Winnie M Li’s first novel, Dark Chapter, offered a fictionalised account of her own sexual assault, written in part, she has said, “to do justice to the survivors’ experience”. Her follow-up, Complicit, is born out of the same urgent need to address questions of silence and suppression, and feels particularly timely in its depiction of the film industry and the men who control the stories (in every sense).
Before turning to writing, Li worked as a film producer, a career she was forced to abandon on account of the PTSD she suffered after her assault, and she brings an insider’s eye to a story that will be depressingly familiar to anyone who has followed the progress of the #MeToo movement in the entertainment industry. Sarah Lai, the narrator of Complicit, shares some biography with her author; like Li, Sarah is the daughter of south-east Asian immigrants, an Ivy League graduate and former producer. The novel opens as Sarah – now teaching Screenwriting 101 at a “no-name college” – receives an email from an investigative reporter at the New York Times, asking to discuss a part of her life she would rather forget.
Sarah’s interview with the journalist, Thom Gallagher, becomes the framing device for her recollections of one particular movie, as Thom’s questions zero in on her interactions with the film’s financier, Hugo North, and its young, unknown lead, Holly Randolph. As the title suggests, Complicit is concerned not only with the power imbalance between influential men and eager young women in the film business, but with the ways in which the handful of senior women in the industry turn a blind eye to exploitation if it’s in their interest to keep those men on side. Sarah’s narrative is intercut with transcripts of Thom’s interviews with other women who worked with Hugo; those who might have been expected to speak up are quick to deny any knowledge of misdeeds, or to victim-blame. “A 23-year-old fresh out of film school, who wants a film credit? Or a 20-year-old aspiring model who happens to know the right people? These aren’t professionals, they’re just… fodder,” says one older female producer. Sarah’s own position during the period under investigation, it soon becomes clear, was morally ambiguous; battling to be taken seriously in an environment rife with sexism and racism, she justifies smaller misdemeanours to appease her conscience, only to find herself compromised when a major incident occurs.