A serial murder case rocks a small town in China's semi-rural Hebei province. The film explores the case from the viewpoint of a teenage schoolgirl, Jing (Su Xiaotong), who becomes entangled with the case while struggling with her own burgeoning sexuality. In the face of police ineptitude and authoritarianism, and the restrictive, conservative mentality of the town's locals, Jing begins to develop her own theory about the case.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: In 1991, in a small northern Chinese backwater town, a pubescent girl, Jing (Su Xiaotong) has reached that embarrassed stage where she constantly argues with her mother and every public utterance by her father (Guo Xiao) makes her cringe. Jing’s father is a cop with a qualification in forensic science acquired at a big city and at the opening of What’s In the Darkness he is harassing an increasingly impatient, local butcher with questions – probably not for the first time – based on his observations about the hanging meat and the probable time of the pig’s death. Dad’s know-how doesn’t get him much kudos at the police station either, but teenage Jing certainly shares his curiosity when the body of a teenage girl is found amongst the reeds in a lake.
Refreshingly, pimple-faced lead, Su performs perfectly as a naïve girl who doesn’t quite understand what is going in either the world or her body as she is intrigued by romance and sex, and feels both fear and excitement that there may be a serial killer running around her town.
First-time director Wang Yichun seems to have taken a good long look at Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder before embarking on her debut. Like that landmark Korean film, What’s In the Darkness harks back to a country’s less sophisticated era, highlights a series of murders and shares that film’s fascination with reeds billowing in the breeze. But unlike Bong’s film, which used a well-known true story to reflect on Korean mores, Wang, less ambitiously, is more interested in her teenage heroine and how she copes with puberty. By the film’s halfway mark, if you still think you are watching a whodunit, you’re heading for disappointment. Wang fills the background of Jing’s world with such a multitude of male suspects that it becomes clear that there is no intention to reveal the killer’s identity.
Combining the coming-of-age flick with the serial killer genre is a tantalising idea, and while the director’s taste in Korean cinema is to be admired, her film falls into the standard trap of hybrid films: one genre is doomed to come off second best. Despite the numerous charms of seeing her lead actress meet the challenges of adolescence (sex, love, rivalry, parents), What’s in the Darkness ends with a dull thud rather than a sense of Jing’s journey completed or with Jing ready to embark into the adult world. Though the question of how will Jing come to terms with living in a malevolent – and pitifully corrupt world (another nod to Memories of Murder) is hinted at throughout the film, the director ultimately offers a glib dismissal, like a teenager who has suddenly become bored with her own seriousness. Clearly a director of talent, Wang will make a better writer if she cares to see her own ideas through to fruition.