GFF2021 Review: Victim(s)

Year: 2020
Duration: 1h 47m
Writer/Director: Layla Zhuqing Ji
Starring: Xianjun Fu, Wilson Hsu, Kahoe Hon

By Caz Armstrong

This debut feature by writer-director Layla Zhuqing Ji is a stark social commentary on bullying, self-preservation and society’s willingness to judge before they try to listen. Media sensationalism is held to account for stoking unfounded accusations and rumour which destroys people’s lives. But the central theme of bullying is unflinching and alarming.

In the middle of a stormy night three high school students are stabbed, with Gangzi (Kahoe Hon) losing his life. Quiet and mild-mannered classmate Chen (Fu Jianxun) hands himself in, confessing to the heinous crime. Students claim that a love triangle with new girl Qianmo (Wilson Hsu) caused the attack. Others blame video game violence and Chen’s mother, turning her into a local pariah.

The frenzied media does nothing to try to find the truth about why such an upstanding student would commit such a crime; instead, they publish rumours and accusations. While Chen sits on trial we begin to learn the reality behind the rumours is not all as it seems. In fact, a toxic and unchecked environment of school bullying created a much more complicated situation than it first appeared. While we unravel why the attack happened, we discover far more victims than we thought.

The fact that bullying even exists is infuriating. It’s deliberate, calculated and cruel. It destroys people’s confidence, in some cases leaving them unable to trust and form meaningful bonds. Anti-bullying campaigns that rely on “tell a teacher” do nothing to address bullies themselves.

Scenes of bullying here are utterly chilling because they show how unbelievably cruel it can be. Various students are ganged up on, physically assaulted and sexually humiliated. The perpetrators are groups of both boys and girls who taunt and mock their victims mercilessly.

Layla Zhuqing Ji attempts to explore at least some of the reasons why someone might be a bully. They are often victims themselves, suffering from domestic abuse, unstable home environments, homophobia or having to hide their true selves. It’s a difficult line to tread but the film manages to show that victims can be bullies themselves without using that to excuse their own behaviour.

One of the saddest elements is how the victims of bullying can feel so scared and disempowered that they don’t stand up for each other, and that bystanders fail to intervene. Many blind eyes are turned in the film, including from teachers who have a duty of care towards their students. It’s understandable, after all how many of us would actually step in against three violent attackers? But also infuriating to see assault and psychological abuse run rampant and unchecked.

All the central performances have a heartfelt conviction and the story is woven in such a way to play with your ideas of innocence, guilt and motive. A few points in the film feel overly convenient with the right characters happening to show up at just the right time to be anywhere near realistic. It makes some scenes feel a bit clunky but doesn’t spoil things too much if you can forgive it.

Despite being really quite distressing there is hope in the form of two mothers who come to realise the truth about their sons. By showing that the contributing factors to youth crime can be complex and varied the film points out our own complicity. But if we were all to speak up for victims, uphold truth instead of rumour, and stop supporting sensationalist media then society would be stronger. We just need to listen and understand difficult truths rather than jumping to blame.

Layla Zhuqing Ji’s debut feature is both hard-hitting and nuanced, showing the devastation done by the poison of abuse and uncaring attitudes.

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