By Avery Harrington (London, UK)
Since its inception in 1951, the Berlinale has featured movies that explore multicultural contemporary issues. As part of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, Darkness under Sunshine screened last month, confronting sex trafficking from a female perspective. Written by Blossom Chen and Jinghua Zhu, the film is a fictionalized account of true events centering on the lives of two Chinese women living in Berlin who secretly meet under life-threatening conditions: Mo (Masako Yuan), an exceptionally gifted classical musician who escapes a child sex trade operation, and Zhenzhen (Shenghao Sun), the investigative journalist who documents Mo’s traumatic history.
Darkness under Sunshine manages to portray the somber realities of sex trafficking without being exploitative or trivializing. In a scene of Mo’s captivity, the camera pans across a lowly-it dilapidated room of spiritless teenage girls cramped side-by-side, wearing uniform lackadaisical expressions. Here, the typical male gaze is refreshingly replaced by one careful to avoid the pitfalls of films with purportedly feminist agendas which paradoxically perpetuate the sexualization of female bodies. Instead of lingering where it shouldn’t, the lens captures an atmosphere of listless despair.
In one of the film’s more moving scenes which takes place when Mo was around ten years old and had just been sold into the trade, she and a young friend set off to escape at night. After the girls make it to a road outside the compound, an SUV’s lights flood the street and for a few tense seconds it’s uncertain whether or not help is behind the wheel. Just as they’re ostensibly about to be driven off to safety, the sex traders appear and they’re captured once again. When the two are raped in retaliation for trying to flee, the scene is consciously shot in a way that focuses on the girls’ humanity, rather than sensationalize the brutality. The pair hold hands and call out to comfort each other as they fight to stay alive.
The guzheng – a traditional Chinese plucked string instrument with a more than 2,500-year old history – features strongly in the film as a symbol of hope. Mo asks one of the men she must regularly serve to bring her the instrument as a gift, and her metaphorical escape into music becomes her literal escape from enslavement. When she’s given an audience to play before an instructor from a prestigious academy of arts, Mo’s skill is recognized and she’s taken under the professor’s wing. Her musical success challenges the stereotype that people who have endured routine sexual abuse are forever broken, and argues for the resiliency of the human spirit.
In the wake of this year’s #MeToo movement, a female-character driven feminist drama like Darkness under Sunshine is no surprise among the burgeoning of cinema that puts gender inequality and endemic crimes against women out front. Addressing systemic social ills is never an easy task, but as the world is finally waking up to the reality of the rampant abuse of male power, the timing for opening a new dialogue on this seems right.