What’s in the Darkness (Hei chu you shen me)


Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

Qu Jing is just looking for some clues.

(2016) Drama (HH Pictures) Su Xiaotong, Guo Xiao, Liu Dan, Lu Qiwei, Zhou Kui, Jiang Xueming, Li Shiru, Wu Juejin, Ren Long, Liu Jieyi, Gu Qilin, Li Mei, Jia Zhigang, Deng Gang, Wang Zhengping, Jiu Qi, Han Yuye, Tian Feng, Luo Wei, Shi Ying, Yan Jia, Ma Chenxiang, Yu Zhengnan, Huang Xiaoya, Wu Yue, Du Gangqiang, Liu Kaiming, Huang Yan, Xia Hongxia. Directed by Yichun Wang

NYAFF

Growing up is a dangerous, frightening thing. It’s a struggle, dealing with all the hormones coursing through your body, trying to understand the world around you as best you can without much help from your parents and other adult figures in your life, although they often mean well; they just don’t get what you’re going through and in any case, they never have anything good to say about you – it’s all just complain, complain, complain and nothing you do is ever right. Lucky for you, they don’t have time for anyone but themselves and frankly, you want to keep it that way.

Qu Jing (Xiaotong) feels exactly that way. She’s a pre-pubescent girl in a Chinese mainland technical high school in the Hubei province in 1991. In the late spring, the nude body of a woman is found in the local lake. She’d been raped and murdered, and a crude cross carved into her thigh. Qu Jing’s dad, Qu Zhicheng (Xiao) is a police officer, one who happens to have been trained in forensic medicine. He’s the butt of jokes to his peers and a source for exasperation to his commanding officer, Chief Cao (Shiru). He prefers to use deductive reasoning and follow clues while his fellows prefer choosing suspects pretty much at random and beating confessions out of them. It keeps the rate of conviction impressively high.

When a second victim is found, pressure is put on the cops to solve the case and they haul in a suspect (Gang) and get him to confess to the crime. Qu Zhicheng is skeptical about the accuracy of their investigation; the discovery of another victim, killed while the suspect is in police custody, proves him right.

Qu Jing is having problems of her own. Her mother (Dan) is a shrill shrew, unhappy in her marriage and her life and taking out all her issues on her family. Zhang Xue (Qiwei) is Jing’s best friend but Xue’s not the nicest person ever; she is condescending to the point of arrogance, knowing that her beauty and sexuality will take her far – far out of town, which is what she wants to be (as far as the more tropical Hanmei resorts if she has her way). Xue is sexually active and has attracted the attention of Zhao Fei (Xueming), a local tough guy and petty criminal.

Qu Jing is beginning to have hormonal shifts that are causing her to think about sex. She asks questions like ‘”Does giving birth hurt?” and reads clinical manuals, trying to find out everything she can. She goes to romance movies and watches the love scenes with great interest. When Xue disappears after being thrown out of class for falling asleep, the murders begin to come frighteningly close to home.

I originally listed this as a suspense film but changed my mind; it’s not a mystery. It’s more of a drama. This isn’t a police procedural. The crimes here hang on the periphery, coloring the proceedings but never dominating them. Yichun wrote this as largely autobiographical. Part of that is why this is set in the era that it is, and the era this takes place in is critical to why this movie exists.

China was on the verge of changing its economic structure from pure communism to a blend of communism and capitalism which it employs today. While the rural areas, such as the one this was set in, still carried over many of the same restrictive policies that existed for the past decades, change was in the air.

The performances here are interesting. Xiaotong is a real find; 17 years old when she made this, she shows a great deal of emotional depth, from playful to petulant, sullen to joyful.  She epitomizes the confusion and pain of growing up, particularly in a household where she’s largely reminded at how much it cost the family to even bring her in to this world. She was the second child in an era when families that had more than one child suffered heavy economic penalties for it; her older brother, away at university, doesn’t appear other than as a reference in the film.

Guo Xiao also does an outstanding job as the somewhat nebbish police officer, adrift in a sea of incompetent goons. He lashes out at his daughter, henpecked by his wife and laughed at by his fellow officers. Deep down however he loves his daughter as only a devoted father can. He shows it in between bouts of screaming at her for her transgressions, real or imagined.

The dynamic here is a lot different than what we’re used to from Western films. The police are not only as fallible as all get out, they’re also clods who do little constructive to protect or serve. Fathers and mothers aren’t supportive and wise; they have their own hang-ups and issues and don’t necessarily have their children’s best interests at heart at all times.

The society they live in is repressive and prudish but something darker lurks beneath the surface at all time. All around Qu Jing and Xu there are men leering lecherously; an old man in a senior home makes a pass at young Qu Jing in a particularly loathsome manner. The message here seems to be that while some things can be repressed on a societal level, that doesn’t mean those urges aren’t still there.

The senior home sequence and others like it might be off-putting for some who may be a little queasy at the sexualizing of prepubescent and pubescent girls, who are often made to wear make-up for choir performances and school functions.

This doesn’t have the kind of pace you’d find in a typical mystery. There are no gun battles, no car chases, no fistfights. The ending is abrupt and disconcerting. We don’t get much detail on what the police are doing to solve the crime (other than picking up the wrong people and forcing them to confess). We get a sense that after the film ends, things aren’t going to change much.

When all is said and done, this is more of a slice of life type of film; this particular slice happens to have a serial killer in it. It’s like getting a slice of mincemeat pie and biting into a clove. It’s just the luck of the draw. However, this is a tasty slice of pie from someone you can tell is going to only get better at baking pies. I can’t wait to see what comes next from Yichun’s oven.

REASONS TO GO: Unsettling atmosphere keeps viewers from getting too comfortable. Interesting portrait of a period in China less familiar to the West.
REASONS TO STAY: Sexualizing of young girls is a bit off-putting. Too slow-paced for most American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexual content, some foul language and a disturbing image or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Qu Jing is the same age as director Yichun would have been in 1991.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diary of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Buddymoon

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The Forest


Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

Natalie Dormer finds some of the plot points a little foggy.

(2016) Horror (Gramercy) Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Rina Takasaki, Eoin Macken, Stephanie Vogt, Ibuki Kaneda, Noriko Sakura, Jozef Aoki, Yuho Yamashita, Terry Diab, Akiko Iwase, Nadja Mazalika, Lidija Antonic, Cami Djeric, Tales Yamamoto, Yasuo Tobishima, Osamu Tanpopo, Kikuo Ichikawa, Gen Seto, Yuriri Naka. Directed by Jason Zada

In Japan, the Aokigahara Forest has a lethal reputation. Located at the northwest base of Mt. Fuji, it has been for generations a place where people have gone to commit suicide, and thus has a reputation of being haunted even among some fairly rational Japanese citizens. It is not a place where tourists are encouraged to go.

Now that reputation is worldwide thanks to this horror film which kicks off the 2016 movie release year. Game of Thrones vet Natalie Dormer plays a dual role as twins; Jess, the black sheep who has left messes for her more grounded sister Sara to clean up all her life. The two have been inseparable since the death of their parents when both were six years old; Jess was traumatized because she actually saw the bodies (Sara was spared that by her grandmother (Diab) who raised the two of them afterwards).

Now, Jess who teaches English at a girl’s school in Tokyo has disappeared, lost in the Aokigahara and Sara, who refuses to believe that her twin is dead despite being told that since more than 48 hours have passed since Jess went into the forest that it was likely she had killed herself, travels to Japan to find her over the objections of her husband Rob (Macken). You see, Sara has this connection with her sister; she always knows how she’s doing, and her connection tells her that Jess is still alive.

When she gets to the Aokigahara, she meets Aiden (Kinney) an American travel writer doing a story on the forest for an Australian magazine. He is venturing into the forest guided by Michi (Ozawa) who the park rangers use to periodically go through the forest and pick up bodies of suicides who have been successful. He allows the distraught but certain Sara to accompany him on a run through the forest, but warns her to stay on the path and to disregard anything bad that she might see as the forest sometimes plays tricks on those who are sad. He reminds her that it is very easy to get lost in the 14 square miles of dense forest.

The three venture into what seems at first to be a beautiful mountain forest but soon Sara begins to hear things, and has visions of unpleasant memories from her past. Eventually they find Jess’ camp but not Jess herself. It is starting to get late and Michi is eager to return back home; they can search for Jess in the morning but Sara insists on staying the night to wait for her sister to return and reluctantly Aiden agrees to stay with her and make sure she’s okay. However, once night falls and with Michi gone, the Forest will begin its work on Sara’s mind and soon it becomes apparent that all of Sara’s inner demons are going to be used against her. Can she survive the night and find her twin? Or has Jess been dead all this time to begin with? Will the Forest claim another victim?

First-time feature director Zada is given a juicy concept to work with but writers Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai have let him down somewhat by muddling things up with the Sara/Jess backstory and making it more about their personal horror than about that of the forest. I would have preferred more focus on the Aokigahara and less on Sara’s childhood. The movie also suffers from dumb horror protagonist syndrome; who in their right minds would stay in an unfamiliar forest overnight, particularly one with as grim a reputation as the Aokigahara? And for someone who believes in a psychic connection between twins, Sara seems pretty disbelieving in ghosts and other supernatural phenomenon; seems to me that a character like that would be a little bit more open-minded. I get that Sara was frantic about her sister but you would think that level-headed sorts like Michi and Aiden could have talked her down.

But to the thing that brought you to see this movie in the first place. While there are some legitimate scares to be had here, there aren’t enough of them to make this more than of mild interest. Some of the images were downright creepy, but there’s nothing here you haven’t already seen before and in much better movies. The movie’s soundtrack also tends to give away every single scare, which after awhile tends to lessen the effectiveness of them.

Dormer, however, is another story. The Game of Thrones veteran has a rabid fanboy following and for good reason. However, more importantly, the girl has screen presence. With the right roles and a little bit of luck, she could be a big star in the not too distant future. She shows a good deal of range here, playing two diametrically different characters in the same film and making it work.

The rest of the mostly Japanese cast acquits itself nicely with Ozawa, a big star in Japan making his English language debut, also showing some big potential. Kinney, who is best known for his work in Chicago Fire, plays a role very different than that in his television show which bodes well for his future.

The Aokigahara Forest has a great horror movie in it, but this isn’t that. While it isn’t awful, there aren’t enough reasons other than Dormer to really go out of your way to see it. While this wasn’t actually filmed in that forest (the outdoor scenes were mostly filmed in Serbia), the Aokigahara is a looming presence here. I suspect that some enterprising writer and filmmaker will eventually come up with a movie based there that will scare the crap out of us somewhere down the road. Until then, this will do, but just barely.

REASONS TO GO: Dormer shows some star potential. Some of the scares are pretty intense.
REASONS TO STAY: Wastes a great concept and a better location. Could have used more good scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of terror, horrifying images and disturbing thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dormer visited the actual Aokigahara Forest to research her part and ventured five meters off the path to take photos while walking through the forest; her Japanese guide and driver refused to step even half an inch off the path.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Here Comes the Boom