Director Zhang Panpan announced the sci-fi film The Three Body Problem has completed filming and was entering post-production on Aug. 6. Its story of alien invasion during the Cultural Revolution is adapted from the work of science fiction writer Liu Cixin’s eponymous series.
The Three Body Problem was praised as a milestone in Chinese sci-fi literature. The first part was published in the US in 2014 and was nominated for the Nebula Award by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America this year.
Pointing to the novel’s popularity, producer Kong Ergou is predicting a box office take of more than 50 million yuan for next July.
Other Chinese directors and companies have announced their own plans for other sci-fi films.
China Film Group Corporation said in November 2014 that it had purchased the film for Liu’s other sci-fi novels, including Time After Nova, The Wandering Earth and Micro Era. Director Zhang Yimou is preparing for his first sci-fi film, The Great Wall, and Hong Kong director Zhou Xingchi is planning a sci-fi film titled The Mermaid.
For most Chinese film fans, “sci-fi film” is the sole domain of Hollywood.
Jurassic World, Avatar, Pacific Rim and Avengers have defined the Chinese view of what a real sci-fi film should look like. It’s hard to imagine any product carrying the Made in China label without resembling the laughable Electric Boy, Crazy Rabbit or Chang Jiang No.7 “sci-fi” efforts.
Frequent messages about popular directors taking on the sci-fi genre have given Chinese film fans new hope.
For Chinese filmmakers, sci-fi is unfamiliar territory. Technological shortcomings and limited screenwriting experience in the genre make directors fearful of attempting the grand scenes described by writers. Wuxia films are substantially more familiar territory with an established road to international attention that includes Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero.
After years of silence, Chinese directors may finally have the courage and money to attempt a real sci-fi film.
“Many film-making companies are already prepared for sci-fi films. More than one film has been given an initial 10 million yuan investment, which is more than we expected,” said Yan Peng, planning director of Beijing Galloping Horse Media.
But big numbers can’t hide the trouble in store for the fledgling Chinese sci-fi film industry.
“It’s very difficult to shoot a sci-fi film, and now is not the time for Chinese directors to attempt it,” director Ning Hao said in an interview with 21 Century Business Review. Ning purchased the rights to The Country Teacher, another of Liu’s sci-fi novels, in 2011. The film has been stuck in pre-production ever since.
Computer graphics technology is a common sticking point, with China lagging behind most of the West and several Asian countries.
The Chinese film industry lacks the professionals dedicated to cutting-edge effects needed to drive sci-fi forward. The few semi-qualified professionals it has are scattered across a handful of different companies.
“Some Chinese talents who have mastered the technology are stuck in small companies without teams. These small companies can’t receive enough orders to prop up their survival in the market, meaning these people’s skills are going to waste,” Jin Guoping, president of Shenzhen Global Digital Creations Holdings, told 21 Century Business Review.
Without domestic professionals who can handle the post-production requirements of a sci-fi film, Chinese filmmakers have no choice other than to head abroad.
The producer of The Three Body Problem recently announced the film had received a gross investment of 20 million yuan and that it was hiring VHQ, the effects team behind Avatar and Harry Potter, to work on the film.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to overcome the impression left by its poor 2014 trailer.
Another problem is that few Chinese sci-fi writers have any experience adapting their works to the screen or cooperating with an experienced screenwriter. Chinese screenwriters are similarly clueless about the limits of computer graphics technology. This makes it especially difficult to adapt popular novels to meet the director’s demands.
For now, Chinese filmmakers are taking a risk.
“Once the audience cannot tolerate sci-fi failures any longer, they will stop paying to see our movies. If filmmakers can’t earn a profit on sci-fi films, they will not invest in them and the sci-fi film will collapse again,” director Shen Yue told the People’s Daily Online.
But in the short term, Chinese sci-fi films are certain to achieve high box office sales. After all, people are curious what a domestic sci-fi film will look like. And fans will come just to see their favorite stars.
“No matter whether The Three Body Problem is good or bad, I will probably go and see it in the theater,” wrote a Weibo user named Xiao Chouyu said. “My idol Feng Shaofeng is playing the lead role.”