“Consuming Sun” claims to be “a fictionalized account based on the life of Chinese literary giant Yu Da Fu.” As biography, it fails to provide much information about Yu, or even to describe the kind of literature he wrote. Instead, it’s a rather murky tale of intrigue and passion, mostly set in Japanese-occupied Sumatra toward the end of World War II. Commercial prospects in the West are slim.
Emulating Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” device of having the film narrated by a dead man who describes his own murder, this first feature by UCLA-trained writer-producer-director John Zhang is given a complicated flashback-within-flashback structure that makes an underwritten biopic appear even murkier. However, it seems that Yu, called Mai Kebo in the film, studied in Japan in the 1920s, became fascinated with Japanese culture, and fell in love with a Japanese woman, Tumeido.
Back home in China, he is forced into an arranged marriage by his autocratic mother. As his fame as a writer spreads (on this point the film is annoyingly reticent), he speaks out against Japanese imperialism. He’s in Singapore when the Japanese take over, and discovers that the Japanese commanding officer, Sukeo, is a former university classmate and that his mistress is none other than Tumeido. Sukeo hires Mai as an interpreter, and the writer bigamously marries a Sumatran woman to save her from forced prostitution at Japanese hands.
How much of this is fact or fiction is hard to determine, but the film speculates that, with the end of the war inevitable, Sukeo ordered Mai’s execution before committing ritual hara-kiri.
With lavish production values, film looks handsome, but it’s dramatically unsatisfying on almost every level. Thesping is adequate, though Sun Min never conveys much magnetism as the supposedly charismatic protagonist.
Thanks to a lush music score recorded by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, pic isn’t hard to take, but just frustratingly insubstantial. Zhang seems more interested in his supposedly celebrated hero’s sexual adventures than in other potentially more interesting aspects of what was, by all accounts, an unusual life.