I am awestruck by this film.
This is a truly rare and incredible work of art, one which transcends its limitations to create a complex film that is at once intimate and yet sweeping in its scope. This is a dense drama, about people and choices which transforms something as simple as a trip across a lonely island into something epic.
And it all plays out within a remarkably short running time.
There has been some terrible disaster which has left people dead in the streets, and Lin Xia has twenty-four hours to reach the scientific project hidden on a tiny, abandoned island. But this trip plays out against another trip across the island years before, and is tied to yet another trip, one beyond the very confines of our solar system.
I was a little surprised at one point, when I had to pause the film, and found that only forty-five minutes had passed. Its director, Wang Renchao, had packed so much into this quiet, intense film that it was hard to imagine he had done so much in so little time. And, I should note, with so little, as he could not find any backing for a film that didn’t fit into any preset commercial mold.
Yet this is precisely the sort of intense personal drama, with a complex story structure and multiple plot threads, that the film awards industry loves. I have a sneaking suspicion that, had this film not been science fiction, someone might have nominated it for a best foreign film Oscar. It seems almost small praise to point out that this is probably the best SF film made in 2016 that I’ve seen.
The bleak location is stunning, as are the incredibly beautiful space scenes. Even the shots of the Shenzhou 20 spaceship manage to avoid the glossy unreality all too common for CGI spacecraft in low budget films. Although the best effects may be the elements inserted seamlessly into some of the background shots throughout the film.
Wang Renchao not only directed, but wrote the script and played a major role, the unseen voice of the AI JESS. This was his first feature film, although he had a solid background in television and making commericals. He is now hard at work on a new film, and I have to admit that I’m a little impatient to see what new places this talented young man will take us to.
This one will take a bit of effort to find, as it seems to have ended its festival run already, but believe me, it is well worth the effort.
(My thanks to Wang Renchao for providing a screener!)