Wang Yichun has never hunted down a serial killer. Neither have most directors, we assume, but it bears emphasising in Wang’s case. Her debut feature, What’s in the Darkness, is a deeply personal coming-of-age story set and shot in Wang’s own Henan hometown. At the same time, though, it’s also an incisive portrait of incompetent small-town police trying to catch a serial killer. The film’s main character, Jing (played by Su Xiaotong in a breakout role), is a young girl grappling with the advent of puberty in a time and place where sexuality is repressed, especially for teenagers. Jing’s father, meanwhile, is part of a police force ill-equipped to deal with a serial killer who’s raping and murdering women in the town.
‘I wanted most of it to be a coming-of-age story,’ Wang tells us when we ask her about mixing the two genres. ‘Crime provides a background for it, showing that danger also exists in the places you know when you’re growing up. A safe childhood really just depends on chance. Yesterday, someone said something to me that I found very striking: “We’re all survivors of our youth.”’
A scene from What's in the Darkness
The movie’s vision of growing up in China in the early ’90s is drawn directly from Wang’s childhood. The central emphasis on the movie’s father-daughter relationship is likewise quite personal for Wang. ‘In 2002, when my father passed away, I fell into a deep sorrow. It lasted for about one year. After that, I gradually put together this story. At the time, I was young, in my 20s, but now I’m in my 30s. I experienced a lot in the intervening time, got married and had children. My life didn’t stop changing, and neither did the movie’s story.’
As she tells it, the film benefited from its long road to fruition: ‘When I started writing [the film], most of it was about the individual experience and relationship with the main character’s father. But later, more of it addressed the larger societal background, and that kind of thing eventually became more prominent.’ What’s in the Darkness is set and actually shot in the same factory town that Wang herself grew up in. When it came to making the film, this was perfect for Wang: large cities like Beijing look almost completely different from back in the ’90s, but her hometown still looks almost unchanged today. The movie’s setting provides an encapsulation of China’s larger issues. ‘I grew up in a State-run factory town in Henan,’ Wang explains. ‘It was different then than it is now. It was a closed little society.’
The film’s vision of this society in miniature can often feel scathing, although it’s not without its moments of humour. When we ask Wang about it, she says that she put the personal story ahead of any social criticism, but the movie’s critiques still feel hard to miss. There’s been a recent boom of Chinese movies that look back at youth in the ’90s through a nostalgic lens. What’s in the Darkness, however, is as incisive about the mundane sexual hypocrisy and confusion young people face in China as it is in its portrayal of official malfeasance in handling the more lurid incidents of serial murder.
Key to this is the fact that the movie represents something rare for crime films – not just from China but anywhere: a female perspective. From its protagonist’s burgeoning sexuality to its serial killer’s choice of victims, a keen awareness of gender permeates What’s in the Darkness. For Wang, this is reflected not just in the plot of the movie, but also in its style.
‘I think many male directors, they make movies that really focus on logic,’ Wang says. ‘Their strengths are more geared towards logic and structure, they can make stories that are especially meticulous. But I see these and I feel so tired, because I personally can’t keep up. I think when I’m tackling crime stories, it’s more about feeling and atmosphere. I want to show how crime can change an ordinary person’s mentality, and portray all kinds of details of ordinary life.’
It’s an approach that’s paid off with her debut film, which won a rave review in Variety after showing at the Berlin Film Festival, and has already had its remake rights snatched up by Chinese star Zhang Jingchu. As for what Wang has planned now, she’s still writing her second film. It’s another crime story about ordinary people, and she says that yes, it’s also going be dark.
By Aaron Fox-Lerner