Purple Sunset Review
An earlier 2001 film from the director of Gada Meilin, Purple Sunset is part of a thematic trilogy of films from the Mongolian filmmaker Feng Xiaoning based on the wartime experiences of the Chinese people. Rather like his epic and romantic adventure story of the great Mongolian warrior Gada Meilin, Purple Sunset’s WWII setting may favour of cinematic action and entertainment over historical accuracy, but it doesn’t skimp either on the horror of the crimes and the inhumanity committed in the name of war. And if the budget and CGI effects likewise aren’t up to that of a Hollywood blockbuster, what Purple Sunset lacks in sophistication it more than makes up for in its strong direction, a thrilling plot and passionate performances.
Flashbacks are the order of the day, the events of the final days of the Japanese occupation of the Guangdong region of northeast China told from the perspective of Grandpa Yang in the present day – but the film manages to encompass several other viewpoints, jumping backwards and forwards in time and even including some fanciful elements that are either imaginary, highly exaggerated or perhaps true to the spirit of the surreal circumstances of the final days of the war that would culminate with the atom bomb detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the surrender of the Japanese army following the astonishing radio broadcast from Sun God Emperor Hirohito.
It’s in this surreal environment in August 1945 that Yang (Fu Dalong), a Chinese peasant survives a mass firing squad execution of prisoners by the Japanese troops in hasty retreat from the advancing Russian army, and ends up in the company of a female Russian soldier from the 6th Tank Group, Najia (Anna Dzenilalova), and a young teenage Japanese schoolgirl (Chie Maeda) conscripted in a desperate attempt by the Japanese military to resist as long as possible the unthinkable defeat that looms on the horizon. Ostensibly, it’s the Russian who is in charge of this unlikely group, but with few provisions and an impenetrable forest to cross on the journey north to rejoin the Russian forces with many dangers lying between them - and not just from the isolated Japanese troops fighting to the death with nothing to loose - Najia has to rely on her companions’ knowledge of the region, even though they have no language in common and each have had very different experiences of the war that has brought them to this time and place and will determine many of their actions.
In many respects those experiences are fairly conventional wartime experiences, each told from a contrived perspective that appears to takes a balanced view from each of the nationalities involved and tells it in a familiar flashback style, but Feng Xiaoning has a way of making it all particularly vivid and emotionally intense. Yes, he most certainly resorts to exaggeration and caricature - particularly on the part of the Japanese, as he did also in Gada Meilin - but it feels justified within the context of this late period of the war, a particularly long and brutal one as far as many Chinese were concerned. In several very powerful sequences Purple Sunset seems to tap into this madness, in the sheer intensity of the battle sequences - strikingly well directed even for their budgetary constraints – in the depiction of a war machine that at this stage has gone beyond strategic deployment and operates to an insane logic of its own, and in the resulting barbarism that defies a distanced, rational perspective. This feeds into every aspect of the filming, with not only the ominous purple sunsets of the film’s title, but the landscapes with their disorientating forests and unexpected hazards, and even the seasonal early autumn colouration suggesting the surreal nature of the circumstances that the characters find themselves in, and director Feng Xiaoning handles it all masterfully.
Purple Sunset is released in the UK by Escapi. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The limitations of the transfer are just as evident here as they were on Escapi’s release of Gada Meilin, or indeed any of their other recent releases of Chinese cinema. The film is presented in the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio (though it’s actually closer to 2:20:1), but it is not anamophically enhanced, resulting in a relatively small letterboxed image. Even if the optional subtitles were not entirely in the black border below the frame, the image still wouldn’t really stand-up to being zoomed out to widescreen, such are the encoding artefacts that riddle the transfer. The image appears to be heavily filtered, resulting in shimmering and instability throughout, as well as some heavy edge-enhancement ringing. Add to this one or two sections showing horizontal video tracking problems and a couple of splice marks and it’s a pretty nasty transfer all round. The only reason the transfer is at all watchable is the fact that the colouration and tones are relatively strong and accurate, capturing the deep reds of the sunsets and the powerful golden hues of the autumnal landscapes and there are few serious issues that distract from the otherwise powerful experience that the film is.
The audio track is the original Dolby Digital 2.0 mix which, despite its evident limitations, is largely adequate. Tones are slightly dull, some distortion can be heard in the louder passages, and there may be a low level of analogue noise, but for the most part it functions fine with no serious dropouts or problems.
English subtitles are provided and are optional in a clear white font. They are generally fine and the film can be followed fully even if there are more than a few minor errors in spelling and grammar. The subtitles lie entirely in the black border of the letterboxed 2.35:1 image. Some fixed Chinese subtitles are visible in the frame for sections spoken in Russian and Japanese, but these are relatively small and discreet and not really a problem. Optional Swedish and Dutch subtitles are also available.
The only extra features on the DVD are trailers for other Escapi Chinese cinema titles, Gada Meilin, Postmen in the Mountains and Life Show.
Another very rough non-anamorphic transfer from Escapi, riddled with artefacts, but in this case, the strength of Purple Sunset is scarcely affected, the film’s visual qualities and its vigorous antiwar stance coming across loud and clear in another epic, thrilling cinematic outing from Feng Xiaoning.