Today’s the last day for SFWA members to vote for the Nebula awards. I admit to having a few fingers crossed for Eugie’s When It Ends, He Catches Her. Well, obviously I do. Of course we don’t get the results till June, so I can be nervous till then.
At an archaeological dig, Hu Bayi (Mark Chao) volunteers, along with other soldiers, to accompany Professor Yan and his daughter Ping (Yao Chen) down a dangerous tunnel. These leads to fire bats, avalanches, and a mysterious temple, and also the deaths of most of the party. Several years later Bayi and his childhood friend Wang Kaixuan (Li Feng) are given a chance to return to the area to uncover its secrets and stop additional deaths.
The only one of the three films without professional grave robbers, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe is as much a horror story as an adventure tale. There’s an equal helping of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” to go with the Lost Ark raiding. Bayi is a soldier at a legitimate, government-sanctioned dig and gets in over his head. While he ends up having a few special powers, he has no Laura Croft abilities. He’s a typical Lovecraftian lead, stumbling into things best left unknown. It’s easy to empathize with him, as well as with Ping—later renamed Shirley.
The opening act is dark and exciting and everything you’d want in an horrific underground tomb story. But things slacken off after that. The problem with Bayi not being skilled is he stops being a protagonist. Thing happen to him, but he rarely chooses or discovers anything. The answers to the big questions of the film are handed to him. Someone slips him an old academic paper of the professor’s that explains precisely what happened in the past. A librarian shows him the “magic.” The plot would have been far more engaging if Bayi had acted in some way to uncover the secrets.
Things pick up again at the end when it morphs into a creature feature, which only suffers from too many loose threads. The studio is clearly counting on making a sequel, but it’s a sequel worth seeing.
Perhaps the most interesting—and definitely the most fun—part of the film is its commentary on late ‘70s and early ‘80s communist fanaticism. With the cultural revolution still visible in the rear view mirror, Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe offers up a mob of singing, chanting, hard core party members who cheer on the actual workers while doing nothing productive themselves, and yet still exhaust themselves with their never ending propaganda. Similarly, the stage song on the wonders of Chinese oil production is clearly meant as a poke at a country that took itself far too seriously. As for those pesky censors, they are satisfied with a little science fiction lip service.
In the near future, a plague has stripped humans of a majority of their memories, and it continues to destroy any new ones in a matter of minutes or hours (it isn’t clear which or if it varies with the individual). For nine years, a young woman and her artistically inclined father have survived in a sealed bunker. Outside in the ruins of civilization, two people who assume they are a couple because they woke up together, a violent man, a child, and a scientist all mill about on their separate and seldom intersecting paths.
Embers starts with a hearty science fiction premise: What if no one could remember anything. But from there it goes nowhere. Only the scientist has seen Memento, so knows to write down his past. Thus he alone can set goals, but as his memory departs so quickly, he can never carry them out. For the rest, they move around (or in the case of the two in the bunker, they don’t move around). They stumble here and there, unhappy if they are alone and reasonably happy if they are not. There’s no more plot than that, no direction, and no ending. We watch things happen for a time, and then it stops.
With no story to tell, random events, and not a whole lot of character, there was little to keep me engaged. All that’s left is theme, which means Embers has to be a pretty clever movie. Unfortunately it’s not.
Trauma vanishes with memory. Is this a statement on the human condition, or just how the virus works? Likewise people tend to keep their personalities, as best as I could tell, without their memories. Again, is this a philosophical comment, or just a world building exercise? It doesn’t really matter as Embers has no new insights to bring to bear. I’m assuming that most viewers will already have speculated on how much of identity is memory. If you haven’t, this isn’t the film for you. If you have, this film has nothing to offer you.
Since merely asking the question, “Are we more than our memories?” is the only reason this film exists, it should have gone in a more metaphysical direction, with the memory loss due to the actions of higher beings. Because it went the sci-fi route, it needed to play fair, and it doesn’t. Our characters (one can’t call them protagonists) lack primal survival skills. So without memories, how are they still alive? Just by finding can goods? After nine years? How is there a child walking around when his parents would have forgotten he existed shortly after setting him down as a baby? And where are the bodies, since we do have a massively reduced population. Sure, there could be solutions to these problems, but they are all unlikely (a hidden master class of unaffected elites that sneak canned food out into the ruins and pick up the dead, perhaps) and so really need to be touched on. Since they aren’t, I was left thinking for the last hour of the film, “That guy should be dead.”
If it was cut in half, Embers could play at the beginning of a Freshmen philosophy class, before the interesting discussion started. But as is, though reasonably well made, it is not entertaining, interesting, nor enlightening.