Perhaps the most acute and uncompromisingly grim murder mystery to come out of China in years, “What’s in the Darkness” exposes the putrid minds lurking in a sexually and politically repressed society. First-time helmer-scribe Wang Yichun may have consciously used Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” as an artistic blueprint, but her depiction of a schoolgirl’s sexual awakening getting entangled in a serial-murder case represents a femme-centric and wholly Chinese take on police ineptitude and authoritarianism. Insidious and gripping from beginning to end, the film announces a formidable talent with much to contribute to China’s burgeoning demand for cerebral genre films. Her screenplay has already been optioned for a remake, to be helmed by mainland actress Zhang Jingchu (“Peacock”).
Playing a haunting central role is a dreary northern Chinese town on the edge of economic reform, with all the attendant social restructuring. Like “Twin Peaks” with Confucian characteristics, the community teems with unrest and dirty secrets beneath a preachy, restrictive system where the local police, who serve as a microcosm of the country, are worse than the criminals. Parents, themselves deeply skeptical about public propaganda and human nature, unconsciously parrot the state’s authoritarian ideology in their control of their children, complaining about how they’ve endured deprivations that their spoiled-rotten kids couldn’t imagine.
The 38-year-old Wang (who financed the production herself with a meager budget of just over $456,000) wrote the screenplay in her early 20s, injecting vivid personal memories of growing up in semi-rural Hebei province in the early ’90s. Resuming the project two decades later seems to have allowed for a more mature perspective, as evidenced by Wang’s unsentimental tone and the surgical precision with which she evokes a sense of malice amid the mundane. Although it boasts a certain degree of suspense, “What’s in the Darkness” feels less like a “Zodiac”-style procedural and more like “The White Ribbon”; like Michael Haneke’s masterpiece, it dramatizes crime and injustice in order to examine the seeds of evil — how it’s planted in families, schools and beyond, nurturing covert cruelty and violence.
The film reveals its sense of the macabre in an early scene at a wet market, where police detective Qu Zhicheng (Guo Xiao) tries to impress his teenage daughter, Jing (Su Xiaotong), by performing a “Bones”-like forensic analysis on a pig — much to the butcher’s exasperation. Ironically, as auds will find out, humans are not treated to such thorough investigation before the police leap to convict suspects of homicide.
A woman’s raped and mutilated body has been found, sending waves of fear and titillation through the sleepy town. Jing develops a tenuous theory about the murderer and hangs out in a senior citizens home to do her own sleuthing. When a second victim is found, the chief pledges to promote whoever cracks the case to deputy chief. Qu’s empirical pursuit of truth and justice are spurned by his colleagues, who arbitrarily arrest a man (Deng Gang) and extract a confession by torture. But before long, another body turns up proving the real culprit is still at large. The iniquity of the system is illustrated by the officers’ ploy to let the innocent prisoner “escape,” thus clearing them of mishandling the case.
Jing’s coming-of-age unfolds against a culture of warped sexual contradictions in which sanitary napkins are brazenly hung out to dry in public courtyards, yet medical books on “hygiene” and “pregnancy” are the only source of sex education for teenagers. It’s the hypocrisy of this puritanical morality that Wang focuses on, with unsparing irony. A blind old man (Wang Zhengping, skin-crawling) whom Jing visits in the seniors’ home tries to molest her, masking his intentions with grandfatherly pleasantries. The police barge into a home to bust Jing’s classmates for watching a pirated porn video, but they make no bones about their own enthusiasm for the confiscated evidence.
Within that prudish environment, Wang also perceptively explores the family strains brought on by the first flush of puberty. On the one hand, Jing’s mom (Liu Dan) is oblivious to her transformation, and offers no emotional support. Her dad, on the other hand, sees only danger in her nascent femininity — whether it’s getting a perm or spreading her legs to ride on the backseat of his bike. When he catches her on a date, he angrily assumes the worst: “There is no innocent friendship between a man and a woman.” It’s no surprise that Jing’s perceptions of womanhood and romance are tainted by all this male aggression — symbolized by, but certainly not confined to, the sexual nature of the murders. This is precisely what the film is driving at: that pent-up desire becomes perverted and returns with a vengeance.
The only character who refuses to conform by flaunting her voluptuousness is Zhang Xue (Lu Qiwei), whom Jing simultaneously resents and looks up to. When Xue is expelled from school and vanishes, the incident pushes the police’s fault-ridden investigation in a calamitous direction en route to a deeply troubling coda that discloses nothing and everything.
The performances are superbly natural across the board. Su nails the prickly awkwardness of adolescence, while Liu makes a sharp impression as a mother whose shrill harangues would be enough to ruin any child’s self-esteem. Guo is wryly unflattering in his rendering of Qu’s cranky, overbearing manner, yet he leaves audiences with no doubt about his genuine love for Jing.
Tech credits are expertly controlled, immersing viewers in the sights, sounds and minutiae of provincial China in the ’90s, with none of the rosy nostalgia indulged by most mainstream youth romances. The editing by Chen Bingfeng and Liu Guang can be a tad too leisurely, while lenser Zhao Long employs deliberately dull colors to depict a soiled world that seems to be perpetually blurred by rain. “Olive Tree,” the ’80s Taiwanese folk song on wanderlust, is used to sardonic effect.