Sun Xun's new animation 21Ke opens with a man in a top hat standing on a rocky shore looking out into a black sea. It is a dark and strange world we step into, a world that is not unlike ours, but one perhaps closer to our dreams or one still prophetically unfulfilled. It is "another world like this one," a parallel or negative world to the one we live in everyday. We understand it but can't quite identify why. An ominous musical score follows 21G's unfolding brooding skies, empty rooms, dark cities, and lonely people. It all seems to point toward some impending and faceless doom; the calm before the storm.
From turn of the century experiments it has been said that our souls weigh 21 grams. This title reference could shed some light on interpreting the obscure narrative: Who are we as human beings and citizens in this alien world? What is our worth and plight as common men and women? What system or leader can save us? Who can wake us from this dream?
Sun takes us on a surreal journey of cryptic symbols and associations drifting through mysterious cities, plagues of mosquitoes, broken statues, cawing ravens, waving flags, flooded graveyards, a nationalistic anthem, factories belching soot into the ever threatening sky, soaring planes dropping leaflets to the earth, and the ever present man in the top hat. Putting all of these together in a comprehensible linear fashion may not be possible, but they all lend to the atmosphere of meaning.
The film ends at the same place it began, on a beach before a black sea. But this time there is a lighthouse in the distance. Its revolving beam cuts the darkness like a knife. There is a man on the shore, instead of wearing a top hat and peering out into the night with binoculars this man is squatting on the ground crying uncontrollably. He finally rises, still weeping and shaking, and stands staring out towards the lighthouse's beam, which is still making silent revolutions in the night. But grief soon overcomes him and he collapses and falls to his knees in tears. Nothing has changed.
When a people live behind impenetrable walls and cannot see their way out of their predicament understanding eludes them. When we grow out of touch with our own hearts clarity eludes us, we lose our way, and hope is dashed on the rocks. Regimes rise and regimes fall, our hopes and dreams are born and sometimes die unrealized, history repeats itself over and over again, and in this world the common man is left crying on the shore.