If Emir Kusturica ever made a pic in China, it would look a little like Jiang Wen’s “The Sun Also Rises.” Highly colored ride through landscape, love and history will prove murder for many and manna for a few, depending on individual tolerance for cranked-up visuals and acting, as well as knowledge of the niceties of 20th-century Maoist history. Part ego-trip by actor-director Jiang — but also a genuine effort to push the envelope of Mainland cinema away from bloodless art movies — “Sun” looks to shine only fleetingly in occidental territories without major critical support and good word-of-mouth.
Stunningly shot in widescreen and saturated colors by three of East Asia’s top lensers, Jiang’s third feature is closer in spirit to his sophomore outing, “Devils at the Doorstep,” than his debut, “In the Heat of the Sun,” though realized on a wider, more fantastic stage. Rather than reaching back into classical history for a setting, the 44-year-old multi-hyphenate has stayed with the period he knows best — growing up during the latter years of the Cultural Revolution.
Pic is basically a four-act romantic drama, of which three-quarters is set during 1976, the final official year of the decade-long Cultural Revolution. And though narrated in a highly fractured style, the story is relatively simple, concentrating on only six characters.
However, Jiang hasn’t helped the movie or auds by removing some major signposts through the labyrinth. Though the information remains in press materials, the pic itself has no captions detailing place, time or title of each seg.
First section — opening in spring ’76 in southern China, and entitled “Madness” — is the pic’s scherzo, an antsily edited semi-fantasy set in a small village amid rolling rice terraces. A young widow (Zhou Yun) lives on the edge of madness with her pesky, 17-year-old brigade-leader son (Hong Kong’s Jaycee Chan, son of Jackie). Confused over his origins, even as his mom still insists his father was called by the Russian name, Alyosha, he starts to piece together his background when he finds a shrine-like stone aerie built by his mom in the forest.
With the full barrage of Joe Hisaishi’s music (now tender, now kinetic), smooth CGI by French effects house Duboi, and a visual palette of forced colors reflecting the region’s red soil, the seg is a full-on intro to the pic’s strengths (lensing, appetite for life) and defects (little downtime, everything underlined several times). At 40 minutes, it’s also the longest of the four chapters, and could easily be trimmed.
Second part — “Love,” set that summer at a campus in eastern China — sketches the attraction between a teacher, Liang (Hong Kong’s Anthony Wong), and a doctor, Lin (Joan Chen), the sexy mistress of Liang’s buddy, Tang (Jiang). When Liang is hospitalized after a misunderstanding that he groped women at an open-air film show, Lin tries to clear him.
Third vignette (“Rifle,” set that autumn) starts to tie characters together, as Tang, who’s been “sent down to the countryside,” arrives in the southern village with his wife (Kong Wei), where he’s met by the young brigade leader. (From a visual clue, it’s clear the section starts at the exact point where the first seg finished.) While out hunting with some kids, using an old rifle given him by Liang, Tang discovers his wife and the young brigade leader making love, with tragic results.
Essentially simple stories are so highly decorated with extraneous detail that it’s far from easy to work out their exact chronology, let alone the period in which they’re set. Biggest challenge for most auds will be the last — “Dream,” set in winter 1958, in the deserts of Xinjiang, western China — which limns the early stories of Liang, Tang, Tang’s wife and the brigade leader’s mom, and explains (well, kind of) the mystery of Alyosha.
Spread across four seasons, though not over-accentuating them, the story is basically a reflection on China’s history from the late ’50s (Soviet friendship, a “new beginning,” etc.) to the end of the Cultural Revolution (another new beginning). En route, it casts a wry eye on suppressed sexuality, mob hysteria and the madness of the Cultural Revolution, without becoming overtly political.
But too often the mass of detail, much of which will be visible only to Asiaphiles, gets lost in the movie’s onward rush. Many in the aud will either give up halfway, or just surrender to the visual ride.
Jiang’s own playing (in a role originally slated for Hong Kong’s Tony Leung Chiu-wai) dominates the movie with its sheer physicality. Wong’s quieter playing of Liang, Chen’s sensual, balletic nurse, and relative newcomer Zhou’s childlike mad woman are all fine, but the perfs often fall prey to the restless editing. As the young brigade leader whose life is central to all the characters, Chan is OK, reprising his bemused persona familiar from several Hong Kong movies.