There is a scene in the middle of Wen Ren’s feature debut Last Sunrise when Mu (Yue Zhang) tells her apartment neighbour, amateur astronomer Yang (Jue Zhang), of noises that she used to hear late at night. Mu suggests that this is proof of the existence of ghosts – before Yang reveals that it was in fact him knocking on her walls because her music was too loud. Just for a moment, Wen Ren’s feature debut flirts with a storyline involving ghosts – a subject long proscribed from the the films of, or even just shown in, mainland China – before supplanting such superstitious content with a more rational explanation. Yet in its way, even with its reliance on science, Last Sunrise is something of a breakthrough in the national cinema.
You wait for one Chinese sci-fi movie, and three come along. When Ren Chao Wang’s mid-apocalyptic The End of the Lonely Island (2016) emerged on the festival circuit, you would be hard-pressed to find any other film in this genre from the mainland. The End of the Lonely Island has been followed, in 2019, by not one but two films, both concerned, as it was, with an Earth-shattering apocalyptic event, and both focusing on the same kind of event: the dying or disappearance of the Sun from the solar system, bringing cataclysmic conditions to humanity. In fact, Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth (2019) has more in common premise-wise with Danny Boyle’s space-set Sunshine (2007) – which prominently featured actress Michelle Yeoh in its ensemble crew, a Chinese SF pioneer in more ways than one – than with with the more grounded plotting of Last Sunrise. Still, the status of Gwo’s big-budget blockbuster as China’s second highest grossing film of all time points in two possibly contradictory directions: on the one hand, there is clearly an appetite for home-grown sci-fi in China; and on the other, the immense success of The Wandering Earth risks eclipsing a smaller, thematically similar film like Last Sunrise (which enjoyed its World Première at Fantasporto 2019, several weeks after the domestic theatrical release of Gwo’s blockbuster) .
That would be a pity, for Ren has a unique take on the end of days. In his scenario, one day the Sun simply vanishes from the sky, and while there are hints at an explanation of this (involving the Icarus-like overreaching of a Corporation), Ren is far more concerned with following Mu and Yang at ground level as they race to survive a rapidly unfolding disaster. Along the way, as these two strangers negotiate a relationship with each other, they find a new way of looking at their changing world.
In a sense this is a romance, uncovering the erotics of apocalypse. Before he meets Mu, the only ‘woman’ in Yang’s life is Ilsa, the Siri- (or Her-)like personal assistant/constant companion in his computer. In other words, he, like everyone in this near-future China, is wedded to technology – and it is only when power provisions and communications suddenly break down that Yang finds himself widowed, his relationship status now entering its Ice Age. Mu is also recovering from a difficult relationship, but in each other Yang and Mu find a new sense of purpose and a reason to carry on when all is collapsing around them. For here, the end of everything engenders a surprise reemergence of humanity and even hope. This plays out against the backdrop of some spectacularly realised special effects to show how different our world, and everything that we take for granted in it, would look in the absence of the Sun. The paradox, though, is that this back-to-basics universe is not quite as dark a place as you might expect.
At a time when China is in a complicated transition from being the world’s worst coal emissions pollutor to being the world’s leader in solar energy, it is not difficult to imagine why two Chinese films should, separately yet simultaneously, light upon the same anxieties about energy and ecology. In Last Sunrise, coal does enjoy a sudden, bleak resurgence, although it is obviously not the future, and renewables of one kind or another seem the only way forward. In the new post-apocalyptic dispensation, people (including Yang) are shown conducting themselves in the most selfish and bestial ways – but the film’s ultimate, only ever so slightly ambiguous message would appear to be that we cannot ever fully rely on anything besides each other. Given the film’s premise, this is a surprisingly sunny conclusion, even if the emphasis is on long-term outlooks over the instant gratifications of today’s society.
© Anton Bitel