“What latest studio head or screen icon will find his past circling back on him? In horror films, there is the silent horde of the undead, dragging the villain down to a well-deserved fate.”
Winnie M Li’s second novel, Complicit is a post MeToo# tale mostly told from the point of view of Sarah Lai, a 39 year-old Chinese-American woman who teaches film at a NY community college. Once upon a time, Sarah bucked her Chinese restaurant owning parents’ ambitions for their daughter and launched herself into the film industry. But now, 10 years post that experience, Sarah has no ties to that period, except some memories and a tiny mention on IMDB. What went wrong?
Sarah loved film, and we wince while she teaches her mostly untalented students as they try to create screenplays. It’s clear that this job, although secure, is not what Sarah wanted. Sarah is contacted by New York Times journalist Thom Gallagher who wishes to interview her about her experiences with film mogul British billionaire Hugo North and actress Holly Randolph. Sarah admits to herself; “In some way, I knew it was coming.”
The novel takes the form of Sarah’s narrative and interview notes between Gallagher and various sources. When Thom interviews Sarah, she goes back in time to her early days in the film industry and her first ‘break’ when she worked initially as an unpaid intern for Sylvia Zimmerman, the owner of Firefly Films. While working at Firefly Films, Sarah met director Xander, a not untalented man whose loose script for the film A Hard Cold Blue, is carved into shape by Sarah. Sarah’s work load expands over the course of a few years moving from the title of PA and then AP. Xander’s film makes it to Cannes where it garners the attention of Hugo North. North is looking to invest and expand to the film industry, and so he buys into Firefly Films and instantly changes the name to Conquest Films.
But it’s not just the name of the company that changes. Domineering Hugo North loves to party and loves to break down inhibitions: so it’s cocaine and girls all the way. Xander is happy to be on board and Sarah, always the quiet one on the fringes, finds herself bowing to pressure, and joining in. In one memorable scene, Hugo and Xander flick through piles of photos of actresses for Xander’s next film. The moment, complete with crude comments, seems more about screening potential sex partners than actresses:
If you told two-hundred plus actresses that they would be summarily judged just like that, declared en masse to be inappropriate for a lead role, their hearts would be crushed. But aspiring actors never suspect the cold reality of the business, they’re too bewitched by the illusion that the industry peddles about itself: that if you’re talented enough and passionate enough, you’ll get your big break one day.
When production moves to LA, it’s fairly obvious where Sarah is headed, but the attraction of watching this slow train wreck does not lessen for that knowledge. A sticky web surrounds Sarah, but she thinks she has choices… well she does, but those choices will have unpleasant consequences which ever way she moves.
The tale, with its bitter, unsavory truths, unwinds through the memory of Sarah’s experiences. Hugo North is a vile man who gets what he wants, but then wants new toys. People like Hugo North do not exist in a vacuum. He throws money and coke at people and gets what he wants–if someone has moral scruples, no matter, there are plenty of people who don’t or who are willing to park their morals at the door and turn a blind eye. The title Complicit says it all, and I loved the way the author shows that no one comes out of this story without a stain.
There are those who turn a blind eye to events and others who known damn well what is going on but pretend otherwise. Some things we cannot bury, no matter how much we obscure them with gift bags and PR statements and smiling photographs. The truths live on, even though their traces can only be found if we’re looking: in the comments that were edited out, the glances in unpublished photos, the meetings that took place behind closed doors but were followed by strange silences. Or one-way messages, never returned,
So we are all seeing it now. I saw it then, too.
But I pretended I didn’t.