In the wake of the unexpected success of The Wailing, audiences are even more open to films from South Korea and China, especially when they’re based around horror and the supernatural – something filmmakers from here seem to do with great suspense (and often not a little confusion too, for Western audiences at least).
Though it was made in 2015, Chinese effort What’s In The Darkness debuted at Berlin earlier this year and is likely to see the light of day as a result. Also, like other films of this genre there’s certainly mystery – but it isn’t necessarily the focus of what’s happening.
It’s May 1991 in a small Chinese town, and shy young teenager Jing (Su Xiatong) is struggling with her anonymous life. She’s a good Party supporter, just like everyone else, but Zhang (Lu Qiwei) is much more popular in class, and seemingly with the boys too – what with her curly hair and painted nails, something that the strict society frowns on.
Jing’s cop father Qu (Guo Xiao) resists any sense his daughter is becoming an adult with all his might, and her overly-critical mother making Jing’s life a misery too.
Qu’s recent schooling in forensic investigation has made him intrigued about the death of a teenage girl, whose raped body is found in the dense rushes of a local park, and an overhearing Jing is curious about it too – perhaps partly as a wish to be closer to her dad.
Despite there being many potential suspects – a creepy old man who asks Jing to read him erotic literature and a limping local man who watches all the schoolgirls – the investigation isn’t however as front and centre as you might expect.
When a second body is found in the rushes, the pressure increases on the inept cops. They see Qu’s theories and questions as a waste of time, because in this repressed and rigid society, the implication is that this is just what happens, because all men are predators.
Meanwhile, Jing has befriended Zhang and even acquired an admirer of her own – a sweet boy who finally gets up the courage to talk to her and then innocently sneaks away with her to sing and dance to Chinese pop songs – but even he falls prey to temptation.
Jing’s sexuality is emerging too – much to her confusion – and when Zhang disappears and her rebellious James Dean-esque boyfriend is lazily arrested, it seems the future for Jing is far more uncertain.
Time has passed and she’s become a full-on teen, ignoring the comments of the father she so recently coveted for attention, and now more interested in comics. But then she gets a postcard in the mail…
Female debut director Wang based the screenplay on her own experiences, and financed the film herself – a fact that alone makes this worth seeing. The opening scene – when Qu talks to a butcher about a slaughtered pig at market – shows she has a real touch for less-is-more dialogue.
Though the ending is abrupt and open, on reflection it seems apposite for a tale that’s akin to Red Riding Hood, a story bought to screen earlier in Neil Jordan’s gothic The Company of Wolves, and as such it may well deserve your patience in order to compare.