Making fans furious

Cars travelling in outer space is a step too far for Chinese cinemagoers


Jordana Brewster: a recurring star in the Fast and Furious franchise

The first instalment of the Fast and Furious was set in Los Angeles. By the time of its third outing, the franchise was already so popular that Universal Pictures gave producers an outsized budget, sending Dom Toretto (played by Vin Diesel) and his crew to Tokyo for a memorable chase across the hectic Shibuya Crossing. The fifth film moved to Rio in Brazil and the eighth took the crew to Cuba and Iceland, before returning to New York for more high-octane action.

After so many films, producers may have felt that they were running out of exotic locations. So for their ninth effort they have done something new – taking the crew off to outer space.

Despite the outrageous plotline, audiences in China initially flocked to cinemas to catch the action. Fast and Furious 9: The Fast Saga, which premiered last weekend, raked in Rmb290 million ($45.23 million)in a single day, giving it one of the biggest openings for an imported film in Chinese history (behind only Avengers 4, Fast and Furious 8, Avengers 3 and Fast and Furious 7). Total takings over the weekend reached Rmb800 million, accounting for over 80% of the ticket sales at the Chinese box office.

Yet when audience feedback on the film started to turn increasingly negative, the daily takings began to decelerate faster than a Ferrari F2004 doing an emergency stop. The movie now has the lowest rating on Douban, the TV series and film review site, of any in the franchise: just 5.6 out of 10, far below the average rating of 7.4 for the previous eight instalments.

Online ticketing platform Maoyan has accordingly predicted that the film could gross Rmb2 billion by the end of its run, but that it will still be the least successful in the franchise in China for more than a decade.

Much of the audience displeasure stems from the incoherent screenplay. For instance, cinemagoers were surprised to discover that leading man Toretto has an estranged brother Jakob (John Cena), who happens to have teamed up with an evil billionaire (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) and returning super villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) to take over the world.

Another absurd plotline sees the reappearance of Han Lue (played by Sun Kang) a character that was thought to have been killed off in Fast and Furious 7.

Fans picked other holes in the story, including the electromagnetic superpowers of Toretto’s car, which could take control of rival vehicles. “By the ninth instalment, audiences of the franchise have become a lot more tolerant about the storyline. But even the staunchest fans were shocked by how illogical the screenplay is: the characters can fly through the sky and then hit the ground completely unscathed like superheroes. By the end they are even being blasted off into outer space. That’s a real plotline – not a joke. The film has gone from an action movie to sci-fi,” TMT Post rebuked.

“The plot has become more and more outrageous,” another film critic agreed. “The characters survive any injury, even when machine guns are fired at them from just a few metres away. And even the dead can seemingly resurrect for whatever reason is convenient to the screenwriters.”

Audiences voiced their frustration too. “As you watch F9 you become increasingly confused: am I watching Mission Impossible or James Bond? And then you think, this feels more like Transformers and even Star Wars or Avengers. In short, Fast and Furious drifts further and further away from its unique car-chase theme, focusing instead on explosions and action at all costs, which is devoid of any logic,” one former fan wrote on Sina Weibo.

“Even nostalgia has its limits,” another lamented. “When audiences don’t feel that their intelligence is respected, even a generous serving of explosions is going to feel tasteless and numb.”

The Chinese have been steadfast supporters of the franchise for years. Fast and Furious 8 collected Rmb2.7 billion in ticket sales, accounting for a third of the film’s global takings, and the ninth film was released in China a month before its North American debut.

Vin Diesel told reporters that he was so grateful to Chinese audiences that he asked the film company to release F9 in the Chinese mainland first, as a way of thanking fans.

Keeping that audience happy then saw producers go into damage-limitation mode this week after comments from John Cena earlier this month that Taiwan was actually the first “country” to watch F9. Netizens immediately took political umbrage to the description of Taiwan’s status and Cena had to scramble onto social media to atone for his geopolitical gaffe. Writing in Chinese, his apology included a clip posted on his Weibo account saying he was very sorry about his mistake.“I must say that now, very importantly, I love and respect China and Chinese people,” the actor assured.

Meanwhile, Universal has already promised at least two more sequels – which will include recurring stars like Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez and Jason Statham. Vin Diesel revealed in an interview that some of the scenes for the next instalment will take place in China – though presumably they won’t be filmed till the country’s Covid-19 travel restrictions have been lifted.

A fatal finish

Extreme weather leads to 21 deaths in Gansu marathon

In 2011 China hosted 22 marathons or ultra-long distance races. By 2019 – the year before the Covid-19 pandemic fully took hold – that number had increased to 1,828. Almost every city was showcasing a marathon or some kind of extreme running event – it was an easy way to attract tourists and promote fitness.

But on May 22 the lack of regulations around these races, combined with a spell of extreme cold-weather, had calamitous results, with the deaths of 21 runners taking part in a 100km trail race in western Gansu province.

It was the highest number of casualties ever recorded in a long-distance race. For comparison the Marathon des Sables – a well-established six-day, 251km trek across the Sahara Desert – has suffered two deaths in its 35-year history. A study by the University of Bologna on trail racing earlier this year cited 51 deaths in total among long-distance runners over the last 12 years – 35 during the races themselves, the remainder during training for the events.

So what happened in Gansu? The race there claimed the lives of several of China’s leading long-distance runners including Liang Jing – the winner of a previous iteration of the event – and Huang Guanjun, a deaf runner who won the marathon at China’s 2019 Paralympic Games.

A third runner in the leading pack, Zhang Xiaotao, only survived because a local shepherd found his unconscious body and carried him to a cave to warm up.

Many of the 21 victims are thought to have died of hypothermia caused by the unexpectedly severe conditions of strong winds, hail and freezing rain on an inaccessible part of the mountainous course.

The race – officially titled as the Yellow River Stone Forest 100km Trail Run – traverses an arid landscape where the lowest altitude is 1,300m. The trail, which has to be completed in less than 20 hours, alincludes numerous climbs, adding up to 3,000m in height gain.

Baiyin, the city responsible for organising the race, was established in the 1950s as a base for mining of non-ferrous metals. Most of the mines have closed in recent years, forcing the local economy to reinvent itself.

The mayor of Baiyin, who fired the starting gun on the race, apologised for the tragedy and said that local officials had launched an investigation. “We feel deeply sorry and guilty. We express deep condolences and sympathy to the families of the victims and the injured,” he said. Footage on state television also showed him bowing to cameras as an expression of his remorse.

Interestingly the Chinese media has been allowed to report on the tragedy relatively freely. Newspapers have conducted interviews with survivors and a few have even published versions of events that contradict the official explanations of the disaster.

State news agency Xinhua said there were four main questions still to be addressed. Why did the weather forecasters not give adequate warning of the awful conditions? Were the safety measures adequate? Did the organisers act quickly enough to call off the race? And was there an emergency rescue plan in place? “How is it possible that the race ended with more than 10% of its participants dead?” Xinhua asked. Other news outlets focused on the fact that the temperature had already dropped dramatically before the race had started and that the heat-saving blankets carried by the runners were ineffective, often shredding in the high winds.

There was also the question of why no one had checked to see if the runners were carrying suitable equipment. Many had put their warmer clothing in bags that were dropped at the half-way point on the course before they started the run. But it also meant that the athletes were unable put on warmer clothes on the morning of the race, even as the conditions turned colder.

The 172 runners paid a Rmb1,000 fee to compete, leading some newspapers to ask what the money had been spent on by organisers.

“This sudden tragedy should warn all of us how horrible it is to lose respect for professionalism. If we take the risks for granted just because a type of event has become a craze, we are destined to pay a price,” warned the Guangming Daily. “The finishing line in all of these marathons should be the safe return of all the participants. We cannot blame the weather for this tragedy,” the Peninsula Metropolis Daily added. It now looks all but inevitable that the government will intervene in outlining new regulations for future long-distance running races across China.

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