Last year, Chinese cinemas took in Rmb5.8 billion ($913 million) in ticket sales during the first seven days of the Chinese New Year holiday – the most ever in a single week.
This year promises to be no different. Two of the frontrunners for the holiday crown were writer-director Han Han’s much-anticipated racing car film Pegasus and Stephen Chow’s New King of Comedy (a sequel to a 1999 film starring Chow). As of the end of Tuesday, the first day of the Year of the Pig, the box office tally had already broached Rmb1.4 billion, breaking last year’s first-day taking.
Comedies are traditionally the biggest crowd-pleasers during the holiday, but sci-fi could secure a greater share of ticket sales this time round. That’s because this Chinese New Year week sees two sci-fi blockbusters hitting the big screen. Admittedly, one is a sci-fi comedy – filmmaker Ning Hao’s Crazy Aliens, starring actor Huang Bo. The other is The Wandering Earth, which many in the foreign press have hailed as the first proper sci-fi film made in China.
Both movies are adapted from stories by Liu Cixin, the first author from Asia to win best novel at the Hugo sci-fi and fantasy literary awards (see WiC262).
Information Times felt the need to clarify the claims of a ’first’, however. “The Wandering Earth is definitely not the first sci-fi movie China has ever made, but it is the first sci-fi film that’s garnered so much attention in China.”
It is not the first time Liu’s work has been adapted for the big screen. His most famous book, The Three-Body Problem, was made into a film back in 2015 but the feature never reached the cinema because of production setbacks: particularly, the plot proved too convoluted to fit convincingly into a film format and financing became an issue because of the costs of lavish CGI.
The Wandering Earth cost Rmb500 million to make with much of that spent on CGI. It tells the story of a group of fearless astronauts, led by action star Wu Jing, who battle to save humanity from annihilation before the sun explodes (Wu has a strong box office pedigree – his Wolf Warrior 2 broke all records in 2017, see WiC376).
There is also a propaganda angle: the astronauts from China are the only people capable of fending off the apocalypse.
The growing enthusiasm among entertainment firms for sci-fi offerings is hardly a coincidence. TV series like the reality format Space Challenge (see WiC435) have drummed up excitement around the nation’s space programme to coincide with China landing a probe on the far side of the moon, the first country in history to do so (see WiC436). Now there are plans not only to build a new space station but to conduct missions to Mars.
“The Chinese have landed on the dark side of the moon. No humans have done this before. Such scientific achievements and development have set up a solid foundation. And no Chinese filmmakers have made anything like The Wandering Earth. Seven thousand people worked on the movie, nurturing their knowledge of science fiction films,” proclaimed Wu, its star performer, to the media.
More space-themed fare is in the pipeline, including Realm of the Tiger, a sci-fi superhero crossover, Shanghai Fortress, starring heartthrob Lu Han and actress Shu Qi, and another sci-fi romance titled The Girl From the Future.
Part of the reason that sci-fi has been relatively undeveloped at the Chinese cinema is that it often requires more investment in visual effects (when it comes to CGI, as one critic puts it, “you get what you pay for”). Inexperience and over-reach led local studios to promise far more than they were able to deliver in some of the earlier projects.
The Communist Party wasn’t a big fan of the genre either and the People’s Daily even described sci-fi as “spiritual pollution”. So directors steered clear.
If The Wandering Earth does as well as commentators predict that might change. But don’t expect a Chinese-style Star Wars or Star Trek franchise anytime soon. China has far fewer recognised writers of science fiction, compared to the US, where more than a thousand authors are registered with Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
“Without quantity, it is unrealistic to pursue quality,” Li Zhaoxin, co-founder of science fiction publication the Future Affairs Administration, told Sixth Tone. Guokr.com, a science portal, agrees: “The size of China’s sci-fi community is only so big. Essentially, it is only the readers of Science Fiction World [the most established sci-fi magazine in China]. This is not a large group of writers and the amount of published work is limited. The number of readers, too, is also limited. If the sci-fi trend continues, we need to encourage more original writers.”
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