BERLINALE: Review of Darkness Under Sunshine

Premiered at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival this month, “Darkness Under Sunshine”, shows the burgeoning sisterly affection in the lives of two women who have been thrown together under strange and troubling circumstances.

This is the story of two exceptionally strong female characters, an investigative journalist and a virtuoso guzheng player, who both find themselves drawn into the seamy and brutal world of human sex trafficking. Although the guiding narrative is the story of the meeting of these two women, the film tracks the very different paths these two characters have traveled to arrive at their first meeting, one of which involves the story of rampant and systematic childhood abuse, as well as the patriarchal institutions which support this.

The consequences of these sordid crimes are explored in the later scenes of the movie, scenes which show both the devastating consequences of the sexual exploitation of children and the ways in which victims can rebuild their lives and sublimate such harrowing experience in their pursuit of the arts. In this way, the movie pursues two critical agendas: on the one hand, it casts a spotlight on the all-too-real issue of sexual exploitation that affects those too young to consent to sex work in all parts of the world; on the other, it offers the audience a story of hope and resilience, one which shows the special nature of character traits that can develop in the face of profound human misery. Too often the depiction of violence in the mainstream film – especially sexual violence – leaves us knowing more than we ever wanted, or conversely offer us with stylised depictions that are more distasteful because they aestheticize the terrible crimes they represent.

Finding the middle point between these two extremes is difficult, and is something that the directorial team of “Darkness Under Sunshine” should be congratulated for achieving. Coupled with the film’s exploration of the real-world issues in the adult lives of the victims of the abuse depicted in the earlier scenes, this movie is not only about the very real effects of childhood sexual abuse on the human experience, but is also about the various ways in which victims can come to cope and come to terms with their previous abuse.

The later scenes, set in the serene environs of Berlin’s Akademie für Künste, illustrate this most completely.

Here our attention is gripped by the subplot of the power dynamics involved in the Chinese expat communities in Germany, the experience of Berlin’s world-famous nightlife, intercultural love relationships, mistaken identities, the ambiguity of governmental jurisdiction when working in a foreign country. But while all this unfolds on the screen, we also see the rise of the virtuoso guzheng player, a woman who is determined to move past the terrible circumstances that she endured in her earlier life. It is the affective bonds of female solidarity that this character creates with her investigative journalist friend, bonds which were first formed with other females in the film’s first heart-wrenching scenes, that show us that a new wave of women-driven feminism can help ameliorate some of the most pressing problems that women are subjected to in the twenty-first century.

By doing this, “Darkness Under Sunshine” helps pursue some of the most important issues with which the 68th Berlinale deals, issues that do not only speak to women but which speak to us all.

By Marcus Simone

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