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Thursday, August 15, 2019, 10:58
Fortress falls flat
By Xu Fan
Thursday, August 15, 2019, 10:58 By Xu Fan

Much anticipated sci-fi movie disappoints many Chinese fans, Xu Fan reports.

Chinese actor Lu Han and actress Shu Qi play leading roles in Shanghai Fortress. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

It was anticipated to be the top sci-fi film this summer, but Shanghai Fortress has flopped, triggering online debate about the future of Chinese sci-fi films.

Starring A-list actress Shu Qi and pop idol Lu Han, the movie opened on 33 percent of the country's nearly 65,000 screens on Friday, knocking down the phenomenal hit Ne Zha to 27 percent that day. But, a flood of negative reviews soon pulled Shanghai Fortress down from the top slot, with the screening rate shrinking to 14.4 percent by the next day.

Although extraterrestrial beings are a familiar theme seen numerous times in Hollywood, they’re still a fresh subject for Chinese filmmakers

Ji Shaoting, founder and CEO, scifi company Future Affairs Administration

On popular film review site Douban, a reference for many theatergoers, Shanghai Fortress also saw its score fall from 4.2 points out of 10 on its debut day to 3.2 points as of Wednesday. Even worse news was that the film, which reportedly cost around 360 million yuan (US$51.1 million) to make, has grossed just 116 million yuan by Wednesday.

Based on online feedback, the live box-office tracker Maoyan has estimated that the film's final box office will not surpass 150 million yuan, indicating that its financers will suffer a big loss.

Among all of the unflattering reviews, one comment in particular sums up popular opinion, "While the door for Chinese sci-fi films to thrive was opened by The Wandering Earth, it is being closed by Shanghai Fortress."

Earlier this year, The Wandering Earth, a film based on the novella of the same name by Hugo Award-winning Chinese writer, Liu Cixin, smashed box-office records to rake in 4.66 billion yuan, making it China's second highest-grossing film of all time and a game changer.

A still image of the film features Chinese-Canadian actor Godfrey Tsao, who plays the military leader of an elite unit resisting an alien invasion. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Previously, most Chinese investors were reluctant to finance sci-fi films, as such special effects-driven productions usually draw a big budget, and they believed that local moviegoers - who have watched a number of excellent Hollywood sci-fi hits over the past two decades - were not so interested in futuristic stories featuring Chinese heroes.

So, after the success of The Wandering Earth, Shanghai Fortress - an epic in which the Chinese metropolis is the last and only hope for humans to resist an alien invasion - was highly anticipated. However, most netizens have expressed their disappointment. The criticism revolves around loose narration, an unconvincing romance between the two protagonists and the film's unrefined visual effects.

Shanghai Fortress' director Teng Huatao, a veteran known for portraying urban romances in films, posted on Sina Weibo about being "upset" that "he had let down the audience".

"As the director, I have an inescapable responsibility ... But I still hope there is a future (production) and that Chinese sci-fi films become better," writes Teng.

A similar statement on Sina Weibo came from novelist, and the film's scriptwriter, Yang Zhi, better known by his pseudonym Jiang Nan: "To those who don't like the film, I am sorry that it didn't live up to your expectations."

The movie is adapted from Yang's eponymous novel, which chronicles a 22-year-old recruit's crush on his beautiful commander. Both serve in an elite unit that seeks to resist the alien invaders. For some critics, the original story's romantic core is one of the main reasons that the movie failed to shape up as an epic depicting an interstellar war, as suggested by the film's trailers.

Director Teng Huatao (fourth from left) alongside stars and crew members to promote the film in Shanghai on June 16. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

For some industry insiders and analysts, the flop of Shanghai Fortress offers a lesson for those planning new sci-fi films to avoid similar pitfalls.

"The Wandering Earth has largely raised the bar for Chinese sci-fi movies, as well as public perception of such movies, but The Wandering Earth and Shanghai Fortress are both just single cases. It's unfair to link one movie's performance to an entire industry," says Rao Shuguang, president of the China Film Critics Association.

He says sci-fi films are different from middle-budgeted genres, such as comedy and romance, in that they need persistence and the development of better cinema technology in China.

Ji Shaoting, founder and CEO of the Beijing-based sci-fi company Future Affairs Administration, says Shanghai Fortress has many flaws, but it's still a film that deserves praise.

"Although extraterrestrial beings are a familiar theme seen numerous times in Hollywood, they're still a fresh subject for Chinese filmmakers," she says.

Ji also mentions that director Ning Hao's blockbuster Crazy Alien, inspired by another Liu novel, The Country Teacher, is underestimated, even though it gives a comedic touch to such a story.

"Crazy Alien performed well at the box office, not to mention The Wandering Earth. Such popularity of sci-fi was hard to imagine just three years ago. Every industry encounters obstacles when something new is started. I believe the potential for Chinese sci-fi productions is still high," Ji says.

Guo Jing, a veteran producer who is now making an online sci-fi series adapted from a short story by another Chinese Hugo Award winner, Hao Jingfang, says Shanghai Fortress won't exert much influence over sci-fi, as a film usually starts preparations two or three years before the shooting.

"Chinese sci-fi cinema needs more qualified writers and a mature industry chain, but it will get better in the future," Guo adds.

Contact the writer at xufan@chinadaily.com.cn

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