China (2019) Dir. Wen Ren
The end of the world is approaching, what do you do? Panic of course! Alternatively, you could keep a level head and find a way to survive even if it is prolonging the inevitable. It would mean you are the last of the survivors, or perhaps it depends on what there is left to enjoy your final moments.
In a near futuristic world, humankind relies solely on solar energy for all of their needs since the sun is the one eternally sustainable and safest power source. The sunlight starts to flicker with no discernible explanation one day, but amateur astronomer Sun Yang (Zhang Jue) notices a star in the sun’s orbit has mysteriously disappeared.
Yang raises this with renowned scientist, the “Sun King” Wang Yun (Wang Dahong) who publicly claims no knowledge of the missing star. Then the sun disappears completely plunging the world into darkness and without the use of technology. Sun realises Wang Yun knows more than he claims and leaves to find him before temperatures plummet.
Chinese cinema isn’t known for its sci-fi output, its few entries thus far have largely been soulless CGI heavy efforts in an attempt to compete with the popcorn blockbusters from Hollywood. This debut feature from Wen Ren has a modest budget and relies a lot on CGI but is the exact opposite of a blockbuster sci-fi flick, and all the better for it.
With a story that sounds like it could work equally as well as a polemic on the dangers of global warming it appears Wen is actually proffering a caution about our reliance on technology whilst taking natural energy sources for granted. The concept of us having to go without our sole omnipotent power source fits in with any ecological concerns Wen may have, just as long as it doesn’t cause any tree huggers to panic.
This futuristic version of China is comprised of numbered districts as opposed to named towns, cities, and provinces. Everything electronically driven is solar powered, with only a few vestiges of the analogue past, like money, pens, electric light bulbs, etc. proving as anachronistic as Jacob Rees-Mogg. Sun Yang’s home set-up looks like Tony Stark’s office, right down to his only companion ILSA, an Ai that does everything for him.
Once the sunlight begins to fade, Sun finds the best viewpoint to witness this is the flat across the hall inhabited by Mu Chen (Zhang Yue). Together they watch the sun literally vanish before their eyes and the sky turn to night. Outside is already chaos with people panic buying (but no cash to pay for it), very few lights working on rechargeable batteries and looting already in progress.
Sun is mugged for his money, but left his food and an injured knee, as people have already turned into savages, whilst he and Mu fend off attackers as they head to Mu’s car. Cars in this world are electric but with access to power now at a premium, Sun and Mu will have to make do with that they have left.
It’s an interesting way to deliver a road movie, which is what this essentially is, by going high concept but it not only works but makes a refreshing change. Certain plot beats and rhythms intrinsic to this subgenre surface as you would expect them to but never played in an obvious manner, the only one coming close is the inevitable growing bond between Sun and Mu.
But this isn’t about two single souls finding contrived solace in each other, rather the mutual dependency that develops which only they can provide – Sun with his scientific knowledge and Mu with her comparative street smarts, more a result of her inherent perkiness than natural guile. But they make an entertaining couple even without any overt romanticising of the scenario, another welcome subversion of the norm.
No doubt, smart people will be able to pick any possible holes in the science but Wen seems to have done his homework to make the relevant jingo sound plausible and credible. However, the script doesn’t go overboard and risk deterring the layman viewer, using it instead as the backdrop for the exploration of how humans are ill equipped to deal with disasters because we’ve become too comfortable in our lives.
Wen relishes in showing desperate people exploiting every situation for their own gain, revealing the primal selfishness incurred by this scenario, and delighting in reminding us of the value of fundamental archaic solutions like coal mining and electricity. There is a moving moment when Mu cries at having hot water to wash in as freezing temperatures take hold – simple and profound.
Earlier I mentioned the film relies on CGI but not in a way typical of the sci-fi remit Wen is fulfilling. Aside from the virtual reality-esque computer set-up in Sun’s flat, the majority if the visual effects are used to create the eerie perma-night sky that hangs overhead, a heady mix of ethereal fantasy and astutely observed exaggerations of astronomical fact.
As Sun remarks he’s never seen the stars with his own eyes, only through his computer screen, he is conflicted as to how the sun is the reason the wonders of the universe are hidden from the naked eye, the very sun he relies upon for life. A cruel but necessary trade off it would seem, as the illustrations presented here are truly magical.
Information is scant on Wen or the cast, with both Zhangs apparently newcomers but after their performances as Sun and Mu, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them in the future. Zhang Yue stands out more with Mu being the more rounded character but Zhang Jue is a decent nerdy protagonist with conviction and not a milquetoast trope.
Wen has proved with Last Sunrise a thought provoking sci-fi film can be made without the trappings of excess with an intelligent story and unique premise. I hope his next film, whatever it may be, also impresses