“Half the time we were filming and holding meizi jiu [plum wine] — camera in one hand, meizi jiu in the other,” laughs director Ben Mullinkosson, recounting the late nights that went into his documentary The Last Year of Darkness. The film tells the story of skateboarders, DJs, artists, and queer youth searching for identity and free self-expression in Chengdu, all orbiting around the club Funky Town (naturally, plum wine is the venue’s signature drink).
After debuting at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX) earlier this year, The Last Year of Darkness is set to screen at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) on November 9. On the occasion of this major film festival, Mullinkosson and The Last Year of Darkness team have launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring the documentary’s protagonists to Amsterdam. There, they will not only attend the festival, but also stage a special club night pairing raw footage from the film with music and performance art.
The outreach campaign has already met its initial goal of $1,723.37, which goes towards Dutch visa fees, but the team is continuing to raise money for flights as well as food and accommodations in Amsterdam. With 6 days left for the campaign, it’s still possible to help them reach their additional goals of $7,793.37, covering flights, or $18,743.37, covering the entire trip.
Raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Mullinkosson first made it to Chengdu in 2011 while studying Chinese on a gap year from film school in California. Returning to Chengdu in 2018 thanks to the windfall from a commercial project, he ended up at Funky Town through Gena (Gennady Baranov), a Russian DJ he met skateboarding. From there, he quickly connected with the friends who would become the film’s protagonists: drag performer Yihao; DJ and guzheng player Kimberly; hip hop DJ, beatmaker, and one-time food deliveryman 647; and DJ and dedicated raver Darkle. Gena would end up doing double duty as a protagonist and cinematographer.
Over 122 nights, director and crew would meet up with each protagonist at around 10 pm, following them to Funky Town and beyond until they returned home, sometimes long after the sun had come up. Alienated from mainstream society due to their creative endeavors, sexual identities, or personal outlooks, the cast would find temporary escape in the night. “That’s the obvious metaphor,” explains Mullinkosson. “The darkness of night is our safe place where we can be whoever we want and let loose.”
While The Last Year of Darkness is specifically rooted in Chengdu, a city whose cheap rents and slow pace of life have fostered burgeoning hip hop and techno scenes, it also tells a universal story, one about the struggles and self-discovery that people all around the world go through in their twenties. When the protagonists attended the premiere in Copenhagen and interacted with the audience, their presence helped draw out these commonalities. In the West, “China just feels so foreign and distant” the director comments. “If anything, I hope people can see our film and be like ‘Oh, that’s like … people I would hang out with.’”
As 647 notes, “Meeting us face to face is more immediate than through the screen. Seeing how we act in person can help audiences better understand what’s going on in the film.” Yihao recalls hearing about a previous screening without the cast in attendance, during which a European audience member questioned Mullinkosson’s motivations as a foreign director in China. The presence of the protagonists at IDFA would underscore that they’re real people, and active collaborators in the project. “People shouldn’t watch it just looking for the exotic. What’s in the film is my life,” adds Yihao.
Besides emphasizing the documentary’s universality, traveling to Amsterdam also gives the protagonists an opportunity to showcase their own art on a European stage. On November 11 at the club kanaal40, the film’s editor Bobby Moser will reassemble 600 hours of footage into visuals accompanying DJ sets from Darkle, Kimberly, 647, and Gena, as well as a drag performance by Yihao.
“It’s almost like the protagonists become the editor, they’re choosing the pacing of the storytelling with the music. And then Bobby becomes the protagonist,” enthuses Mullinkosson. One room in the club will also host an installation consisting of footage shot just outside of Funky Town, paying homage to the soul-baring conversations that tend to happen in clubs’ smoking areas.
Yihao is currently mulling over two different approaches for his performance at the party, one inspired by his experiences with borders and cultural difference as he traveled to the Copenhagen premiere (his first trip to Europe), and the other returning more directly to the themes of the documentary. “This is a really important performance, for me personally, and for the entire film … I’m very nervous and really want to do a good job!”
Much has changed in Chengdu and in the stars’ lives since The Last Year of Darkness was shot. Funky Town remains open but now lacks a dance floor, altering its atmosphere. 647 and Yihao, meanwhile, have relocated to Shanghai.
Mullinkosson is quick to point out that for subcultural scenes anywhere, venue closures and periods of transition are inevitable, making the fleeting moments captured in the documentary all the more valuable. “Everyone’s bummed about it, but also life moves on and everyone grows and changes.” Hopefully, the cast and crew can reunite in Amsterdam to share the friendships and art forged during a special time in Chengdu’s underground.
Images courtesy Ben Mullinkosson
#Shanghai International Film Festival
Returning from a pandemic-era hiatus, this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival features plenty of domestically-produced work Read More
To be held from February 3 to 12 at the Emperor Cinemas in Lisboeta Macau, the inaugural Macao International Queer Film Festival will screen 17 international and local films Read More