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“The Wandering Earth”: Propaganda, Ratings Wars, and the Future of Chinese Sci-Fi

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Without a doubt, sci-fi epic The Wandering Earth stands victorious in the fierce 2019 Spring Festival box office competition, having earned 3.9 billion RMB (about 576 million USD) in 14 days. Since premiering on the first day of the Year of the Pig two weeks ago, the film has become the second highest-grossing Chinese film ever, surpassing Operation Red Sea, last year’s Spring Festival box office winner. Now, only 2017 Spring Festival hit Wolf Warrior 2, which took in a total of 5.68 billion RMB (840 million USD) during its extended theatrical run, is ahead of it in the box office charts.

Despite the hype, The Wandering Earth‘s box office performance comes with a caveat. Compared to last year’s Spring Festival break, audience numbers shrank by about 15 million people during the first week of the new lunar year, according to culture and business publication Q Daily (link in Chinese). Analysts expect the main reason is that ticket prices went up this year, a price hike possibly caused by a recent restriction on the ability of ticketing platforms and film distribution companies to sell tickets at a discount.

Regardless, The Wandering Earth‘s success has generated a number of hot topics across the Chinese internet.

On the Road

The first plot element to go viral was an automatic “warm reminder” recited repeatedly by the giant carrier vehicles in the film, becoming somewhat of a catchphrase:

“道路千万条,安全第一条;行车不规范,亲人两行泪。”

“Routes are countless. Safety is foremost. Unregulated driving, loved ones end up in tears.”

Not long after the film’s opening day, this robotic voice message could be heard both on Alibaba-owned navigation app Amap and Tencent-owned QQ Map, with  variations also to be found on ride-hailing app Didi Chuxing.

People who had driven to reunite with family for the Spring Festival could also see these lines on public LED screens lining highways around Chongqing, Suzhou, and Shanghai:

Brands were quick to get in on the action as well, with promotional activities including Wandering Earth-themed KFC branches:

“Going Home”

Despite the higher ticket price, The Wandering Earth has comfortably sailed to the #2 spot in just two weeks. How did it win the most competitive Spring Festival film season ever, despite online criticism regarding a few of its young actors’ awkward performances and a few plot-holes?

A comment from director Frant Gwo from the film’s pre-release press junket in Qingdao might answer this question:

“In our culture, we can never part with our love of the homeland.” — Wandering Earth director Frant Gwo

Whether it’s the rogue astronaut Liu Peiqiang (played by Wu Jing, star and director of Wolf Warrior), his rebellious son Liu Qi, or adoptive daughter Han Duoduo, all of the main characters in The Wandering Earth embody the traditional Chinese mindset of “returning home” and “family first” — sentiments felt especially strongly during the Spring Festival. The plot revolves around the idea that even if the solar system burns in a helium flash, we can just escape, taking the earth (our home) with us. This myth-like premise is presented in a cyberpunk mode — high-tech escape mechanisms contrasted with low-life conditions in squalid underground hovels — but the film’s central theme readily appeals to Chinese audiences.

The film’s myth-like premise is presented in a cyberpunk mode — high-tech escape mechanisms contrasted with low-life conditions in squalid underground hovels — but its central theme readily appeals to Chinese audiences

The theme of “returning home” also apparently resonated with the film’s cast, many of whom took a pay cut to appear in the film. (The highest fee any actor in the film received was 200,000RMB, or about 29.5 thousand USD, according to Sir Film.) Wu Jing, one of China’s biggest film stars, ended up investing 60 million RMB of his own money into the film when it hit a critical budget shortfall during production.

Director Ning Hao — whose sci-fi comedy Crazy Alien provided Wandering Earth‘s main box office competition during the 2019 Spring Festival season — and many other young directors also have supporting roles in The Wandering Earth.

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Entertainment or Propaganda?

Support for the film has come not only from industry insiders, but also from Chinese government sources. During a press conference for the Department of Foreign Affairs, government spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to questions about Zhang Yimou’s One Second being withdrawn from the Berlin International Film Festival due to “technical difficulties”: “You should ask the relevant department. But I know The Wandering Earth is a hit — I suggest you watch that.”

This level of official support could be a double-edged sword. Pride in China’s first major foray into sci-fi film can easily morph into pride in country, and the film’s success has seemingly attracted nationalists to step into the cinema, while at the same time triggering controversies and criticism from ideological opponents of the Chinese government.

Douban, a Chinese social network featuring film and book reviews, became a focal point for people on both sides of this divide to vent their anger. A slew of one-star (out of five) ratings for the film have appeared on the site since February 10, with some reviewers openly stating “I didn’t watch the movie” or “I just dislike Wu Jing.” To fight back, the film’s defenders rushed onto Douban and flooded the film’s page with more five-star ratings. Some hardcore movie lovers subsequently piled on more one-star ratings, just to maintain the platform’s credibility as a film review site rather than an ideological battleground.

In the end, both sides became angry with Douban for lacking a reliable algorithm and rating mechanism, and turned to Apple’s App Store and the Android app market to give the Douban app itself a one-star rating. As Moss, an AI character in The Wandering Earth, remarks at a crucial point in the film: “Never raise your hopes when asking humans to be rational.”

(Meanwhile, a nerdier corner of the internet has been holding serious, scientific debates about the theories and technologies referenced in the film, such as the Roche limit, nuclear fusion, and laser solid forming.)

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Where to Next?

On February 18, at the end of its second week in theaters, The Wandering Earth surpassed Avengers: Infinity War to become the #1 highest-grossing IMAX film in China, as well as the highest-grossing Chinese film to be released in North America in the last five years. According to professional film data sharing platform Maoyan, the film is expected to make a total of 5 billion RMB, or about 740 million USD.

That same day, director Frant Gwo’s self-proclaimed “idol,” James Cameron, brought his latest effort Alita: Battle Angel to Beijing for its premiere. In a dialogue with Gwo and Liu Cixin, Cameron expressed his anticipation of seeing Liu’s Hugo-winning Three Body Problem on silver screen.

It’s still unclear when we’ll see Liu’s most famous work — a “wildly imaginative” galactic saga, in Obama’s words — hit theaters, as it’s been beset by production delays for several years now.

What is clear for now is that The Wandering Earth — a high-quality production that was made by a team of over 7,000, and that undoubtedly landed with its target audience — has just unfolded a new page in the landscape of Chinese sci-fi cinema. Hopefully this is just the beginning — certainly, a positive shout out from the director of Avatar and The Terminator is not a bad place to start:

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Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van