Chinese sci-fi flicks have yet to set sail

Chinese sci-fi flicks have yet to set sail
Cinema still: Interstellar starring Matthew McConaughey.

Hollywood director Christopher Nolan's new sci-fi flick Interstellar has caught Chinese people's imagination, with their common question being: Can Chinese filmmakers make such a movie?

The Chinese film industry has entered a new era, producing some good movies and earning substantial box office returns. It's not uncommon to see a blockbuster earn more than 100 million yuan (S$21.19 million) nowadays. Since the film industry has never been more successful on the commercial front, film financers may not be averse to investing in sci-fi films, because they could turn into blockbusters.

A recent article on Chinese science fiction over the past two decades by Chinese-American science fiction writer Liu Yukun is seen as signaling the arrival of sci-fi films in China. In the initial years, hard sci-fi tales were more popular in China, because both writers and readers were limited, and many of them came from science and engineering backgrounds.

But with soft sci-fi tales gaining popularity in recent times, the range of writers and readers has expanded considerably. The emergence of some prominent science fiction writers and their abundant body of work offer enough material and inspiration for filmmakers. Moreover, a prominent group of young science fiction fans is drawn to the movies.

But despite the popularity of science fiction writings and movies in China, as well as film financers' willingness to invest in sci-fi movies, the development of the genre faces many obstacles.

As a genre, Chinese sci-fi movies are still in the nascent stage. If you ask even science fiction writers who have been enamored by sci-fi movies since childhood to name Chinese films in this genre, they cannot come up with good examples. Hao Jingfang, a new generation science fiction writer, says very few Chinese sci-fi movies are worth mentioning. After all, "people watch sci-fi movies more because of their popularity than their imaginative elements," she says. Given these facts, the challenge for sci-fi filmmakers to tell a good story is greater than those making films in other genres. Script and screenplay writers, and directors of sci-fi flicks have a tougher task than those working on traditional themes, because they have to let their imagination fly while adhering to logic and the laws of science and engineering. There are few professionally trained people who could measure up to this challenge.

Although most of the science fiction writers will be happy to see their works made into films, there are no successful precedents. Chen Qiufan, a science fiction writer who studied Chinese literature and is a film and television director, says many filmmakers have consulted him about adapting his works for movies, but nothing feasible has emerged "until now". By feasible, he means the filmmaking team's qualifications, experience and competence in handling such a subject. Going by Chen, very few filmmaking teams in China have the ability to make a good sci-fi movie.

Fei Dao, another young science fiction writer, corroborates Chen, saying it's not difficult to find financers for sci-fi movies in China, nor is technology an obstacle. "As far as I know some Chinese digital studios have earned contracts for special effects of many foreign blockbusters ... (so) the main challenge is how script and screenplay writers and directors will handle a sci-fi story."

But there is a first in every field. Despite doubts about the film production team's competence and the difficulty in adapting a sci-fi work for a film, China's top science fiction writer Liu Cixin announced recently that he has agreed to turn his masterpiece, Three Bodies, perhaps China's best contemporary science fiction work, into a film. Liu will also be the film's producer. So have Chinese sci-fi movies eventually set sail? We have to wait for the answer.

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