Gena and Yihao at Funky Town in "The Last Year of Darkness."

Director Ben Mullinkosson Takes Us to Chengdu’s Funky Town

Writer Weiting Liu talks to the documentary filmmaker about his latest film, 'The Last Year of Darkness'

Gena and Yihao at Funky Town in "The Last Year of Darkness."

Mike Mogler

Words by Weiting Liu

On a Sunday evening back in July I was at Rooftop Films' New York City premiere of director Ben Mullinkosson's documentary feature The Last Year of Darkness. (The film first came out at this year's CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, Denmark.) Its opening shot of a rumbling subway tunnel transported us from the Brooklyn rooftop to the underground of Chengdu, China—my hometown city that I left for Los Angeles at the age of 18.

This coming-of-age melancholia follows a group of subcultural youths stumbling through their grungy nightlife at Funky Town, Chengdu's techno epicenter that has since been demolished. While the film is about queer DJs and a drag queen, it feels universal past any sense of identity. And it's genuinely Chengdu, where its hedonism feels blasé, its nihilism glamorous.

It also reminds me of my own early 20s, a confusing time when I first started processing my parental traumas, and felt that I simultaneously knew nothing and everything. Homesick with wanderlust, I partied my way through Los Angeles to belong and to be understood. The drunken cigarettes shared with drag queens and the 3 a.m. roadside convos along Sunset Boulevard…they felt closer to my heart than unpaid offers of summer internships and half-ass invitations to white fraternity parties.

The film accurately captures what it means to party in your early adulthood, and make friends while partying, no matter where you are. When your body is beat and weak from all the drinking and dancing, you have no choice but to trust whoever is with you at that moment—and submit to radical self-acceptance.

I chatted with Mullinkosson about how he made the film in my hometown, and what it means for him to party in China as an American—and for me, a Chinese in the United States.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Weiting Liu: The Rooftop screening of The Last Year of Darkness was a beautiful viewing experience for me all around. What's the story between Rooftop Films and you as a filmmaker? How did this premiere come into place?
Ben Mullinkosson: When my producer Sol Ye and I were applying for grants, Rooftop was the first organization to believe in the film. I became the 2020 recipient of their Water Tower Feature Film Grant. Since then, getting funds from everybody else has become so much easier. Having their support has been great.

WL: The film is vibey, moody, and emo. It's also hot and hormonal. It takes you on a journey, and you just follow whomever you see on screen. During the filming process that spanned several years, did you ever think about what specific vibes you want the film to give out?
BM: The film is a love letter to the underground party scene of Chengdu, and a celebration of life that can only be lived through darkness. Young people go to places like Funky Town to run away from their problems, even if it's only for one night.

When we screened the film in Chengdu, everyone in attendance was having plum wine, Funky Town's signature drink. And every local was telling me how real the film is. I believe it will remind you of your own early 20s, when you're a little bit broke and a little bit lost, and are just looking for a good place to escape to.

Yihao on location in Chengdu in "The Last Year of Darkness."

Mike Mogler

WL: Funky Town looks so glam in your neon-tinted camera. I love how the film looks throughout. Absolutely beautiful cinematography: the well thought-out compositions; the scenery shots of Chengdu's cityscapes; the poetic closeups and tilt shots of the people in it. What makes you the proudest about the film's cinematography?
BM: Chengdu is just a beautiful city for location shooting. The beautiful cinematography also develops out of the mutual trust between the cameramen and my friends on camera. And I'm proudest of that! We filmed the cast with wide-angle lenses up close and personal. The main cinematographer is Gena Baranov, who had been friends with the cast since before the filming process. We had already partied together and seen him throw up and stuff. There's no distance between his lens and our friends on screen.

WL: Your tagline for this film"From throwing up to growing up." I love it so much! People just don't come up with taglines like this any more. The point of a tagline is to make it so bad that it's good. This is genius!
BM: Exactly! Exactly! I wrote the line, which not everyone liked. It might not sound that articulate—but I like it, too!

WL: Back to Gena, a Russian DJ very active on the Chengdu party scene. He's both the main cinematographer and one of your main castthe cameraman is also on camera. He feels like a central figure that ties many knots together in this film, which explores what it means to party while exploring your queerness. He flirts with Yihao, a mercurial drag queen who's the absolute star of the film. They both go through angst and confusion to reconcile with their sexualities, while Yihao's family has a hard time understanding his gender identity.

How do your friendships with your cast impact you emotionally and artisticallyas the filmmaker to witness and record them navigating their lives that can get dark at times?
BM: I agree that there's much darkness in the film. And I personally relate to their life struggles in one way or another. At the very beginning, I told all my cast that I wanted to dive deep into who they are, and meet their families. Meanwhile, I've always been vulnerable with them, too. Making the film became one of the ways for us to process our emotions together—and for me to grow into a full-fledged documentary director.

I'm aware that documentary filmmaking can become exploitative, if not handled with care and empathy. I'm cautious about what footage I put into the final cut. My priority is that nothing on screen makes my friends uncomfortable.The film is an authentic collaboration where all of us gave our 100 percent.

Director Ben Mullinkosson at the CPH:DOX premiere of "The Last Year of Darkness."


WL: Your cast's authenticity and willingness to be vulnerable with you are so palpable on screen. The scene that carries the most emotional weight for me is where the skater/musician nicknamed 647 sits against a wall outside Funky Town, and recounts the traumas he's dealt with from both his parents. Suddenly he catches lightning in a bottle, finding gratitude for these traumas that eventually make him who he is. He accepts and embraces himself in that moment, and I relate to that so much.
BM: I'm so glad you love that scene! I love it, too! Just like him, everybody else in the film has some sort of parental and familial traumas. This monologue scene of his brings out another layer of Funky Town, and explains why they go there and why they party.

WL: Intergenerational traumas are very common within Chinese families. It's only natural that your film captures how they impact your cast's identities and sexualities within a Chinese context. But the mental gymnastics we overcome to accept ourselves are universal. The film's not political. It's universal.
BM: I can't stop any audience from making political assumptions about me as an American filmmaker in China. But this is really just a film about my friends.

WL: It's about your friends partying with you in Chengdu, my hometown, of all places. Watching the film, I had major FOMO, "How come I'm not in Chengdu partying with these people? How come I've been doing all my partying in America? How come I've been here for the past 10 years already?" It made me go through an identity crisis for a minute.

What about you? Have you ever thought about your identity as an American in China? Or your place in between both worlds that are China and America?
BM: We're very similar in this regard. You have 10 years in America—I have seven years now in China. To be honest with you, I just love China. I love Chengdu! I've now built a family in Chengdu, which is of course different from my family back home in Chicago. And the city inspires me so much as a filmmaker, as you can tell from this film. My friends involved in it are part of that family.

Living here also brings me out of my comfort zone. I find challenges in my everyday routines such as going to the bank and the Chinese language school. 

WL: I relate. I can't thrive on an easy life. I need the challenges.
BM: Not everyone's like this. But yea, this lifestyle is for you and for me. On the other hand, I also love how chill Chengdu can be sometimes. It's refreshing that people here don't try that hard.

You and I went to the same film school in Los Angeles. Do you feel everyone in that city is in the film industry? Over there, all we talk about is which DP we’ve worked with on what music video. In Chengdu, my closest friends don't care that much about making films and videos. Instead, we skate cool spots and party to techno. That's good for me, too.

WL: Once a partier, always a partier.

Published on August 30, 2023

Words by Weiting Liu

Weiting Liu is a Brooklyn-based film and culture writer from Chengdu, China. She writes about everything Asian with joy in her heart. She also writes about media representation of gender, race, and intersectionality. Find her writing here and find her on Instagram and Twitter.