What can we learn from huge flop of sci-fi flick 'Shanghai Fortress?'

Andy Boreham
"Shanghai Fortress" not only failed to lift off, but crashed and burned in a spectacular fireball of crappy special effects, bad storylines and terrible acting.
Andy Boreham

Aliens devastated the Earth in China’s recent would-be blockbuster “Shanghai Fortress,” but it’s now the country’s sci-fi movie scene that’s in tatters after the film not only failed to lift off, but crashed and burned in a spectacular fireball of crappy special effects, bad storylines and terrible acting.

The 107-minute film, based around Shanghai being the last hope for humanity in an alien invasion, hit screens with a whimper on August 9, taking in an abysmal 74 million yuan (US$10.5 million) on its first day, which dropped to only around 17.8 million yuan by day three. 

To put that into perspective, “Shanghai Fortress” cost up to 400 million yuan to make, not including the reported 70 million yuan for marketing. 

Plenty has been blamed for such a spectacular failure, but I want to concentrate on three questions pundits are asking: Is this because of xiaoxianrou? Is Chinese sci-fi in peril? And are Chinese audiences becoming pickier?

What can we learn from huge flop of sci-fi flick 'Shanghai Fortress?'
Imaginechina

Big-budget sci-fi film “Shanghai Fortress” crashed and burned at the box office.

Is Chinese sci-fi in peril?

The director of “Shanghai Fortress,” Teng Huatao, went out of his way to apologize to the public on Weibo for apparently putting the sci-fi scene in peril. “Today people online are saying ‘The Wandering Earth’ opened the doors for Chinese science-fiction, but that the door was slammed shut by ‘Shanghai Fortress,’” he wrote last Sunday.

The film Teng’s talking about was the critically acclaimed Chinese blockbuster from the start of this year that pulled in more than US$600 million at the box office and is widely hailed as China’s first real foray into science-fiction. 

To be honest, I think he’s being a bit dramatic, and maybe he’s just trying to be humble and save his own career.

China’s largest online film ticket outlet, Maoyan, has estimated the film will only make US$21 million, a far cry from even breaking even. 

But Chinese sci-fi lovers need not worry. Rao Shuguang, secretary-general of the China Film Association, agreed that the film wasn’t amazing and that the story was “too weak,” but he doesn’t think it will damage local sci-fi in general. 

“As the industry develops, we should have confidence in our own science-fiction films,” he urged. Maybe, just maybe, the makers of “Shanghai Fortress” were a little too confident following the success of “The Wandering Earth.”

End of ‘fresh little meat?’

This question has been raised again this week in earnest as pundits refer to “fresh little meat” — thanks to the terrible acting of Lu Han in “Shanghai Fortress” — as “box office poison.” 

In case you’re new here, xiaoxianrou (fresh little meat) is a term that refers to handsome, slim and arguably effeminate young male celebrities who have earned a powerful place in China’s entertainment industry over the past few years. 

Exactly two years ago to the day I was asking this same question, after the sterling success of “Wolf Warrior 2” — starring a buff and slightly older Wu Jing, 45 — had fans of xiaoxianrou worried that their time might be up. 

But is that fair? Some on Weibo argue that Lu Han is being used as a scapegoat for the film’s spectacular failure, and they suggest the problem may lie, instead, in its myriad other problems. 

One of them could be the terrible special effects which, unfortunately, were mostly created by Chinese companies, a fact that filmmakers touted with pride before the film crashed and burned at the box office. 

Because of the amount of money that’s set to be lost over this film, it’s probably more likely than ever that xiaoxianrou will be considered carefully, at least, in future castings. But at the same time, film producers will continue to find it hard to resist the temptation of huge and obsessive online followings that come along with these guys. Tickets to a pre-screening of the film in Shenzhen, which was attended by Lu Han himself, sold for around 1,000 yuan each, which just shows the lengths fans are willing to go. 

Are audiences changing?

Probably the biggest cause of the massive flop of “Shanghai Fortress,” in my opinion, is that Chinese moviegoers are becoming more mature. 

Now it’s not enough to just randomly choose a popular IP and throw a pretty guy on the screen — audiences demand something a bit more substantial, and rightly so. 

Current runaway success “Ne Zha,” a local CG animation, might be a case in point. The film has already reportedly raked in a whopping US$500 million after just three weekends. 

If you look closely at the film, you will notice three notable differences from “Shanghai Fortress:” It’s not based off a famous novel or IP, the director isn’t particularly famous, and, being a CG animation, the film doesn’t feature pretty faces with questionable acting chops (sorry, Lu.) 

Maybe instead of asking whether Chinese sci-fi is dead, the local film industry should instead instill a little more faith in China’s film audiences and give them just a little bit more credit.

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