Shanghai: Roland Emmerich Lauds Chinese Sci-Fi Hit 'The Wandering Earth'

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Roland Emmerich at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

The 'Independence Day' director tells a Shanghai International Film Festival seminar that a fully global sci-fi film industry is on the horizon.

Hollywood hitmaker Roland Emmerich believes Chinese box office sensation The Wandering Earth points the way to a brave new world for the science fiction genre.

"It showed that science fiction can be global," the German said during a Shanghai International Film Festival seminar.

While Hollywood sci-fi films have long traveled the world, The Wandering Earth finally proves once and for all that the genre’s language is universal, Emmerich argued. "Science fiction is a great genre to do co-productions, because it is very, very global, and there are science fiction stories that would interest a Chinese audience the same way they would interest a German audience and an American audience," he said.

The director of such global box office hits as Independence Day (1996) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) was joined by Oscar-winning visual effects guru Paul J. Franklin (Interstellar, Inception). Also taking part in the discussion were Chinese directors Teng Huatao and Zhang Xiaobei, responsible for the soon-to-be-released Shanghai Fortress and Pathfinder, respectively.

The filmmakers are hoping to cash in on the sci-fi craze that is currently sweeping the world’s second-largest film market, thanks to the runaway success of the Frant Gwo-helmed The Wandering Earth. The film's Chinese box office reached almost $700 million and was picked up for global release by streaming giant Netflix.

"I was surprised by the quality," said Emmerich. “It told the story in a very Chinese way. It was about a group of people. It has to be a group of people, not one single person. That is a very Chinese thing. I totally understand why it was such a hit."

The Wandering Earth has widely been recognized as China’s first fully realized sci-fi feature. All forms of the genre had been banned outright during the country’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and filmmakers have been wary about the genre ever since, given China’s strict control on content.

But The Wandering Earth – starring heartthrobs Qu Chuxiao and Li Guan and following a band of brave astronauts who set out to save Earth from doom – has been a sensation in cinemas across the country. It now sits second on China’s all-time box office hit list, behind the patriotic actioner Wolf Warrior 2 ($768 million)

Chinese filmmakers are now lining up to enter the sci-fi fray, with Teng’s $30 million Shanghai Fortress being the most anticipated release. The film, featuring Taiwan’s Shu Qi and Chinese star Lu Han, pits the people of the Chinese metropolis against an attack by alien forces.

“I knew when the [yearly] Chinese box office almost reached RMB 60 billion ($8.66 billion) in 2017 that you could no longer satisfy the Chinese audience with low-cost comedies,” said the director.

Monday’s "Cinema x Technology x Future: Sci-Fi Film Beyond Reality and Imagination" seminar also offered insights into the unique characteristics of the Chinese sci-fi audience, with Liu Peng, the dean of the film-focused Maoyan Research Institute, claiming that 61.6 percent of films currently in production in the country were sci-fi, compared to 38.3 percent in Hollywood. Previously, the figure for China was 10 percent.

Zhang told the audience he believed The Wandering Earth had resonated with Chinese audiences because of the “emotion and characters.” He added: “Our CGI is still developing, but Chinese audiences are more interested in other things, like the characters."

Franklin, a longtime collaborator with fellow Brit Christopher Nolan in creating worlds that mix the real and the imagined, urged Chinese filmmakers to keep hold of what makes them unique.

“I watched The Wandering Earth, and I thought it was great,” he said. “It is very different [from] a film that was made in the West, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. I think it’s important that as Chinese film, and Chinese science fiction, reaches its way out into the world, that it doesn’t lose what is special about it. Science fiction is a universal language, but The Wandering Earth told me things about China that I did not know. It’s that perspective that can make Chinese science fiction so strong. ”

The Wandering Earth’s Gow had previously publicly voiced his estimation that China’s nascent sci-fi film industry was still 30 years behind Hollywood in terms of the quality of its content and its potential.

Teng said he agreed, and proceeded to explain why. "It’s not in terms of technology, but of people," said the director. "The U.S. has very mature technicians. Those technicians are part of the creative team. In China we have silos. Technicians only know tech. Creatives only know how to be creative. We are exploring little by little, but the gap is still huge."