The Year of Chinese Scifi and Zhang Panpan

When it was announced that Liu Cixins novel Three Body was gonna be made in to film scifi-fans around the world were excited about the news. For a short while some Chinese fans also discussed the idea of Christopher Nolan being the director of the film mostly because of Interstellar recent success in mainland China. For over a year now journalist and fans alike has talked about the coming of a new science fiction era for the Chinese film market but so far the signs of the era beginning are weak and unclear. Sure, already in early 2013 SARFT (today SAPPRFT/State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) received the script for Three Body which started principal shooting in late 2014. But, traces of Chinese science fiction can hardly be seen on the Chinese box-office and who could blame the Chinese audience when the alternative is films like Lost in the Pacific (蒸发太平洋, Vincent Zhou, 2016) and 10.000 Years Later (一万年以后, Yi Li, 2015).

The inception of a new film era usually requires something groundbreaking like changing the rules of conventional film making, telling stories in a completely new way or lettting a new generation of film makers to take place in the public light. Unfortunately nothing of this has happened for the Chinese science fiction film even though Ten Thousand Bad Jokes (十万个冷笑话, ) used the scifi-genre in a fresh and funny way the film cannot be seen as groundbreaking or unique since the film was pretty much made as a Japanese anime film.

In future posts I will discuss the Chinese science fiction film and also share my filmography over all films which I consider can be labeled as science fiction – there’s quite slot of films which doesn’t qualify. Until then I’ll give you my opinions on the selection of Zhang Panpan (张番番) as director for the first Three Body, The Three Body Problem. So far there’s not much to speculate on except for some photos and videos from the filming location and official poster for the movie. But, we can look at the former works of Zhang Panpan and draw conclusions from his brilliance as a director or, like in this case, his inability as a story-teller. Have Zhang killed the excitement for fans who looked forward to watching the Three Body film?

Lost in the Panic Room (密室之不可告人) from 2010 is Zhang Panpans third film and is a genre mix of thriller and crime. The story centers around a group of people who travels to a resort villa on a mountain where a plot of revenge and murder is being played out. In the middle of the whole story we have Liu Yunfei who seems to be the center of attention. In the mountain villa one person is suddenly murdered and another is missing. Who is out to kill them and what does the people in the villa have in common?

Lost in the Panic Room should probably listened more to the saying “less is more”.  The film uses non-diegetic sound effect whenever it has the chance to do so which in turn kills the illusion of being immersed in the films story. Unfortunately, the poor musical score and the superfluous sound effects is not the only things which spoils the film magic there’s also a major problem with the creation of suspense. The lack of suspense can be blamed on the absence of a clear motive of the crime and inadequate background information of major characters, which are ten in total. Actually, it’s not a problem of missing information because it’s all being spelled out for you in detail in the end where a 20 minute long scene tries to fill all the gaps that couldn’t be explained earlier in the film. It’s like the director suddenly discovered Cluedo and thought that his film story would end in the same way as a boarding game. The big difference being that in Cluedo you’re active as a player and in Lost in the Panic Room there’s no way for you to be a active audience because there’s neither clues or red herrings that challenges the viewer to make their own interpretations of  the narrative.

Maybe one of the most desperate attempt to create suspense is the appearance of a digital non-diegetic clock which for some reason shows how much time has passed during the night. It fills no function what so ever since there’s no mystery about the temporal orientation in the film. After watching the film and experiencing this failure in story telling I wonder if Zhang Panpan was chosen to direct Three Body merely because he did such a “good job” animating a digital clock. For those of you who have read the book you might remember Wang Miao being inflicted by a optical illusion which makes him see a digital clock wherever he looks.

Unfortunately the process of choosing Zhang Panpan as a director is ambiguous so the reason could be everything from nepotism, Zhangs love for Three Body or him being economical with a films budget. The latter is quite relevant because the films budget is pretty high, 200 million rmb, and there has been talk about that the books will be made in to six films. A negative aspect, who concerned fans also has noted, is the low rating score Zhangs film has received on Douban, a social network site which enables rating of among other films and books. Lost in the Panic Room has a rating of 5.8 and his sequel Lost in the Panic Cruise (密室之不可靠岸, 2011) got an even lower score at 5.2.

Economical or not the news surrounding the film has been very few and a premier date is still unclear but it was originally planned for July 2016. One positive news is that the film went in to post-production in December and a crew of 600 people were active in the post-production work and among them were also visual effects experts from Hollywood. Hopefully this means that the visual effects will look more realistic and have smoother motion something I usually find that Chinese movies lack.

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