Although the concept of genre films is gradually seeping into the collective consciousness of Chinese filmmakers and audiences, domestic genre movies are still by and large confined to four types: comedy, love, youth, and martial arts. Major films in the American market are concentrated in magic, science fiction, superhero and low-middle budget films, and types such as gangster, spy war, love and even art. Numerous classic cases of low-budget films defeating large ones have emerged in the Chinese film market, such as Lost in Thailand released in 2012, Jian Bing Man and Goodbye Mr. Loser in 2015, allowing “light” movie products such as teenage romance and comedy to occupy the market. In contrast, “heavy” film products such as Monster Hunt and Mojin: The Lost Legend are rare in the Chinese film market. Even though China has become the world’s second largest film market, this current imbalance in film types does not fit such a massive market. The overall development of domestic film categorization still remains in the exploratory stage.
The ‘tomb adventure’ was once the “dead zone” of Chinese genre films. How can it appeal to general audiences? How large is the market capacity for this genre? When shooting began for Mojin: The Lost Legend, the answers to these questions were unknown. The trial of the new model for domestic blockbusters begins with this film project.
The production scale of Mojin: The Lost Legend is unprecedented, as proven by the hundreds of sophisticated design drawings of the scenes, up to 2,742 hours of shooting within the studio, construction of dozens of underground real-world scenarios, and the gathering of numerous film elites from all over the world. This gives Chinese audiences new expectations for the production and development of domestic films. Insiders commented that Mojin would be a new benchmark for the Chinese film industry.
The ‘Big Three’ Behind the Film
In 2012, the popular novel series Ghost Blows Out the Light caught the eye of Song Ge, then general manager of Wanda (Film). After Shanghai Huaying Culture Media Co., Ltd. bought the rights to the first four volumes, Wanda Media managed to acquire the film rights to the last four. In the middle of 2012, Song Ge appointed Wuershan as the director and Chen Kuo-Fu as the producer.
After the brokerage contract with Huayi Group expired in March 2013, Chen Kuo-Fu officially signed a contract with Wanda Media to be the producer of this movie. While organizing the preview ceremony of Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon in September 2013, Wang Zhonglei (President of Huayi Brothers Media) entered a collaboration with Ye Ning (Vice President of Wanda Cultural Industry Group) and Wang Changtian (President of Enlight Media Group) to jointly invest in the filming of Mojin: The Lost Legend.
Having their respective advantages and sufficient funds, the three companies were able to undertake the filming independently. They chose to cooperate because the Chinese film industry had been calling for a more standardized industrial system; such an alliance between ‘giants’ fit the bill. As the largest investor, the well-capitalized Wanda Media is the copyright owner of the original novel and has the most powerful theater system in China; by virtue of its vast experience in film production and rich resources in terms of movie stars, Huayi Group helped build a cast featuring Chen Kuo-Fu, Wuershan, Chen Kun, Huang Bo, Shu Qi and Yang Ying at the initial stage of film preparation; as for Enlight Media Group, it has plentiful resources for ground network distribution and abundant experience in Internet-based marketing.
The initial investment ratio of Wanda Media to Huayi Group to Enlight Media Group was 6:2:2. At the final stage, other two companies obtained part of the shares from Wanda Media and were involved in the investment. Thanks to the vertical and horizontal industrial integration of the three companies, Mojin: The Lost Legend was positioned as a commercial blockbuster in line with Hollywood production standards. It did exceptionally well at the IMAX box office soon after its release, breaking the three-day opening and single-day box office records for IMAX local films previously held by Monster Hunt, as well as IMAX box office earnings from midnight screenings. On January 8, 2016, cumulative box office takings for Mojin: The Lost Legend (which had been running for 22 days) overtook that of Lost in Thailand (which earned 1.613 billion Yuan), making it a runner-up among Chinese-language films.
The expected production cost of Mojin: The Lost Legend was 150 million to 180 million, but it ended up overrunning 250 million. Fees for film publicity and distribution caused the overall project costs to double. Along with 250 million Yuan of investment costs, the total income for the investors will be around 500 million Yuan if the box office totals 20 billion Yuan.
Seeking Multilateral Balance and Setting a Standard for the Film Industry
In the process of filming Mojin: The Lost Legend, pressure came from fans of the original novels as well as from general audiences. The State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) stated that films with this subject needed to express creativity despite budget overruns. Not only did the creative staff overcome these difficulties, they also translated this pressure into a highlight of the film.
Maintaining the Essence of the Original Novel vs. Creating New Stories
Unlike the “diverging” structure of network creation, filmmaking has a “focused” structure. When adapting a movie from a novel, the further the film is from the original text, the better it will be, and the more likely it is to become a classic. Movie creators decided to write a story based on the original novel, keeping the essential view of the world and character design, but allowing the “Mojin Xiaowei” (grave robbers) to embark on a new adventure.
The relatively mature four-act structure was chosen for the narration of Mojin: The Lost Legend. After the hero fights with his girlfriend and Wang Kaixuan, the latter goes back to China.
Act I: Hu Bayi tells Shirley Yang the reason for Ding Sitian’s sacrifice: he decided to return to China against the will of his girlfriend, which forms the falling dramatic paragraph structure featuring negative value in Act I.
Act II: Wang Kaixuan is kidnapped by a false cult leader. Shirley Yang follows Hu Bayi to the grassland and recalls a love story from her youth. Conflict between Shirley Yang and Hu Bayi is temporarily resolved. These are the altered elements in Act II.
Act III: At the crucial moment, Hu Bayi helps Wang Kaixuan solve his problem, but is then controlled by the false cult leader. The opinions of the three people diverge, forming the falling structure of Act III.
Act IV: The three characters fight the final devastating blow, and plot of the story reaches a climax in super-intense action scenes. The structure of the overall story is a perfect “W” shape.
The plotting of the first half adopts classic scenes, and a cause-effect series that holds the audience’s interest. The film has sufficient scenes, dramatic conflicts, angular movement, fast-moving plots and a sense of direction. Unfortunately, the second half is not as classically-focused and rigorous as the first half.
Censorship from SARFT vs. Oddness and turmoil from the screen
Fear of censorship should not become an excuse for filmmakers to produce mediocre movies. When outline of this story was submitted to SARFT for examination, the body proposed three requirements: First, the name of the film could not be “Ghost Blows out the Light.” This is why Wuershan used “Mojin: the Lost Legend” (from the original novel) instead. Second, the main characters should not commit crimes. At the beginning of the story, the protagonists had given up their old business and returned to the underground world not for the purpose of taking money, but to recall the past. Finally, SARFT required that the supernatural phenomena had rational explanations.
It is easy to perceive the “tricks” employed by the filmmakers to avoid censorship by SARFT. They used “mojin” to replace “tomb robbing” and even clean up the “Mojin Xiaowei”, who are hired at high pay by alleged “brokers”. Thus, the legendary outlaws have respectable jobs. Every time the protagonists go into the graves, they are threatened by villains at every step. By giving consideration to both creativity and censorship, Mojin: The Lost Legend serves as a classic case for future films with the same subject.
Local Mystical Culture vs. Hollywood-Style Narration
Wuershan and Chen Kuo-Fu agreed to graft the Hollywood fantasy adventure thriller genre onto Chinese films, using the subject of tomb robbing. Wuershan drew reference from overseas fantasy adventure films such as Hollywood classics Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tomb Raider, National Treasure, and The Mummy, as well as genre films from Europe, Germany, and France. He also drew reference from the narrative viewpoint of video games such as Tomb Raider 9 and Uncharted 2 & 3 before eventually writing a paper on the subject.
To graft Hollywood’s narrative structure seamlessly onto Chinese tomb raiding culture and localize American elements to the maximum degree, Wuershan also read books such as The Chinese History of Tomb Raiding and Art of the Yellow Spring, and studied papers on grave customs in the Liao Dynasty (907-1125). He even led a team to explore Liao Ching Ling, the Eastern Qing tombs, and the Ming tombs.
In addition to creating a thrilling and comic adventure film, Wuershan wanted audiences to notice the time marks that appear in the film: the craze for doing business and going abroad in the late 1980s, the Cultural Revolution and the educated youth going to the countryside in the 1960s, the War Against Japanese Aggression in the 1940s, as well as ancient history. “It is actually associated with the real history experienced by the Chinese people. I suppose that’s why this film is quite realistic in this regard. It is a film with intertwined fantasy and reality,” Wuershan says.
An Underworld Spectacle
The move was filmed on a vast set that occupied almost all of China film studios, including Asia’s first and second largest studios (at five thousand and three thousand square meters respectively) to build an enormous underground space. Each scene had to comply with the following two requirements: First, it had to have a visual fulcrum, inspired by northern nomadic shaman culture. Second, all scenes had to be connected by a timeline to justify the three graves.
In creating the Japanese base, art director Hao Yi designed a mixture of rust iron and cement for maximum effect. The zombies refer to Zdzisław Beksiński’s utopianism and Alien director H. R, Giger’s dark aesthetics.
In the tomb design, cool colors were used to create the gloomy atmosphere of the underground world. The stone door reproduced the ferocious stone figures of the concept map, with stone and gravel replacing hard rock to reflect the grave’s age. The moment the tomb door is opened, the stone “gatekeeper” horse and shaman zombies hove into view. Like a temple maze, the scene at the gate of hell shows Buddhist mural paintings on the walls with huge stone beasts arranged in invisible Eight Diagram configuration, awing the intruders while offering the only chance of survival. “The gate of hell” borrows elements from Turkish grottoes; holes in various sizes and shapes in the stone walls form a horrific skull in random combinations. After escaping from the gate of hell, the protagonists must walk through a narrow cliff full of sharp rocks. The art department designed this on purpose, to create a semi-enclosed space with a tinge of purple to transform the sense of eeriness into mystery.
In Mojin: The Lost Legend, passing the Bridge of Hades is a huge scene featuring several iron walkways over dozens of stone pillars, where legions of shaman zombies await intruders. In the scene design, the color green was used frequently to portray the strangeness of the bridge; every stone pillar is like a bone. The fracture of the wooden bridge floor – falling into disrepair and ready to break off – also refers to the principle of the Eight Diagrams: one has to be on the right spot every step to cross the bridge. The unique ‘shaman zombie’ is a new Chinese-style creature with reference to China’s ‘blue ghost’. The zombies’ clearly visible veins use scar transferring technology, in which every part of the body is made into a mold and then divided into different groups, including the rise and fall of its vessels.
The Goddess statue is the core of the underworld system. For the design of this scene, the director visited Liaoqing Tombs in Chi Feng. He looked at looters’ holes and furnishings, but found that the real tomb was not so large, and lacked poisoned gas and arrows. This meant that there was no real scene to inspire the Goddess statue. The director had to use his imagination, to eye-catching effect.
Core Design Concept
Some commentators believe that aesthetically speaking, the best part of this film is that all the elements can be justified. That is not to say the symbols and patterns have been examined, but that – more importantly – all of the design is meaningful. Although a magical movie, not a single pattern is used purely for decoration. Instead, all designs were developed from the core concept, right from the start of the script writing process. This stems from the film’s concept designer Xu Tianhua’s cooperation with director Wuershan and art director Hao Yi. From the original concept stage to the formal preparatory period, Xu communicated with both; the latter was in charge of the big picture while Xu was responsible for the details of the design. They maintained a high degree of unity in aesthetics with a clear goal and logical production process.
The tomb’s design comes from the Liao Dynasty, which was a grassland kingdom established by Khitan. Although affected by the civilization of the Central Plains, the Liao dynasty’s religion was mainly Shamanism inherited from their ancestors. This was the basis of the design in the first version of the script. For example, the Hezhen Masks derived from the worship of the natural world. As an ancient branch of northern Chinese shamanism, Hezhen’s shaman worship has a certain kinship with that of the Khitan people. Therefore, in the early study of conceptual aesthetics, these masks’ sense of style and decoration found its way into the movie.
The movie comprises a total of 1,800 scene, of which 1,530 involve special effects, 70% of which were moderately difficult to produce. At first, the producers planned to cooperate with a foreign special effects company, but eventually chose Beijing Phenom Films Corp., partner of Painted Skin: The Resurrection, given its deeper understanding of Chinese culture. However, for some highly difficult special effects that the domestic company was unable to accomplish, the producers turned to American and South Korean companies for help. The producers also invited Douglas Smith, who’s Independence Day won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, as visual effects supervisor. Douglas worked on the film from the end of 2013 until November 25, 2015.
There were also some new attempts at technical detailing. For enhanced visual expression, Mojin: The Lost Legend uses two kinds of frame ratios: cropping of 1:2.40: for the overground part and the flashback; and full frame 1:1.85: for the underground world of the Bridge of Hades and the scenes after entering the underground palace. The use of full frame 1:1.85 offers the audience an unobstructed view with an immersive feeling. The film also pioneers the “3D left/right swap” in two subjective lenses where the equinox flowers turn yellow. The intentional swap and restoration augur a brief sense of dizziness in the viewer, exactly matching the sensory experience of the characters, so that the audience can enter the strange world of the equinox flowers.
A Chinese Blockbuster With No Weak Points
Wuershan admitted that he still has many regrets, “in every link, from the script, performances, and production to the special effects, there are unsatisfactory parts that didn’t meet my expectations”, but he also said that the value of this film is that it has “no weak points.” “There are no obvious flaws in the creative or technical aspects. Keeping that balance and reaching the cut-off score is great progress for the Chinese film industry,” he said.
Mojin: The Lost Legend may not be the best Chinese fantasy adventure film ever made, nor did it set out to reform the industry. However, its value lies in its achieving a balance between many conflicting factors, such as the expectations of both readers and viewers, artistic integrity and awareness of taboos, and Hollywood narrative versus indigenous tomb culture. For local fantasy adventure, this is not a mediocre start; it demonstrates moderation – the cardinal value of Confucian thinking. Zhou Kaixuan, a senior cultural industry observer, believes that “Mojin: The Lost Legend has the quality of a genre film. However, we can’t always expect a dark horse to push any real development within China’s movie industry. The film industry should be improved to narrow the gap with Hollywood movies. ”
The credits at the end of the film last for nearly 10 minutes, which is rare for a local movie. However, quality production and division of labor is an important manifestation of progress within the film industry. The competition is fierce in Hollywood for financing, production processes, authors, agents, managers, actors, entertainment industry lawyers, and producers and investors. For marketing and distribution, there are differing costs, research methods and promotion plans for different markets – all highly professional – which further empower vertically integrated entertainment groups.
Line producer Wu Xuejun remarked: “We do have some experience of genre movies in the film industry, but we still have a long way to go. We’d like to share our experiences with more filmmakers, so that they can avoid similar detours and mistakes in making similar movies in the future.”
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