After missing out on signing Bruce Lee to a rival in the early 1970s, Run Run Shaw tried to make up for the blunder by turning to science fiction.
In 1975 Shaw Brothers produced China Superman (or Super Inframan), capitalising on the popularity of Japan’s Ultraman in Asia. The Chinese superhero – disguised with a mask and egg-shape goggles – would defend world peace by fighting rubbery-looking monsters with impressive laser weapons (and Chinese kung-fu too).
Two years later, Shaw produced another mega-budget sci-fi film. The Mighty Peking Man which featured Swiss actress Evelyne Kraft and Yuen Woo-ping (the martial arts choreographer used in The Matrix and Kill Bill). Yuen donned a giant gorilla costume (the inspiration this time was King Kong).
Both movies floundered, as Hong Kong moviegoers preferred to stick with their kung-fu superstars such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The setback was even considered to be the moment when Shaw Brothers’ saw its power as the city’s dominant studio wane (see WiC222).
If a movie mogul such as Shaw could spectacularly fail to sell Chinese-made sci-fi to a Chinese audience, little wonder others haven’t bothered in the ensuing decades. Even today, as Xinhua Entertainment puts it, sci-fi remains the “biggest void” in China’s otherwise vibrant film industry.
But it isn’t because Chinese moviegoers don’t like sci-fi. They love the genre these days. The country imported 11 sci-fi movies in 2014, and it was the top selling genre, grossing Rmb6 billion ($965 million) out of last year’s Rmb30 billion total box office. A large chunk of that cash was earned by Transformers: Age of Extinction, a flakily plotted movie that nevertheless raked in Rmb2 billion.
After the sweeping success of the robot blockbuster, local critics have pondered why Chinese producers have failed to come up with hit sci-fi flicks of their own. One recurring answer has been to blame a zealous censor whose activities with the red pen suffocate imagination. ‘Time travel’, for example, belongs to a lengthy list of plot devices that scriptwriters have been cautioned to avoid. Recall too that when Men in Black 3 went on screen, censors cut three minutes of footage that featured aliens disguised as Chinese restaurant staff.
“Hollywood’s computers bomb the White House or tear down the Pentagon everyday. Would our censors allow scenes showing the destruction of Tiananmen Square or Mao’s portrait?” one commentator wrote on Zhihu, a question-and-answer website, when discussing the topic.
“If you want a Chinese superhero to save the world, people up there (the censors) may ask where is the People’s Liberation Army?” another added.
Step forward an immaculate script clear of most taboo subjects. As we reported last year, The Three-Body Problem, the first novel in a trilogy published between 2008 and 2010, has turned author Liu Cixin into a celebrity writer (see WiC262) and won him a Hugo award.
The trilogy tells the story of a civilisation in another star system that is facing extinction, and chooses to invade the Earth after receiving a signal from our planet, broadcast during the Cultural Revolution. Yulebao, the crowdfunding unit of Alibaba’s entertainment business, will partner with Yoozoo Pictures (the movie unit of an internet game developer) to turn the novel into a sci-fi film.
The movie – which is set to star Tang Yan – is expected to premiere in a year’s time, but tickets are already on sale on Alibaba’s various online platforms. “Three-Body will be the first movie in China that allows fans to fully participate in the production process,” Liu Chunning, head of Alibaba’s digital entertainment unit, told a press conference last month. “This will also go down in Chinese movie history as the sci-fi movie with the most producers,” Liu added, hinting at how sci-fi fans may co-develop the film’s plot.
Both Alibaba and Yoozoo have made it very clear The Three-Body movie could be accompanied by a much more ambitious merchandising campaign, such as selling Yoozoo’s online games.
This is a much bigger market then selling tickets, Beijing News notes. Toy Story 3, for example, grossed $1.1 billion worldwide but merchandising including storybooks and toys have helped Disney rake in $8.7 billion from that Pixar franchise.
Author Liu Cixin has thus become a sought-after partner for entertainment bosses. Another internet giant Tencent, China Daily reports, has also teamed up with the novelist to try to give its products creative clout. Liu’s new job title? Tencent’s Mobile Game Imagination Architect.
Nor is The Three-Body Problem the only sci-fi film soon to hit screens. “2015 will be the year of Chinese science fiction movies,” Xinhua reckons, having reported last month that at least a dozen sci-fi movies are in production.
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