加害者、被害人 (Jiāhài zhě, bèihài rén)
Malaysia, 2020, 107’, Mandarin
Directed by: Layla Zhuqing Ji
Script: Layla Ji
Photography (color): Eunsoo Cho
Editing: Hsiao Yun Ku
Production Design: Wen Huel Too
Music: Alexander Arntzen
Producers: Aron Koh, Layla Ji, Nikki Suhying Tok, Ying Yang
Cast: Lu Huang (Mei), Remon Lim (Gu), Xianjun Fu (Chen), Wilson Hsu (Qianmo), Kahoe Hon (Gangzi)
Date of First Release in Territory: TBA
Premiere status: World Premiere
One stormy night, Gu, a middle-aged woman working as a masseuse in a beauty salon, returns home from work by bus. She arrives at her council housing apartment to find her husband lying on the couch, asleep in a drunken stupor. She tidies up the mess around him, and notices her son Gangzi’s not at home. She tries to call him on his cell phone. On the other side of the line, the device vibrates on the pavement, near to where the boy’s lifeless body lies. Newspaper headlines and reports document the murder of a Tak Sing High School student and the assault on his two classmates, currently still under constant supervision in the hospital wards. The investigation immediately points to the alleged culprit, their schoolmate Chen, son of Mei, a wealthy merchant of violent video games. Chen, eternally at the top of the class, has disappeared and his schoolmates testify to a rivalry with Gangzi, who always lagged far behind in school exams. A clash sharpened by the arrival of a new student, Qianmo, who seems to have caught the eye and the heart of both. Suddenly, Chen turns himself in, admitting his guilt. But is he really the killer?
The original Chinese title of Victim(s), the first feature film by Layla Ji, Jiāhài zhě, bèihài rén, i.e. “Perpetrators, Victims,” provides the evocative return of the ambiguity around which the film’s narrative and conceptual core is built. The initial reading is of a confessed killer and the emotional upheaval that his crime has caused: on the one hand, a mother destroyed by the loss of her son who claims justice; on the other, another distraught mother who tries to save her son and herself from media pillory and calls for justice. Because, of course, behind the crime lies a complex story of traumatic adolescent relationships, involving Chen, Gangzi, Qianmo and their entire class, as well as a teaching staff unable to see or want to see what is happening among the young people they educate. Ji probes the ramifications of the phenomenon of bullying in a far from simplistic way, illustrating in a non Manichean way how all of its protagonists are somewhere on the scale of guilty and innocent. The problem lies with how the community observes and insists on conformity, leading to the marginalisation and oppression of those who are different. As Qianmo says in the film, it’s not the truth you really want to find, but someone to blame. It’s just that when everyone is to blame, no one seems to want to take responsibility.
In order to tell her story without coming too heavily under the censor’s axe, Layla Ji decided to shoot her film in Malaysia. The issue of bullying, as well as the presence of homoerotic tendencies in the high school environment, would have hindered the film being made in mainland China. And indeed, considering what happened last year with regards to Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang’s nonetheless very successful Better Days, which also focused on bullying but was watered down by propagandistic corrective measures, one cannot help but fully agree with the director.
With Victim(s) she was able to maintain the opaqueness of doubt in the questions it raises, questioning the audience as part of a community that takes sides, but rarely sees or hears what it doesn’t like. In this sense, the road chosen by Gu, Mei and Qianmo, the three women who are at the reins of the trauma, imparts a lesson that, in the finale, is crowned by the grace of a luminous rebirth.
Chinese director Layla Zhuqing Ji, after directing shorts in the US, made her feature debut with Victim(s), shot in Malaysia.
2020 – Victim(s)