Fortress besieged

How a sure-thing blockbuster proved an epic fail and saw director apologise


Shu Qi: starlet’s big-budget sci-fi debut bombs at the box office

If good things come to those who wait, Shanghai Fortress should have been well rewarded.

The sci-fi blockbuster cost as much as Rmb400 million to make and took over six years to complete. Its forerunner The Wandering Earth also took five years from start to finish, with a smaller budget of Rmb300 million. It raked in almost Rmb5 billion ($710 million) earlier this year, setting a record for a domestic sci-fi production and proving one of the few bright spots in a slow period for homegrown movies.

Shanghai Fortress, which reached screens in late July, promoted itself as an heir to its predecessor’s sci-fi crown. Wang Chen, the film’s producer, told media at the Beijing premiere: “Before The Wandering Earth, there were no Chinese sci-fi epics at all. We are standing on the shoulders of the titan and moving forward.”

But the film then got a shockingly negative reception and so far the takings have been poor. Despite the all-star cast – including heartthrob Lu Han and starlet Shu Qi – it earned just Rmb120 million in its opening fortnight. And on review website Douban, it received an abysmal 3.2 out of 10 score (averaged from over 160,000 reviewers). Industry insiders now predict that the film will be “the biggest money-loser this summer,” reports Tencent Entertainment.

Shanghai Fortress is one of my favourite novels. It has obsessed me for over a decade. Over the years, I have wondered countless times how it would look if turned into a movie. However, after watching the film, I would rather this film had never been made. It was rubbish,” one disappointed moviegoer wrote.

The Wandering Earth opened a door for China’s sci-fi genre and Shanghai Fortress has closed it,” another concluded.

Teng Huatao, the director of the blockbuster, then published a lengthy apology on weibo for letting fans down. “I’m so sad to see the reviews. It is not about just being unsatisfied with this particular film, but, rather, it is about people losing their expectations for Chinese sci-fi films as a whole. I’m really sorry because I believe no one wants to shut that shining door,” he said.

The scriptwriter Jiang Nan, who is also the author of the original novel (published in 2009), soon followed with his own apology, especially to fans of his book who had waited so many years for the film.

Shanghai Fortress takes place in 2035 and is premised on the idea that the city is mankind’s last refuge during an alien invasion. Shu, aged 43, plays Lin Lan, the commander of an international force tasked with fighting alien attackers. Lu, a younger 29, plays a college graduate so smitten with Lin he decides to join the taskforce defending Earth.

“There is no chemistry between the two. And to be honest, Shu Qi looks like a young auntie of Lu Han,” one critic wrote of the unlikely pairing.

Much of the criticism surrounded Lu’s performance, with many complaining that the pop idol doesn’t know how to act.

Of course, it’s common practice for studios to cast big-name stars with huge online followings to boost box office performance. The strategy has paid off in the past: many of Lu’s 60 million followers on weibo flocked to see him in Time Raiders, where he had the lead role, despite a fairly dismal 4.7 rating on Douban in 2016.

In his most recent interview Teng admitted Lu was “miscast” in a movie “that doesn’t suit him”.

That said, some of the critics reckoned it was unfair to only blame Lu. “The screenplay alone took over four years to finish and post-production took over a year. Filming, on the other hand, lasted only three months. So, to put the blame on Lu Han’s contribution, which appears to be such a small fraction of the entire production, seems unjustified. Apart from Lu looking lost and confused in the film, the biggest problem is a screenplay that has plenty of loopholes,” Tencent Entertainment rebuked.

“In addition to Lu’s bad acting, Shanghai Fortress’ biggest problem is that the storyline is simply ridiculous and makes no sense,” TMT Post agreed.

Others queried whether the director was out of his depth. Teng is best known for making romantic films, including Up in the Wind (2013) and Love Is Not Blind (2011). He told state-run TV news channel CGTN that he moved out of his comfort zone to direct a sci-fi movie because he hoped it would mark a career breakthrough. More than one critic said he had failed to make the transition. “Shanghai Fortress struggles with split personality disorder: it can’t decide whether it is a romantic movie or a sci-fi,” one lambasted.

Fans of the genre said the disappointment about the film shouldn’t be totally toxic for future releases. “Sci-fi requires a lot of imagination and sophistication. The success of that genre, however, is a collective effort of many people. So even though some say Shanghai Fortress has slammed the door on sci-fi, one bad film is not going to topple the entire genre. Eventually, the bad film will be forgotten. But what’s important is how to carve a viable future for sci-fi films domestically. That’s a question a lot of filmmakers need to consider,” posited Phoenix News.

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