Madness, love, death, war. Jiang Wen’s The Sun Also Rises deals with the most challenging themes in a tale loaded with references to Chinese culture and history. Ultimately the film's success hinges on a strange mix of the real and imagined, and perhaps a hint of the miraculous.
However, there are no easy answers here.
The third directorial accomplishment from one of China’s leading new wave icons Jiang Wen (In the Heat of the Sun, Devils on the Doorstep), The Sun Also Rises is a quirky piece of magical realism with a colorful visual style, bound to evoke differing interpretations.
The film’s most pressing questions seem obvious only in retrospect. And afterwards I came to a conclusion: The Sun Also Rises confidently brushes aside ambiguities or even contradictions in the plot to culminate in a moment of innocence in the midst of madness and war.
But is that really how I remember it? Jiang Wen forces us to recognize the power of imagination for better or worse.
The film features scenery from Yunnan Province and the Gobi Desert in three loosely related chapters. In the first, we meet a boy (Jaycee Chan) whose mother (Zhou Yun) is captivated by a particular pair of shoes embroidered with fish. When she loses the shoes, the ensuing mad search is in reality a distraction – the real question is the boy’s own history and the identity of his father.
The second and third chapters are just as confusing. A love triangle between two school teachers (Anthony Wong and Jiang himself) and a beautiful doctor (Joan Chen) goes awry, forcing Jiang’s character to flee back to the village where the film first starts. There he begins a new career as a master marksman whose trumpet heralds the arrival of death throughout the film.
At this point, what seems like a coherent plot may be a figment of your imagination. Perhaps like Chinese painters whose compositions include plenty of white space, Jiang wants his audience to fantasize about what’s left unsaid.
He eschews a traditional linear plot in favor of a chaotic narrative that obscures characters’ motives. Both grisly and magical events happen with the same remote ambiguity as in reality.
For some viewers, this narrative style will determine their likelihood of seeing the movie again. For others, it may feel like simple honesty.
This film will be remembered for its bold contrasts. In dealing with such an array of themes, The Sun Also Rises is at once realist and magical, playful but also grim, and logical but vulnerable to madness. It amuses as much as it mystifies.
In the end, Jiang blends disjointed elements, but you’ll still wonder how these characters relate to each other in an atmosphere of culture and revolution. You’ll have to come to your own conclusions. This is perhaps his greatest gift.