Even though Chinese cinema has been growing and expanding aggressively for the past 15 years, there are still a couple of genres and niches that remain virtually untouched by Chinese directors and film studios. Sci-fi used to be one of them, but it seems 2019 is gearing up to become a turning point. Wen Ren's Last Sunrise is one of China's first serious attempts at sci-fi and if this film is anything to go by, it makes the future of Chinese sci-fi films look very promising indeed.
Frant Gwo's The Wandering Earth has been dominating the Chinese sci-fi narrative for the past couple of weeks. It became the second most profitable Chinese film ever and goes all out on effects and sci-fi geekiness. While it establishes sci-fi as a credible option, a film like Last Sunrise is probably just as important in the long run. While it doesn't have the marketing muscle and the insanely deep pockets of The Wandering Earth, it shows that China can also do sci-fi on a budget, making the playing field that much broader.
This sudden rise in sci-fi interest isn't all that surprising either. China has become a technological innovator and when business requires you to look to the future for opportunity and profitability, a greater cultural shift can't be too far behind. So far China has been mostly looking to the past to celebrate greatness, but those times are quickly changing. This shift brings along new fears, uncertainties and possibilities, which are the exact sentiments movies love to feast on. On top of that, these cultural supplements create an invaluable feedback loop that in their turn could fuel actual technological advances.
The story revolves around the sudden disappearance of our sun. An event that would be problematic under any circumstance, but more so in a futuristic world that relies on solar power entirely. This cataclysmic event causes chaos everywhere, not in the least because humanity is left without its main source of power while at the same time the Earth is slowly cooling off. An amateur astronomer and his neighbor set out to find one of the world's leading scientists, hoping he can give them some pointers on how to survive this sudden doom scenario.
With little money to spend, it all comes down to smarts and creativity if one wants to create a believable on-screen future. There's a little splurging at the beginning of the film to set the mood, after the first 15 minutes or so the film turns more modest. Superb use of lighting, nifty camera work and a couple of effective CG shots uphold the illusion from there on out. It's a tricky balance, but Ren aces it. Last Sunrise looks stunning from start to finish and unless you're paying specific attention to how and where the budget was spent, you probably won't even notice how there's a lot of nickel-and-diming going on.
Visuals are one thing, but the create a consistent and captivating atmosphere you also need a strong soundtrack. Most films seem to glance over this, but it is actually one of the most cost-effective ways to create a solid mood. You don't need any fancy names or elaborate compositions to put together a good soundtrack and Ren seems to understand this really well. While not the most original music selection, it's a very solid soundtrack that aptly reinforces the mood of the film and that gets a few moments where it can shine all by itself.
Films like these rarely have a large cast, Last Sunrise isn't any different. Once the introduction is over, it's mostly just Jue Zhang and Yue Zhang driving and walking around in desolate areas. From time to time they meet some survivors, but they're always small groups of loners doing their best to get by. Luckily Zhang and Zhang both do a great job and while their characters aren't always the most enjoyable human beings, it's their specific defects that make them a fun duo to hang around with. It's not a film that will win its cast any prizes, but the performances are well above average.
If you like drawing comparisons between films, Last Sunrise could be described as an ode to the work of Danny Boyle, taking the premise of Sunrise while structuring it like 28 Days Later. If you want to stay closer to home, there are elements reminiscent of Han Han's The Continent, though adapted as a modern, lo-fi, sci-fi movie. While all these comparison make sense (up to a point), they really don't do justice to Last Sunrise, which really finds a voice of its own.
Ultimately, doing sci-fi on a budget means you have to pick your battles. You need to do some world building, but you can't tackle everything front and center. Ren plays it smart and doesn't ignore the big sci-fi aspects of his story, though he lets most of them play out in the background. While Last Sunrise hints at several plot points that could carry an entire spin-off movie (a bit like the Cloverfield series), they are only witnessed from afar, through the eyes of our wandering duo. It works well, though people looking for big set pieces and sprawling action might be disappointed by the gap between what is happening and what is shown.
Last Sunrise is a film that is very aware of its own limitations, yet Wen Ren was successful in turning them into assets. While the film is actually quite small in scale, it never feels cramped or limited, it just feels like a more modest part of a bigger whole. Add some beautiful imagery, a great soundtrack and solid acting and you have an impressive sci-fi film. Last Sunrise is quite the calling card for newcomer Wen Ren, a film that will hopefully get him enough recognition to build up a viable career in film. China can definitely use a guy like him right now.