Shanghai Fortress and the Sino-future

By Dev Agarwal. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

To state that art does not exist in a vacuum is to loosely paraphrase the late filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. That in turn leads to his further observation that “the artist exists because the world is not perfect.” 

China is home to the largest film production economy in the world, surpassing Hollywood as well as the juggernauts of India and Nigeria. In 2012, it was the second-largest market in the world by box office receipts. It has had the largest number of screens in the world since 2016, and in 2020, it became the largest market. CNN reports that Chinese cinemas brought in $3.1 billion at the box office in 2020, nearly $1 billion more than the United States did that year. 

China has also become a major hub of business for Hollywood studios, encouraging their entry into its domestic market. Yet it is interesting to note that at the same time, in 2016, China passed a law banning film content deemed harmful to the “dignity, honour and interests” of the People’s Republic, and encouraging the promotion of Chinese “socialist core values.” 

Discussing China’s film business (and its science fiction output as a subset thereof) is not purely an economic matter, as to discuss any facet of China’s art is also to discuss the confluence of one of the world’s five remaining self-described communist states, the world’s most populous country, and a nation that may become our newest superpower. As Tarkovsky said, there is no vacuum.

The multi-media artist Lawrence Lek observes that “Sinofuturism is an invisible movement. A spectre already embedded into a trillion industrial products, a billion individuals, and a million veiled narratives. It is a movement not based on individuals, but on multiple overlapping flows … Because Sinofuturism has arisen without conscious intention or authorship, it is often mistaken for contemporary China. But it is not. It is a science fiction that already exists.”

Sinofuturism is with us, through a wide array of products, individuals and narratives. As a movement it has reached the point where commercial cinema has paid it attention and invested in it, bringing to Netflix The Wandering Earth (2019, Frant Gwo). This was a big SF spectacular, with a suitably cosmic story of moving the earth to safety past Jupiter on its way to the star Alpha Centauri, as our sun turned inhospitable to life. The film was successful both at the box office (posting $700 million in receipts worldwide) and with critics. 

A core theme of The Wandering Earth is sacrifice. The global population has died en masse, and a big problem (the sun is turning into a red giant in three hundred years rather than in its projected five billion years) is solved with a big solution — moving the planet all the way to a new star. The Wandering Earth, therefore, works on a big scale both in terms of the disaster — it’s planet-wide — and of the loss that’s occurred in the backstory. The solution is not about calling on actors to work individually, rather, the characters are representatives of the Chinese state and function obediently within it. 

As with many SF disaster films like Deep Impact (1998, Mimi Leder) and Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay) to name just two, personal sacrifice for humanity and family are also emphasised in The Wandering Earth. However, The Wandering Earth embraces that Trekkian theme of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few with a particular flavour. In those earlier Hollywood films, survival is dependent on idiosyncratic and highly individualised characters who buck conventional norms to strike out on their own (the roughneck oil drillers of Armageddon are seen with a list of demands to the US government, including never paying tax again — ever). In The Wandering Earth, the world has come together under a single leadership, the United Earth Government, and the protagonists are willing agents of it. 

The success of The Wandering Earth invigorated China’s cinematic reach and led them to make a similarly big SF film, Shanghai Fortress (2019, Teng Huatao). Shanghai Fortress was, according to the website Jayne Stars, “meant to be China’s next mega sci-fi production.”

 This was designed as a big-budget production with “eyeball kicks” and pyrotechnic action. Unfortunately, it ended up with the feel of a film made by committee and with the objectives of spectacle first and storytelling second. In this case, the film was concerned with war, with the city of Shanghai imagined as the final line of defence for humanity against an invading alien race. 

Earlier success of The Wandering Earth bred confidence (soon overconfidence) that found Shanghai Fortress a budget of 400 million yuan ($61 million). However, it only took back 74 million yuan ($11.5 million) at its opening. In terms of reviews, these were quickly negative. 

So while a commercial and critical failure, is the film any good? And what does it say more widely about Sinofuturism or science fiction culture?

The film follows some familiar pathways of an emergent pop culture flexing itself on the world stage. Shanghai is the centre of the story, which puts the narrative of Earth versus the aliens firmly in Asia, for a change. While it’s nominally a United Nations base, the dominant actors are ethnically Chinese. 

Notwithstanding one or two key moments of heroism from Lu Yiyi (Sun Jialing) and Lin Lan (Shu Qi), it is also a story dominated by men. Foregrounding men in an action film is, of course, de rigueur, but what is more unusual for Western eyes is that the leading man Jiang Yang (Lu Han) defies contemporary Western sensibilities of a typical action hero (none of the steroid facilitated bulk and over-defined physicality of Chris Pratt or Chris Hemsworth). This is actually refreshing and indicates that there are other aesthetic ways to perceive a leading man.

 The narrative appears to assume that Chinese audiences will respond more enthusiastically to a story of great sacrifice as a nation, and that Earth (as a surrogate for China) will rebound from that sacrifice anew. In this sense, there is none of the cynicism about big government that we saw in either Deep Impact (which begins with exposing the government for hiding the impending extinction-level event) or Armageddon, where the mission to the asteroid is run by men who are not obedient to the government and are specifically encouraging each other to resist the government’s control. Shanghai Fortress’s version of Sinofuturism is perhaps closer to a type of film of years gone by, of Soviet Cinema and films glorifying the Red Army and its sacrifices in World War 2. 

In Hollywood, the action movie staple is that the government is too big and often part of the problem. Individuals, striking out alone, or in small groups, are what achieves results. It is more of a challenge narratively to present collective action dramatically rather than focusing attention on individuals. This may have been a factor in the success of The Wandering Earth compared to Shanghai Fortress, i.e. the degree to which the former film was able to craft a visual rhetoric that complimented this more complex narrative, compared to the more dissatisfying Shanghai Fortress.

In terms of aesthetics, while not necessarily Sinofuturist, the film foregrounds the ongoing debate around conceptual spaces. All spaces in film are conceptual in that they are imagined, or reimagined. Even when a camera is filming an actual location, the act of capturing it within the space of the camera’s framing leads to inevitable manipulation and altering of reality (the place itself is represented narrowly and partially through the cropping of the camera’s image). Actual locations are three dimensional and engage all of our senses, while film is (usually) two dimensional and operates on an audio-visual sensory level. Then how we appreciate the filmed experience distances us further as we see the location outside of its normal setting, either in a cinema or before a television or laptop (and the actual becomes conceptual as it is manipulated by the director, the cinematographer, and through CGI).

An extra layer, particularly in big-budget films and in science fiction, is in the use of green screens to radically alter perceived reality. Reality, therefore, becomes what the filmmaker chooses and what they can afford. In this way, we are only permitted to see the world of Shanghai Fortress as far as Teng Huatao permits it. His directorial decisions were to show us a heavily industrialised world denuded of nature. This is nothing new in a post-apocalyptic action film but possibly mines several deeper cultural truths.

One is the Chinese state government’s relationship to its own environment. China has not only gone through rapid industrialisation in the last fifty years but also a consequent growth in the size and number of its cities. While this has benefitted significant numbers of the population, it has also led to a substantial demand for consumer goods, private vehicles and energy use. This in turn has damaged China’s natural environment and led to pollution, increased use of fossil fuels, and poisonous air quality. As this cycle is perceived by some as essential to the increase in the standard of living in China and the increase in its global prestige, it is accepted as a price worth paying. Here, science fiction may play a propaganda role, as both escapism and as a way of imagining the future, where nature has been appropriately conquered for the wider benefit of the state. (It should be noted that a counternarrative is also developing in China, as in other industrial nations, and China has pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2060). 

The curator of Norient Space, Philipp Rhensius, in reflecting on Lawrence Lek’s work on Sinofuturism, comments that it shows us “what’s left when humans are gone: a world inhabited by data cables, server farms, robots, games, and a few humans who are either pitiful characters or catatonic creatures wearing VR headsets.” 

While Shanghai Fortress does not go to this final extreme in its depiction of the future, it adheres to similar principles. Teng Huatao imagines a world of industrial spaces and little physical nature. This is because of the alien threat rather than the willing destruction of the environment by the state (just as in the more successful The Wandering Earth where the world was an icy wasteland due to the sun’s red giant status rather than failings by humanity to preserve our habitat). A narrative mirror to Shanghai Fortress’s denuded environment is that the characters have sterile and isolated relationships, devoid of explicit physicality. At one point the two main protagonists exchange a love token. Appropriately, this is a flower, but it’s made of plastic. This is perhaps the ultimate example of the natural world supplanted by the artificial.

In terms of structure and plot, the film does not take risks and follows as linear and predictable a path as you might expect from any Hollywood alien invasion story. Sinofuturism intrudes, narratively speaking, only in terms of characterisation. The characters function within the story like the Terracotta Army in that Lu Han’s character, Jiang Yang, is an obedient soldier, who does what he’s told. This could not be more different from any given Hollywood character who identifies as a maverick, or highly individualistic, and “goes rogue.” Instead, Jiang Yang and his colleagues work together, adhering to collective values to protect the last city, the Chinese nation, and thus all of humanity.

Bringing all of these thoughts together, Shanghai Fortress is ultimately an artistic failure. It is uninspiring and fails to hit the right notes. It does not vividly depict humanity under stress in a drama. It also does not work at the level of glossy surfaces and the spectacle of pyrotechnic action, as it remains unengaging on that level as well. Shanghai Fortress appeared to confidently seek to fill the space opened up by The Wandering Earth, and show Hollywood how a Chinese studio could compete on their terms. However, not only did Shanghai Fortress fail to do that in Hollywood, it failed at home and left Chinese audiences dissatisfied (to the point that its creator had to make public apologies for it — a performative penance that we’re unlikely to see directors put through in the West). However, while a failure at the box office and with critics, the film arguably has something to say about the forces at play in shaping escapist, state-sanctioned Chinese SF. But the film itself remains the very thing to avoid using, to make sweeping observations about Sinofuturism. Shanghai Fortress is ultimately the shallowest of shallow dives into science fiction.

Dev Agarwal is a science fiction and fantasy writer. His work has been published online and in magazines including Albedo One, AoIfe’s Kiss, Hungur and Aeon. Dev is the editor of Focus, Vector’s sister magazine for genre writers, also produced by the British Science Fiction Association.

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