The 19th Annual New York Asian Film Festival runs from August 28th-September 12th. The entire festival has moved to virtual availability. To find out more information, click here.
The opening moments of Chinese-born filmmaker Layla Zhuqing Ji’s heartbreaking debut feature film Victim(s) is depressingly familiar, especially for American audiences: a sudden and brutal act of violence has left one teenager, Gangzi, dead, two others in critical condition and their classmate Chen suspected and lated convicted for their murders. The film starts living within the pain of the mother who has lost her son, as well as the fear of the accused’s mother, wanting to believe the best.
From that starting point however, Ji explores the complexities of school violence by showing an exhaustive profile of everyone involved in the violent incident. When the mother of the dead Gangzi discovers videos depicting violent acts of bullying and rape commited by her son before his murder, it whips her into realization of what she never knew. From here the true heart of the film begins, exploring the intense, degrading humiliation that Chen and his would-be girlfriend Qianmo suffered at the hands of Gangzi and his friends.
Victim(s) is a difficult film to watch, as it provides no easy answers for a horrific incident. It could easily slip into an simplistic morality play about how bullying forced Chen into doing what he did, that he was in fact the real victim and his act of violence is thus just. But Ji is not interested in such simplistic readings of complex circumstances; rather than presenting Gangzi as a monster, she also dives into the systems of abuse and shame that lead him to becoming a bully in the first place.
Ji is much more interested in how invisible these systems of abuse, specifically in the test and success driven Asian schooling systems, can create scenarios that happen directly beneath the nose of suppose caretakers. Teachers give witness to obvious abuse, and turn a blind eye due to their own indifference and fear. Parents are horrified to discover the trauma their children were enduring under their care. At one point Qianmo reveals she had to look up basic birth control options available to her, simply because no one ever taught her.
Victim(s) is a hard watch, not only because of the violence inflicted on minors core to the subject matter, but because it relentlessly depicts this cruelty as a regular occurrence for the students, the children that it is inflicted on. The opening of the film claims it is “inspired by true events”, which Ji (who also wrote the script) has clarified is based on her watching hours and hours of bullying videos that she claims are even worse than what is shown and shot the film.
The great achievement of this film is the means for which Ji finds central sympathy for nearly every character in the movie, despite their horrific actions. She ultimately made the film in Malaysia for increased creative control when Chinese studios wanted to make drastic stylistic changes, specifically surrounding the centrality of the two mothers as a driving narrative focus. Played by Remon Lim and Lu Huang, they both play the heartbreak of discovering who their children were with such gravity and care.
The core trio of young actors however truly steal the film. The middle act is all them dancing around each other, and each depicts their character with such emotional intelligence and sadness. Chen, played by Xianjun Fu, plays the put upon top student, who excels but is expected socially to be quiet and obedient, making him easy prey for the aggressive rest of his class. Gangzi, played by Kahoe Hon, is deeply closeted and ashamed of both of sexuality and social standing, his father an alcoholic gambler which forces his mother to work in a massage parlor. A scene where Gangzi sees the upper class Chen get his legs rubbed by his mother sets off a spark of animosity between them that ultimately leads to his own death. And Wilson Hsu as the timid, disregarded Qianmo plays a tragic figure who is blamed in the aftermath of her own victimization. Her attempts to find peace amidst all the violence surrounding her serves as the central hope of the film, as fleeting as it can sometimes feel.
Victim(s)’ difficult subject matter is lifted to transcendent levels through dreamlike directing by Ji and beautiful cinematography by Eunsoo Cho. The film becomes more painterly as it goes along, and art as an expression to get through troubles serves as a theme in the text itself. Ji’s sympathy allows for a complex tale to be pulled from what all too often feels mundane. By depicting systems of cyclical abuse and neglect that lead to trauma and aggression, she provides a grounding for what often seems unthinkable. Her film gives a human face to tragedy, and refuses to ever truly define who are the actual victims. In the end, we all become victimized by web of abuse that we find ourselves trapped within.