2019 seems to be the breakthrough year for science fiction in Chinese cinema, a genre that has largely remained untapped in the country. Earlier this year, Chinese studios released The Wandering Earth, the first sci-fi blockbuster in Chinese cinematic history with a budget of US$50 million.
In contrast, Last Sunrise was made on a budget of under US$250,000 and shot in a total of 14 days. For a genre defined by imaginative high-tech machinery and futuristic set pieces, a six-figure budget appears especially limiting. However, Director Wen Ren deftly utilizes every ounce of resource to deliver an extremely thoughtful and touching narrative about two people trying to survive the end of the world. It may not be the colorful spectacle that exemplifies most sci-fi films, but the Last Sunrise finds its own balance, and shows the range of storytelling possible in China’s burgeoning science fiction landscape.
A Solar Powered Nation
The story takes place in a future where China is almost fully powered by solar energy. Central to this historical transition is a man named Wang Yun, a national hero whose company Helios has single-handedly converted three-fourths of China into being solar powered.
At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to the protagonist, Sun Yang, being awoken by his AI named ILSA (think Samantha from Her). Sun is something of an amateur astronomer — his apartment walls are covered by analysis of astronomical data. The otherwise starkness of his room suggests that he’s somewhat of a loner. Staring at his charts, he’s certain that a star — KIC 846 — had mysteriously disappeared. Even more troubling, the sun’s recent behavior shares a 96% correlation with that of KIC 846’s before its demise. ILSA reminds him, however, that such a deduction would violate the conservation of energy.
When Sun Yang takes a break from his work and heads outside, we observe buildings covered by strips of solar panels. Helios logos are everywhere, and a company ad broadcasts the imminent development of District 4 — the latest part of China to be fully powered by the sun.
Helios’ presence suggests a more capitalist image of China, a country transformed by an entrepreneur as opposed to a central authority. It is also perhaps here that the film’s stringent budget shows — apart from solar panels and a few fancy gadgets, the remaining street setting looks exactly like China does today. This is not a major distraction, however, for the film succeeds in creating a particular arena: a society that runs almost entirely on the sun’s energy.
By the next day, the sun’s luminosity has dropped to dangerous levels. ILSA puts Sun through to Wang Yun, who admits he knew of KIC 846’s disappearance. Wang then asks him a fateful question: “If today is the end of the world, what will you do?” Hardly blinking an eye, Sun responds that he will “find a way to survive”. Wang leaves Sun his address, suggesting he come find him if he makes it out of the city.
With only minutes left, Sun barges rudely into his neighbor’s apartment for a better view of the last sunrise. As he looks on, a confused Chen Mu — a young woman with a loud, vibrant personality — threatens to kick him out. The sun then flickers violently before it disappears altogether, leaving the solar-dependent world in darkness.
Two Strangers at the End of the World
As Sun Yang hurriedly prepares to escape the city, his neighbor Chen Mu knocks on his door seeking help, much to his chagrin. The network’s shut down renders her unable to contact her family, and Sun has become the only person she can rely on, despite their status as strangers. So begins the meat of the story: two people facing the end of the world, left with few resources save for each other.
It is at this point that the film makes the most of its budgetary restrictions and departs from the sci-fi centric storytelling of the first 10 minutes. The rest of the film focuses on the duo’s post-apocalyptic journey, shown primarily through the two of them driving past dark, deserted districts. With all the electricity snuffed out, stars shine brighter than they ever have against a pitch black sky — a view which suggests hope and beauty at the same time it leaves one feeling desolate and helpless.
Neither Sun nor Chen know exactly what they’re searching for, a sentiment symbolically captured by Wang’s parting gift to Sun when they meet: “As long as you keep moving,” he states, handing him a mechanical watch, “time will not stop.”
Chen and Sun’s relationship arc becomes the personal journey that parallels their physical journey of survival. Their story is not one of two heroes who rise to the occasion to save the Earth, but a reflection of two ordinary people, equal parts flawed and equal parts meritable in ways that complement the other. The best part about the duo is the even ground upon which they stand, a feat not always achieved between costars in films. Their physical and personal journeys blend seamlessly into one, as the success of the former depends on the latter.
Science Fiction and Social Critiques Remain Artfully in the Background
One of the most unique aspects of the film is the way it dangles meaty concepts in the background. Other futuristic elements are only hinted at in the backdrop of Chen and Sun’s journey, artfully interspersed throughout the film to remind us of the setting, and to seed ideas that become food for thought.
When Sun and Wang meet, the two briefly discuss the circumstances around the sun’s disappearance. Sun claims that the spontaneous appearance of a wormhole in the sun’s center violates conservation laws, hypothesizing that a more intelligent life form has purposely harnessed the sun’s energy. Wang neither validates nor denies the hypothesis, but leaves Sun with his mechanical watch and a cryptic suggestion: find District 4, and he might survive.
As though aware of its budget, the film offers E.T. as merely a hypothesis, but one that deepens the conflict for humanity’s survival. The idea of an antagonist force extending beyond the Solar System not only adds a layer of intrigue to the story, but it also lends more significance to Sun’s decision to keep going. As Wang stays behind, choosing solitude and wine in what he perceives as his last days, Sun decides to journey to District 4.
Moral questions come to the fore when Chen and Sun witness a space shuttle taking off in the far distance, comprised of the rich leaving for other planets. Chen muses what happens to the poor, to which Sun responds, “Stay on earth, and enjoy the end of the world.” Later, when Sun blows listlessly past other stranded drivers on the road, Chen attacks him with the question, “if we don’t help, how are we different from animals?” Sun, rational as ever, quips: “there never was any difference, especially in times like these.” By showing the duo on both sides of the survival of the fittest, the film artfully depicts the cruel reality of survival without passing judgement.
The presence of government remains largely unfelt throughout the film, in contrast to The Wandering Earth. In fact, the only powerful institution that emerges is Helios, the company which revolutionized solar power in China. This, in combination with the shuttle launching those who can afford to hitch a ride into space, emphasizes a far more capitalist take on modern China, though not without a somewhat critical eye.
Moments where the film seems to question humanity’s ambition and over-reliance on technology can also be felt. In Wang’s home, Sun states that “our civilization has always believed that man is the master of his own fate,” to which Wang somberly responds, “sooner or later, mother nature will fight back.” Wang’s pessimism delivers a complex thought: how far can human ingenuity go before we reach a turning point?
A Sci-Fi Film that Rides on its Most Subtle Moments
Science-fiction is generally known for its big, fantastic visuals — think Blade Runner 2049, Interstellar, Arrival, and even The Wandering Earth, to name a few. Last Sunrise defines its own sub-category, one that capitalizes on gentle, subtler moments to highlight the dynamics between its two protagonists. Science fiction rests mainly in the background, a sky full of stars that envelops our protagonists along their route.
As both Chen and Sun deepen their relationship, the journey itself becomes the reward. When Chen reveals that she used to fight constantly with her ex-boyfriend, Sun admits he knew because the walls of their apartments were not soundproof. This moment of revelation suggests that the walls between us are as physical as they are artificial, and that we may not be as estranged from one another as we think.
Lingering beneath Sun’s obsession with astronomy was a lonely individual, unable to connect. Beneath Chen’s seemingly animated persona hid another lonely person, shackled by her previous, failed relationship. They represent two people whose surface-level differences had kept them remote, despite their physical proximity as neighbors. The sun’s disappearance may have engendered a host of tragedies, but it brought them together to the top of an open road, facing a view of uncountably many stars in the universe, sharing their last two cups of instant noodles.
To say that the story is a romance would be overly reductionist; it is more an exploration of what happens when two people suddenly have no choice but to rely on one another to survive. The moments of self discovery provide sweetness along a bitter journey, and leaves the audience with a tender thought. Aptly summarized by Chen’s own words: “It was on the day that the sun disappeared that I first saw a hint of light.” Stated in those terms, the film seems to argue that the fight for human connection is just as central as that of survival, and perhaps even more so.
Last Sunrise is screening at CAAMFest 2019 in San Francisco, on May 10th and 11th. For more information, visit the Facebook Event Page.
Last Sunrise (Chinese: 最后的日出)—China. Dialog in Chinese. Directed by Wen Ren. Running time 1 hours 44 minutes. First released February 22, 2019 in China. Starring Zhang Jue and Zhang Ran.