Wang Yinchun’s coming-of-age drama is set in a provincial Chinese town in the year 1991. The historical setting and its political backdrop – post-Tiananmen Square, rise of the private sector, the growth of a market economy – allowed the director to cleverly align China’s socio-economic transformation with a young girl betwixt the twilight of childhood and becoming a teenager.
A woman is found murdered, raped and mutilated in long grass. The town fuzz, not the brightest bunch, use old-style tactics of beating confessions out of anybody that looks suspicious and ripe for a stitch up. Only Qu Zhicheng (Guo Xiao) forensically studies the crime scene and attempts to use logic and reason – this leads to colleagues mocking him for vainly mimicking Sherlock Holmes. Qu’s daughter, Jing (Su Xiaotong) is fascinated by the case but isn’t old enough to understand sexual sadism nor the random cruelty of the world – and why would she? When Qu tells her to stay away from the lake area of town, because bad people lurk there, Jing’s response is guileless. She’s poor, she doesn’t have any money, so why would anybody want to harm her?
What’s in the Darkness (2015) is very much a statement about, and grim portrait of, how women are treated and trapped by a rigidly authoritarian society. It also highlights countless social hypocrisies. In one scene, Jing goes to a friend’s house to record a song – she dreams of being pop star – only for an older person to barge in with his friends and commandeer the front room to watch a pirated bluey on videotape. Jing is told to get out and sit in a bedroom. When a power cut scuppers the plan and the tape becomes trapped in the VCR, police officers unexpectedly show up, arrest everybody and yet appear pretty excited themselves they’ve got their corrupt mitts on some real hot stuff.
Key to What’s in the Darkness is the relationship between father and daughter, representing gender dynamics and generational confrontation. Qu is the traditional strict father wanting the best for Jing, and that means doing has she’s told and there’s nothing to debate. He works hard at his job but like so many, Qu wants to maintain the status quo and firm patriarchal structure. What’s in the Darkness is undoubtedly a feminist film with a riveting feminist agenda, one using the police procedural format as a contextual backdrop, rather than as a typical murder mystery device. Jing is the conduit in which the audience sees the peculiarities and countless contradictions and hypocrisies regarding the treatment of women in Chinese society.