The Same Old ‘China Story’ Keeps Chinese Sci-Fi Earthbound

Earlier this year, the Chinese sci-fi film The Wandering Earth became the Lunar New Year’s biggest release. The film was hailed in China as innovative and groundbreaking, a milestone in science fiction filmmaking and one of the best and most authentic stories to display China for the world. In August 2013, at his first national meeting on propaganda and ideology, Xi Jinping instructed China’s propaganda workers to “tell China’s story well, and properly disseminate China’s voice.” A year later at a foreign affairs work meeting, Xi emphasized that China “must raise our country’s soft power, telling China’s story well.” The Wandering Earth, like other big-budget Chinese blockbusters of recent years that extol the virtue, prowess, and uniqueness of Chinese culture, appears to be just the kind of “China story” Xi had in mind.

A post-climate-change disaster film, The Wandering Earth has a compelling premise: With the sun about to explode, the only way for humanity to survive is to transform the earth into an interstellar spacecraft and travel out of the current solar system. Unfortunately, once earth begins to move away from the sun, the surface will go into a deep freeze, making it uninhabitable. A lottery system is employed to leave half of the world’s population, roughly 3.5 billion people, to its fate on the surface, with the rest moving into vast underground cities where they must stay for countless generations as humanity rides out the earth’s move to another compatible solar system. Setting aside the question of whether a lifetime’s slaving underground for the remote prospect of a new start for surface-dwelling humanity 2,500 years in the future is worth living for, the story of The Wandering Earth operates on the unchallenged premise that half the world’s population is readily expendable for humankind to survive, leaving no time to explore the enormous moral implications of who gets to survive as the film hurries to get to the action and a happy ending.

As the fast-paced plot develops, earth is pulled onto a collision course with Venus that will put an end to humanity once and for all. What can be done? Instead of leaving the Earth and building new homes in space as in many Western sci-fi films, the Chinese in The Wandering Earth are attached to their homeland on mother Earth, thus the necessity of turning the Earth into an interstellar spacecraft. This earthbound attachment is highlighted by commentators in China as a unique Chinese virtue set in opposition to a more expansionist Western culture. As the film’s director, Frant Gwo, remarked, mother earth is where the motherland is, and behind the attempt to remove the Earth from the solar system “is a deeper cultural symbolism, that is, the affection that we as Chinese have for our motherland. . . Chinese have a (more emotional) bond to our land.” Chineseness is also thought to be reflected in the film’s insistence on collective wisdom over individual heroism. But by adopting familiar Hollywood sci-fi tropes, the film inadvertently celebrates the indomitable individual human spirit and heroism.

The Wandering Earth’s promiscuous borrowing from Hollywood films has not escaped notice. In his review for Slate, Inkoo Kang listed a number of Hollywood films the Chinese sci-fi flick freely lifted from: “the terrifying indifference of space in Gravity, the frustration at humanity’s myopia in Arrival, the know-it-all-ism and insistent red glare of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. . .” David Axe, writing for The Daily Beast, put it bluntly: “Swap out . . . the Chinese cast for Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, and you’d still have pretty much the same flick. Only the national flags on the spaceships and spacesuits would be different.” Ben Kenigsberg commented in The New York Times that the film “draws on a barely digested stew of planetary-cataclysm movies, with the eco-catastrophe and invasion films of Roland Emmerich serving as the most obvious spiritual guides.” Lastly, the campy conclusion with all the various cavalries magically arriving together in the nick of time is a classic Hollywood happy ending, a formula that Xi Jinping, a fan of patriotic Hollywood war movies, is familiar with. As reported in a leaked U.S. embassy cable, Xi (then Zhejiang Province Communist Party Secretary) told U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt in 2007 that, “Americans have a clear outlook on values and clearly demarcate between good and evil. In American movies, good usually prevails.” Xi has the right hunch that action-oriented blockbuster Hollywood films normally pander to viewers’ desire for an uplifting ending, bolstered by the Hays Code from 1934 to 1967, and which has long since entered the DNA of Chinese cinema. As a New Year celebration film, The Wandering Earth is obligated to follow this formula.

But, while Chinese audiences were happy for the joyful ride, the telling of “China’s story” does not seem to have gained much traction elsewhere. The film saw a meek $5.9 million in box office receipts during its theatrical U.S. run, drawing in mostly overseas Chinese. Its worldwide release on Netflix met with scant fanfare and tepid viewership.

Yet six years ago, another Asian sci-fi film with a similar plot, the South Korean-Czech-French-American co-production Snowpiecer (2013), generated a very different global reaction. Snowpiecer depicts the struggles of the last survivors of global warming who are confined to a massive train traveling on a globe-circling track. These last remnants of humanity are segregated into several cars: “elites inhabit the extravagant front cars and the ‘scum’ inhabit the tail in squalid and brutal conditions.” Universal and profound in its moral probing of humans and humanity in crisis, the film makes its train a microcosm of a society spinning out of control. Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating. The Hollywood Reporter called the film “an intellectually and artistically superior vehicle to many of the end-of-days futuristic action thrillers out there.” The film was released in China in March 2014 to lukewarm critical and popular reception.

Chinese critics I’ve spoken to dismiss the gap in reception between the two films as a matter of Western bias against China. One Chinese critic wrote that the West’s reviews of The Wandering Earth “are distracted by a techno-Orientalist fear of China.” Is Western bias to blame for the failure of The Wandering Earth in generating enthusiasm among international audiences? One big difference between the two is Snowpiercer’s moral anguish and existential anxiety when confronting questions of human beings’ right to survival, a disposition The Wandering Earth eschews entirely. Snowpiecer is baldly allegorical and unapologetically grim. Human nature, society, and politics do not come off well under pressure of limited resources. The Wandering Earth, on the other hand, conforms to the state-sanctioned formula of how a positive China story should look and feel, and thus opts for simplicity and optimism over complexity and doubt.

The economic cost of non-conformity amidst this Fall’s 70th anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic of China can be enormous. One recent casualty is The Eight Hundred, a U.S.$80 million epic war film touted as a Chinese Dunkirk. The film depicts a World War II battle in Shanghai where Chinese soldiers defended the Sihang Warehouse against the Japanese army. But the film features the “wrong” soldiers, glorifying the Nationalists instead of the Communists. The Chinese Red Culture Research Association, led by leftist Maoists, held an academic conference on filmmaking and voiced objections to The Eight Hundred on these grounds, deeming the film inappropriate for release during the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The Shanghai International Film Festival yanked the film from its opening night slot, for “technical reasons.” As a result, Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, the film’s producer, reported an approximately U.S.$46 million loss for the first half of 2019. Huayi’s co-founder, Wang Zhongjun, reportedly sold his personal art collection to solve the cash flow problem.

Ironically, the crackdown on domestic productions has opened up China’s domestic market for U.S. blockbusters, reversing China’s decades-long effort to boost local productions. After The Eight Hundred was pulled, Spiderman exceeded expectations by bringing in nearly U.S.$100 million during its opening weekend this summer. But the net effect of the tightened control is for the Chinese film industry to slate films that closely toe the Party line. Judging by the lukewarm box office response to domestic fare this summer, Chinese viewers do not seem thrilled to come to the party/Party. To boost ticket sales, the summer season, which China’s film distribution regulators have previously reserved for domestic blockbusters, was now opened to foreign imports. So Hollywood appears to be benefiting the most from the crackdown!

“Technical reasons” have been proffered to explain a slew of other high-profile delays and cancellations in recent years. The pulling of Zhang Yimou’s One Second from the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival in February was another incidence. The story of One Second revolves around a recent escapee from a political prison who believes a propaganda newsreel includes one second of footage of his deceased daughter, and thus starts a furious pursuit of a mysterious young woman in possession of the news reel. The film is set during the Cultural Revolution. Individuals on the censorship committee who have seen it confided to me in private that the film is Zhang Yimou’s best yet, but said its depiction of the physical violence and psychological trauma of the period makes it an awkward torch bearer for Xi’s version of a positive China story. It seems that censors were worried that the film might actually win an award and thus bringing embarrassment to China’s government during its 70th anniversary. In 1994, Zhang’s To Live, which traced the travails of one Chinese family across decades of political turmoil, won the jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival only to court a ban from theatrical release in China. In 2017, Youth, a coming-of-age story about young recruits in a People’s Liberation Army dance troupe set during the Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Vietnamese war helmed by the popular filmmaker Feng Xiaogang, met the same fate. Amplifying bloody violence and the physical and emotional traumas of the young performers-turned-soldiers during the war, the film was a tribute to veterans of the 1979 war, a group that has protested in Beijing for fair compensation and better treatment. As was speculated by reporters, the film’s release was delayed to avoid triggering protests at the National Party Congress in 2017. This speculation was confirmed during a private chat I had with a Chinese film insider involved with the decision. The Congress that year anointed President Xi Jinping for his second five-year term.

In the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic on October 1, China’s television regulator has mandated that all television channels only air patriotic shows, and not air “overly entertaining” “costume or pop idol dramas.” The amusingly archaic C.C.P. turn-of-phrase essentially served as a warning to viewers of the arrival of a dull season for the Chinese entertainment industry. At a meeting of China’s high-level Central Commission for Deepening Overall Reform led by Xi in May, as Variety reported, “Chinese authorities have pledged to make the recent state of heightened censorship and ideological control over film and TV content the new normal, state media sources said.” The ban might be short-lived, but it has kept the news in the headlines and undercut any attempts the Party might make to redeem itself via good storytelling. It certainly hasn’t helped a positive China story go global. With censorship run amok, the Chinese state is shooting itself in the foot. The regular intrusion of nationalistic mandate into the telling of positive China stories has instead highlighted the vicissitude of political censorship. In the end, the stories Chinese cinema tells are not going to gain traction if popular films, its most visible avatars, continue to “wander” the earth carrying little thematic weight while evoking ethnocentric insistence on the superiority of Chinese civilization.