Science Fiction Studies

#119 = Volume 40, Part 1 = March 2013

SPECIAL ISSUE ON CHINESE SCIENCE FICTION (Edited by Yan Wu and Veronica Hollinger)

Wei Yang

Voyage into an Unknown Future: A Genre Analysis of Chinese SF Film in the New Millennium

“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” —William Gibson

In the wake of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), Hollywood launched an industry-wide reintegration and corporatization that turned it into the global media conglomerate that we know today. In this new corporate model, sf has become a major film production category. Hollywood’s sf movies today often take the form of big-budget, action-oriented summer blockbusters, but sf has not enjoyed equal visibility or eminence in other regional and national cinemas. In China, its close kin, fantasy film, found expression in the early martial-arts cinema—the “magic spirit films” popular in the pre-1949 Republican period. Although the martial-arts genre was severely condemned and censored in the 1930s for its alleged feudal, superstitious, and anarchist elements (Teo, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema 38-44; Zhang 218-26), martial-arts films continued to be produced, most notably in Hong Kong and Taiwan, throughout the twentieth century; this eventually developed into a more or less coherent Chinese cinema.1 By comparison, the sf genre remains largely underdeveloped and neglected by most Chinese filmmakers and critics.2 As more and more Hollywood sf films have appeared in the Chinese-speaking world in recent decades, however, and as the genre proves its financial viability in the global market, a new wave or, indeed, a first wave of Chinese sf films has been produced since the turn of the century. A large proportion of these productions are the joint efforts of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland Chinese film talents.3

My aim in this article is to seek a broader understanding of sf film in the Chinese context, where the genre’s function is very different from that of its Hollywood counterpart and where it intersects with a different set of social norms and cultural conventions. Looking at the iconography and narrative structures of Chinese sf film—or, to use Rick Altman’s terminology, the semantic and syntactic aspects of the genre—and in particular their reassigned meanings and values, I argue that Chinese sf films are better understood as “sf-themed” films in which sf elements coexist with elements of other genres and are invariably used to support the purposes of these other genres. This development can only be fully accounted for by taking into account the local cinematic conventions, domestic audience expectations, and other historical changes in China’s film industries. All together, these factors demonstrate a very different use of genre and a significant shift in the overall function of sf elements.

While this study avails itself of a relatively narrow reference point— Hollywood sf productions in the recent blockbuster era—I do not mean to suggest that these commercial prototypes are in any way an essential, natural, or final form of the sf genre or that they somehow serve as the standard by which all sf films should be measured. A brief survey of other non-Anglophone sf cinemas—German, Russian, French, Indian, Japanese, and South Korean, for example—suggests that action-packed, CGI-laden Hollywood films offer only one version of a genre that is in the process of constant diversification. My point of reference is of particular use here, however, because Hollywood sf blockbusters have gained by far the most public recognition among Chinese audiences through both official theatrical release and other means of circulation since the 1990s; they have become a direct and major influence on Chinese sf filmmakers in their response to media globalization and westernization. My research includes Chinese sf films with different themes, visual styles, and target audiences that have received various degrees of critical and market success. My goal is not to prove (again) that Chinese cinema belongs in important ways to an interconnected global media cluster whose cultural production is inevitably marked by multiple sources of influence. Instead, I want to lay the groundwork to argue that, in spite of all differences, these films represent a particular phase in the development of Chinese sf cinema, one in which local filmmakers borrow directly from Hollywood sf but also deviate from it in significant ways, through parody, genre mixing, and other intertextual strategies.

Although Chinese sf films often feature a mass of identifiable generic cues—robots, cyborgs, aliens, mad scientists, evil corporations—these icons have never become associated solely with science fiction. In spite of visual resemblances and conceptual affiliations, Chinese sf narratives are almost always motivated by a different set of thematic and aesthetic concerns. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004), for instance, is an example of how sf is coopted into the director’s creative vision and, as a result, functions to advance the film’s authorial expression in a way that defies generic coding. 2046 is a canonical film that comes to mind whenever the question of Chinese sf is raised, but can hardly be labeled as simply science fiction. It is set in Hong Kong in the late 1960s and its main character is Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a determined hedonist who has a past that he cannot escape. Aside from writing pulp stories for a living, Chow spends much of his time romancing and then deserting a series of beautiful female companions. The core of the narrative is focused on an intense romance between Chow and Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a sensuous, wayward prostitute who lives next door. The film digresses repeatedly, however, into the story of Jing (Faye Wong), first introduced as one of Chow’s crushes and the daughter of his landlord. Her life is complicated, as we discover, by her romantic relationship with Tak (Takuya Kimura), a young Japanese businessman to whom her father is vehemently opposed. Chow later agrees to act as a go-between for the couple. Inspired by their story, he starts penning a science-fiction novel entitled “2046.” The number refers to, among other things, a future destination where people go to reclaim their lost memories, where “nothing ever changes” and from which “no one has ever returned.” The futuristic milieu of the fictive 2046, to which the camera frequently cuts, is validated by the presence of a Metropolis-like cityscape, dreamy neon lights, robots, and a darkly dystopian atmosphere.

In the novel that Chow is writing, Tak, as Chow’s alter ego, is traveling on a bullet train trying to return from 2046. Since we know that no one has ever completed this return journey, the impression is given that the train, although in constant movement, is actually suspended in the infinity of a time tunnel. Tak falls in love with Jing, who is now an android serving as the train’s cabin attendant. Although the link between the film’s two space-times remains obscure, their narrative juxtaposition encourages us to draw connections between the writer’s future fantasy and the reality of his present: trapped in memories, Chow attempts to escape a future that remains embedded in the past of his previous life, but there is no guarantee that his return will be successful. Tak’s interaction with the android, who suffers from severe emotional delays in her responses to him, also contains an echo of Chow’s past and present loves.

The sf sequences in 2046 signal a generic diversion from “art cinema,” the category that critics usually associate with Wong Kar-wai’s films. As a distinct mode of film practice, art cinema is often considered the antithesis of classic film narrative, and it tends to evade generic identifications. The recontextualization of sf semantics in 2046—the insertion of sf conventions into an art film—changes the meaning of typical sf images and situations: here the bullet train connotes immobility, time travel suggests psychological uncertainty, the idea of the future is intricately intertwined with memory, and the cyberpunk landscape becomes a transformed representation of the writer’s subjective reality. While the film’s sf elements remain distinct, their symbolic functions have changed. The intercutting between the fictional world of “2046” and 1960s Hong Kong disrupt the film’s time-space continuum, further loosening the causal relations of the narrative. The metaphor of unending time travel, in particular, suggests Chow’s psychological state, frozen and incapable of moving forward, so that his character functions more as a mediating agent of modern life than as the progressive, goal-oriented hero of a genre movie.

In other words, sf meanings become adapted to the language of art cinema. Juxtaposed with the familiar iconography of Wong’s films—their settings, costumes, cinematography, music, themes, and visual motifs—the film’s sf vocabulary foregrounds the director’s authorial voice. This strategy becomes even more self-evident when we situate 2046 in its immediate context. As the semi-sequel to Hua yang nian hua [In the Mood for Love, 2000] and the last installment of Wong’s “1960s Trilogy,” 2046 pursues the same allegory as its predecessors of unattainable love in a bygone era, favoring form and atmosphere over plot or structure.4 Its emphases on visual mannerism and emotional resonance can be found in all Wong’s films, in which themes of love and loss, time and nostalgia, chance encounters and missed opportunities persist. These films attempt an inquiry into a universal human condition rather than advancing a specific narrative. Not surprisingly, 2046 is the only sf-themed film in Wong’s oeuvre thus far. It speaks to the director’s propensity for generic experimentation and innovation but also illustrates how sf iconography accommodates the overarching direction and formal qualities of art cinema.

If 2046 is an obvious but isolated case whose auteurist orientation inherently challenges generic classification, I will, in what follows, shift my focus to a more commercial context and examine the placement of sf elements in mainstream Chinese films. Unlike 2046, which borrows sf devices only to subvert their innate assumptions, Chinese sf films for popular consumption tend to underline genre ideas and play up generic attractions. Gui si [Silk, Chao-bin Su, 2006] presents itself as an interesting case, for it is one of the few recent sf films that are not situated in the province of comedy-romance, a model most popular with Hong Kong-mainland coproductions. Instead, Silk builds on the visual and thematic motifs of the horror genre.

In the West, horror and sf have been associated since the early days of cinema. Their kinship has produced a pantheon of sf icons, from Frankenstein monsters to aliens and mutants to mind-control machines and other far-future technologies, all of which still fuel the contemporary sf imagination. In contrast, the Chinese treatment of sf horror is usually instigated by the appearance of a ghost or spirit. Set in Taipei, Silk follows a science experiment masterminded by the enigmatic Japanese physicist Hashimoto (Yosuke Eguchi), who designs an anti-gravity device, the “Menger sponge,” that can trap energies such as ghostly emanations. With it, Hashimoto and his team capture the spirit of a young boy. In order to unlock the secret behind the supernatural, Hashimoto hires Tung (Chang Chen), an “Eagle Eye” and lip reader who is also a seasoned cop, to uncover the story of this ghost. Tung follows the spirit to a special education school and discovers that the boy had suffered from a rare medical syndrome that left him in constant pain and subject to the ridicule of his classmates. He had survived a suicide attempt that was apparently sanctioned by his mother but had since disappeared.

It is worth noting that the ghostly imagery in Silk crosses both generic and national cinematic borders. The film’s visual motifs—the paled-face boy, the dark-haired woman, eyes without pupils, and the haunted building—pay homage to a range of Japanese horror classics such as Ringu (Nakata Hideo, 1998) and Ju-on (Shimizu Takashi, 2000/2002). Sf is an equally strong presence in the film, established mainly through conventional characters (over-reaching scientist, lone detective, oppressive government agency, innocent victims), locations (laboratory, abandoned building), and motives (dark ambition, grievance, revenge). Silk’s narrative premise—that ghosts can be scientifically studied—provides ample ground for the merging of horror and sf elements. Both genres strive for the same effects of anomaly, mystery, and suspense, aiming to create situations that test the boundaries between the sensible world and the universal unknown. The melding of science and the paranormal, however, a paradox from which the film’s novelty derives, also demands that one genre must eventually prevail and the other give way as the story progresses. The ghost-horror motif quickly assumes significance as Tung’s investigation proceeds. It turns out that the little boy’s spirit is linked to that of his living mother’s by an invisible silk-like thread. Having put her son to death to end his suffering, the mother has been injured in an earthquake and has been in a deep coma for several years. During the course of the film, it is also established that the ghost (or the mother’s spirit, as they communicate through the silk) is prone to kill whoever looks him in the eyes. As the ghostly mystery thickens, the science of the “Menger sponge” becomes more elusive—at one point, it seems to be able to cure a crippled leg and to make a person invisible—such that its spectacular effects are more like magic than science.

The foregrounding of non-material elements such as culturally specific superstitions and mystified science marks a shift in thematic emphasis from sf to ghostly horror. Vivian Sobchack observes that in American cinema, sf and horror are often easily conflated, but it is “their sphere of exploration, their emphasis” that distinguish them from each other:

The horror film is primarily concerned with the individual in conflict with society or with some extension of himself, the SF film with society and its institutions in conflict with each other or with some alien other. Therefore, the arena for conflict in the horror film is usually as small as a minute town tucked in the Carpathians, an old castle, or an English village, while the arena for the SF film is most often the large city, the planet Earth itself. If one genre is as large as the human soul, the other is as large as the cosmos. Both genres deal with chaos, with the disruption of order, but the horror film deals with moral chaos, the disruption of natural order (assumed to be God’s order), and the threat to the harmony of hearth and home; the SF film, on the other hand, is concerned with social chaos, the disruption of social order (man-made), and the threat to the harmony of civilized society going about its business. (29-30)

Although Sobchack’s analysis is directed at American films, the differences she notes between sf and horror—divergent foci, scales of crises, and kinds of turmoil—provide a useful map for a similar comparison in the Chinese context. For instance, the relatively small “arena of conflict” typical of horror films is materialized in Silk, via location shooting in the disenchanted urban landscape of Taipei.5 As Tung follows the lonesome ghost through the city streets to its final destination, the sense of isolation abounds: while the city is filmed in a solemn blue-green color scheme, the boy appears in black and white to underline his aberrant existence. The urban topology is intensely connected to and defined by the spectral features of the young ghost and his mystery, but looms no larger than that. After the initial setup, the film’s interest in solving ghostly mysteries also precludes meaningful engagement with the sf genre. It has been convincingly argued that sf is a form of cultural production that reflects society’s attitudes toward social practices and/or ideologies—for example, the early American sf-horror film can be read as an articulation of “both the surface skepticism of the Depression-era audience and the deeper qualms that attended our entry into the ‘brave new world’ of science and technology” (Telotte 90). One can hardly say that Silk proffers similar insights into contemporary Taiwanese society.

Moreover, in keeping with the long-standing Chinese ghost tradition, Silk evokes elements of Eastern religion to assist its plot. As the secret of the boy unravels, a truth, or rather the moral lesson of the film, is invoked: the love between a mother and a son transcends the borders of life and death. Once we know the boy’s name and his undeserved fate, his ghostly form acquires a new dimension that deserves our empathy. Our interest moves from the havoc he wreaks to the questions of what might become of him and how he might be redeemed. Emotional investments may seem out of the place in an aliens-and monsters-infested world, but they are a conventional feature of the Chinese ghost tradition.

As the film unfolds, the Japanese government fires Hashimoto and shuts down his research. Carrying an intense grudge and misguided by the increasing body count (the mother’s spirit goes on a killing spree after Hashimoto kidnaps her son’s ghost), Hashimoto believes that the boy’s hatred towards his mother is what keeps his spirit on the mortal plane. Coveting the freedom that this seems to promise, he commits suicide at the electromagnetic field where the boy was buried, trusting that the field’s energy will fuel his own spirit forever. Following this fatal act, Tung’s voiceover explains that it is love, not hate, that sustains the spirits. The camera slowly pulls away from Hashimoto’s body to suggest the futility of his death. The film’s alternate ending, however, listed as the director’s cut on the DVD release, presents a much more unsettling non-closure. Hashimoto’s spirit returns but instead of freedom, he finds himself trapped in an eternal cycle of suicide in which he wakes up in different times and places every day only in time to kill himself again. In this way, the film’s religious elements—afterlife, retribution, penance, reincarnation, karma—provide answers to the horrors of moral transgression. As the moral center of the film, Tung has been tormented by indecision over whether to withhold or to continue his own mother’s life support and he is spared from death after the reunion of the mother’s and son’s spirits. By the end of the film, once the narrative has been more or less reduced to the invocation of simple emotions (love, redemption) as the answer to its mysteries, the sf hypothesis that opened the story has become more or less irrelevant.

If Silk borrows an element of scientific speculation to introduce its plot, it also moves away from such speculation as soon as it turns to its moral, supernatural, and religious concerns. In addition, the story invokes other generic elements to increase emotional and narrative suspense. At the risk of oversimplifying, I suggest that each of the story’s three acts is tied to a specific generic prototype: it opens as a mystery, develops as a detective thriller, and is resolved as a family melodrama. Genre mixing is, of course, nothing unusual in the realm of commercial cinema. Filmmakers of 1930s Hollywood and contemporary Chinese cinemas are subject to the same economic pressures to appeal to the widest possible audience. Outside of China, sf films often borrow from other popular genres. Examples include the Western (Westworld, 1973; Outland, 1981), Japanese samurai epics (the Star Wars saga), horror (Alien, 1979), disaster (Dr. Strangelove, 1964; The Omega Man, 1971), action (the Terminator and Matrix franchises), American film noir (Blade Runner, 1982; Dark City, 1998), family drama (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977), and anime (Ghost in the Shell, 1995; Paprika, 2006). In these films, however, sf remains a defining factor and maintains a dominant role. It is the systematic decentering of sf in Chinese films that make them so unusual.

Here I want to examine in some detail the use of sf devices in several Hong Kong and Hong Kong-China coproductions, in which genre-crossing is not the only factor contributing to sf’s arrested development in Chinese cinema. This category accounts for the majority of what I consider the first wave of Chinese sf film. My analysis revolves mainly around Ji qi xia [Metallic Attraction: Kung Fu Cyborg, Jeffrey Lau, 2009], but also deals with certain aspects of Wei lai jing cha [Future X-Cops, Jing Wong, 2010] and Quan cheng jie bei [City Under Siege, Benny Chan, 2010].6 In theory, Chinese sf films draw from the same conventions as their western counterparts, but in practice some characters, plots, and motifs are much more favored than others. For example, deep-space fantasy, alien invasion, environmental disasters, and doomsday dystopia are rarely represented in these films but mutants, cyborgs, and other forms of artificial intelligence constantly reappear. This selective borrowing can be ascribed to practical factors such as budget and available computer technology, but choices are also made because of the adaptability of specific icons. Since Hollywood is the overriding trendsetter for the genre, China’s many commercial filmmakers are confined to the role of offshore imitators whose main goal is not to compete on the level of originality but to adapt familiar sf semantic units into the syntactic relationships previously developed in popular local genres. The three films noted above, for instance, rely heavily on the conventions of the action film, comedy, and romance; this is a strategy used by contemporary Chinese directors to make sf more relevant to their native culture, where sf’s perspectives are still considered new and foreign.

The sf iconography serves two significant purposes. First, it provides a kind of visual excitement suggesting postindustrial late-capitalist glamor and sophistication. Second, sf elements are instrumental in the creation of simple but engaging concepts in which other genres—romantic comedy, family drama, crime, action, and so on—can be repackaged for a wider mainstream audience. If in the past Chinese (especially Hong Kong) cinema’s penchant for the fantastic and the outlandish has been fulfilled for the most part by ghosts, spirits, and legendary swordsmen, the list is now extended to include aliens, androids, time travelers, and the like. While sf has never been a “pure” genre—in the sense that even the most “quintessential” sf films are usually peppered with references to other genres—the sf elements in most regional cinemas are self-sustainable and do not face the same kind of fierce competition from other genres that often results in the weakening of the sf aura. Working as they do in an industry where films are regularly associated with multiple genres, Hong Kong filmmakers tend to work outside the sf genre, incorporating only its more familiar imagery, concepts, and styles into their own productions. These sf elements are then arranged economically to meet the expectations of other genres. As a result, the development of Chinese sf films works in tandem with the repetition of other more established local genres.

While genre mixing is not unique to Chinese or sf cinema in particular, the generic multiplicity of Chinese sf films presents a rare case of genre synthesis that is exceptionally compressed and resourceful. For example, elaborate action or martial-arts sequences are integrated into all these films. This inclusion gives a nod to Hong Kong’s most prominent cinematic legacy while complying with Hollywood’s current practice of including spectacular action sequences in most blockbuster movies. Other generic affiliations are less self-explanatory. For example, these Chinese sf films display a consistent penchant for comedy and integrate a wide range of comedic forms into their productions, from slapstick to caricature, eccentric characterization to knockabout farce, and physical comedy to satire. The directors of these films, such as Wong Jing, Jeffrey Lau, and Benny Chan, are veteran Hong Kong filmmakers and comedy has always been a significant element in their local productions. This alone, however, does not fully explain the omnipresence of comedy in Chinese sf films. My argument is that the major alliance between sf and comedy is chiefly engineered by Hong Kong’s entrenched industrial practice and audience expectations, and that this coalition invariably undermines a more consequential engagement with the sf genre.

Two aspects of comedy—special effects and performance—are worth addressing in some detail. As demonstrated by the Hollywood tradition, special effects are aimed at evoking awe and wonder rather than laughter, and it is this that makes special effects a key element in a film’s commercial viability and international exportability. In China, the film industry is playing catch-up. Impressive special effects have been incorporated into a number of high-profile historical dramas and martial-arts epics, including Chi bi [Red Cliff, John Woo, 2008], Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo [Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Hark Tsui, 2010], and Wu xia [Dragon, Peter Chan, 2011]. In Chinese sf films, however, these effects are not aimed at increasing verisimilitude—the guiding principle championed by Hollywood and by China’s more resourceful filmmakers. Often poorly produced, special effects in Chinese sf films tend to contradict and undercut the consistency of any particular mise en scène. Whether it is in the technologized world of 2080 in Future X-Cops, the Matrix-style “immersion program” experience of Kung Fu Cyborg, or the fighting sequences in all of these films, the magic of special effects regularly comes across as both blatant and droll, as if its goal is not to convince but to amuse. Similarly, the acting style in these films is either purposely flat or purposely exaggerated: character development relies on screwball stereotypes and jettisons authenticity. The misrepresentation of the “real” through both special effects and performance style results in visual excess and tongue-in-cheek humor, qualities that are fundamental to contemporary Hong Kong comedy.

Comedy’s overarching presence in Chinese sf films suggests how the commercial matrix in which Hong Kong films are produced conditions different levels of generic participation. A well-developed commercial establishment with an efficient assembly-line mode of production, the Hong Kong film industry is predisposed to produce highly formulaic texts that offer proven genre satisfactions. While these films target the general markets of Greater China, their ideal audience is the local Cantonese population that has become accustomed to Hong Kong comedy’s fast-paced and familiar conventions. For the most part, this local brand of comedy operates as part of a multi-generic cluster, ritually teamed with sf, romance, action, and other genres. It strongly emphasizes parody, which has over the decades become a major source of comic relief for a local industry quick to respond to proven successes and able to access the expanding inventory of generic blueprints of international cinema.

Film parody, according to Dan Harries, is a process that involves “taking pre-established and fairly stable semiotic structures (such as a genre, or the work of a particular director, or even a widely viewed single film) and recontextualizing the structure through the oscillation between similarity to and difference from the targeted texts” (Harries 282). A local form of film parody, mo lei tau, appears to be particularly popular in Chinese sf film. Mo lei tau is a Cantonese phrase that means “nonsensical” or “illogical.” Mo lei tau humor, usually broad and lowbrow, is closely tied to the subtleties of Cantonese language and culture.7 Its execution relies upon throwing together utterly disparate subjects to create a feeling of absurdity and incongruity. The standard constituents of this type of humor include comic banter, brisk repartee, clever puns, anachronism, and often-biting satire of social conventions. The use of mo lei tau humor in Chinese sf films is sporadic and random. A typical example can be found in Kung Fu Cyborg in a scene where the director of a robotics lab, Mr. Lin (Eric Tsang), vouches for the moral integrity of his cyborg K-1, which has been assigned to offer assistance at a small-town police station. Mr. Lin’s “proof” of K-1’s integrity is three-fold: first, K-1’s palm lines are approved by the best alchemists in the nation; second, the lab has consulted the Chinese almanac for the cyborg’s release date; and third, K-1’s facial features are modeled after Andy Lau, the famous Asian movie star, to ensure that he is “kind, ambitious, and family-oriented.” In assuring a cyborg’s ethical standards based on pseudo-sciences such as palmistry and face reading, Mr. Lin’s speech takes special pains to parody sf’s rationality and empiricism. At the same time, however, the reasoning in this scene is so farcical that it eliminates both conceptual complexity and any possibility of philosophical engagement. The real function of the scene, it seems, is simply to convey a cheeky knowingness and to congratulate audiences on their ability to identify all the gags.

This kind of genre blending may be explained in practical terms as part of the “insurance policy” of these productions, aimed at guaranteeing box-office success by copying as many successful generic elements as possible. This is less about expanding foreign sf content into Chinese film than it is about already-existing Chinese conventions adopting and retooling a new set of generic codes. This mash-up of genre clichés gives rise to a hilarious and bewildering collage of periods and places, themes and styles. For instance, a cultural insider will be able to identify numerous pop-culture references in Kung Fu Cyborg: the story is set in 2046 (after the title of Wong’s film); K-1 not only has an Andy Lau face but also wears an Elvis Presley hairdo; the “bad” cyborg in the story has a name that puns on Jackie Chan’s name; the world’s most powerful weapon, the “iGun,” is shaped like a fifth-generation iPod; there is Matrix-inspired bullet-time fighting that also involves Transformer-style shape-shifting; Shakespeare’s Hamlet is quoted (“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space”); China’s communist past is mocked by Eric Tsang’s heavily accented bureaucratic Mandarin and a company named Tian’an Technology; and the use of provincial dialects in the Mainland version of the film is reminiscent of the recent surge of vernacular dialect films pioneered in China by Feng kuang de shi tou [Crazy Stone, Hao Ning, 2006]. Last but by no means least, the film’s all-embracing credit sequence pays tribute to the James Bond films (soundtrack and graphics), to Ye Wen [Ip Man, Wilson Yip, 2008] (the Wing Chun-style kung fu and the famous wooden dummy scene), and to the long-standing philosophical link between martial arts and fine arts (a cyborg playing the traditional Chinese musical instrument erhu) most spectacularly visualized in Ying xiong [Hero, Zhang Yimou, 2002] and other martial-arts sagas made in the wake of Ang Lee’s Wo hu cang long [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000].

Imitation and parody are not new to Hong Kong comedy. What is exceptional here are the increasingly complex and layered forms of intertextuality that draw upon insider information in order to evoke a sense of shared culture, history, and social criticism. The generic satisfaction provided by Chinese sf films, therefore, is tied less to their sf elements than to their overt evocations of our prior knowledge of a broad variety of subjects. A large part of the excitement that one derives from films such as Future X-Cops, for instance, lies in one’s ability to identify its inexhaustible display of generic tropes: a Terminator (1984) time-travel plot with an A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2002) twist that also features action sequences reminiscent of John Woo’s Face/Off (1997) in a 3D gaming environment. In addition, the film’s colorful pack of villains is a sweeping parody of figures such as Catwoman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, and Transformers.

Sometimes, of course, these sf parodies are more than simply visual gags. City Under Siege opens with a Hellboy-esque WWII prologue—and Hellboy’s red face is directly referenced later in the film—and the half-human creatures in the film clearly allude to classic zombie films. More significantly, however, the film borrows a typical plot from martial-arts novels: an unwilling hero with unknown lineage miraculously survives fatal events (in this case, a biochemical explosion and ensuing genetic infection) and learns to develop great skills (flying daggers) to overcome insurmountable obstacles (deadly attacks) before he finally achieves his desired goal (save the world/girl). The traditional plot involving the growth of the individual hero is confused by a heavy dose of commercialism: the hero is transformed into a propaganda machine to sell a broad spectrum of commodities including razorblades, insect spray, diarrhea medication, and mineral water.

These highly condensed forms of comedy and parody containing a vast number of cinematic citations and pop-cultural references demonstrate the influence of postmodern pastiche as well as contemporary Hong Kong culture’s ongoing obsession with (self)-referentiality. Taken together, they have aggressively redefined the idea of science fiction in the Chinese context. While comic elements tend to be digressive or irrelevant, parody deters narrative flow by providing a meta-commentary that draws on collective cultural memory and, in turn, calls into question the very genre deployed. These points of digression undermine the execution of sf themes in Chinese cinema, especially when the genre is subsumed under other generic preoccupations. Although the violation of genre codes through parody and comic distraction sometimes “sustain[s] and reconstitute[s] these codes and, therefore, genre itself” by displaying “a ‘mastery’ of these codes” (Harries 281), this generic play is often undertaken at the expense of sf as a fledgling genre yet to ground itself within Chinese culture.8 As a result, priority is always given to the genres that have settled into stable and familiar forms.

Furthermore, while all semantics are theoretically equal, Chinese commercial filmmakers privilege certain syntactic relationships over others. More often than not, sf elements are overshadowed by other generic motifs. The ending of Kung Fu Cyborg serves as an apt example. Although advertised as an action-oriented sf film (as the title directly suggests), it both disappoints generic expectations and ultimately submits itself to a romance plot. Besides solving crimes and catching bad guys, K-1 inevitably falls in love with a policewoman working at the same bureau. He tries, intuitively, to resist, for love is taboo to such an artificial creature—but love is not love if it does not cause you to suffer. Over the course of the film K-1 follows the familiar stages of emotional awakening appropriate to a smart but awkward teenager, a basic plot of Hong Kong’s many romantic comedies. K-1’s self-searching culminates in the film’s final showdown as he faces the corporate authority determined to punish him for his “betrayals”—in addition to falling in love, he also discovers the value of fraternity and secretly saves the chief of police by turning him into a cyborg. At first K-1 wants to put up a fight but he ultimately realizes its futility. The finale then turns into an extended farewell sequence between the two star-crossed lovers. As soon as K-1 declares his love, his metallic body dissolves into crystal-like pebbles as his built-in detonation program is activated by the detection of emotions.

By equipping its cyborg with a human conscience and feelings and by stressing a “natural” process of human assimilation, Kung Fu Cyborg dodges the most contested issues in contemporary sf cinema—the paradoxes of artificial beings, the loss of individuality, and the nature of both the human and the posthuman. Instead, K-1’s robotic otherness is redeemed by the tragedy and miracle of his human finitude. His self-destruction accentuates an important narrative moment in which a robot’s personal sacrifice intersects with an indisputable human truth: “life without love or freedom is not worth living.” As a cyborg, K-1’s humanity is solely the creation of genre: if sf offers the initial premise for his existence, it is the old-fashioned heterosexual romance that fulfills his potential. Once again the power of science and technology submits to the power of love, that mysterious force that triumphs over all kinds of differences and hardships, from disparities of race, gender, class, and age to the boundaries of human and machine.

The repurposing of sf semantics in Chinese cinemas, exemplified by films as diverse as 2046, Silk, and Kung Fu Cyborg, demonstrates how traditional sf tropes provide narrative premises for films whose primary concerns are not science-fictional. Responding to a distinct socio-cultural experience, Chinese sf films are characterized by the absence of science-based ideas and the kinds of conceptual explorations that mark many of the genre’s classic films: the fascination with future civilizations, the use of anti-establishment political satire, and philosophical reflections on human experience and identities marked by advanced and often invasive technologies. The deployment of sf in Chinese cinemas is largely conditioned by the local institutions’ immediate industrial and cultural contexts. Popular sf iconographies—mainly borrowed for their simple but engaging dynamism and agility—are often imitative and lightweight and have not yet been established as sustainable expressions or structures. In this sense, Chinese sf films are more accurately “sf-themed” films. Significantly, sf features are always cast against a poly-generic background and the sf vocabulary is governed by the syntactic relationships to other genres—not only broadly defined comedy and romance, but also an assortment of other genres including martial-arts films, children and family films, police procedurals, crime thrillers, fantasies, ghost and horror stories, and so on. The development of sf film in China is further complicated by the postmodern tendency toward hybridity and intertextuality, which disrupts the genre’s typical development by subjecting it to imitation and parody. I want to conclude here by suggesting that the multi-generic composition of Chinese sf film reveals sf’s subordinate position in the field, since sf elements are co-opted into syntactic relations to other genres to facilitate familiar intertextual references. In this sense, Chinese sf film cannot be understood as a simple appropriation of the Western model, if only because the development of the genre depends so heavily on evolving public tastes and local cinematic conventions. This culturally specific reading destabilizes sf’s conventional meaning as established in its Western contexts and marks a significant repurposing of its function in Chinese film culture.


1. In “Film Genre and Chinese Cinema,” Stephen Teo argues that martial-arts films can be understood as a “national” genre in Chinese cinema. China’s current media policy eerily echoes the censorship of the 1930s. According to a recent CNN business report, on 31 March 2011 the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) issued its latest guidelines on television programming, strongly discouraging plot-lines that contain elements of “fantasy, time-travel, random compilations of mythical stories, bizarre plots, absurd techniques, even propagating feudal superstitions, fatalism and reincarnation, ambiguous moral lessons, and a lack of positive thinking” (Voigt). These guidelines are posted on the SARFT website.

2. Early Hong Kong sf films include Ying xing fu xing [The Invisible Lucky Star, Miu Hong-nee, 1964], Nv fei xia [Female Chivalry, Kim Lung, 1966], and its sequel Nv jin gang [The Female King, Kim Lung, 1966]. Zhongguo chao ren [Infra-Man, Hua Shan, 1975] is perhaps the first Chinese “superman” movie. It borrows heavily from the Japanese “Kamen Rider” series that first aired on television in 1971; the series has since expanded into a media franchise that includes many manga, television, and theatrical sequels, and is vastly popular in East Asia. Xing xing wang [Goliathon, Ho Meng-hua, 1977], a Godzilla spin-off, was released in Hong Kong two years later. Unfortunately these two Japanese-influenced films were both local box-office flops.

Another Chinese sf film with a Japanese connection is Yao shou du shi [Wicked City, Peter Mak, 1993], based on the Japanese anime of the same title and featuring a Japanese star (Nakadai Tatsuya). Wicked City’s screenwriter, Ni Kuang, is also a prolific sf novelist whose stories have been adapted into a number of television series and films since the 1980s. Hong Kong’s martial-arts fantasy subgenre also makes occasional use of sf elements. Tsui Hark’s Xin shu shan qi xia [Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, 1983] is a local response to the sf fantasy boom that followed Star Wars (Tsui recruited the same special-effects team that worked with Lucas).

The sf genre saw even slower development in Taiwan. One of Taiwan’s earliest sf films is Zhan shen [The Big Calamity, Chan Hung-man, 1976], an alien-invasion disaster film set in Hong Kong. Its special-effects coordinator was Takano Koichi, then best known for his work on the 1960s Ultraman TV series in Japan. In mainland China, sf film did not resurface until1980 with the release of Shan hu dao shang de si guang [The Death Ray of Coral Island, Zhang Hongmei, 1980], based on Tong Enzheng’s short novel of the same name. Since then only a handful of sf movies has appeared. Better known titles of this period include Cuo wei [Dislocation, Huang Jianxin, 1987], Pi li bei bei [Thunderclap Boy Beibei, Song Cong, 1988], Da qi ceng xiao shi [The Ozone Layer Vanishes, Feng Xiaoning, 1990], Mo biao [The Magic Watch, Xu Geng, 1990], Yin shen bo shi [The Invisible Doctor, Zhang Zien, 1992], Zai sheng yong shi [Reborn Hero, Li Guomin, 1995], and Feng kuang de tu zi [Crazy Rabbits, Cui Xiaoqin and Meng Weibing, 1997].  

3. Like most projects in Chinese film studies today, this article faces the fundamental question of what constitutes “Chinese cinema” in the twenty-first century; the films I have selected here attest to the complexity of the question. Drawing from three historically distinct threads of Chinese-language cinemas—mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan—these films all demonstrate a tendency to cross borders on multiple levels. For example, while Silk is labeled a Taiwanese film, its cast and crew were drawn from Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, and Hollywood, incorporating no less than four languages (Mandarin, Hokkien, Japanese, and English). Similarly, 2046 can be considered a quintessential Hong Kong film—director Wong Kar-wai’s auteurist voice, the film’s local setting, its largely local cast, and its distinct cultural nuances convey an ambience that is unmistakably Hong Kong—but the film’s multiple funding sources officially categorize it as a coproduction of Hong Kong, mainland China, France, and Germany. The release of a large number of sf films coproduced by China and Hong Kong in the last five years further complicates the situation. The porousness of boundaries—whether cultural, economic, or geopolitical—is precisely what makes it possible to discuss these films together from a relatively fixed critical perspective and to reach some conclusions that inform the overall development of sf in Chinese cinema. Sheldon Lu and Emilie Yeh’s definition of Chinese-language films, aptly summarized in Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics, is particularly pertinent here, and I have used it as a guide to determine the scope and focus of this study: “Chinese-language films are films that use predominantly Chinese dialects and are made in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora, as well as those produced through transnational collaborations with other film industries” (1).

4. The trilogy consists of A Fei jingjyuhn [Days of Being Wild, 1990], In the Mood for Love (2000), and 2046 (2004). Although the trilogy does not feature tightly connected stories, 2046 is consistent with the two earlier films in terms of characters, themes, dialogue, soundtrack, and visual style.

5. In like manner, Japanese horror films tend to use the dense geography of Tokyo to evoke a “uniquely urban sense of fear attached to the possibilities of the megalopolis and its mythos” (Wada-Marciano 18-19).

6. The title of Future X-Cops probably derives from Benny Chan’s Te jing xin ren lei [Gen-X Cops, 1999].

7. Mo lei tau culture is most typically associated with the comedy of Stephen Chow, whose well-known titles include the Fight Back to School series (1991, 1992, 1993). Other significant films of this kind include Xi you ji di yi bai ling yi hui zhi yue guang bao he [A Chinese Odyssey, Part I: Pandora’s Box, Jeffrey Lau, 1994] and Xi you ji da jie ju zhi xian lv qi yuan [A Chinese Odyssey, Part II: Cinderella, Jeffrey Lau, 1994], Bai bian xing jun [Sixty Million Dollar Man, Jing Wong and Wai Man Yip, 1995], Shi shen [The God of Cookery, Stephen Chow and Lik-Chi Lee, 1996], and Xi ju zhi wang [The King of Comedy, Stephen Chow and Lik-Chi Lee, 1999]. Chow also directed and starred in Chang jiang qi hao [CJ7, 2008], a family sf comedy that displays a familiar bent for mo lei tau and is deserving of academic attention in its own right.

8. Harries’s work focuses on parody as a film genre and his examples are drawn largely from Hollywood cinema. In Chinese sf cinema, the mechanisms of parody are always tied to the conventions of comedy; their partnership fulfills the function of parody identified by Harries, that it simultaneously challenges and maintains genres.


2046. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Perf. Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Ziyi Zhang, and Faye Wong. Jet Tone Films, 2004.

Altman, Rick. Film/genre. London, BFI, 1999.

Gui si [Silk]. Dir. Chao-bin Su. Perf. Chen Chang, Yôsuke Eguchi, and Kar Yan Lam. Deltamac (Hong Kong), 2006.

Harries, Dan. “Film Parody and the Resuscitation of Genre.” Genre and Contemporary Hollywood. Ed. Steve Neale. London: BFI, 2002. 281-93.

Ji qi xia [Metallic Attraction: Kung Fu Cyborg]. Dir. Jeffrey Lau. Perf. JunHu, Betty Sun, and Lik-Sun Fong. Mei Ah Entertainment, 2009.

Lu, Sheldon, and Emilie Yeh, ed. Chinese-language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics. Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 2005.

Quan cheng jie bei [City Under Siege]. Dir. Benny Chan. Perf. Mo-Chan Chik, Collin Chou, and Chrissie Chow. Universe Films, 2010.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 2nd. ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1997.

Telotte, J. P. Science Fiction Film. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Teo, Stephen. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia TraditionEdinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009.

─────. “Film Genre and Chinese Cinema: A Discourse of Film and Nation.” A Companion to Chinese Cinema. Ed. Yingjin Zhang. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 284-98.

Voigt, Kevin. “China Banning Time Travel for TV?” CNN Business 360. 14 Apr. 2011. Online. 28 Nov. 2012.

Wada-Marciano, Mitsuyo. “J-horror: New Media’s Impact on  Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema.” Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema. Ed. Jinhee Choi and Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2009. 15-38.

Wei lai jing cha [Future X-Cops]. Dir. Jing Wong. Perf. Andy Lau, Barbie Hsu, and Bingbing Fan. Mega-Vision Pictures, 2010.

Zhang, Zhen. An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937.Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

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