In the summer of 2016, the high profile film, Three-body Problem, was not able to be released as scheduled, with an indefinite delay. Disappointed fans complained, but were to some extent relieved. It seems the Chinese film industry is not yet ready for the adaptation of a heavyweight sci-fi novel into a film.
In sharp contrast with the sci-fi film market, after many years of effort, a large number of fine works have emerged in Chinese sci-fi literature. A myriad excellent books and authors have risen up through the platform offered by the Xingyun (Nebula) Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction. As a non-governmental award, it has neither State support nor a stable source of funds. It is fully volunteer-led. Up to 2016, the award has been presented for seven consecutive years, with rapidly expanding influence. In a bid to push the development of sci-fi films, the 2015 Xingyun (Nebula) Award launched the Best Short Sci-fi Film and Creative Award for a Sci-fi Film. In 2016, a special Chinese sci-fi film award finally emerged: the Nebula Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction Films.
In the late 1970s, the first Chinese sci-fi film emerged in the form of Death-Ray on the Coral Island. Recent years have witnessed the screening of a large number of sci-fi films, but the quality is generally low, and the audiences are not quite satisfied. Film critic Yan Peng once remarked that nowadays in China, the key to sci-fi films is not hardware, capital or special effects, but a knowledge of science fiction, and the understanding of reality and dreams. Several heavyweights appeared on the shortlist for the 1st Nebula Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction Films, and the genre has huge potential for development in China. The reason why the award was set up in the first place was to offer a platform for exchange and cooperation between science fiction and sci-fi films, so as to push the future development of Chinese sci-fi films.
We sat down with Dong Renwei, Chair of the Organizing Committee of the Nebula Award. An eminent science fiction author, he has devoted much time and effort to the cause of Chinese science fiction.
CFM: The Creative Award within the Xingyun (Nebula) Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction was launched in 2015, and is growing in influence. This year, the 1st Nebula Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction Films was launched. What was the initial purpose and background of the award?
Dong Renwei: Nowadays, there are only several hundred core professionals in the circle of science fiction in China. At peak time, the number of readers only reached several millions. In order to popularize science fiction, an important channel is film. We needed a bridge or platform to realize the transition from science fiction to sci-fi films, so we set up a Creative Award within the Xingyun (Nebula) Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction last year as a pilot program. Through it, people can recommend books suitable for film adaptation, for the reference of the filmmakers.
The Creative Award has been quite successful, and people from the film industry come to us to ask for recommendations for filmmaking, thus building the bridge we had been seeking. As a result, the 7th Xingyun (Nebula) Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction set up the Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction Films to carry out targeted promotion of sci-fi films and create a major platform for the adaptation of science fiction into sci-fi films.
From Science Fiction to Sci-fi Film
CFM: Now the Xingyun (Nebula) Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction is attracting growing attention from the public and writers such as Liu Cixin and Han Song are becoming popular. As you have said, China already has world leading science fiction writers such as Zheng Wenguang; you have also commented on the Top Ten Emerging Science Fiction Writers. What are the differences between these Chinese science fiction writers and their works and those in other countries? Have the Chinese works already developed a distinctive style?
Dong Renwei: In my opinion, Chinese science fiction writers are forming their own features, which are reflected in several aspects. First, they show national pride in their work, especially the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation. For example, Mars Shines on America tells of a future in which the US declines and China leads the world. In other well-known books such as The Three-body Problem and Doomsyear, it is the Chinese scientists that lead humanity out of disaster.
Second, they fall within the context of Chinese culture. Many works, such as Escape from the End of the Universe by Wang Jinkang, contain cultural elements that reflect the Chinese way of thinking. Combined with ancient Chinese stories, Chinese culture can be spread in this way, or we can add these elements into the roles within Chinese science fiction.
Third, some works reflect on the social problems in modern China and the world as a whole. For instance, the Life of Ants by Wang Jinkang creates a model dystopia. Red Ocean and Hospital by Han Song discuss the social problems of environmental pollution and disputes between doctors and patients.
CFM: What are the major obstacles facing adapting science fiction for the screen?
Dong Renwei: It is quite difficult in China. Although hundreds of projects have been initiated, few are under production. The four kings of science fiction in China – Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, Han Song and He Xi – are beginning to have their books adapted. Work by Chen Qiufan, Jiang Bo, Bao Shu, and Zhang Ran are at the initial stage of adaptation, with growing attention from the film industry.
The sci-fi film industry already attaches importance to the adaptation of science fiction, yet one of the major obstacles is a lack of effective intermediary agents. People who want to make sci-fi films don’t know where to find IP suitable for adaptation, while science fiction writers have no channel to recommend their IP to film companies. So, we must strive to build a platform where we can connect the upper stream with the downstream to form a complete industry chain.
The Present and Future of Chinese Sci-fi Films
CFM: Sci-fi is a major genre in Hollywood, and many of the films we introduced from the US are sci-fi films. Obviously, there is still a huge gap between our sci-fi films and those made by the Hollywood. What do you predict for the future of Chinese sci-fi films?
Dong Renwei: I believe there will be gradual development within Chinese sci-fi films, just like overseas. There are rules governing the development of sci-fi films, which booms and reaches its peak along with the development of science and technology. The US, with its advanced science and technology, witnesses the booming sci-fi film industry. As for Japan and Russia, with relatively developed science and technology, their sci-fi culture is also experiencing a gradual move towards prosperity. With the development of science and technology in the former Soviet Union, science fiction also boomed; with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, technology fell behind other countries, and science fiction suffered.
China is undergoing rapid development in science and technology, which offers a great opportunity for the development of science fiction and sci-fi films. The imagination of a nation is the prerequisite for innovation in science and technology. Without imagination, there can be no innovation. Compared with the US, we still have a long way to go. Science fiction and sci-fi films reached a peak in America as early as the 1950s and 1960s, and are still strong. However, things might slow down. China is in a stage of growth, and there will be a long way before we reach the peak. Thus, we have great prospects in the future.
Building a good platform for cooperation between science fiction and sci-fi films
CFM: What are the bottlenecks hindering the development of Chinese sci-fi films? How can we make breakthroughs?
Dong Renwei: I think the main bottleneck is the lack of a platform connecting science fiction and sci-fi films. First, there is a lack of producers who understand science fiction. Some people advocate a director-centric film production model, yet the director cannot solve all the problems. It is the producer who can have complete control of a sci-fi film from envisioning and initial design through to market operation. However, to achieve this we need a good producer. He or she must choose the right director, and have a strong capacity in fund raising and market operation. Most importantly, the producer must love science fiction and be full of enthusiasm for it. He or she must be clear on the big picture, and treat science fiction as a great cause, and carry on with it until he or she succeeds. I think we need this kind of sci-fi film producer to realize a boom for Chinese sci-fi films.
The second bottleneck is screenplay. Nowadays in China, filmmakers add elements of sci-fi into adventure films, thrillers or romances, and call them “sci-fi”. This does not work. Globally, over 70% of high quality sci-fi films are adapted from original science fiction. Thus, sci-fi film producers must make high-quality films that can compete in the world, and look for excellent science fiction writers and works for adaptation, in a bid to develop them into films or other derivative products. In addition, it will be better if the writer of the original book is engaged in the whole process from screenplay writing to filmmaking to ensure an accurate expression of the book. Several sci-fi films have failed due to overlooking this aspect; they simply added sci-fi elements to cheat the audience. When people talk about how Mermaid and Ghouls scored highly at the box office by adding sci-fi elements, I always allude to Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe, which integrates sci-fi elements more naturally.
CFM: What do you think makes a good sci-fi film?
Dong Renwei: I think it should have four essential elements: first, a good setting. It is the core, and thus has to be fresh and novel instead of clichéd.
Liu Cixin once said that if an idea comes to him, or if a core appears, he will cherish it and try to expand on it, because it doesn’t happen often. After Three-Body Problem, Liu has been working on new ideas; without new ideas he is unable to write. He once suggested that the moon be covered with solar cells and transmit electricity to the earth. He was excited about this idea until he discovered that someone had already thought of it and put it into action.
Therefore, the first element is to see if a sci-fi story is novel and attractive. Some people simply repeat old settings. Work like this will not attract readers or audience, nor can it translate into high-quality film and TV products.
The second element is a good story. Although not all science fiction books have this, a sci-fi film without a good plot will fall flat.
The third is human touch. Some people argue that science fiction is not all about people, but I insist that a human touch is indispensable. Without it, fiction is hard to read. Of course, there are two directions concerning the creation of science fiction. The first one is sci-fi centered, with representatives such as Liu Cixin, Wang Jinkang, He Xi and Jiangbo; they argue that the core of science fiction is imagination in science instead of people. The second direction argues that the core should be people and human nature, with a proponent in Han Song. His focus on human nature is clear in works like Red Ocean, Subway, and Hospital,
The fourth is the world-view reflected in the work. In general, I would argue for positive energy as the main design of a strong world-view.
Among all the sci-fi films, I like Avatar the most as it possess the four elements I mentioned just now.
CFM: How does the Nebula Award plan to promote sci-fi films going forward?
Dong Renwei: We have several plans to push for the combination of science fiction and sci-fi films. First, we want to continue to work hard on the Nebula Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction Films to promote the development of Chinese sci-fi films and make it a new hot topic in the film market. We will offer the incentives for people and attract their attention to sci-fi films, gradually establishing our reputation.
For this year’s award we have invited many leading figures in the film industry, such as director Xie Fei – one of the pioneers of Chinese sci-fi films – and Hu Keming, the chair of the judging panel. In addition, we have asked other famous filmmakers and professionals in sci-fi films to be judges.
Second, we will continue to work with the CFPC so that more sci-fi writers can have their books adapted into high-quality Chinese films.
Third, we will continue to build links with capital providers, and join hands with investors and producers who are interested in making Chinese sci-fi films. Hopefully this platform will allow us to select the very best sci-fi works for adaptation.
At present, several far-sighted people are setting up special sci-fi film companies with long-term views, and they plan to seamlessly connect the upper stream and downstream of the sci-fi industry to form a complete chain. They believe that the current status of sci-fi films in the USA is our future. The USA draws 30% of its box office takings from the 5% of the market that is sci-fi films. Faced with this huge potential, participants in the market of sci-fi films are determined to forge ahead. I hope these visionaries will take Chinese sci-fi films seriously and create a “Chinese Hollywood”.
A well-known sci-fi writer, with 86 works of popular science fiction; one of the founders of the World Chinese Sci-fi Association, World Chinese Science Popularization Writers’ Association, and the Nebula Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction Films, as well as the chair of the organizing committee of the Nebula Award and the President of Time Mirage (HK) Co.
Shortlist of the 2016 Nebula Award for Global Chinese Science Fiction Films
(Note: The time span of the award is one year, and the release date of the included films can be extended back to 2001. Candidates can be Chinese sci-fi films shot in China and released or screened online or on TV in China’s mainland, Hong Kong, Macao, or overseas, including films, short films, cartoons, online films, and related production.)
- Best Picture
- The Mermaid (50 votes)
- CJ 7 (46 votes)
- Lost in the Pacific (37votes)
- The Ghouls (33 votes)
- Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe (21votes)
- Best Short Film
- Waterdrop (56 votes)
- Three-body Problem in MC (42 votes)
- Lee’s Adventures [Cartoon] (35 votes)
- Winter Sleep (23 votes)
III. Best Animated Film
- Animen (35 votes)
2.CJ 7（30 votes)
- Mr. Black: Green Star (28 votes)
- CJ7: The Cartoon (19 votes)
- Jungle Master (16 votes)
- Best Online Film
1.Infinite Fight (34 votes)
- Full Metal Duel (27 votes)
- Hybrid Hard Disk Girl（22 votes)
- Lost in the Pacific (17 votes)
- Future Man（11 votes)
- Best Drama Series
- Twin Moons（41 votes）
- Three-body Problem in MC (36 votes）
- Nano Core（29 votes）
- Three Swordsmen on Campus（18 votes）
- Bunkers（14 votes）
- Waterdrop（59 votes）
- Lost in the Pacific（32 votes）
- Animen（20 votes）
- Infinite Fight（17 votes）
- Back to the Gaia（11 votes）
VII. Best Director
- Stephen Chow（55 votes）
- Lu Chuan（35 votes）
- Vincent（35 votes）
- Wu Ershan（33 votes ）
- Wang Ren（31votes）
VII. Best Role
- Qi Zai – CJ:7 (44 votes）
- Ruo Xin – Lost in the Pacific by Zhang Yuqi（28 votes）
- Shan Shan – The Mermaid by Lin Yun（24 votes）
- Memeda – Impossibe（22 votes）
- Liu Xuan – The Mermaid by Deng Chao (17 votes)
- Best Screenplay
1.The Mermaid（46 votes）
- Lee’s Adventures (40 votes）
- Lost in the Pacific（25 votes）
- Infinite Fight（19 votes）
- Impossible（9 votes）
- Best Adaptation
- Three-body Problem in MC（55 votes）
- The Ghouls（42 votes）
- Law of Loneliness（34 votes）
- Wesley’s Mysterious File (19 votes）
- The Midnight After（16 votes）