by Vivienne Zhang
As the rest of the world adjusts to the new normal of life in the time of COVID-19, this real-time global emergency reveals stark cultural, systematic, and stylistic differences between China’s crisis leadership and that of other countries. Our current situation might not be as dramatic as the Earth’s destruction, but China has theorised about that too on the big screen, and about what it would do to lead humanity to safety.
In both fiction and reality, art plays a sometimes subtle, and at other times crude, role in promoting CCP ideology while diminishing those of other systems. More strikingly, the recent phenomenon of ‘main melody films’ in China provides a case study for how the Chinese government has adapted the messaging of its globalised agenda for international consumption. “The Wandering Earth” (2019) is a Chinese science fiction blockbuster released last February, timed to coincide with the busy Lunar New Year season and the historic touchdown of China’s Chang’e 4 probe on the dark side of the moon. The film, directed by Frant Gwo, is loosely based on the novella of the same name by award-winning sci-fi author Liu Cixin. It tells the story of a mission to save Earth from the parallel perspectives of cosmonaut Liu Peiqiang on the International Space Station, and his son, technician-in-training Liu Qi.
In their world, the Sun’s initial rapid expansion forced mankind to survive by living in underground cities and initiating “The Wandering Earth” Project, which sought to move planet Earth to another star system. The project is projected to build and activate 10,000 Earth Engines around the planet under the orders of the United Earth Government (UEG). These engines supposedly generate enough force to push Earth towards a new orbit over the course of 2,500 years. The project is hoped to bring everything ‘back to normal’ from crisis-mode, when some effects of disasters can be reversed and people can finally ‘go home’. Convinced by this plan, people on Earth are mobilised to maintain the Engines, while a group of cosmonauts on the ISS provide navigation and communication aids to them. But during Earth’s long voyage, the Liu family and their comrades face an existential threat, as Jupiter is on an unexpected collision course with Earth. Liu Qi’s motley crew of Chinese civilians and military personnel must team up with his estranged cosmonaut father via telecom to uncover a conspiracy within the UEG and prevent the Earth’s destruction as “The Wandering Earth” Project fails.
The film received swarms of excellent reviews in China and stands as a modern sci-fi masterpiece. But this domestically-successful blockbuster deserves deeper analysis despite its relative international obscurity. According to Dr Katherine Bowers, Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia, who has expertise in Soviet and Russian sci-fi, “Science fiction is almost always ideological because it enables you to imagine other systems of government. And as soon as you start to imagine these things, personal biases and belief systems come out.”
Communist Cinema’s Commercial Makeover
The context of the film’s release plays a substantial role in its ideological message, so there is no better place to begin dissecting the beast. The film is not only the third highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time; popular opinion labelled it the centrepiece of a new wave of Chinese science fiction. The film won several prestigious Chinese awards and captured much attention within China, as well as a degree of recognition from foreign critics. For example, film critic Simon Abrams gave it a glowing review, ‘I can’t think of another recent computer-graphics-driven blockbuster that left me feeling this giddy because of its creators’ can-do spirit and consummate attention to detail. The future is here, and it is nerve-wracking, gorgeous, and Chinese’.
Like a number of China’s highest-grossing films, “The Wandering Earth” has been labelled a ‘main melody film’. This term refers to films reflecting official messages of the Chinese Communist Party. These films’ desired effect is to increase the understanding and social integration of the Chinese spirit of sacrifice, struggle, and patriotism. This genre of main melody art may involve obvious glorification of the military and law enforcement, the party and its leadership, as well as their revolutionary achievements, by way of reprogramming history. As a result of state censorship and propaganda, filmmakers may find themselves being conducted by the melody either willingly or involuntarily.
Throughout Chinese cinematic history, main melody films were largely focused on revolutionary events or on the country’s development and maturation. They often centre around a classic socialist hero, frequently characterised as a strong, brave, macho leader, who commands respect in their community and has a perfect family with an obedient wife and child. In recent years, however, the new trend of main melody movies goes beyond the need to polish historical events and applaud perfect characters. Instead, they commercialise internationalism and adapt storytelling elements of their Hollywood competitors with resounding success. Evidence of such success is found in the growing trend of international casts, globally-produced set pieces showing off the blockbuster budget, and simple storylines with characters of universal appeal. Whilst black-and-white, ‘good versus evil’ plots are also part of Chinese cinema’s forte, the technical accomplishments of main melody films are quickly embraced by critical moviegoers and younger generations.
Audiences long complained about the lack of technical quality in Chinese filmmaking. A major sore spot, for instance, is the CGI not being on par with international blockbusters. From this angle, “The Wandering Earth” outperformed, with beautiful effects and set designs, rad costumes, and a killer soundtrack (performed by the British Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). Importantly, its storyline created an image of China as an active leader and saviour, by incorporating known elements of nationalism with favourable perceptions of China on the global stage.
Dimensions of a Hero
Diving into the wardrobe and symbolism of “The Wandering Earth”, although the significance of colour-coding is not overtly specified in the film, the segmentation of characters wearing black, white, and red clothing seem to indicate their degree of importance and their role in serving the socialist legacy. Those in black are mostly government and military officials. We see their sacrifices the most, as they internalise their duty as their identity and are most willing to risk their lives. Although we see flaws such as sternness and inflexibility, those in black in the end cultivate and mentor younger leaders in combating adversity.
The white coats are mostly computer nerds who serve as comic relief. They are portrayed as risk-averse and wary of sacrifices, but when motivated enough by great leadership, they eventually become reliable team players, provide key problem-solving skills, and aid the final rescue effort. The half-Chinese, half-Australian character Tim best exemplifies this group. He is first introduced in a detention centre as a cowardly companion to Liu Qi, and an opportunist with a history of petty crime. The function of a mixed-race comic relief character is, on one hand, a refreshing indication of a progressive outlook on the traditionally homogenous Chinese citizenry. On the other hand, Tim’s thick Beijing accent, chosen Chinese companions, and allegiance to China paint the acceptable parameters of the Chinese identity. Ultimately, Tim learns from the heroes around him and puts his life on the line to save Liu Qi. This character’s growth shows that even unmotivated individuals and partially-Chinese folk can shine with inspiring comrades and leaders.
Unsurprisingly, the three characters who wear red are the most interesting and unique. Here, red does not necessarily automatically equals COMMUNISM in a film from a communist country; rather, since the three wearing red are the youths and the elderly caught in the middle of this disaster, they represent the experience of common people. The melodramatic backstory of Liu Qi’s grandfather and Liu Peiqiang’s father paints him as a working-class saviour. In a flashback, the grandfather recollects a simpler time before the disaster, when he would come home to his now-dead wife and “enjoy” her terrible cooking, despite their financial hardship. We then see him heroically saving his adopted granddaughter from drowning.
Like those wearing white, the “reds” experience sacrifice and pain before understanding their responsibility and finally accepting that apathy is useless. The youth in red surpass those wearing black, becoming inspirational changemakers. In times of desperation, their voices mobilise not only the Chinese people but the entire world. Without obvious socialist slogans, the glorification of youth, scientists, and the military against an international conspiracy in addition to extinction introduces a “communist lite” version of socialist realism. This resembles Hollywood plots like Independence Day (1996), where the survival of the world is tied directly to the leadership of the United States. Here, China is taking the lead, and the international movement is called into action not by the head of state, but by the common people.
In contrast to ‘my grandpa’s socialist hero’, the protagonist is no longer flawless in his blind obedience to the government. The deeper layer to the new ‘main melody protagonist’ is his disobedience of a conspiratory international government, embodied by western voices, amplifies his heroism. The most righteous hero in the film, Liu Peiqiang, does not play by the rules of the United Earth Government. UEG itself is a utopian international government (formerly known as the United Nations) with executive power over the entire planet. When faced with “The Wandering Earth” Project’s collapse and Earth’s annihilation, Liu Peiqiang and his Russian cosmonaut friend Marakov disobey the UEG and risk death to rescue civilization. Through multiple negotiations, pleas, and finally brute force, Liu Peiqiang bends the UEG to his sheer will and coerces the UEG to give him an endorsement.
Liu’s revolt against UEG’s orders of abandoning Earth and his achievement in taking over executive control, endorsement of the rescue mission by the UEG, and fruitful coordination with those on Earth in the rescue mission give us a glimpse of how China idealises itself in the global order, as it justifies its desired role as a hegemonic power. On Earth, China’s soft power is exemplified by the global mobilization towards achieving the rescue plan after Liu’s team broadcasts an inspiring message to mankind. Under both kinds of hard and soft power, those who have given up on the failed Wandering Earth Project (including the Koreans and Canadians) turn back and join the Chinese in humanity’s last struggle in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Whether it is up in the ISS or on the ground, Chinese people inspire hope and bravery when the UEG fails.
While touting “The Wandering Earth”’s success, a Sichuan Daily article praises the film’s blend of attractive effects, family and political drama, moral and ethical themes, with an intriguing sci-fi premise. It also commends the film’s natural integration of the Eastern culture of sticking to one’s land and traditions, with Chinese characteristics of strong determination and self-sacrifice. In the author’s view, this creates a uniquely Chinese style of sci-fi.
The film took considerable liberties with its source, the novella of the same name by renowned Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin, altering the story’s setting and the relationship between characters. One of many focuses of the novella is its emphasis on the political unrest between two camps of people supporting and opposing the UEG and its Wandering Earth Project. Indeed, the adaptation tried to depict UEG’s betrayal of humanity in spite of it being the Earth’s absolute governing body. However, the film adaptation unsurprisingly removed the taboo content on the political divide and plays up elements of Chinese culture and tradition instead. This is demonstrated by a scene of a protest in the underground city of Beijing which only appeared onscreen for two seconds as a homage to the riots in the novella before it cut to scenes of chuan’rs and lion-dancing. These cultural traditions reflect China’s present as well as its future. Combined with the film’s heavy-handed theme of ‘homecoming’, this presents China’s existing system as a utopia that is to be preserved even in an emergency.
The protagonist Liu Qi grows from an immature young adult and a spectator of disasters to a hot-headed but creative leader. One could interpret this as a metaphor for China’s shift in foreign policy: from a reactive actor to an active and assertive global leader, ready to “always be a defender of international order”. Character traits of both father and son offer insights into China’s new approach to diplomacy. The country strives to present itself as a leader who is ambitious, but nonetheless brave and innovative, forceful and persuasive, with the world’s best interests in mind. The excellence of Chinese leadership in this neo-idealist setting offers an exemplary illustration of Xi Jinping Thought, which is said to “connect the Chinese Dream with the World Dream” in dialectical unity.
As well as portraying outstanding Chinese leadership, the film diminishes the US’ role in international politics. The viewer hardly notices American elements except for the brief appearance of CNN and the American flag on “The Wandering Earth” Project’s UEG resolution (reflecting the United Nations Security Council’s P5 structure). On the other hand, audiences can easily sense France’s international presence, from French cosmonauts on the ISS to French news channels, and the faceless French-speaking UEG bureaucrat.
The lack of American representation and the overrepresentation of other national stereotypes, contrasted with the glorification of Chinese culture, is a mirror image of any American blockbuster’s token diversity. Such characteristics of the film again showcase main melody films’ adaptability to Hollywood’s cinematic language. Regardless of the lack of widespread popularity the film garnered overseas, “The Wandering Earth”’s marketability is strengthened by Netflix’s decision to distribute it outside of China. Netflix’s Asian market strategy of acquiring rights to Asian films for international release offers a route for main melody movies like “The Wandering Earth” to be seen outside of China, and enhance their ideological globalisation.
Recently, the film’s message of China championing global crisis governance and leadership found a real-life parallel in aggressive media campaigns on Chinese medical aid to Italy and Serbia as COVID-19 ravages Europe. The political nature of emergency response should not be ignored; since in the imaginary and in reality, government messaging is constructed with ideological instruments and performed in the theatre of public opinion. In the case of China, its advocacy of nationalistic sentiments such as Chinese culture and tradition is combined with an outward-looking foreign policy direction and further supplemented by a celebration of its political system. For a spectator of pop culture and of international affairs, identifying these complex aims of communications and propaganda may be curiously thought-provoking.
Hailing from Vancouver and Beijing, Vivienne Zhang is a Chinese-Canadian Master’s student in International Security at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs. She has worked at Canada’s diplomatic missions abroad in Thailand, Lao PDR, and Switzerland, and is a current member of the Global Shapers Community.