The End of the Lonely Island (China, Mandarin with English subs, 61 mins)
SCI-FI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 runs from 27 April – 6 May https://sci-fi-london.com/
While the dual nature of the title is immediately apparent, it also has a nicely bleak ring to it that suits my interests down to the ground. This is a story full of difficult choices, unhappy endings and themes which consider life on Earth as a minor blip in the cosmic scale of things. It has an immediately grandiose flavour, opting to mix its rather dour visual pallet with some music from Bach in the opening scenes. This blend of cold aesthetic choices and classical soundtracks of course reflects some of the best in science fiction cinema. But how this all comes together in terms of telling a story will take some discussion, and a closer look at how the script and editing choices have been put together.
Lin Xia (Xi Liao) is running out of time, for herself and for the rest of humanity. Armed with only a stop watch and a single use syringe of medicine she’s against the clock, racing to reach the peak of a small island where her partner once worked. Cars have stopped in their tracks with the drivers dead at the wheel, and in the distance it seems that society is breaking down as city buildings burn. Despite an obvious leap forward in technology during this unspecified time period, medical science is apparently unable to solve the crises. What is her plan and why is this her last chance to set things in motion?
This is yet another story told through flashbacks, with pieces of information being drip fed to the audience while details are left out to provide reveals during the climactic moments. It’s not a perfect structure but it can add to the drama in some instances, as questions are posed and the grains of sand run down. It does have course have one major narrative strong point, the portrayal of memory and how somebody’s train of thought during difficult times may jump from one thing to another. Details rush into the mind of the protagonist as she struggles with the weight of the job at hand, and her own physical ailments.
Many pieces of information are thrown out as things progress, including the nature of the problem humanity is facing, and how a computer project called TESS may be able to help despite public concerns over safety. There is also a plot thread about the Bi’an Project, something which was launched years before and involves a plan to colonise other worlds. All of these elements provide just enough food for thought along the way, whether it’s the problems caused by emotionless simulations determining the best course of action, or whether it’s right to make choices that save many at the cost of a few.
However there are a few issues in the way this story is told that impede its effectiveness as a drama, and it often feels vague or muddled. While the plot jumps back and forth between the race to the top of the island and the difficult times which led to this point, some things work less than others. The idea of using new technology to quickly travel large distances in outer space comes along before any of the problems on Earth, and so it seems disconnected. It feels more like part of the central domestic drama rather than a key issue — if unrelated cosmic forces hadn’t come along to threaten our existence the space craft could have come back in a few years without a problem. A stronger dilemma could have been created by bringing these events together more closely.
The story itself is fairly slow in terms of pacing, despite all the life and death matters and the literal uphill struggle being faced. Characters often stop to discuss philosophical ideas or provide dry exposition, while the development of TESS and its exact nature are never fully explained outside a few brief conversations. The urgency of the leading lady’s plight as she battles illness and evades the authorities are often left to one side so that mundane dialogue from years earlier can be played out.
This of course falls short of an average 90 minute feature, but as a short film it could have been leaner and more focused. At times it feels like one disaster follows another. One major problem requiring all these characters to react in their own ways would be simpler, and in general a tighter focus on the structure could have made it more compelling. It’s a pretty good looking film for the most part with grainy desaturated visuals and a few nice uses of minimal CGI to boost the near-future world, despite an overly Instagram-esque effect in some places. But the editing and writing could have used the same amount of finesse. As it stands this is a mostly effective and fairly atmospheric piece, though with a few tweaks it could have had a greater emotional punch and a greater sense of momentum.