Saturday, April 13, 2019

PFF ’19: Last Sunrise

The sun doesn’t always shine, but renewable energy activists assume it will always rise again in the morning. It turns out they were wrong. When the sun mysteriously disappears, the world is plunged into darkness. However, an anti-social astronomer and his troubled neighbor will try to survive anyway in Wen Ren’s Last Sunrise, which screens as part of the 2019 Phoenix Film Festival.

When Sun Yang notices the strange disappearance of a distant star, he jumps to some apocalyptic conclusions. Wang Yung, the mind behind the post-fossil fuel solar power revolution dismisses him hard on an internet call-in program, but the next day he admits the truth over a private line. What happened to KIC846 will happen to our sun in a mere matter of minutes.

Sun (the scientist) forms a hasty alliance of convenience with his neighbor, Chen Mu, who needs someone to drive her to her parents’ home in an outer district. Sun hopes to meet up with Wang in his luxurious compound, in the assumption the revered scientist has an immediate survival strategy. In fact, there is a possible safe haven in remote District 4, but getting there will be tricky. Since society entirely converted to solar, all cars and electric devices are slowly dying. Of course, no sun also means no wind. Plus, without the sun in the center, our solar system has become unmoored. It is a stressful situation that brings out the worst in many people, but Sun and Chen will slowly form protective feelings for each other.

Frankly, Last Sunrise is probably the most emotionally devastating end-of-the-world film since Zak Hilditch’s These Final Hours. As Wen and co-screenwriters Elly Li, Mei Yankang, and Yu Min reveal more of Sun and Chen’s backstories, the more we come to care about them. There is also an ominous cosmic explanation for the apocalyptic disaster, much in the tradition of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Problem trilogy that is intriguingly hinted at, but not explored to any great extent. Instead, Wen keeps his focus intimately micro.

Zhang Jue and “Ran” Zhang Yu hold up to the scrutiny remarkably well, as Sun and Chen, respectively. Their relationship dynamics are complicated, but believable and ultimately quite moving. Both take their characters on dramatic developmental arcs that always feel legit under the circumstances. In a way, their work is weirdly reassuring, since it suggests there are still opportunities for personal growth, even during Armageddon. Wang Dahong also adds some smart, psychologically complex seasoning as Wang Yung.

Wen Ren takes viewers to some dark places, figuratively and literally, yet he does not leave viewers bereft of hope, which is a neat trick. Cinematographer Matthias Delvaux really makes the newly visible constellations and heavenly bodies shimmer and shine, thereby giving the film a fable-like tone. It is a rewarding genre film that could conceivably go in a more science fiction direction should Wen Ren ever take on a sequel. Very highly recommended, Last Sunrise screens again today (4/13) and tomorrow (4/14), during this year’s Phoenix Film Festival.