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Shanghai Film Festival Embraces Sci-fi Genre



After a golden age in the 1980s, Chinese filmmakers were quietly discouraged from dabbling in the sci-fi genre – it isn’t real science and authorities did not want youngsters to get confused. That stance changed during the last decade and the Shanghai International Film Festival has just hosted its first sci-fi week, comprising nearly a dozen film screenings and a trio of panel discussions featuring the new luminaries in the sector.

Reasons for the revised position of China’s authorities are not hard to understand. Not only was Hollywood getting away with dominating a genre that was popular with Chinese audiences, China in the 21st century has become a global technology powerhouse. Its space program, in particular, is now among the most advanced, capable of a normalized rocket launch schedule, international co-operation and lunar and interplanetary missions.

“A great sci-fi film can successfully arouse people’s curiosity to explore the universe and nature and induce people to think profoundly,” the Shanghai festival said in notes accompanying its event.

“Organizers want to innovate and promote Chinese sci-fi films to overseas audiences. This is in order to have the Chinese voice heard in the world and tell China’s unique sci-fi stories born in a unique cultural and aesthetic environment of China.”

China’s space prowess was recognized in Hollywood films including “2012,” “The Martian” and “Gravity,” but it was not until 2019 and “The Wandering Earth” that the Chinese-made version of the genre truly blasted off.

The picture, directed by Frant Gwo and adapted from a Liu Cixin novel, tells a tale of planet Earth being dragged to destruction by the gravitational pull of a giant red sun and by Jupiter, but being shifted to a safer orbit by the harnessing of thousands of thrusters. It was huge box office success in China – earning RMB4.69 billion ($660 million at current exchange rates), enjoyed more than tokenistic levels of interest overseas and provided a platform for Chinese values and perspectives that Hollywood had only rarely indulged.

(The SIFF sci-fi week coincided with Netflix’s long-awaited reveal of footage from “3 Body Problem,” its big-budget adaptation of another Liu Cixin novel.)

The Shanghai festival’s Sci-fi week curated its 11 titles in three categories: A Trip to the Mars, Retro and Forward. The Retro section played the 1980s films “Death Ray on Coral Island,” “Dislocation” and “Wonder Boy” as outdoor screenings at the drive-in theater of Shanghai’s Chenshan Botanical Garden.

Gwo spoke at one of the three sci-fi forums and emphasized story over technology. “The purpose of technology is not to satisfy curiosity, but to complete emotional narratives,” he said. “On top of that, we have to step back and build a complete worldview or advanced concept that helps us tell a story of emotional narrative.”

Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve dropped into the discussion virtually, with a video message. “As a filmmaker and science fiction fan, I want to say ‘thank you’ to SIFF and the Chinese audience for supporting ‘Dune’ and embracing this genre.”


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