By reputation, Chinese science fiction cinema is best known for big-scale, set-piece, effects-heavy spectacle. But a new breed of filmmakers have come to focus on lower-budget, independent genre movies that prioritise high-concepts and immersive storytelling over monsters and explosions. In Ren Chao Wang’s debut feature The End of the Lonely Island, an exemplar of this new approach, the director crafts an enigmatic and captivating tale that unfolds in the dying days of planet Earth.
Opening with a downbeat, and colour de-saturated, sequence following scientist Lin Xia (Xi Liao) as she begins a race-against-time to reach an isolated island, following instructions provided by a disembodied voice in her earpiece. As the film flips back and forward in time, Xia recalls her previous trip to the island in the company of her lover Zhi Yuan (Duo Duo Tian). He was eager to join an interstellar space mission to the Centaurus planetary system, with the ‘Bi’an’ (“another shore”) project, and the Shenzhou 20 starship, overruling her objections. Back on the island many years after the launch, Xia is driven to complete a vital, final mission, before a black-clad SWAT team can hunt her down.
Over the course of the hour-long running time, Wang gradually fills in the blanks on his initially incomplete and disjointed storyline, including Xia’s work on the discredited TESS problem-solving AI and the events that appear to seal humanity’s fate on Earth, just as the Shenzhou spacecraft runs into trouble. For so brief a film, this comes with a meticulous and intricate plot.
Wang struggles to direct action scenes (the one fight sequence is clunky), but he has a sharp cinematographer’s eye, a confidence in handling non-linear storytelling, and is a clear adherent of the less-is-more school of oblique understatement. This is a movie infused with reflective melancholy. Wang’s script introduces a wide canvas of themes, including humanity’s perception of the risks of exploration, the place of Earth in the vast firmament of the universe, the essence of artificial intelligence, and the nature of fallibility and of culpability. There’s more going on here than can possibly be accommodated in an hour-long drama, but the sense of ambition is to be applauded and, despite the overcrowding of ideas, this still succeeds in being a movie of genuine substance.
Held together by a singularly, focused performance by Xi Liao as humanity’s steely, would-be saviour, The End of the Lonely Island is an exercise in extraordinary filmmaking, in every sense of the word.
THE END OF THE LONELY ISLAND / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENWRITER: REN CHAO WANG / STARRING: XI LIAO, DUO DUO TIAN, LEI LI, REN CHAO WANG / RELEASE DATE: UK RELEASE TBA