Going into Wen Jiang's The Sun Also Rises [Tai Yang Zhao Chang Sheng Qi] without any prior knowledge is a somewhat bewildering experience. I couldn't get much grip on the film while watching it, constantly wondering what exactly Jiang was aiming for. At the same time, this gives the film a novel and adventurous shine, aspects I really appreciate. Looking back at The Sun Also Rises, I can only conclude it's a unique film that comes highly recommended, if you're open to it.
Wen Jiang's directorial output is quite slim compared to his work as an actor. But with Jiang it's all about quality, not quantity, illustrated quite aptly by the prestigious prices he earned on both Venice and Cannes film festivals. You could do worse as a director I guess. In the end The Sun Also Rises didn't earn him much in the way of trophies, critics everywhere still lauded the film with positive comments and reviews.
At first I figured this was just another rural Chinese drama, much like Zhang Yimou's first couple of films. What it lacks though is the serious, social dramatic undercurrent. Even though the first segment of the film is quite dramatic plot-wise, there's a frivolous side to the presentation that's a little difficult to place at first. In that sense, the film is not quite unlike Hu Guan's Cow, another film mixing rural drama and comedy in an unusual way.
Capturing the story of this film in a mere paragraph is an impossible challenge, so I won't even begin to try. There are four segments though, each of them linked superfluously, erupting in a big bang-like finale linking all of the characters and settings together. A second viewing will definitely help to iron out the details, but all in all you get a good sense of the overall picture once the credits start rolling. The film never really presents itself as a puzzle piece either, it's just a little structurally challenged.
Wen Jiang has a great eye for beautiful compositions. The camera work can be a tad too slick and polished at times, but when he keeps his camera still and focused on composition and lighting, it often results in cinematic magic. The most beautiful shots are hidden away in the second part of the film (the third and fourth segment) so don't panic if the beginning of the film seems a little plain, visually speaking.
The soundtrack is handled by Joe Hisaishi, the man behind many of Kitano's films. It's not a typical Hisaishi score, but it works very well within the confines of the film. It's a quirky selection of music, sometimes grand, sometimes plain weird, but always in sync with the atmosphere of the film, even going so far as to define it at certain points. In short, everything a good soundtrack should be.
The acting is flawless too. You get some real magic in the scenes between Joan Chen and Anthony Wong, Jiang himself (playing one of the lead roles) is equally strong. Yun Zhou (Jiang's real life wife) and Jaychee Chan complete the picture with equally commendable performances. No weak links to be found at all.
No doubt Jiang put more in this film than visible on the surface, but you'd need to be pretty well informed to figure it all out. That said, the film is equally enjoyable without understanding all the subtexts, if you are able enjoy Jiang's playful style that is. The combination of rural drama and playful, quirky comedy is a strange one at first and might seems unsavory to the general atmosphere, but slowly the film grounds itself in its own particular rhythm, drawing the viewer deeper and deeper into Jiang's mysterious world.
The finale is sprawling, mystical and captivating. Also the final blow to the belief that this film is somehow grounded into our everyday reality, so even the most hardheaded drama fans would have to admit there is more at play here. A rare beauty of an ending that gives some extra polish to this film.
It's hard to predict how others will react when watching The Sun Also Rises. If you go in expecting a comedy or a drama you will probably be disappointed, but let the film carry you on its own rhythm and by the time it is finished you might realize what a unique viewing experience you've just had. Strong on every level, juicy and playful, it's a neat little diamond in the rough. Recommended for adventurous film fans.