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Wu Jing in a scene from Chinese sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth. Shanghai Fortress has failed to build on its success, however.

China sci-fi film Shanghai Fortress fails to build on The Wandering Earth’s success

  • Critics, film-goers blast the alien invasion fantasy, rated 3.3 out of 10 on film rating website Douban, for lead actor Lu Han’s bad acting and its incoherence
  • Internet users say good prospects for Chinese sci-fi have been dashed by film’s failure, and its director takes responsibility in apologetic Weibo post

Shanghai Fortress, a big-budget Chinese sci-fi movie that was highly anticipated after the success of another science fiction film, The Wandering Earth , has bombed at the box office, drawing withering reviews online and criticism that it has tainted the reputation of Chinese sci-fi movies.

Made with a budget of 360 million yuan (US$51 million), the film, which opened on Friday, was rated 3.3 out of 10 on Douban, the popular Chinese film rating website. Sixty per cent of the 60,000 users on the site who said they had seen the film gave it one star out of five.

A Douban user called Gengen said: “This is a romantic film under the guise of science fiction. The plot doesn’t have coherence at all. Lu Han’s acting is very bad.”

Another Douban user called Reaper said: “Shanghai Fortress the book is one of my favourite novels. It has affected me for over a decade. Over the years, I have wondered countless times how it would look if turned into a movie. However, after watching the film, I would rather this film had never been made. It was rubbish.”

Shanghai Fortress’ first-day box office takings were 74 million yuan, barely half the 137 million yuan taken by recent Chinese box office champion Nezha , an animated film based on Chinese mythology. The poor audience response to the film saw ticket sales drop dramatically after the first day, and by the end of Sunday, they stood at 113 million yuan.

On August 8, China’s largest movie ticketing app, Maoyan, had forecast the film would take 366 million yuan in its overall box office run. On August 9, that overall forecast figure was revised to 205 million yuan, and on August 11, it was further reduced to 138 million yuan overall.

Lu Han (left) and Shu Qi in a still from Shanghai Fortress.

Shanghai Fortress’ director, Teng Huatao, apologised in a post on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, for losing the film’s financial backers money.

“There were audience members who didn’t like the movies I made before. But their criticism was aimed at the movies [themselves]. However, today people online are saying The Wandering Earth opened a door to Chinese science-fiction, but the door was closed by Shanghai Fortress. I was very saddened,” he wrote on Sunday.

Shanghai Fortress director Teng Huatao (left) and its star Lu at a screening of the film.

“This showed not only their dissatisfaction with the movie, but that their hopes for Chinese sci-fi movies were dashed. As a director, I have an unshirkable responsibility. I am very sorry.”

Shanghai Fortress is set in the distant future when Shanghai is the last surviving city on earth after an alien invasion. Adapted from a novel of the same name by Jiang Nan, the film shows how Shanghai defends itself against the alien invaders, who have conquered cities all over the planet to harvest a hidden energy source.

The film stars Taiwanese actress Shu Qi and singer-turned-actor Lu Han. It is the first science fiction movie Teng has directed; he is known for making romantic films, including Up in the Wind and Love Is Not Blind. Teng said at the film’s Beijing premiere that it had taken six years to make, and was the first Chinese film to have 90 per cent of its visual effects produced by Chinese companies.

Teng Huatao is good at emotion-driven drama … [but] his choice to make a sci-fi movie this time is a failure
A review of the film in The Beijing News

Teng told Chinese state-owned television news channel CGTN he chose to direct Shanghai Fortress because he wanted to do something new and hoped it would mark a career breakthrough.

“I feel very proud that we made this film mostly with Chinese teams. It’s a very big breakthrough, ” he told CGTN.

Wang Chen, Shanghai Fortress’ producer, said at the Beijing premiere: “Before The Wandering Earth, there was no Chinese sci-fi epic at all. We are standing on the shoulders of the titan and moving forward.”

Frant Gwo, director of The Wandering Earth, which racked up in 4.6 billion yuan in ticket sales earlier this year and looked to have prompted the advent of a new era for Chinese science fiction films, attended an advance screening of Shanghai Fortress to show his support.

A still from Shanghia Fortress.

While The Wandering Earth received glowing critical reviews, film-goers and critics panned Shanghai Fortress for bad acting and an incoherent story.

The Beijing News said: “The acting of male teen heartthrobs does not measure up. The plot is bad. Teng Huatao is good at emotion-driven drama … [but] his choice to make a sci-fi movie this time is a failure.”

The casting of singer Lu as a university student determined to save the Earth alongside a female commander played by Shu was panned way before the film’s release, with internet users doubting Lu’s ability as an actor.

Lu and Shu in a scene from the sci-fi film that has faired badly at the box office.

Tickets for advance screenings of the film, which included meet-the-cast sessions, sold for nearly 1,000 yuan.

The phenomenon of Lu’s fans fighting to secure exorbitantly priced tickets for a chance to meet their idol was attacked in an editorial in Chinese government-run People’s Daily on August 10.

“A ticket for a movie starring Lu sells for several hundred yuan, with some costing nearly a thousand yuan. In spite of their high price, the tickets sell like hot cakes … Fans are happy just looking at his face.

Director Teng and actress Shu at a screening of Shanghai Fortress.

“When [pop idols reign over the market], all the resources will go to [young, handsome and pretty faces]. How can those with real acting ability succeed [in such an environment]? Those with only flashy appearances and adoration from fans [will] reign supreme. What kind of message does this give to society?” it said.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Big-budget Chinese sci-fi drama bombs at box office