The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, Frant Gwo, 2023)

Back in what now seems like another world, Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth became a Lunar New Year box office smash and was described by some as China’s first foray into big budget sci-fi. Adapted from a novel by Liu Cixin, the film was much about fathers and sons as it was about sacrifice and solidarity in the face of oncoming apocalypse all of which are quite traditional New Year themes. Arriving four years later, The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, liúlàng dìqiú 2) largely drops overt references to the Spring festival bar the repeated motif of journeying home, but does once again stress the importance of international cooperation in safeguarding the future of the planet.

Then again, it seems that many feel it’s not a good use of time or resources to address a problem that will occur in a hundred years when they are long dead. A prequel to the first film, Wandering Earth II begins in the early days of the Moving Mountain Project which is the plan to push the Earth onto a different orbit to escape the sun’s eventual implosion. Given its enormous expense and the reality that much of the population will simply be left to die, the majority of the public back the rival Digital Life program in which humanity would be saved by relocating to a new virtual reality. Where this virtual reality is supposed to be stored is not exactly clear if there is no Earth for it to exist on, but it’s clear that some consider the possibilities of the digital existence preferable to allowing millions to die in the tsunamis which will engulf the Earth as it uncouples from the moon’s gravitational pull. 

Chief among them is software engineer Tu (Andy Lau Tak-wah) who is griefstricken by the loss of his wife and child in a traffic accident and has been secretly working on creating a fully fledged AI simulacrum of his daughter Yaya. He tells his more practically minded colleague Ma (Ning Li) that he doesn’t have the right to define what is “real” while eventually jeopardising the Moving Mountain Project by prioritising his desire to save Yaya over saving the Earth and eventually creating the AI system that will become Moss, a possibly dangerous entity which decides the best way to save humanity is to destroy mankind. 

The first film’s hero, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), meanwhile is a rookie astronaut caught up in a terrorist incident carried out by militant opponents of the Moving Mountain project while enjoying an incongruously goofy courtship with fellow astronaut and future wife, Duoduo (Wang Zhi). This time around, he’s a dutiful son rather than conflicted father serving alongside his own dad who eventually becomes an example of intergenerational sacrifice as the old begin to make way for the young whose responsibility it now is to preserve the Earth. A nervous young aid serving the current premier later takes over the reigns and finds herself giving the same advice to a similarly nervous young man as they prepare to carry on the Wandering Earth project despite knowing that it will take thousands of years to complete. 

The ultimate message is therefore to choose hope, as Peiqiang later does striving to save the world even if it all turns out to be hopeless, rather than giving up and resigning oneself to one’s fate as many suggest doing when faced with the potential failure of their mission. As in the first film, the plan requires cooperation between nations and this time even more so as world powers must surrender their nuclear weapons to help blow up the moon. The Chinese premier looks forward to a day when governments can work on solving future problems rather than preparing for war, but then in an echo of the ongoing climate crisis some just don’t seem to see the point in dealing with something that won’t happen for a hundred years despite likely being among the first to complain no one did anything sooner when it finally affects them. Gwo adds a little whimsy in the technically pre-apocalypse setting with charming details such as Tu’s warm relationship with his dog-like robot helper and the general goofiness of Peiqiang’s attempt to court Duoduo while improving on the already polished visuals of the first film through several high impact set pieces but finally returns to its messages of hope and solidarity perhaps intended for a weary world attempting to find its own way out of a period of protracted strife.


The Wandering Earth II is in UK cinemas now courtesy of CineAsia.

International trailer (English voice over, Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Onlookers (Kimi Takesue, 2023)

Onlookers is a strange word. It implies passivity, if also perhaps indifference, but nevertheless invites a question. Who exactly is looking at what or is the onlooker themselves also a spectacle of attention? The opening shots of Kimi Takesue’s Laotian documentary find a row of people waiting by the side of a road. A young man stares intently at his phone, as does an older woman two stools over, while an old lady’s eyes idly flicker as she watches the passing traffic. Another woman sits further away with a dog, facing an entirely different direction. 

Of course, we are also onlookers, watching the old lady as she watches if not exactly us then perhaps our ghost as manifested in the camera. In a sense the landscape is also onlooker, a passive presence often strangely forgotten by the tourists who pass through the frames throughout the rest of the film. In the early scenes, more local sightseers can be seen visiting temples and other landmarks, like others paying more attention to getting the perfect photographs rather than immersing themselves in the experience of actually being there. 

The temples seem to loom over them, onlookers too, passively observing their conduct which is not always respectful. “Don’t smoke weed here” a large sign pleads in English while large groups of tourists congregate at a swimming hole. In an elegantly composed shot of the mountains, most of the tourists are facing the wrong direction, quite literally bending over backwards to get the perfect selfie while otherwise oblivious to the beauty all around them. In a small waiting area near a shop offering tube swimming tours, the TV seems to be tuned in to ancient episodes of Friends while potential customers haggle with the driver leaving the young boy who accompanies him to wander out into the road. 

Even religious practice seems to have become a tourist attraction, gaggles of sightseers crowding round a small hut where monks ring bells, taking turns banging gongs themselves. Takesue contrasts these acts of accidental voyeurism with the local people simply trying to go about their business, a row of women again siting on the roadway though this time to offer alms to a seemingly endless parade of monks in a near eternal loop. Much of the local economy does seem to revolve around the tourist trade, the monk’s parade also attracting is share of onlookers, while a woman washes a dog in the street and others try to get on with selling their goods before Takesue abruptly switches to scenes of schoolchildren on scooters or filling plastic water bottles from the river. 

Then again, perhaps the real onlookers are the bemused cows fighting over tufts of grass as they wander onto temple grounds. The tourist trade may also be having a negative effect on the local environment, drowning out the sounds of the nature and disrupting the natural tranquility of the area while the tourists often appear indifferent to the world around them as if it were a mere playground and the people themselves little more than onlookers observing them from the outside. Occasionally Takesue cuts to scenes of nature without any people in them, bathing in the natural beauty of the landscape unsullied by human intervention as if to remind us of the various ways in which consumerism eats away at the world in which we live if also hinting at our own desire, as onlookers, to paint these scenes with a kind of pastoral innocence coupled with an otherwise uncomfortable exoticism. 

The film ends as it began, with another roadway only this time empty save for a dog who turns around to look towards the departed people before a second dog enters the frame and barks at the camera as he passes through as if to ask where everyone’s going or perhaps what they were doing here in the first place. A gentle meditation on the nature of “travel” and the disruptive qualities of “tourism”, Takesue’s elegantly lensed images seem to argue for a more active reflection on the world and our place within it rather than remaining a perpetual onlooker observing without thought or feeling.


Onlookers had its world premiere as part of Slamdance 2023.

Trailer