VIFF 2012 Review: WHEN NIGHT FALLS Is A Poetic Protest
Four years later in May of 2012, Chinese director Ying Liang traveled to the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea from his native Sichuan, China to premiere his newest film as part of the Jeonju Digital Project. Chinese authorities first tried to covertly stop the screening, and, when that failed, they put a warrant out for Ying's arrest when he returned to China because of his film. Harassing his parents in Shanghai and his wife in Chongqing, the Chinese authorities gave the impression that they weren't bluffing and Ying has yet to return.
Caught in between these two news stories is Ying's film, When Night Falls, which goes back to Yang Jia's incident and tells a story based on the experience of Yang mother, Wang Jinmei. The film starts with Wang's own voice, narrating over photographs available of her son's incident and explaining her confusion as the police arrive to search her house with no explanation and then proceed to detain her to a mental institution for nearly five months. With little information of her son's situation, Wang is finally released and allowed to return home only to receive the notice that her son is to be executed within seven days.
This is where the introductory account of Wang's experience ends, and the far more parabolic dramatization of her heartbreaking experience begins in Ying's film. An Nai plays the shell-shocked mother as she attempts to come to terms with what has happened to her and with what is about to happen to her son. Within this minimalist drama is the struggle between the optimism and the pessimism, the hope and the despair in which Wang Jinmei is trapped.
The hopelessness is symbolized in a devastating sequence where she has misplaced her keys and she is locked outside of her apartment. A neighbor looks on, and she solicits the help of a few kids to carry a ladder to climb in the window. But her effort to be self-sufficient is all for naught, as she nonetheless has to prove her residency and hire a locksmith to open her door. Wang wrestles with the mundane--mending pants, making copies, tracking packages--while the walls of fate seem to close in on her best efforts.
Behind When Night Falls' theatrical façade is the reality brought to light about Yang Jia's case, and specifically that Yang Jia was arrested the year before and beaten by the Shanghai police for riding an unlicensed bike. His subsequent attempts to sue the police for brutality were stonewalled, and this unemployed and likely very frustrated young man flew off into a premeditated rage. The unspoken underbelly of this film is a man who became a hero for taking the law into his own hands against an impossible foe, who is unambiguously the long arm of the State. As these details surfaced, so did the ire of others who had been targets of police corruption, and Yang Jia's courage was championed with the help of the Internet and a documentary made by Ai Weiwei.
For better or for worse, the politics of Yang Jia's arrest and Ying Liang's potential for arrest are inseparably linked to Ying's decorous yet austere film. The facts of the case are not spelled out in the film, and the larger picture painted beyond the edges of the film relies heavily on familiarity with Yang Jia and his eventual cause célèbre. In order for the film to carry the weight of the headlines, you have to know the headlines. But once you do, the film packs a wallop. The final minutes of drama has Wang facing her daily calendar with her back to the camera as she slowly and then manically tears off the days that she was detained, only to finally land on November 26th--the day Yang Jia was executed. She goes into her son's room to silently commune with an errant bird that has gotten into the apartment.
Unfortunately, that somewhat poetic climax gets lost when it returns to a montage of still images, this time of chronicling all of the holidays that have passed since Yang Jia's execution, as an epilogue. Yang Jia is a symbol for a population's frustration with political corruption, which couldn't be more of a powder keg with recent scandals in Mainland China. When Night Falls tries to be an independent impression of this by skewing the angle a complicated judicial system and turning an artistic and emotional lens on its indirect effects. The two sides of this coin are, however, interdependent, which may reduce the lasting effects of When Night Falls when compared to the more autonomous narratives of Ying's previous films Taking Father Home and The Other Half.