Sci-fi thriller “Annular Eclipse” fills the screen with a futuristic dystopia in which even top assassins can’t be too sure they aren’t being double-crossed by a scheming algorithm.
Screening in the EnergaCamerimage Film Festival’s Cinematographer Debut section, the story of shadowy power plays, cyber manipulation and intrigue was a challenge for DP Fang Yi, who has worked with director Zhang Chi for a decade.
But Yi says he was up for the quest to create dynamic, shifting imagery that takes us into the mind of a killer (Ziyi Wang) beset by nightmare flashes of a reality he can’t quite see in front of him. Sparks with his sultry partner (Kejun Liu) only further complicate his life.
It’s a departure from the duo’s previous film, “In Search of Echo,” a more static story of longing built on a series of contemplative images as its protagonist journeys through a seaside town in search of meaning and answers to an old problem.
“The main challenge,” Yi says, “was to find a subtle rhythm of movement and static in the moving images.”
He shares a “strong mutual understanding” with the director, which is crucial in the process. “He is a very visually imaginative director and I was responsible for putting his ideas into a high-quality presentation.”
In visualizing the nightmares and flashes of suppressed memory of the lead assassin, a deeply troubled man determined to get to the truth, Yi says they wanted to bring audiences into the disturbing state of his mind.
“The nightmares were shot on Steadicam to have more swaying,” he says. “The visions were shot with Lensbaby lenses to have a dreamlike style. The fragments were shot with a shoulder-held camera to reinforce the POV of the characters.”
Yi adds that “Annular Eclipse” took him into new territory, which required substantial research and ramping up.
“It was my first time shooting an action movie. We did a lot of test shots and editing of the reference excerpts during the preparation phase.”
The film makes nods to both “Blade Runner” and “Memento,” which the director credits as inspirations – though he confesses the “Annular Eclipse” budget restrained him from taking his vision still further.
“We watched many cyborg films as references,” Yi says. “And I was inspired by the elements that harmonized with our story and absorbed the essentials.”
The look and feel of the world in which crusading journalists are taken down while the killers may be next, everyone seemingly under surveillance from all-seeing AI systems, was thought through in terms of tone, Yi adds.
“In the image there should always be red,” he says.
Filming under COVID restrictions added further challenges, he adds, as production got underway in the director’s home town of Ningbo, China in April of last year.
“We had equipment restrictions, as did the schedule and choice of industry technicians. We had to overcome and make tough choices.”
The idea for the story arose from an unfinished sci-fi novel, says Chi.
The director found the subject of memory loss and manipulation fascinating, he adds.
“Memory seems to be the soul,” he says. “The soul and the body are constant themes in creation.”
Chi says his goal in conceiving the film was to explore philosophical themes in ways you would not encounter in a film from the West.
“Of course, I love ‘Blade Runner.’ It’s also an exploration of what it is to be human and what it is to be ourselves. But ‘Annular Eclipse’ clearly has an Eastern philosophical side in it – it’s more subtle and the story is closer to our life.”
Although the “Annular Eclipse” budget was well below what the director hoped – “The funding was far from enough to support my imagination,” he says – the film comes off impressively, with sleek, minimalist settings in which its characters quickly fall into hyper-kinetic conflicts, both with their surrounding and with their own minds.
It came about, ironically, via an old-school method for sharing his vision with Yi, he says.
“I would draw or use the reference images and excerpts to show him.”