Winnie M. Li was making her way in the film business as a young producer when a sexual attack pushed her life and career onto a different path. She was raped in 2008 while on a hike, but the trauma forced her to leave the industry, whose innate sexism, she explained, didn’t offer a safe space for her recovery.
Li’s first book, the 2017 suspense novel Dark Chapter, explores rape from the perspectives of a survivor and a rapist and draws from her own experiences. It later won the Not Booker Prize from the Guardian. Now, she’s decided to reengage with her producer days in a second novel, Complicit (Atria/Bestler, Aug.), an unflinching and addictive depiction of the film industry she left behind.
Writing, Li says, was her first love. “As a child, I always said I wanted to be a writer, but my mother didn’t think it would be a very lucrative job for me,” she explains, speaking via Zoom, from the cottage in the English countryside that she shares with her partner and toddler.
Film, however, seemed to have the potential to provide both creative and financial rewards.
Li grew up in New Jersey in the 1980s and ’90s in an Asian-American family that maintained “a big emphasis on getting into an Ivy League school.” She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and moved to Cork in Ireland to pursue an MA in English. While volunteering at the Cork Film Festival, she met a director who put her in touch with a producer in London who needed an assistant. Her career in film had begun.
There are some similarities between Li and Sarah Lai, the character at Complicit’s center. Sarah too is a young, aspiring producer, but her background is more modest; she’s the daughter of immigrants who run a Chinese restaurant in Queens, N.Y. One day, she answers an ad placed on the noticeboard at her Ivy League college by Firefly, a production company. She lands the assistant job and enters a new world.
Li’s novel runs on two separate timelines—one in the early 2000s and the other in 2017. The first follows Sarah’s rise in the industry While at Firefly, Sarah works on a film that becomes a hit at Cannes. Its success leads wealthy producer Hugo North to invest in Firefly. Hugo, though, turns out to be an unabashed sexual abuser. In the later timeline, Sarah is being questioned by a New York Times journalist about the activities of both Firefly and Hugo.
The setup obviously bears comparison to the story of Miramax cofounder Harvey Weinstein, whose serial sexual abuse of women inspired the #MeToo movement. Li’s book, however, portrays the entire ecosystem that spawned Weinstein and other abusers; she wanted to show the complexities of abuse within the film world. It was never just about one high-profile man.
“Weinstein is in jail, but how many others are still free and are in fact flourishing?” Li asks. “There are plenty of people who engaged in behavior that would not be acceptable today, and there are so many more who were witnesses but said nothing.”
Li is well placed to explore such nuances. She served as an associate producer on four feature films and was also a producer on a short film titled Vagabond Shoes, which was nominated for an Oscar. During this time she witnessed the many challenges facing women in film. This awareness was heightened by her own experience of rape.
One of the pleasures of Li’s new novel is its plausibility. She shares details of the film industry only an insider would know. The story reveals the negotiations that take place over things like scripts and awards ceremonies. It also exposes the film industry’s obsession with hierarchy at every level, detailing how powerful players constantly take credit for the work of those below them.
Li’s characters are recognizable types within the film industry, too. Sarah’s boss, Sylvia, for example, is a woman who deserves much praise. She has made unimaginable sacrifices and receives less respect than her male counterparts, and she rarely sees her children. Yet her refusal to confront the behavior of her male colleagues creates conditions ideal for abuse, and so she is complicit too.
“There have been so many women like Sylvia over the years, and now she must come to peace with what happened and what she did or didn’t do,” Li says.
The male characters are drawn with similar authenticity. The director of the Cannes hit, Xander, is the kind of man who often flourishes within film and is a reminder that the #MeToo movement also sought to address broader issues of gender inequality within the industry. He’s gifted and charismatic but also self-obsessed, and he takes advantage of Sarah’s shyness by failing to credit her for important work she did on his script. His ascent, in his eyes, has been based on merit rather than resulting from a system that has favored men from its genesis.
The producer, Hugo, is a more obvious villain, and, according to Li, his ways of working are familiar to anyone with experience of the film industry. His ability to fund projects gives him huge power and allows him to sexually assault countless women. “People would tolerate any behavior in the film industry if someone had money,” Li says. “When someone like Hugo appeared, it meant that projects could be made and that meant everything. It didn’t matter what they did to women.”
The story is mostly narrated by Sarah, with her words supplemented by testimonies from other characters in the novel that Li says she added in later drafts. These lead the reader to question Sarah’s version of events.
Complicit concludes on an ambivalent note for Sarah, although it is suggested that reform within the industry is underway. Li says this is similar to what has occurred in real life too. “We see intimacy coordinators on set, for example,” she explains, referencing the specialists who have begun to be employed on sets to ensure that sex scenes are filmed in a way that respects the actors and crew. “That would never have happened in my day. Productions are taking complaints of sexual harassment more seriously. In recent weeks we’ve seen big stars such as Bill Murray being forced to leave set because of inappropriate behavior. There are more women taking up creative roles within the industry, and they are more involved in decision making.”
But more change needs to take place, according to Li, especially when it comes to issues of racial diversity, inclusion, and accessibility.
For her part, Li has no desire to return to the industry. “[I’ll always love cinema, and working in the movie business] was very exciting at times, but the precarity was terrible. The book industry is a better fit for me.”
Sinéad O’Shea is a writer and filmmaker in Dublin. She has contributed to Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, and the New York Times.