Every once in a while comes along a film that has a story behind it – a story about its troubled production or problems the film may have post-production; a story that goes on to manifest itself into something bigger than the film itself. Ying Liang’s “When Night Falls” is one such film. The film screened at the Jeonju International Film Festival, amidst great attempts by the Chinese authorities to stop its showing, and at the Locarno Film Festival, where it won the Golden Leopard Awards for Best Director and Best Actress for An Nam. Before we talk about the film though, it is imperative that we understand, in brief, the real-life case that it is based around.

When Night Falls” screens at Chinese Visual Festival

The film is based on the sensational real-life case of Yang Jia, who was arrested in Shanghai in October 2007 for riding an unlicensed bicycle. Beaten and abused by the investigating officers, Yang tried to raise complaints about his mistreatment at the hands of the authorities during his arrest to no avail, his pleas falling to deaf ears and instead receiving further harrassment at the hand of the authorities. Frustrated, hopeless and angry, Yang attacked a police headquarters in Shanghai in July the following year, armed with petrol bombs, a knife, a hammer, a dust mask and a tear gas spray, killing 6 police officers and injuring 4 others in his wake. He was subsequently arrested, hastily tried under highly dubious circumstances and sentenced to death. All this, while his mother  Wang Jingmei was preposterously sent to a mental hospital and detained for 143 days, stopping her from helping her son.

The film begins in the immediate aftermath of Wang’s release from the asylum and focuses solely on her as she waits news on her son’s appeals, trying her best to help him in any way that she can. We follow her for two days as she returns to a cold, lonely home and continues last-gasp efforts which even she seems to know are futile to help her son, while concerned family, activists and journalists hound her, something that is both appreciated for the coverage it is giving her son’s case as well as abhorred for how little they care for her privacy in these testing times. 

The docudrama is immediately grounded in reality, bookended by pictures from actual events from the case and its conclusion, including the involvement of the artist Ai Weiwei and the many online debates that ensued. It also very efficiently manages to explain to the uninitiated all the important elements of the case in one effective scene, as the court employees read out Yang’s verdict to his mother and their well-wishers.

Ying Liang also takes the opportunity with this film to harshly comment on the farcical, non-independent judicial system that seemingly exists within the Mainland. Yang’s case was tried and appealed without competent representation, with his mother locked away in the asylum, uninformed on what was going on or without being able to appoint sufficient representation for him. Her efforts to provide what little help for her son’s comfort in his last days fall to deaf ears, symbolically and even literally, as the difficult-of-hearing tailor makes a mess of her instructions for trousers she wants to send to Yang.

The impression that the country is a welcoming, homely place, acceptive of certain western “cultures” that have maybe no place in the lives of the hapless common folk is also criticised. While the main streets are cleaned and maintained in preparation for the upcoming Beijing 2008 Olympics, the smaller housing lanes have overflowing garbage bags gathering with no hopes of collection in sight. McDonald’s advertisements are but mere pieces of paper that the people living there can use to cover windows or clean with.

As the sole actor that the film focuses on, An Nei is excellent as Wang Jingmei. She is a picture of desperation and helplessness, a woman that has accepted defeat at the hands of the judicial system but will still go as far as she can for her son. The change in her facial expressions in the aforementioned verdict scene are mesmerising and heartbreaking to watch, as is the following scene where she goes home and starts tearing off pages from the calendar on the wall. Her performance is exalted by Ryuji Otsuka’s wonderful cinematography which makes use mostly of long takes and natural light or single light sources. The courtroom scene chooses to cut between An’s face and the shadows of the courtroom clerks, as the verdict read is interestingly composed because of the latter choice, but it succeeds in keeping the viewer with Wang Jingmei and her sorrow. Another scene, a long take, where she talks to a person from Yang’s past on the telephone, illuminated by a single source of light is virtuoso.

The Chinese authorities tried their best to stop Ying’s film from screening at the Jeonju Film Festival, even going to the lengths of having “anonymous” buyers try to buy the film’s rights. Once the film did screen, Ying’s family was harassed and he was effectively exiled from returning home, the threat of an arrest ever-looming. While they were unsuccessful in stopping the film from screening, their actions in fact had the opposite effect, making it reach a much wider audience than a small independent production might have otherwise enjoyed, which is just as well, because “When Night Falls” is an important poignant film that holds a stark mirror against a strict and bullying regime and its judicial system.