Writer-director Wang Yichun’s debut feature mirrors memories of her own childhood, as she recalls the murder of a girl her own age in the Hebei province in the early 1990s. Following the discovery of a body by the lake, Jing (Su Xiaotong) herself is drawn into her detective father Qu Zhicheng’s (Guo Xiao) investigations. The moment is a lightning rod of awakening for Jing, signalling her transition out of childhood as she experiences both a sexual and emotional metamorphosis.
The film is ostensibly a police procedural, but written by Wang in her early 20s, it is most about looking back at a specific period in time with the immediacy of youth. Indeed, much of the film’s focus becomes less about the murders and more about Jing’s growing awareness of her own body and sexuality. This in itself is commentary on the sexually repressed nature of the country, one with a firmly established patriarchy, with Qu’s constant reminds to Jing that he would have preferred a boy and his antiquated insistence that Jing can’t have a male friend. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Jing both follows and fears her consciously sexual friend Zhang Xue (Lu Qiwei), held back a few years at school, from comparatively innocent activities like buying a bra to watching porn through tears in a darkened theatre.
Nevertheless, the procedural elements still form a backbone running through the film, with a pall of menace perpetually hanging over the film. There’s unexpected humour too, of course, with Qu’s early forensic methods mocked and clumsy attempts are courting just as sweet as they are charming. Yet the final message seems to be one of Jing’s realisation of a woman’s powerlessness in her province. It is, after all, coupled with a foreboding that comes with her early association between sex and death. With WHAT’S IN THE DARKNESS, Wang Yichun is not simply suggesting her own coming of age, but that of an entire country as well.
2015 | China | DIR: Wang Yichun | WRITER: Wang Yichun | CAST: Su Xiaotong, Guo Xiao, Liu Dan, Lu Qiwei | DISTRIBUTOR: Sydney Film Festival (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes | RATING:★★★★ (8/10)