What's in the Darkness is a murder mystery, a coming-of-age film and a directorial debut for Wang Yichun. Unfortunately, its poor direction and muddled plot uses far too many metaphors for what is really going on.
This deeply nostalgic film is rooted in Henan China's early nineties; glory days, of sorts, depicted pleasantly and vibrantly by the rebellious and curious high-schoolers who comprise most of the main cast. Jing (Su Xiaotong) is the high-spirited teen daughter of 'Sherlock' detective Qu Zhicheng (Guo Xiao), and she is coming to terms with puberty. Jing drives much of the film, as does her desire to experience sexual awakening, which is further encouraged by her flirty friend Zhang Xue (Lu Qiwei).
Amidst all the youthful drama is a murder mystery. A body is found in a reed field, and this circumstance is clearly inspired by Bong Joon-ho's masterful Memories of Murder. The bumbling local police in this smaller provincial town are joined by Qu and set to work on finding a murderer. Their thread interrupts Jing's story until a possible link connects them.
Wang's direction and editing leave the film aimless at times, and old-school beautiful in other moments, recalling A Brighter Summer's Day in particular. Unfortunately, other elements are amateurish by comparison. There is so much going on in this restricted and dreary place; a repression symbolic of China's own identity during this phase. This deeply ideological viewpoint is only touched-upon but not portrayed well enough to make an impact.
The music and their cues are poorly executed and some of the editing feels rushed. The film does employ a soundtrack that goes against type for nostalgic comedy romances, which is a nice change of pace. The language and attitude of the cast and the way Wang directs them is also definitely a highlight; the chosen cast are convincingly nineties high-school students.
The murder mystery thread is the highlight of the film. In the scenes that are filtered through Jing's perception, there is police brutality and corruption that is well-written and portrayed on-screen. The film is mainly concerned with detailing Jing's awakening however, detracting from the serial killer plot entirely.
There is a high level of detail, from the words and terms in the screenplay, to the interior production design, to firmly place viewers in '1992', a time fuelled by nostalgia and free-spiritedness amidst the strict parenting and politics. The authenticity of Jing's life is impressive and well-acted, it is just not particularly interesting. Her plot wears thin after a while and the end-result is pining after a serial killer mystery the film only drops cookie crumbs in.
This frustrating sense of ambiguousness carries through in scenes where a culprit may very well be lurking in the background. Unfortunately, Wang takes some metaphors too far and the film feels empty as a result, merely concerned with using the murder mystery hook as background to a standard template coming-of-age story.
Although there are moments of humour and family drama, the film simply ends, leaving no resolution for any story. It can gloat that its ambiguousness is part of the whole point, and even though this is true, it is also hard to recommend as a result. The film will be remade with a bigger budget and star-power added, with Zhang Jingchu to direct.