menstruation, the foreignness, the strangeness of sexuality is accentuated as Qu Jing’s dream mixes the violence of sexual desire with the violent arrival of a woman’s menstruation. While the title What’s in the Darkness may refer to the underbelly of society, the dark, shadowy corners where individuals’ basest desires retreat, in many ways it also indicates the darkness of incomprehension, the fear of the unknown.
Viewers who have their hearts set on a whodunnit may be disappointed by the lack of resolution offered by the film. The film is aware of the genre lineage it supposedly belongs to – with Memories of Murder (2003) being an obvious predecessor – and yet it is comfortable teasing and playing with genre conventions. The most gruesome images appear at the very beginning, at a market where the butchered corpses of chickens and pigs hang on display, instead of at the crime scenes of the film. The logical inferences of a detective – a common staple in procedurals – is employed for comical effect at that same scene, with Qu Jing’s father using his forensic science skills to infer how long the pig has been killed and how fresh the meat is. Instead of crime-solving, we get policemen bumbling through crime scenes, and instead of a deciphering of a mystery, we are invited into the the world of a young girl on the cusp of pubescence.
As a freshman effort, What’s in the Darkness is an impressive venture by writer-director Wang Yichun. Faced with a low budget, the film shines through its characters, most specifically the characterization of Qu Jing’s father and the lovingly antagonistic relationship he shares with his daughter. Helmed by a female director, the film also excels at portraying the pangs and tribulations experienced during female adolescence and despite its subject matter, refrains from over-sexualizing female characters or relishing in the details of their victimization.
What’s in the Darkness is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Monday June 27 at 6:15pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.