Hell Fest


Seeing a guy in a hoodie and a mask carrying a knife is never a good thing.

(2018) Horror (CBS) Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Tony Todd, Amy Forsyth, Michael Tourek, Courtney Dietz, Christian James, Matt Mercurio, Elle Graham, Benjamin Weaver, Mason Pike, Roby Attal, Brooke Jaye Taylor, Stephen Conroy, Markus Silbiger, Ashley Ueker, Quandae Stewart, Alicia Rosato, Kimberly Battista. Directed by Gregory Plotkin

Let’s face it; getting scared is fun. It makes our hearts beat faster, our adrenalin spike and our breath quicken. For young men, it gives us a chance to be protective of our dates who might even be suitably grateful afterwards. It’s why we go to horror movies and why we go to haunted attractions.

Natalie (Forsyth) has returned home from school. Her best friend Brooke (Edwards) is happy to see her – Brooke’s roommate Taylor (Taylor-Klaus) not so much. But young Gavin (Attal) really wants to see Natalie after a summer flirtation. So much so that he’s gotten VIP passes to Hell Fest for the three girls as well as the boyfriends of Brooke and Taylor. Hell Fest is one of the biggest haunted attractions here is, a traveling amusement park with horror-themed rides and mazes. It’s a big deal every time it shows up. Brooke and Taylor are very psyched for it; Natalie is less enthusiastic, not being terribly fond of being scared.

The real difference at this particular edition of Hell Fest is that there is an actual psycho among the costumed actors who can dispatch young girls in full view of the patrons – it’s all part of the show, right? – with nobody being the wiser. He’s done it before, as we see in a prologue.

So when a terrified girl who knows that fantasy has crossed the line into reality begs Natalie to save her from The Other (Conroy), as the killer is known as here. Laconically, Natalie tells the masked figure “Do it. That’s why we’re here – to be scared.” And so the killer obliges. And now he has a new target to chase around the park.

I suppose the concept of having an actual killer hiding in plain sight in a haunted amusement park has some merit, although something similar was attempted earlier this year in the independent Blood Fest – which was actually much better than this although as my British friends might say, that film was also daftier. The other main difference is that while that film was obviously made by people who not only believed in what they were doing, they were having a great time doing it. This movie appears to have been approached with all the joy and enthusiasm of a high school student approaching a term paper on Pilgrim’s Progress.

It’s not that Hell Fest is a bad movie; it’s not. It’s just not a good one. It shows little imagination or passion in any aspect, from the writing to the acting to the directing. Only the production design seems to have been approached with any sort of zeal. There are no real sore spots anywhere; neither are there any real bright spots (again, other than the production design).

The characters are literally just cookie cutters without depth and all ready to be ground into crumbs. The inevitable string of murders is neither imaginative nor particularly frightening. They’re just…there, like a misunderstanding in a rom-com. The last thing you want from a horror movie is a feeling of meh. Even a bad horror movie has its merits; there is nobody who itches to see a mediocre scary movie. That’s really what you have here; the horror equivalent of Wonder bread slathered with mayonnaise and American cheese. Horror fans deserve better. Heck, all of us deserve better. Natalie herself said “We’re here to get scared.” It’s a shame the folks who made her film didn’t listen to her.

REASONS TO GO: It’s not really bad in any category.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s not really good in any category either.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some gore, a bit of profanity and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scare characters walking around the park during the beginning of the film are actually employed by the Netherworld haunted attraction in Atlanta, one of the top ten in the country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood Fest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness concludes

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The Looming Storm ( Bao xue jiang zhi)


Rainy days and murders always get me down

(2017) Thriller (Century Fortune) Yihong Duan, Yiyan Jiang, Yuan  Du, Chuyi Zheng, Wei Zheng, Lin Zhang, Xianliong Li, Yan Qu, Yujie Su, Chao Sun, Chaofun Fu, Shuo Du, Gi Song, Shaodong Jiang, Qiao Cho. Directed by Yue Dong

1997 was a red letter year for China, no pun intended. It was the year Den Xiaoping, then the president, passed away and a more reform-oriented government went into effect. It was of course also the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control after having been in the purview of the United Kingdom for a century.

In that year Yu Guowei (Duan) was the security chief in Smelting Plant #4 in an industrial town in rural China. He has just been given the model employee award for going a year without allowing any petty theft in the plant. Respected by management, liked by his fellow employees, Yu fancies himself something of a detective and when a trio of women turn up murdered in town, he is eager to help the weary Captain Zhang (Du) who doesn’t want Yu’s help at all.

But Yu sees himself as a superior police officer to Zhang and the contemptuous Officer Li (C. Zheng) and believes that solving this case will win him a spot on an actual police force. With his fawning assistant Xiao Lu (W. Zheng) – who insists on referring to his box as “Maestro” – at his side, Yu makes like Sam Spade and looks for the usual suspects or at least the unusual ones. Based on his own instincts – which aren’t that bad – he starts looking for someone taking an unusual interest in female factory workers.

He finds one in a hooded man who has is apparently keeping an eye on the various factories in town. After a foot chase with the hooded man ends badly, Yu resolves to take down his prey and uses former prostitute Yanzi (Jiang) as bait. He sets up the girl, whose aim in life is to open up a salon in Hong Kong, with a salon in the center of town. This despite the fact that Yu, along with almost all of the smelting factory’s workforce has been laid off; the State is getting ready to close the factory as part of China’s modernization and move towards globalization. Yanzi is genuinely very grateful but doesn’t understand why Yu refuses physical affection. There is a palpable air of something tragic building and when the climax finally unfolds, it’s not what we would expect – but tragic nonetheless.

Dong sets the film in an unnamed town in the middle of muddy moors in a place where the sun never ever shines and it rains almost non-stop. This gives the film a noir-ish feel and while there are other elements of noir as well, this isn’t strictly that kind of film. There is a good deal of social commentary going on in the subtle way that Chinese filmmakers insert commentary into their movies.

Duan has the perfect hangdog look that belies his eager beaver attitude although once it becomes evident that he isn’t as good a detective as he thinks he is and his world begins to fall apart the expression becomes a source of pathos. Likewise, Jiang is bright and lively, an absolute refreshing respite from the overwhelming oppressive atmosphere of the film – although that atmosphere is part of what sets this movie apart. This is truly a place where nothing good ever happens and it is evident in the way the residents trudge through the muddy streets, not even bothering to protect themselves from the rain any longer. China is changing and these are the people getting left behind. Like Yu, they all have the certainty in mind that life is nothing but a perpetual disappointment and is something that is to be endured rather than enjoyed. That’s not as rare a mindset as I think we’d all like.

The movie is a little long (nearly two hours) and the ending very drawn out but for all that the pacing, while slow, isn’t necessarily a drawback; I remained enthralled by the story all the way through. This was another of the standout films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival; it might be a bit dreary in tone but it won’t leave you feeling waterlogged.

REASONS TO GO: While the pace is slow the story is so fascinating you never lose interest. Yihong Duan has the perfect hangdog look. The dreary setting fits the mood perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending drags on a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yue Dong has been a cinematographer for most of his career; this is his first foray into directing a full-length feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Microhabitat

Strawberry Flavored Plastic


Sometimes even filmmakers feel the walls closing in on them.

(2018) Drama (Self-Released) Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo, Bianca Soto, Raelynn Zofia Stueber, Marisa Lowe, Giovanni Lowe, Maureen Winzig, Jim Cairl, Stuart Fray, Crystal Wolf, Kitty Robertson, Steve Boghossian, Erica Duke Forsyth, Maria Severny, Henry Hernandez, Logan Kenney, Margeaux Caroline, David Beach, Despina Drougas. Directed by Colin Bemis

 

Being an aspiring filmmaker is no easy row to hoe. Making films is generally an expensive proposition; it’s not just a matter of picking up a camera and pointing it at something. Even a documentary has to have a story to tell and in order to get a good one, research is needed. A good filmmaker will go to extraordinary lengths to get their film made. Sometimes they might just go too far.

That’s the position Errol Morgan (Urda) and Ellis Archer (Montejo) are in. They want to make a documentary but first they have to find the right project. It appears they have found one when after putting an ad on Craigslist they get a response from a gentleman named Noel Rose (Bristow) who was just released from prison after a crime of passion left two people dead. Sounds like a story, right?

But it’s not that story Noel has to tell. It turns out that while there are bodies in his past there are more than two – and that Noel has never actually been to prison. As a matter of fact, Noel is an active serial killer whose body count in a quiet suburb of New York City has begun to pile up.

That puts the documentarians in a difficult position. They have already committed time and money to Noel’s story and essentially if they call the authorities and drop the project, their careers as filmmakers are over before they start. Still, if they continue to roll cameras and document the process, it could be the biggest film, like, ever.

The thing is that playing with serial killers is inherently dangerous. Noel is a ticking time bomb with a temper that can go nuclear at even the slightest provocation and when Ellis commits a very serious no-no regarding the ground rules, Errol realizes that there is a target painted very squarely on his back and the backs of his wife and son.

Interviews with serial killers are not a new concept, but this one is executed in a fairly unique way. It combines found footage films along with a 48 Hours-like crime documentary vibe. Some independent horror sites have picked up on this film but I wouldn’t (and didn’t) classify this as horror although there are a couple of scenes that qualify – one in particular where Noel breaks into a home and commits an act of violence that is sudden and shocking.

Bemis has a very good grasp of tone and realism and the viewer remains firmly invested in the film’s back story and environment. He benefits from having an unknown but solid cast; Bristow in particular excels here; he reminds me of Arrow regular Josh Segarra from a vocal standpoint. Noel is handsome and charming and Bristow captures that. The one objection I have with the character is that when he shows his mad side, it gets too over the top with lots of screeching and maniacal laughter like The Joker on speed. I think the character would have been far more menacing and realistic if the madness had been more subdued; the fits of rage should not be tantrums so much as unexpected explosions of violence. Urda has a kind of Ben Stiller look to him and also delivers a very strong performance.

The movie runs a bit long and part of the reason for that is that some of the characters, particularly Noel, often go off on somewhat flowery monologues which really add nothing to the story. These should have been edited a little bit; they tend to take the viewer out of the film because this is not how real people talk. It probably looked good on the page but sometimes dialogue should be spoken out loud by the writer before committing it to paper. Some of the scenes were a little on the talky side, particularly when delivering exposition. That needed to be edited too.

This is a very strong effort and despite its flaws a worthwhile one. Bemis has a good deal of potential as does Urda and particularly Bristow. I thought the movie stands very well on its own merits and I don’t have a problem recommending the film to my readers. It was due to have been released on Amazon today but that has been delayed as the movie is being shopped at Sundance and Berlin for potential distribution. I can only keep my fingers crossed that it will find an audience because it certainly deserves one. I will try to keep you updated when it becomes available either theatrically or for streaming.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the performances, particularly Bristow and Urda, are very strong. This is a very cerebral movie.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a little flowery. A few scenes are a bit on the talky side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, adult themes and some situations of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bemis’ first feature film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Anatomy of Monsters
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO

Jigsaw


Hannah Emily Anderson observes her motivation.

(2017) Horror (Lionsgate) Matt Passmore, Tobin Bell, Callum Keith Rennie, Hannah Emily Anderson, Clé Bennett, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black, Edward Ruttle, Michael Boisvert, Sam Koules, Troy Feldman, Shaquan Lewis, Esther Thibault, Lauren Beatty, Nadine Roden, Adam Waxman, Arabella Oz. Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

 

It doesn’t seem all that long ago (but in reality has been a decade) when every Halloween like clockwork a new Saw film would come out. The original film was gruesome and cruel but had a clever side to it and appealed not only to gorehounds but also to mainstream horror fans as well. Not everyone was fond of the series; after all, it did kick off the “torture porn” genre that made a lot of critics as well as sensitive sorts uncomfortable. After a seven year run, the franchise was shut down by Lionsgate who quite frankly became a fairly major player thanks to Jigsaw and his fiendish traps.

Now seven years since the final entry in the series Lionsgate has seen fit to resurrect the franchise. Will it begin a new  and profitable run, or will it be destined to be a one and done?

Five people have been unwillingly gathered in a barn-like structure which is quite the house of horrors. In each room, the five are given a choice mainly to confess their crimes or make a blood sacrifice. In each room, the number of the survivors is reduced by one as those who are unable to confess or sacrifice something are offed in gruesome and inventive (sort of) ways.

In the meantime a pair of cops (Rennie, Bennett) is chasing down a number of bodies that have begun turning up that would seem to be the work of John Kramer (Bell) – who died more than a decade earlier. Aided by two coroners – one an Iraqi war veteran who was at one time captured and tortured (Passmore), the other a comely Goth punk-esque vixen (Anderson) who has a somewhat suspicious obsession with the killer known as Jigsaw – the cops chase down what could only be a copycat killer…or a ghost.

Jigsaw doesn’t show a whole lot of originality or imagination either for that matter. Some of the traps are taken from previous films in the franchise which doesn’t feel so much as an homage as it does a rip-off. Even the plot feels like it has been recycled from previous films, although I have to admit the end twist was pretty gnarly.

It’s not exactly a spoiler that Bell appears in the film as Jigsaw who died of cancer following Saw III. However, that hasn’t stopped him from appearing in all the succeeding films in the franchise including this one which is a good thing because he has been the best part of the series all along. He is one of the great horror villains of all time and yet he rarely does the “dirty work” himself; he simply captures people he feels need to prove themselves worthy of continued life and puts them in situations where their survival depends on their own strength of will and willingness to take responsibility for their actions and yes, the actions that the five in the barn have committed are pretty heinous indeed.

The gore is pretty intense here but veteran horror fans should have no problem with it. Those who are more dilettantes might be a little more squeamish in that regard. The traps are fairly Rube Goldberg-like although a couple were kind of lame. Those who have at least a passing familiarity with the basics of the film series should have no difficulties following the action but those coming in fresh without ever having seen any of the first seven films are going to be scratching their heads an awful lot.

The big problem here is that the movie feels rushed; the only time that the directors seem to take their time on anything is when the barn denizens are on the edge of getting mangled. Otherwise it feels like they’re impatient to get to the next gruesome murder. Maybe their core audience is too. The rest of us though may wish for a bit more exposition. Even given that, the movie doesn’t have a lot of energy; I did see it at a matinee screening that was mostly empty and maybe I would have felt differently in a crowd of horror fans enjoying the hell out of themselves. That’s probably the best way to see this.

In any case, this isn’t the worst film in the series nor is it the best. It falls pretty much solidly in the middle. I doubt that the hardcore fans of the series will be satisfied with this effort; and I don’t think that there’s a reason to continue the series from this point forward. Judging from the less than thrilling domestic box office, it appears that most American filmgoers agree. However, the global box office was enough that we might continue to see these showing up at Halloween (although at present there are no concrete plans to do so). If so, I hope they make some changes; I can’t see the next one being any better than this.

REASONS TO GO: The usage of Bell as John Kramer is a nice touch. There is some spectacular gore for those who like that kind of thing.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie felt oddly lifeless and rushed. Watching this movie really requires at least a basic knowledge of the Saw mythology in order to understand it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence that is both bloody and gruesome, scenes of torture and plenty of profanity which you’d expect if you were being tortured.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tobin Bell as John Kramer is the only actor and character to appear in all eight Saw films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hostel
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on His Bill and Disappeared

Happy Death Day


Isn’t reliving the same day over and over and over again a scream?

(2017) Horror (Blumhouse) Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Jason Boyle, Rob Mello, Rachel Matthews, Ramsey Anderson, Brady Lewis, Phi Vu, Tenea Intriago, Blaine Kern III, Cariella Smith, Jimmy Gonzales, Billy Slaughter, Donna Duplantier, GiGi Erneta, Lindsey Smith, Dane Rhodes, Caleb Spillyards, Missy Yager. Directed by Christopher Landon

We all have days that we’d rather forget. Days in which things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, days in which we do things we’re not proud of, days when we’re the victims of bad circumstances. Think about how awful it would be to relive those days over and over and over again; it would be enough to drive anyone insane.

Tree Gelbman (Rothe) is having that kind of day that nobody wants to relive. The Bayview College sorority sister wakes up after a night spent partying in a dorm room – a dorm room! – apparently having spent the night with a cute but nondescript guy named Carter (Broussard) whose name she has already forgotten. She makes her way across campus to the sorority house, encountering a global warming activist, a couple soaked by a sprinkler and a fainting frat pledge. Her dad keeps calling and she keeps on ignoring the calls.

He’s calling because it’s her birthday and she’s going to have an even worse day than she’s already had. That evening, on the way to a frat party, she is ambushed by someone wearing a mask of the college’s mascot (the Bayview Babies – really?) who shoves a knife into her – several times.

But then she wakes up, much to her surprise and then she relives the same day, the same events, only to meet the same fate. No matter how she changes things up, her killer always finds her. She realizes she’s going to have to find out the identity of her killer if she’s to escape his homicidal rage and bust out of this strange and terrible time loop.

This is a movie that borrows liberally from other movies, most notably Groundhog’s Day and Scream. I don’t think a movie has to reinvent the wheel every time out but there should be at least some originality and some effort put in to developing the characters so they aren’t just two-dimensional types but that doesn’t really happen here. And that’s okay so long as the movie remains entertaining and thankfully it does.

Rothe is the centerpiece here. Tree starts out the movie self-centered and shallow in what is pretty much a sorority stereotype but as you’d guess during the course of her many relived days she begins to discover what a bitch she’s been and  begins to actually grow. By the end of the movie she’s still not entirely likable – wisely the writers don’t go a complete 180 on us – but she’s more likable. Rothe, a veteran of young adult movies and the Mary + Jane TV show on MTV, shows a great deal of presence and camera-friendliness. I hope she’ll be able to break out of these teen stereotype roles and get some meatier parts at some point soon.

I do like the meta twist at the end – that was an unexpected delight – but discovering who the killer is isn’t going to take a lot of brain power for anyone who has seen more than one or two slasher movies in their time. I would have liked to see more of the self-awareness that the writers showed at the end as it would  have made the movie a lot more fun since the slasher aspect was so rote.

The movie has done pretty well at the box office especially considering it’s bargain basement production budget and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a sequel or two on the horizon. There are some pretty fun aspects here and if your expectations aren’t too high you should get a kick out of the film, although I would tend to recommend it more for teens and young adults who haven’t seen a whole lot of slasher movies but like the ones that they’ve seen. On that basis what they see here will seem a lot more fresh and new than it does for older farts like this reviewer who has been there and seen that but was entertained nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Rothe has some potential as a lead actress. The Meta ending was much appreciated.
REASONS TO STAY: The film borrows too liberally from other movies. The plot twist is a little too easily figured out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and scenes of terror, some crude sexuality as well as brief partial nudity, profanity and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers couldn’t get the rights to use the ringtone in the trailer, 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” so they were forced to use an original tune as Tree’s ringtone in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Groundhog’s Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Light of the Moon

Battle of Memories (Ji yi da shi)


This battle may remain in your memory.

(2017) Psychological Thriller (China Lion) Bo Huang, Jinglei Xu, Yihong Duan, Zishan Yang, Tiffany Hsu, Hanmeng Du, Jieli Liang, Eoin O’Brien, Zhener Wang. Directed by Leste Chen

What makes us the person we are? While some would say genetics there are those who insist that it is our memories that make us who we are. If that is true, it stands to reason that if those memories are taken away that we would change as people.

It is the year 2025 and the technology exists to “surgically” remove unwanted memories from the human brain utilizing a Lasik-like device. Bestselling author Jiang Feng (Huang) is undergoing this treatment. He and his wife Zhang Daichen (Xu) are divorcing and he finds his memories of her too painful. However when the procedure is completed she insists that she won’t sign the papers until the memories are reinserted.

Fortunately, the new technology has a kind of “buyer’s remorse” feature that allows those memories to be put back in, although it will take 72 hours for the memories to fully reconstitute. Once that happens, they cannot be removed again. Therefore Zhang can sign the papers and Jiang can have the memories once again removed so long as she signs within three days.

However, something is wrong – Jiang is having flashbacks of murder, a murder he didn’t commit. It soon becomes apparent that a gigantic screw-up has taken place – he’s been given the memories of the wrong man and it turns out that the man is a serial murderer. When Jiang approaches detectives Shen (Duan) and Lei (Liang) they are at first skeptical. As Jiang’s memories become more and more clear they soon realize he’s telling the truth but they lock him up anyway – after all, he could be the actual killer trying to give himself an alibi. He is put under the psychiatric care of Chen Shanshan (Hsu).

Jiang is anxious to co-operate but he has an ulterior motive; it stands to reason that if he has the wrong memories, the real killer has his own. With his wife Daichen in mortal danger, Jiang gets more and more frantic. Worse still, the memories are  beginning to change Jiang fundamentally, turning him from a gentle, sweet man into an angry violent one. Can the murders be solved before Jiang loses his personality to the unwanted one taking over his mind?

This is essentially a cop thriller with sci-fi overtones but those who are less comfortable with speculative fiction be of good cheer – other than the memory removal machine, there is little that distinguishes 2017 from 2025, although the production design has a sleek modern look to it. The memory switch is essentially a plot device and the mechanics and ramifications of it are not explored at any great length. That’s a bit of a shame because it’s a nifty premise but the filmmakers seem content to go full-on psychological thriller.

Huang has a bit of a hangdog look early on but as the movie progresses he becomes a bit more unstable and at times frankly scary. His unwanted memories contain scenes of serious domestic abuse and it becomes a major thematic element of the film. The psychology of abuse – the victim’s tendency to make excuses for the abuser, the assurance that the violence is an aberration and not a trend, the victim-blaming – all of it is part of the story. Huang captures both the sweet Jiang and the scary Jiang with nimble ease.

Chen uses the hoary old device of filming the flashbacks in black and white but it ends up making sense, particularly since cinematographer Charlie Lam is not only comfortable with the medium but also adept. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the film are the ones with the ugliest subject matter, and that is all Lam’s doing.

I would have liked to see a bit more of the sci-fi element emphasized; it makes the memory removal surgery seem exclusively a plot point rather than something that is a part of life as it is in other movies that use the conceit. That aside, this is an extremely well-made and well-written thriller with plenty of twists and turns including a final swerve which is at least a pretty nifty idea although the execution could have used some work. This is the kind of film I could see being remade as a Hollywood production. It has all the right elements for a box office winner. Those who appreciate good psychological thrillers should keep a sharp eye out for this one.

REASONS TO GO: The concept is absolutely terrific. The ending twist is one of the best I’ve seen recently. Some of the memory removal mythology is well-considered. Domestic abuse is utilized as a theme about as well as it could be.
REASONS TO STAY: The thriller element is somewhat by-the-numbers. The film runs quite a bit too long..
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and related disturbing images
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second psychological thriller Chen has made starring a member of China’s hugely popular Lost In slapstick comedy series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Road to Mandalay

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