Annular Eclipse

Ji Yi Qiu Long
2021 / 98m - China
Mystery, Sci-fi
Annular Eclipse poster

You can't claim Chinese sci-fi is booming (yet), for that there are simply not enough films being made in this particular niche. But something is brewing, has been for a while now, and it has resulted in some very noteworthy releases. Chi Zhang's Annular Eclipse [Ji Yi Qiu Long] is the latest to join this list and it may be the best yet. While it's aimed primarily at core genre fans, the film has enough qualities to grow beyond its chosen niche. The only thing standing in its way is general availability, but that's nothing new (and is unlikely to be resolved soon).

screencap of Annular Eclipse [Ji Yi Qiu Long]

Chinese literature and cinema have always preferred looking back on their rich past over pondering about possible futures. It's only since its latest economic revival that there's been a push for sci-fi, often fueled by younger authors (thanks to the popularity of web novels). It's been interesting to follow how a genre is shaped from the ground up, borrowing where necessary, while also adding to it to give it a more unique Chinese flavor. I don't think we're entirely there yet, but that just means we're in the most interesting phase of the process: one where exploration and experimentation are key to getting ahead.

Annular Eclipse is near-future sci-fi, but 2030 looked a lot more like 2130 to me. The world-building isn't entirely consistent and some of its references are a bit too on the nose, but Zhang seems to be juggling a lot here, so it's not too surprising he took a few shortcuts along the way. It sometimes feels like he was trying to cram too many things into a single film, and I think some editing or a slightly more focused approach could've pushed the film even further. Then again, I'm not going to sit here and complain that a small-time genre director was being a tad overambitious.

The plot revolves around two highly skilled assassins who follow stringent rules to keep out of trouble. Something is lingering in their past though, and when they are assigned to arrange a hit on the leader of a memory transplantation company, that past is going to catch up with them. They'll face off against another team of hitmen and when they find a picture of them together inside the CEO's living quarters, they start a little investigation on the side to uncover what is locked away inside their brains. A journey that will unearth a malicious scheme.

screencap of Annular Eclipse [Ji Yi Qiu Long]

When you don't have the budget to create a sprawling CG vision of the future, you can always compensate with a couple of nifty cinematography tricks, and that's what Zhang understood very well. The film looks stunning, with dynamic camera work, interesting color choices, and snappy editing, creating an overall lush visual signature. The look adds a lot of flair and makes it that much easier to forgive any inconsistencies in the world-building. The CG could've been better and a bit more visual coherence could've further improved Zhang's work, but that's just nitpicking.

The soundtrack isn't quite as evocative, but that's been a long-standing issue with Chinese cinema. It does the job, sporting lots of low hums, some upbeat electronic-based background music that adds to the urgency, and a couple of fun sound filters to make everything a bit more sci-fi sounding. It's a soundtrack that rarely takes center stage and mostly fills up any spaces where the silence would've become a little too oppressive. I wish they'd done more to make the music a more integral part of the experience, but that's because it's a longstanding pet peeve of mine.

The lead performances are good, a big step up from your baseline Chinese streamer flick. Wang Ziyi and Liu Kejun are a great onscreen duo and a bit more interaction between the two would've been nice, as they form the heart of the story. The rest of the characters are extreme caricatures and the cast delivers them as such. It works well within the setup of the film, but apart from the overly stylized bad guys, you probably won't remember much of them once the film is finished. No complaints from me though, the cast does exactly what was expected of them.

screencap of Annular Eclipse [Ji Yi Qiu Long]

Annular Eclipse presents itself as a mystery, and it does that by hiding (or at least obfuscating) some important story elements from the audience. They are revealed gradually, but the story and sci-fi concept are pretty confusing in their own right, making this a film that demands quite a bit of those watching. At least, if you aim to keep track of the plot. I enjoyed this somewhat hazy experience, as it aligns perfectly with the vibe Zhang is chasing, but I've noticed that others had more trouble following along. Just put that phone away for a while, or you're sure to end up as lost as the main characters.

Now that China's film industry has settled down again, it's been quite a bit tougher to find interesting (genre) films. Luckily they're still there, only you have to dig a little deeper to find them. Annular Eclipse is a dashing genre effort, blending different genres, a conceptual story, and polished cinematography to create something that dazzles from start to finish. It bodes well for Chinese sci-fi if they can continue to produce films on this level, the only thing missing is a more consistent stream of genre efforts that can pad the niche. Well recommended, if you can get your hands on it.