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


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
NEXT: Buddymoon


Good Neighbors

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

(2010) Psychological Thriller (Magnolia) Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Xavier Dolan, Gary Farmer, Kaniehtiio Horn, Pat Kiley, Michelle Lanctot, Jacob Tierney, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Clara Furey, Diane D’Aquila, Sean Lu, Kevin Tierney, Nathalie Girard. Directed by Jacob Tierney

We like to think we know our neighbors. We hang out with them, invite them into our homes, share confidences with them, sometimes we even have their backs and expect that they have ours. But how well do we really know them?

Louise (Hampshire) lives in an apartment building in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. She works at a Chinese restaurant as a waitress. When one of her co-workers disappears under suspicious circumstances, she suspects it’s the work of a serial rapist and murderer who has been terrorizing the district. She begins to follow the case in the newspaper obsessively.

She’s kind of a cold fish who lives with her cats and generally eschews human contact in favor of feline contact. One of the few exceptions is Spencer (Speedman), a paraplegic who lives on the ground floor of the building. He lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident that claimed the life of his wife. Like Louise, he’s a bit obsessed with the same serial killer. He can be randomly cruel and disarming literally in the same sentence.

Into this mix comes Victor (Baruchel), a somewhat socially awkward school teacher just returned to Montreal after spending time in China. He develops an instant crush on Louise and lobbies hard to develop a friendship with Spencer.  Victor’s attempts at romance begin to take a creepy turn – he refers to Louise as his fiancée even though the two of them haven’t even been on a date yet.

When an abusive alcoholic woman in the building turns up dead, signs point to the work of the serial killer and it becomes apparent that he may well be among them in their own building. Is there safety in your own home when there is already a killer living there?

Canadian director Tierney has a fine hand with suspense and knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. This isn’t a generic thriller in which the identity of the killer is revealed at the end of the film – in fact, this isn’t a whodunit in the sense that you find out surprisingly early who done it.  It becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller, although at times you’re not sure who the cat is and who is the mouse.

As far as I can make out, there is a highly Freudian aspect to the film; Louise, Spencer and Victor represent the superego, the id and the ego which I think is a terribly innovative idea, although I wish they’d have been fleshed out just a teeny bit more. The characters are a bit on the one-dimensional side, although Baruchel, Speedman and Hampshire all do pretty well with what they’re given.

Some of the violence and sex here is pretty graphic and disturbing in places, so those who are susceptible to such things might think twice before streaming, renting or buying this bad boy. And while I understand the motivation to keep things more or less in the apartment building, you have this incredibly beautiful city (Montreal) which is even more beautiful in many ways in the dead of winter and choose not to use it which completely mystifies me. Cinematographer Guy Dufaux shows a really good eye in some of his shots but  sadly doesn’t get to exercise it as much as I would have liked.

However despite some of the film’s flaws, the engineering of it is so masterful and the suspense layered on so perfectly that I can overlook some things that don’t work as well. Overall this is a taut, well-paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and a nice little hidden gem worth seeking out on Netflix, Blockbuster or whatever source of streaming you choose to patronize.

WHY RENT THIS: Skews the genre somewhat. Nicely suspenseful despite telegraphing identity of killer too early

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessarily claustrophobic. Character development is a little bit one-dimensional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly intense violence and just as intense sexuality as well as some fairly explicit nudity not to mention a plethora of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title was Notre Dame de Grace named for the district in Montreal where the action takes place and where the movie was filmed.


BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,072 on an unreported production budget.



NEXT: Redemption Road

Astor Dinnesdale

            Astor Dinnesdale sat primly at his dining room table, eating his frozen dinner that he had microwaved.  He sipped slowly from a glass of chardonnay, a California vintage that had been on sale at the grocery store. His cloth napkin was folded precisely in his lap. He chewed his food without a single wasted motion. He wore a pair of pleated grey dress slacks, the pleat sharp and definitive. His work shirt was free of even the suggestion of a wrinkle and white as snow. The red bow tie made him look a little scholarly.

            He was slight of frame and small of stature. When he shook hands, his grip was not terribly firm and his hands were soft and scrubbed. There were whispers in town that he was a *gasp* homosexual as he had no wife, no girlfriend and was clearly in middle age.

            His hair was thin and reddish blonde graying at the temples and he wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses that he always referred to as “spectacles.” He was odd that way, using unwieldy words where simple ones might do. Instead of going for a walk, he would “take a constitutional.” When women walked by with their baby strollers, he referred to them as “perambulators.” Most of the people who lived in his small Massachusetts town of Milton with him thought him an odd duck. Would that they knew what his after-dinner plans were.

            He owned a small bookstore that he had inherited from his father, the late Roger Dinnesdale who had been far more effeminate than his son who was downright butch compared to the old man. In a town mostly made up of blue collar workers whose life depended on the cable factory that manufactured cables of all varieties from steel to fiber optic. The town relied on that factory and most of the people who lived there were employed either directly or indirectly by it.

            For the most part, the men of the town went to one of two bars after work – Shanahan’s, as Irish as a Dubliner drinking a Guinness in a field of shamrocks, and Bulldog, which catered to the Poles. Those who didn’t fall into either category tended to drink at home. Astor, as far as anyone could tell, didn’t drink at all. However, one of the oddest things about the man was that he was also an executioner.

            The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a non-capital punishment state; Astor had to drive or fly to states that allowed it. He was given a per diem for this and put up in a hotel room overnight for his trouble. Most States (other than Texas) do not employ professional executioners and Astor is one of the few who knows how to operate the lethal injection process. The people of Milton found it amusing that Astor, perhaps the most non-violent man in Massachusetts, was responsible for the deaths of so many hardened criminals, but he had a way of calming prisoners down before strapping them on the gurney for their last few moments of life. He was also an efficient and methodical technician; not one execution had been botched on his watch ever.

            Some said that he needed the money but the truth was the Dinnesdale family had a tradition of working in that field; Dinnesdales in France and England had been headsmen as far back as records showed. Many wondered at how the prissy Astor coped with the realities of taking life.

            The truth as that Astor reveled in it. He put up with his co-workers in the various penitentiaries he plied his trade in referring to him as “Din” or “Dinny,” both of which he abhorred. He liked the power of life and death; he loved watching the fear in the eyes of his victims turn to acceptance as the light faded away. He particularly loved it when he got to execute women. That would get Astor’s wood right hard.

            You see, Astor’s mom was shall we say none too picky about whom she slept with. She had a marriage with Roger in name only; it was likely that Roger never consummated his marriage. Whoever Astor’s biological daddy was, well, it could have been one of any number of guys. As was previously mentioned, Astor’s mom wasn’t very picky. However, strangely enough Astor wound up resembling Roger not only in demeanor – Roger more or less raised him after Mommy got bored with her life in Milton and skedaddled for the bright lights and big city that was Providence – but also physically somewhat. Astor had the same spare frame as Roger and the same somewhat soft flesh.

            The resemblance ended there though. Facially, the two were nothing alike. Roger had brown hair where Astor’s was reddish blonde. Roger had green eyes, Astor’s were blue. Roger had a prominent nose whereas Astor’s nose was hardly there at all. Most telling, Roger had an almost triangular face while Astor’s was oval.

            One other thing that Astor possessed which Roger didn’t have was desire for women. His mother, the raging whore that she was, left Astor with all sorts of mommy issues. Whereas Roger was more or less asexual, having neither girlfriend nor boyfriend after mommy dearest shuffled off, Astor was very interested in girls.

            The trouble was, girls wanted nothing to do with Astor. Astor wasn’t much of a physical specimen and that’s the kind of guys the young ladies of Milton were interested in. What most of the women of his local town didn’t realize was that Astor was much stronger and more rugged than they realized. He had a weight set in his basement that he worked out with regularly.

            As Astor figured out that he wanted more from girls than they were willing to give, he also knew that if he wanted to take what he wanted he’d have to be much stronger than they, so he bulked up just enough to be able to hide his strength which he did effectively.

            Astor was also plenty intelligent enough; he knew that if he was going to be successful he would have to find prey much further afield than town so he would tell people he was going on execution business when in reality he was going hunting. He would pick towns at random, He stayed away from cities because he knew the rules for successful hunting there were completely different than in small towns.

            The first one he’d chosen was a woman named Jenny Marx. She lived in a small New Hampshire town called Weare and worked at the local pizzeria as a waitress. He didn’t know her name at the time and had stumbled on her quite fortuitously as her car had overheated. She was walking down the side of the road to a local 24 hour gas station when he’d managed to convince her to get in his car (he didn’t look a threat) and then chloroformed her, driving her to a secluded spot by a quarry.

            The moon was full that night and as she breathed, drugged into unconsciousness, she was beautiful, her lips parted and her blonde hair askew over her face (her ponytail had come undone in the struggle). She wore a short black skirt, dark leggings, a blouse with the pizzeria’s name over her heart and a pair of black flat shoes.

            He moved her into the back seat and gently unbuttoned her blouse. He rubbed the silky material of her bra, never having touched a woman’s undergarment before. He was surprised when her nipple perked up. He wanted to see so he took the bra off and she woke up then. She fought hard; up until then he hadn’t been sure if he was going to rape her or not. He just wanted to see her naked but she was having none of it. She was hitting him and scratching and biting and finally he put his hands around her neck and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed and soon she stopped fighting and the look of rage was replaced by fear.

            She was co-operative after that. He had sex for the first time in his life with the woman with the “Jenny” nametag. He liked it a lot. He liked putting his thing in her mouth too – he’d seen that in a pornographic picture he’d seen online. He made her touch herself and he liked the sound she made when she climaxed. Then he kissed her and threatened to hurt her if she didn’t kiss him back and he liked it most of all when she did as she was told.

            But he didn’t know what to do with her now. If he let her go, she might tell someone about what happened. He might get caught. He might go to jail. So Astor put his thing in her again and as he raped her he put his hands around her throat and squeezed harder than he ever had. At first she struggled wildly and that made the sex even more enjoyable for him; she was moving much more vigorously than she had before. He watched the light leave her eyes and it was only after she died that he ejaculated, and he should have been more careful but he did so inside her.

            He’d read several forensic handbooks that a former criminal justice student at the University had brought for resale and realized that if she was discovered they’d have his DNA. He couldn’t have that; the feeling of power and sex was so appealing he knew he must do it again. He knew what he had to do.

            There was a place only a few locals in Milton knew about where the factory (and a few other factories for a fee) dumped all their toxic materials. They did it illegally into a pond which was now mostly acid and all sorts of other corrosives. The pond wasn’t connected to the system that supplied the town it’s water so for the most part it was safe there but nobody was allowed in there because it was dangerously toxic.

            That suited Astor just fine. He stuffed Jenny Marx’s body in the trunk of his car and drove her back to Milton. It was nearly four in the morning when he arrived at the toxic pond. The fence that surrounded the pond was partially up against Astor’s property and he simply cut the fence there and carried Jenny’s corpse to the toxic pond and threw it in. He watched the corrosives start to do their work almost immediately as her dead flesh began to bubble and slide off her skull. Any DNA he deposited in her would never be recovered now.

            He trotted back home and got undressed for bed, but he was too wound up to go to sleep. He masturbated furiously several times, seeing the dead girl’s face in front of him. He wished he’d taken pictures. The next day he bought himself a little digital camera and batteries for it, as well as a sim card and bided his time. He read about the disappearance of Jenny Marx and when he saw her picture in the papers he knew that he was responsible for that. He was famous even if nobody knew who he was.

            After that he went out regularly although not often. He tried to space out his hunting trips erratically, trying to avoid patterns in order to keep from being noticed. He found the Internet useful in helping him stalk victims. He drove all over the Northeast and into the Southeast and Midwest, garnering an impressive list of victims over the years; Katherine Madden in Hyattsville, Maryland; Tasha Martinez in Holden, Massachusetts; Sandy Pritchard in Marengo, Ohio; Marilyn Kane in Willimantic, Maine.

            He had pictures of all of them in his digital camera; dressed and alive; nude and dead. He could recall them all by name – Cassie Dawson in Danbury, Connecticut; Krystal Lisoh in Whitesboro, New York; Sara Forbes in Manchester, NH; Angel Black in Orchard Park, NY; Bella Fateh in Middlesborough, MA; Carolyn Owens-Castle in Middletown, CT. His victims ranged in age and life status; some were as young as 16; others as old as 54. Some were students; some were mothers. Some were blue collar, some were professionals. All of them died at his hand.

             They died in different ways. He preferred strangling them with his bare hands but he also liked to experiment. Some he smothered, others he pushed their heads underwater until they stopped struggling. He stabbed one and injected an air bubble into another. He gave another the same drugs he injected into convicts. All of them died.

            Some begged and pleaded. Others fought until the very end. Some co-operated and did as he asked like the first one. Those he respected; those got easier deaths. Those that didn’t co-operate….well, he knew how to inflict pain. He raped most of them while they were alive. He raped all of them after they were dead.

            He got pictures of all his victims. Night after night he would relive his triumphs, savoring each moment of the agony, despair and terror of his victims. He replayed the violations in his mind and he supplied embellishments – his victims praising his sexual prowess, swearing that they loved him, promising him years of ecstasy (which some did actually do to be fair) in exchange for their lives. He spared no one.

             Years went by and because there was no discernable pattern, no reason for police to link one crime with the other – in fact, because he disposed of all of the bodies in the toxic pond there was no sense that crimes had been committed at all. However what Astor didn’t plan on was a state mandate that the toxic site be cleaned up. In the pond were discovered several bodies, not yet fully dissolved. Some had usable DNA and were identified.

            Even then Astor might never have been caught except he got sloppy. Following his microwaved meal, he drove down to New Jersey to hunt.  His favorite body disposal site no longer available to him, he chose a deepwater pond and brought a body weighted down by stones, the body of one Kate Foote who was visiting her sister in Ocean City, NJ. He’d raped her and beaten her to death, but the exertion of the struggle had for once left him too tired to rape her corpse. Instead he’d tied the rocks to her body and threw her into the water, turned and walked back to the car. He drove away without looking back.

            If he had, he might have noticed that Kate Foote wasn’t dead. Far from it. Instead, the mother of two was unconscious and raised to wakefulness by the shock of her body being thrown in the cold waters that came with February killings. He had nonchalantly tied the rocks to her but he hadn’t actually tied her up and she was able to free herself and swim back to the surface. She crawled back to the road where a passing motorist found her. She gave police a good description and even had a name; Astor Dinnesdale; Astor had foolishly shown her his business card and boasted about being an executioner.

            Even more foolishly he’d bragged to Kate Foote that he’d murdered more than fifty women. This revelation and the fact that his property abutted the pond where more than 35 bodies had been discovered was enough to warrant his arrest and helped persuade twelve jurors good and true that Astor Dinnesdale was a raping, murdering monster.

            Because his crimes took him over so many state lines, his case was tried in a federal court which was unfortunate for Astor; while Massachusetts didn’t have the death penalty, federal courts had the option of condemning a prison to death. Considering the magnitude and gravity of the crimes, he knew that he wouldn’t escape the fate that he’d seen through on so many different men.

            Years later when Astor was nearly 65 and all his appeals were exhausted, the sentence was finally carried out. Astor could barely walk anymore and his kidneys were failing. His rheumy eyes were filled with tears and he begged for mercy, mercy that he didn’t deserve and wouldn’t receive. As the needles went into his skin and the first drugs hit his veins, his last words were “No you’re doing it wrong. You turn the blue valve first otherwise I’ll be awake and conscious for the….”