Rumours have it that China holds a ready-to-explode underground club scene. China’s youth, on the other hand, has already erupted into small-scale, intimate communities of agitated youngsters, starving for connection, acceptance and liberation. Under the Western gaze, and within a constantly growing technological interest of the country, these high BPM communities seem to be the only resort for someone with yet an unsettled identity.
‘The Last Year of Darkness’ is a silent documentation of this state. Following a group of coming-of-age friends, director Ben Mullinkosson (‘Don’t Be a Dick About It,’ 2018) is putting together the struggle of fitting in a society of norms and expansion obsessions. Their nightly meeting point is a small club, Funky Town in Chengdu, China, that is about to be crushed under the arriving Metro. There, they (as skaters, queers, DJs, drag queens, or lovers) can meet, find and lose themselves.
In its thinnest layer, the documentary is a unique chance to experience the subculture existing in the shadow of the leading East force. This, with a clear demonstration of why Techno music and underground partying have been so vibrating and well-resonating with the restless youth. But with a deeper look, the documentary manages a firm applause to individuality—the very human factor of one’s destroying and becoming. Besides the extraordinary make-up and dance moves, do not expect the average theatricality of a queer cinematic portrait; but do expect the reality of the pretty much unreliable, full of doubts set of the young mind.
Ben Mullinkosson, shortly after the premiere at the 2023 Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, shared with us his thoughts.
Your camera is a close witness to many intimate moments of your characters. In a way, you (and us) develop an intimate relationship as well. How did you meet with the characters? How much did you need to be involved in the happenings to be able to capture them?
Everyone on camera is a friend of mine, that I met drinking at the Funky Town or skating. We all needed the underground party community. It has been really our place to go, to escape from the drama and stress in our life. Also, we all just love techno music. I think it is something that saved our lives in a lot of ways.
At some point, one of them found out that I am a documentary filmmaker and asked me to start filming. I said, ‘Let’s start on Saturday.’ Our film was basically filming nights out. So we would meet each protagonist around 9 pm and follow them from getting ready till they go back home and fall back to sleep. That was a couple of years of filmmaking. As we kept filming, we were invited deeper into their stories of their lives, so we met their parents, for example. We shot over the course of 5 years, we filmed 123 days, and we have 600 hours of footage. And it feels really nice to premier with most of the protagonists leaving China for the first time in their lives and joining me in Copenhagen!
What were your thoughts and hopes before you started shooting? How much did it change along the way?
My original intention for this film was to make a story about the experience of being 20 years old; getting drunk, realizing something that you think is profound about life, and then vomiting. There is a moment in the film, these two guys at the bar are speaking about meditation and being present in the moment, while a girl throws up in the front. This illustrates my initial idea. We all get really fucked up, we have these deep ideas of why we exist, what is the meaning of life and how we can be better. I think that this is a special moment, being 20 years old and having this experience, even questioning your sexuality or processing some of your trauma. I wanted to focus on these emotions and coming-of-age experiences. It originates from a personal place, and after talking to all of our characters in the film, it really became a collaboration. We worked together throughout the whole process, even for the narrative we wanted to express.
Your film is in many ways hybrid. You gave us moments of visual explorations, nearly artistically hinging towards another parallel story. Could you speak about the method and the choice to make this film a documentary?
I always question where is the line between fiction and documentary. I think with this film, we crossed it all the time. It can be because of the simple framing of the actual scenes, like, ‘let me film you getting in the taxi.’ In that way, it is a performance, to wait until the camera is ready and the calling of action. This gave the protagonists the authority to perform the version of themselves they want to have on camera. For instance, when one of them goes on Grindr, of course, it was set up. We weren’t just randomly filming in his house. We had these moments where we sort of recreated stories (we even hired actors). But it is also a natural experience for the characters, they have the authority to perform on their own terms.
You juxtapose emotional confessions next to images of a city in transformation (the building of the metro.) Sometimes these two merge into one. The city and the youngsters under destruction. Beyond the intensity and the nostalgia, what do you think comes after the bad trip?
The way I like to think about it is that this experience is a result of a society that cannot understand or support everyone’s differences. So we need places like Funky Town, where we can let ourselves be free, express ourselves, and get wild. Having the space to do it is an important part of dealing with problems arising daily. So I think these kinds of emotions, those dark ones, are a product of our lives. That is why this film shows a life that can be after dark. That is the metaphor of light and dark. During the day we have to deal with our bullshit, but during the night we can be who we want to be.
Your film had its World Premiere at CPH:DOX, documentary festival. Do you think this story can be connected with similar realities in Europe?
The film is so simple and apolitical. It is just my friends partying. At the same time, it is that simple, and it is set in such a politically charged place. The very idea of China is politicized by so many things. To see something that normal, is in a way kind of legendary for a Western audience. I think a lot of people have commented on the film in that way. Every film about China is mostly criticizing China or showing something that seems crazy to the rest of the world. The USA setting is just as crazy, but in a completely other way. In the end, every country has dirty laundry, and I don’t think it is fair to necessarily speak about those issues every time. As a result, ‘The Last Year of Darkness’ stands out as a film that can show what normal people are actually doing. These are my friends and my experience at the early 20s. I think that a Western audience can be pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to relate to the experiences of someone in China that they may have never realized that, for example, has an underground party scene. I am hoping that with these shots, the Western audience can relate and see how similar we all are. As one of the characters says, ‘We are all humans, we all are going through similar things in our lives.’
‘The Last Year of Darkness’ (Wu Ye Chu Zou 午夜出走) premiered at the 20th CPH:DOX (Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, 15-26 March 2023), as part of the Be No Stranger and Next: Wave sections. The documentary received a Special Mention at the Next:Wave Award.
2023, Country: China, United States | 90 mins | Dir: Ben Mullinkosson | Producers: Sol Ye, Sam Intili, Anita Gou
Wavelength and Kindred Spirit bring funding to the project alongside Florence. CAA Media Finance will be handling U.S. sales.