Wang Yichun’s What’s in the Darkness, which screened at Sydney Film Festival this year, is a reflective, subtle, and detailed film; and easily one of the strongest movies that played this years festival. As her debut, it’s also clearly indicative of Wang’s instinctive skill as a filmmaker. From visually reconstructing a period and time in China’s history rarely shown on film, inverting a murder mystery narrative, to creating a film that is intimate and personal in what it wants to say, there is a unique complexity and depth to Wang’s first feature; with the director clearly establishing herself as one to watch throughout the next decade. We caught up with Wang at Sydney Film Festival to discuss the lengthy period of time between writing the script and filming, the absence of films documenting Chinese factory towns in the 90s, and her future ambitions as a filmmaker and scriptwriter.
I read that your film was written in your early 20s when you were quite young and then worked on over quite a long period.
I was interested what kept bringing you back and why you put so much energy into this particular story and writing and directing it. What was quite a personal part of it for you as a story?
You mean my motivation?
Okay. First, I wrote it as a novel. I never thought about a movie because I’m not in this industry because movies seem to be something more industrial. The writing could be something more personal and low cost. I wrote a novel but some friends said it’s quite pictorial; it’s quite film-like. They suggest me to change it into a movie script. I also tried [that], then some of my friends said “oh, it is not bad,” so I got the idea to make it by myself because I couldn’t find any investment.
It’s partly based on my own experience, because for my generation in China there is no realistic story based on stories of that period. It’s still kind of blank. I don’t know if you know some Chinese directors like from fifth generation or sixth generation. I’m quite confused about it, but I don’t know which generation I belong to. Anyway, no directors speak out their stories of that period. I think we have our own story. We didn’t suffer the revolution or famine, but I think we have our own story because even [though] we live in peace period of China, it’s not that long from the cultural revolution of famine. I got some memory from the generation of my father or mother so I’d like to write it down; to make a sound for my own generation. Maybe that’s why [the film] records their memory of many people in China in my age, because the communists [were] everywhere: in school, in family, also between colleagues. It’s everywhere. I think that’s a common memory of many people. That’s why it’s quite popular, and got some good remarks from young people probably.
Just building on that, I guess that a large part of the film comes from being set in rural China. It’s in Heibei, right?
It’s in the middle. Actually, it’s not Heibei. It’s actually a mistake. It’s Henan.
So, it’s in Henan?
Yeah, Henan. It’s close, two close province, but actually it should be Henan. That’s my home town.
Your hometown is …
Henan, and so has nothing to do with Heibei? I must have read something completely off the mark. (laughs)
Nothing to do with Heibei (laughs). That’s just a mistake from some journalist. I think. I don’t know which one.
Yeah, because I remember that from when when I first was reading about your film. I guess the only thing I saw this when it was playing at the Berlinale in Berlin. The only review that was around at that time was from Maggie Lee from Variety.
Oh, yes. That’s the original.
How did shooting in the place you grew up in inform it?
Actually, why I choose Henan as this background is because it’s an aeroplane-manufacturing town. I don’t know if you have any idea of factories like this in that time of China. It’s actually some sort of nation-run company, not private companies like current China. It’s nation-run, so even [though] it’s just the country, it includes everything for all the employees like bathrooms, primary school, middle school, and also … what else? Hospital, shops, all nation-run. Only one owner, it’s that nation, so you take care of everything in this big company, from birth to death.
In a town like the one that you show, would the whole town be part of this factory?
Yes, yes, it’s a very common part of that time of China. Also, this small society is comparatively closed compared with [the] city. It’s closed, shut in other words, the rest of their society [is], you know, closed, and also peaceful. Nothing different happens everyday, and suddenly [a] serial killer appears. Really, that’s why I choose that as a background.
Was it hard to shoot something set in the ’90s today, or had that kind of town not changed too much in time?
Actually, I [grew up] in that factory. It’s true, so many scenes in the movie are true. Even the bat that the girl used was my bat. Fortunately, during the past twenty-five years, that place has not changed so much. It’s actually already abandoned. Many people already moved out, only some old and … how to say, some not-so-energetic people stay there, I don’t know how to say it properly.
Older, sick people?
Yeah, only these people. All the capable people always still pursuing something in their life, they all go out.
As in people moving to the city or a new area?
Time changed, and [the] nation-run company is not such a good thing for so many people. They are pursuing something better in their big city. This place is kind of abandoned. Also, because this company is not running so well, so only one third [of] people stay there. This one third is those old people, but fortunately it’s keep[ing] to what it was like from that time.
One of the things I was quite interested in was the way in which the daughter interacted specifically with the parents, where the parents themselves were quite critical of what was around them still, but still were being quite strict, in some capacity, with the daughter. How personal were those experiences?
Actually, in this part I want to talk about love, because many people, when they go abroad, go overseas, enter overseas film festivals… I was asked a lot why the parents doesn’t like the girl, but actually, they have their own way to love. They are just not good at expressing it properly. Sometimes I also think, do they… when I was in that age, I said, “Do they really love me? If I died I’m not sure if they will cry,” but with growing up I gradually realized that they do love me but probably they have no idea how to show it in the right way, maybe because they suffered a lot, that generation. They suffered from the culture revolution. They suffered from the famine. So I think they are deprived of a lot of things that people should naturally have.
To your credit, I think that in the film it does come across quite strongly that they do love their daughter. I think that comes through very well. I think what I always read was more that they were quite different to a lot of the other people in the town, that they were a bit more…
Know [a] little bit about their world.
The daughter showed just a shift in society’s values by generation because she wasn’t experienced in what they’d experienced with the cultural revolution..
Yeah, yeah, so she grew up in peaceful times.
I was interested in how you tried to show those differences on the screen between…
You mean difference between the generation of the father and the daughter?
Okay. As I said, the experience of that generation might be harder because they suffer so much, as everyone knows, but for this generation, for our generation, we also have our own problem, and as long as you have such a father or mother at home, it’s already a problem. Also, the teachers, as you can see from the movie, who got some really cold-blooded remark on her students: that’s the really common … [they] even beat [the] handicapped at that time, it’s really common. Even the parents know, they were just say, “Just beat him. We send the child here just for you to educate them, to teach them a lesson.”
I think that the general problem of that generation is they are disabled of love. As a serial killer, in some degree, you can say it’s a consequence of that. So many people were misjudged in the movie, because two suspects were misjudged. I think it’s also the consequence of their indifference and coldness of their whole, big environment. You can say, bad flowers through our dirty soil. I don’t know how to say it properly.
Like the Baudelaire poem?
Les Fleurs du mal means bad flowers. Bad flowers came from that soil. That soil is natural for…
I think with that kind of police department, the way in which they’re shown is just as a consequence.
Because it’s not just the problem of the police. It’s not specifically blaming their police. Actually, the indifference, their ignorance of other people’s dignity is a problem of the whole society. It’s not just their police. You can also see it from their teachers, their parents, their headquarters of their school. You can see that kind of thing from everybody. When the whole society is like this, their bad result is inevitable like, serial killer[s] or misjudging cases. I think the way in which the story had this serial killer but didn’t focus on the serial killer so much was really interesting; how it was more the measuring or showing these reactions from different people and groups. Yeah, I think that’s a technique to avoid many critical things. Otherwise, this movie will have no chance to be publicly released. You understand?
In terms of censorship?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. With a point of view of a little girl you can avoid many things like torture. Even younger-generation Chinese they don’t understand. They ask me “if the suspect didn’t commit the crime, why [did] they admit it?” I think, “Are [you] crazy? Are you not seeing this movie?” Eventually, I found the point of view of this little girl is a good choice; avoid[s] a lot of things.
I think as well, in using quite a young child it also highlights the power in the film, and how all the detectives have this power but don’t necessarily use it. It’s almost like they don’t use it for good, but they don’t almost use it at all. They don’t seem to care very much about the case that they’re solving, a lot of the detectives. I was interested in that kind of relationship between the young girl and then the detective department, and then how to combine these two part[s] of the story.
Because they seem to be separate, you mean this?
I still think the coming-of-age of this girl is still the main line of the story. The serial killer is … How to say, a…
Oh, like a subplot?
Yes. Of the whole movie, it’s kind of parallel connected by this father. Also, that girl disappear[s], because I just want to imply… the only function of that killer line is the [implication] that, if the whole society is like this, their tragedy is inevitable. It’s their extreme result of this rudeness, ignorance, indifference.
I feel that I know that a lot of reviewers have read a lot of criticisms of a social trend or society. Did you write it trying to critique certain parts of that world that you show, or has that just been read by a lot of critics?
I think I’m just stating, not creating, because it’s more natural just to state the parts that you know, but probably your attitude is already in their statement. Different people can find their own intrigue in it. Like my parents, when they see it they can see the relationship among their colleagues at that time and therefore our generation people they will say, “That’s really how we grew up. What a tragedy, how can I grow up in such a place?”
I read somewhere as well that apparently there’s a remake of the film.
Yeah. This was quite hard to find anything on specifically, but I read that Zhang Jingchu was involved in the project?
How do you know all this?
It was written somewhere online. (laughs)
Actually, it’s true. As I told you, I couldn’t find the investment after I wrote the script because I’m not in this industry. I know nobody, so I invested by myself and also found some people to help me to finish it, but after I finished it, I wasn’t so satisfied with it, but I still thought the script was not bad. There was a professional company reading the script. They liked it very much, the company of this famous actress Zhang Jingchu. They meant to buy only their script and ask big casts to remake it. We also signed a contract already, but it took some time to talk about the details of the contract. After we signed the contract, the time of their big castings already changed.
So that’s further away.
That pushed … I don’t know where, but in the contract I still reserved all the rights for this version that I made. This version survived.
Would you have any kind of interaction with the other version, or is that going to be directed and done by somebody else completely?
You mean the remake?
If it’s remade, it will be directed by Zhang Jingchu. I will just be the script writer, but now it’s not possible, I think, because this movie has already gone to a lot of places… so I think time changed. Do know the movie In the Heat of the Sun?
As in Jiang Wen’s film from the 90s?
Yeah. It’s good. It’s quite famous. He was also interested, but after the movie went around the world they said “okay, no, forget it”, although they liked the story.
Do you interact much with other film makers or people in film in China?
I don’t know about others, but at least to … I’m not so familiar with the rural life this year, so next I don’t think I will try to go that direction. Actually, I got some interesting ideas, some good stories, but I think if I’m not in that environment it’s rather hard to reconstruct other details, interesting details, and a good movie must be built on that. If you just have a good idea, a good story, a general idea, it won’t be touching. I will be quite prudent to try that way even there is something there, a very attractive idea.
Are you in the city now?
Yeah. That is the case already. Even the environment in my movie, it’s not really rural. It’s not villages. It’s big factories, just not someone modernized, like nowadays in big cities, but it’s still good life at that time. It’s not poor life at that time. I heard a saying that all the movies go abroad to their film festivals. You must focus on the poor area, an old, and a miniature race.
Where you feel you’re going next? Do you want to make another film, or would you prefer to do more screen writing?
I’m writing my second story now, but it’s still similar, because some of my experiences… I have lot of regrets in this movie. I hope I have a chance to make it up, so I wrote a second story. You consider it as a serial, but it’s not, it’s forward. In the new one, the girl probably will be seven years old in 1983.
She’ll be younger?
Yeah, younger age. Probably I will be asked “why you always focusing on the past? Why not write modern life?” Probably because nowadays it’s actually in big cities in China — life has no big difference with the rest of the world. To go just twenty years back, it will be really different compared with China itself, or compared with the rest of the world. It cannot be copied. Anyway, it’s so special, everything. Everything is just so special. I can find nowhere in the rest of the world that’s [undergone] such a big change in their past twenty years. If I just write something [with] no difference with the world, I think I’m not good at that. That also has a meaning, of course, but I’m anxious to express something that is not the same as the rest of the world.
I think that goes back to the first thing that you said in the interview, about the fact that there isn’t many films about that period. The current films about the city in China today, that’s something that a lot of people will be doing.
Or [an] even older time, but no exact scene around that area.
I think it’s really interesting to keep making films there, and I’m very excited to see an excerpt because I really, really liked this one when I saw it. Hopefully I can see it again.
It’s also easy to control for a new director like me, because that’s the life you experienced. You know all the details. You know what details touch you, give you what kind of feeling. You are sure. Maybe you will say “oh, you can write a modern life film as a middle man or woman, a teenager is a most sensible age.” You can say the experience of that time made you what you are like nowadays somehow. I want to recreate how I became like this.
I think that’s good. I think that’s also probably quite fulfilling on a personal level, to be able to reflect on that time and go back time. Thanks so much for the interview.