Tragedy suddendly strikes Tak Sing Art School as a student is stabbed to death, two friends of his lie wounded in an hospital bed and a fourth kid, probably the perpetrator, has gone missing. All at once, journalists stamp their greedy feet on the scene of the crime, probing into the families’ lives loaded with microphones, cell phones, cameras, screeching questions, ready to pull the truth out of people’s pain in a carnival of screams and pictures, producing all kinds of possible motives and psychological profiles for the audience’s prompt consumption. All the while the teachers try to send the long shadow of death away not to let the crime lead students astray, the students start engaging in an instant messaging chain reaction, their texts forming a necklace of coherent words, a pattern weaving an unanimous narrative, conveniently confirmed during the police interrogation as the indisputable and absolute truth: Gangzi (Hon Kahoe), the victim, was a lower-class boy considered as inferior by the missing student, Chen (Fu Xianjun), a spoilt brat who looked down on everyone. The main reason why the two constantly fought against each other, though, was newcomer Xu Qianmo (Wilson Hsu), a girl with a disreputable history of sex scandal, expelled from her previous school for seducing her dance coach and obviously eager for more action, flirting with both boys because of her sexual appetite. Alongside the clear-cut description of facts and motives so diligently spoon-fed by the mass media and by students, the public opinion is also given a thorough depiction of the victim’s and the perpetrator’s mother respectively: on the one hand, there’s Gu (Remon Lim), Gangzi’s mother, humble masseuse fighting against life’s hardships and epitome of great devotion and responsibility for sacrificing everything to let her son study in a prestigious art school; on the other hand, there’s Mei (Lu Huang), elegant and wealthy CEO of a company producing violent videogames, a disreputable mother, daughter of immigrants thus likely to be not trustworthy and, what’s worse, a single mother who raised her child without a man on her side, leaving the boy on his own with those violent videogames, surely causing him to kill without mercy. The whole story has already been officially written as Chen suddenly shows up to confess his crime: everybody cheers, knowing justice is nigh; some people even launch a crowdfunding campaign to help Gu cover legal expenses, while others, realizing Chen won’t be given any life sentence because he’s under age, create a petition to overthrow the court’s decision. While facing such an unquestionable truth, Gu can’t help but hate Mei and the fate which took her son away; she even refuses to accept Mei’s attempt at showing empathy and understanding, for in the black and white world established by the media narrative and tacitly accepted by everyone else, including the law, victims and perpetrators are mutually exclusive, and the former can’t possibly be mistaken for the latter. Yet, when Gu accidentally discovers two objects in Gangzi’s room, the black and white truth established by the media shatters to pieces, and a new, different narrative comes to light. It is only when the frantic media circus and the students’ instant messaging merry-go-round ends that can the actual story begin: flashbacks come to weave a thread of multiple truths constantly hidden or kept at bay for several reasons ̶ cruelty, fear, subjugation, denial of one’s real nature, and of others’ ̶ in a ruthless pantomime with no possible way out but violence and death.
By focusing on an intense description of two boys’ brutal descent down the bullying inferno because of their refusal to think with their own head, Victim(s) explores how the lack of self-esteem and the inability to accept one’s own true self on the one hand and the unwillingness to react against violence out of mistrust in the system on the other hand can lead teenagers to a point of no return: despite their choices are aimed at fending off and possibly erasing the pain of being a victim, they end up magnifying that same pain as well as their victim status. The “s” put into parentheses in English title actually bears a similar magnifying effect, as it marks the propagation of the victim status from one character to another, involving both Gangzi Chen and killing them both though in a different way, either literally or metaphorically. But maybe what’s even more intriguing about the film is the magnitude of this propagation of the victim status as a plural one, involving also the two mothers Gu and Mei, both completely oblivious of their sons’s true lived and both reduced to mere targets of male sexism: while Gu, who was abandoned by Gangzi’s father, is forced into a relationship with an abusive alcoholic in order to survive only to see him run away with her son’s money, Mei constantly has to fight against a society that will never accept her, in fact, she will always be deemed inappropriate for being an immigrant, single, wealthy and successful woman. Last but not least, Victim(s)’ plot also builds up to fully depict the hopeless purity of Qianmo, the only self-conscious and truly strong character of the story, bitterly aware of how truth can be useless but able to read what others don’t want to see. Though accepting the shattering of her dreams as inevitable and thus in a way as passive as Chen in her dealing with school matters, nevertheless Qianmo is able to oppose the crowd’s pre-packaged narrative with her solitary and non-compliant attitude, but ends up being victimized herself out of her supposedly provocative and sexy approach to men. Society and culture, the director seems to suggest, see women as provocative agents, perpetrators causing men to fall on their knees, consequently, they are always reduced to objects put on display, abused and erased as the ultimate victims in a world which leaves them no space but kills their thirst for dancing, understanding, friendship, possibly even love. Qianmo’s face, her hands, her final steps of acquiescence tinged with resurrection, her sadness mized with tenderness, leaves us with a sense of muffled liberation, a vague hope marked by the willingness to break free from the ambiguous chain of victims becoming perpetrators and the other way round that end up destroying people’s (but mostly women’s) lives. The original Chinese title of the film actually highlights both the juxtaposition and specularity of the two roles, victim and perpetrator, and their mutual fighting against each other: Jiahai zhe, Beihai ren 加害者，被害人 ̶ which translates both as “Perpetrator against/and Victim” in the singular form and as “Perpetrators against/and Victims” in the plural form ̶ seems to suggest a refusal to give in to the macronarrative on gender and sexual orientation discrimination imposed on people (in Asia as elsewhere) by governments, communities and the mass media, forcing us to question toxic cultural practices aimed at “acting like a real man” and ultimately leading boys towards violent behaviours against themselves, other boys, and girls.
As the debut feature film by Chinese director and scriptwriter Layla Zhuqing Ji (though the film is from Malaysia, as we can infer from minor characters speaking a language different from Mandarin), Victim(s) was part of the official selection chosen for the twenty-second edition of the Far East Film Festival, usually set in Udine, Italy, but this year replaced by online platform screenings because of the Covid19 outbreak. I really recommend this film, not only because it was one of the most beautiful films of the festival (though it was only awarded second prize at the end of the competition, it definitely deserved something more ̶ a Gelso Bianco award, given to first feature films, would have been just fair), but also because it is a desperate and unexpected tale of sisterhood fighting against male weakness and cruelty, as well as an heartbreaking dance of sheer intensity both for the acting (Wilson Hsu, Fu Xianjun and Remon Lim are particularly worth mentioning) and the writing/directing. A vivid debut, from a woman director to watch out for.