Sun Xun delivers a powerful vision of a broken world of disenchantment.
Brooding with anxious foreboding and dystopian imagery, Sun Xun’s new animated film, “21G,” haunts the viewer with its dark, expressionistic atmosphere and a splintered narrative of mythology in the making. Shown recently at the Venice International Film Festival and Kunsthaus Baselland, “21G” further develops and synthesizes enigmatic elements from his previous works to deliver a powerful vision of a broken world of disenchantment on the verge of transformation, of an unsettling calm before the storm.
Like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film 21 Grams(2003), the title of Sun Xun’s “21G” refers to the research of an American physician, Dr. Duncan MacDougall, who in 1907 claimed to have measured the weight of the human soul by recording the loss of body weight upon death (this loss of twenty-one grams being the departure of the human soul)(1). While this absurd materialist reckoning of the spiritual mimics the logic of capitalist exchange (where a particular good finds its equivalence in something completely incommensurable, like labor—or in other words, where a number is put on everything), Sun Xun seems more interested in the idea of loss—the loss of the spiritual, along with an accompanying yearning for truth and the plenitude of meaning: “History has abandoned time, and we have lost our souls,” Sun Xun writes in a rather cryptic text (2). “21G” purports to envision this fallen world of loss without offering easy answers.
The film opens with a magician figure standing on a rocky beach and looking yonder through a telescope, followed by a changing world map with the title, “Another world is like this,” thus setting up a dystopian alternative world of existence. The figure of the magician is a familiar one in Sun Xun’s oeuvre; he is fascinated by the notion of a legal liar, an appreciated trickster. In one text, Sun Xun takes on the voice of his magician: “Today, I am a magician, wearing a black high top hat and tuxedo, a professional liar! I make a living by deceiving. People are willing to buy lies from me! Lies here are like mental drugs. When an actual promise is broken once and again, lies can always make it up and turn everything to be confusing yet magnificent.” We can, of course, think of countless “Big Lies” of totalitarian governments, but Sun Xun gestures here less to Orwell’s “1984” than to a world covered with lies, true, but a deception that individuals are unwilling to change or challenge. (Incidentally, the role of the magician is not that far from that of an artist; there is, after all, an element of illusion in artistic creation. As Vladimir Nabokov once said, “Literature was not born the day when a boy crying ‘wolf, wolf’ came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels; literature was born on the day when a boy came crying ‘wolf, wolf’ and there was no wolf behind him.”)(3)
Yet the work does not present itself as a clear allegory but rather as a vision of a world adrift. Throughout the disjointed scenes of the film, we are treated to a vision of a world without time, where neoclassical architecture coexist with television, steam-powered trains, and steampunk-inspired flying machines. Large menacing insects hover about, in one scene even sucking on a miniature globe; isolated humans interact in clamor, or in a shrieking chorus, or in aimless crowds, but never talk; strange flying machines periodically drop leaflets from above the clouds; dark smoke billows from trains, factories, and volcanoes; and the magician makes an appearance, pulling insects out of his hat, before we cut to an image of Tiananmen Square. The stark film noir contrasts are enlivened only by scenes of white clouds in the sky, while the haunting, chromatically dissonant musical score reinforces the sense of unease—the sense of uneasy normalcy where humans continue on their business, oblivious of the darkness around. The film finally closes the circle with a scene of a man sobbing on the seashore, looking at the distant lighthouse in vain, and wails in misery. Has he awakened and noticed the misery? The film ends on this uncertain note.
While Sun Xun claims not to have a political focus, the satiric implications of a Great Magician are all too clear in a country with limited free expression of speech, a history of brainwashing through propaganda, and a cowed populace that has largely lost its spiritual and ethical bearings. There is certainly a clear political vein—indeed, in one very short scene, one sees the magician figure on top of an alternate Monument to the People Heroes, which in our world stands in Tiananmen Square. But “21G” is no clear-cut morality tale: by creating an Other Space, a heterotopia, that offers an excess of interpretation, Sun Xun is political in an altogether other way—a mythic, poetic, visionary politics that holds a distorted mirror to the viewer’s eyes and invites the viewer to create meaning by reflecting on the human condition and the madness of our world.
2. “21 KE,” ShanghART, accessed December 2, 2010.
3. Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, page 4, 1980.