In Kong Dashan’s hit new movie “Journey to the West,” the aliens aren’t hiding in the corn fields of the U.S. Midwest. They’re lurking in the villages of northern China.
The film has become a sensation on the festival circuit in recent months by offering audiences something rarely seen before: a science fiction tale with a distinctly local flavor.
Tang Zhijun, a middle-aged magazine editor from Beijing, travels to a remote village to investigate the mass sighting of an unidentified flying object. There, he meets a local poet who says the answer to the mystery lies at a distant mountain.
As the tension mounts, the pair embark on a road trip that turns into a journey of self-discovery. It’s a quirky, often comic narrative that echoes the original “Journey to the West,” the classic Chinese novel about the monk Tang Sanzang’s quest to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures from India.
Last October, the film scooped an unprecedented four awards — including best film — at the Pingyao International Film Festival, China’s leading platform for independent cinema. It has since played overseas at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Osaka Asian Film Festival to more acclaim.
With a Chinese theatrical release pending, film industry insiders say the buzz building around the feature is palpable. Kong, the film’s 32-year-old director, says the movie’s low-budget, down-to-earth style has proved to be an asset.
“We have given people science fiction within a story that might feel familiar to aspects of their own lives,” says Kong. “That is something new.”
Leading figures in China’s science fiction scene have hailed “Journey to the West” as a step forward for the industry — and a sign it’s finally ready to step out of the shadow of star author Liu Cixin.
Chinese sci-fi has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, propelled by the breakout success of Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem.” The novel, which transcends time and space as it charts humanity’s war against an alien civilization, became a global sensation after winning the prestigious Hugo Award in 2015.
The Chinese government, once wary of sci-fi movies, began to actively embrace the genre as a soft power tool over the following years. This has opened the door for a string of big-budget science fiction productions, many of them drawing inspiration from Liu’s work.
A still from the 2019 film “The Wandering Earth.” From Douban
In 2019, “The Wandering Earth” — an adaptation of a Liu novella about a group of astronauts trying to save the planet from destruction — became a box office smash, generating 4.4 billion yuan (then $638 million) in ticket sales and winning a slew of local awards.
Other Chinese sci-fi films to attract big audiences that year included the wacky comedy “Crazy Alien” — also based on a story by Liu — and the special effects-heavy alien invasion movie “Shanghai Fortress.”
Though the pandemic has caused major disruptions to film production in China, a big-budget sequel to “The Wandering Earth” is set for release in 2023. Streaming giants Tencent and Netflix, meanwhile, are currently putting the finishing touches on a TV adaptation of “The Three-Body Problem.”
Liu continues to loom large over China’s sci-fi scene. His style of fiction — speculative, epic in scale, and informed by hard science — has influenced an entire generation of Chinese writers.
“Currently, I see a lot of physics, astronomy, and space — natural science stuff,” says Chen Qiufan, a leading sci-fi author and honorary president of the Chinese Science Fiction Writers’ Association. “It’s pretty much like America back in the ’50s. Like (Isaac) Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, those ‘golden-age’ authors.”
A still from the film “Journey to the West.” Courtesy of Xu Jiahan
But there are signs this is starting to change. Some creators are starting to experiment with a folksier style of sci-fi — one that draws more heavily on China’s cultural heritage and current affairs. For Chen, it’s part of a movement to explore “what are the Chinese characteristics of sci-fi.”
“Maybe in the future, there’ll be something different,” he says. “I might also do some exploration myself to connect with some ancient Chinese philosophy and mythology … so the work is using a different kind of language.”
Filmmaker Kong appears to be ahead of the game. “Journey to the West” turns on the travails of its relatable main character and his search for answers: not only about what might lie in the great beyond, but also about how his own life has panned out.
It’s a work that comes steeped in the traditional themes found in science fiction, such as the search for redemption and humanity’s fascination with the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Kong says his inspiration came from the hours he spent poring over sci-fi magazines as a child growing up in 1990s Shandong, a province in eastern China.
“My generation all grew up reading science fiction magazines, books about unknown mysteries,” says Kong. “If we think carefully about what aliens represent, it’s actually another kind of system, totally different from human beings’ existence.”
Filmmaker Kong Dashan. Courtesy of Xu Jiahan
As opposed to Liu Cixin, whose work is often compared to the “golden age” sci-fi authors of the 1940s and ’50s, Kong’s work shows faint echoes of more recent classics. The central character — played by veteran actor Yang Haoyu — is fixated with outer space while his real life on terra firma falls apart, much like the protagonist in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 masterpiece “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” As in that film, too, there’s a journey of discovery that’s as personal as it is otherworldly.
But there are also sly nods to arguably the greatest road trip of all — the one taken by Tang Sanzang and his three disciples in the original “Journey to the West.” In Kong's feature, however, the characters’ quest for fulfillment is rooted in a firmly contemporary setting.
“In both that book and my film, you have characters looking for the ultimate answers in life,” says Kong. “I think this comes from the influence of ‘Journey to the West’ subconsciously. It’s a road trip, but inside it’s also his own mental journey. I think it’s necessary to have this kind of journey in science fiction.”
The hope is that more Chinese filmmakers find opportunities to experiment with science fiction over the next few years. Chen, the author, says the outlook for Chinese sci-fi has never looked better, especially given the government’s embrace of the genre.
“There have been themes of science fiction in China for about 100 years, but they’ve not been continuously developed because of wars or due to political reasons,” says Chen. “But (now) seems to be a golden age because it’s top-down. We have got a lot of support from the government and, also, the market is ready.”
Chinese authorities are pouring resources into science -fiction-related projects. Next year, the southwestern city of Chengdu will host the influential World Science Fiction Convention. Officials have greenlit a massive $8 billion Paramount Park theme park in Kunming, another city in southwest China, which will include a zone themed around the “Star Trek” franchise.
In 2019, the government also helped launch the Chinese Science Fiction Academy at Chengdu’s Sichuan University, a facility whose stated mission is to develop “a sci-fi theoretical system with Chinese characteristics.” Last year, researchers estimated that China’s sci-fi industry was worth a massive 36.3 billion yuan in the first half of 2021.
A still from the film “Journey to the West.” Courtesy of Xu Jiahan
A still from the film “Journey to the West.” From Douban
The scene is also benefitting from the growing demand for sci-fi movies among young Chinese, Chen says. Unlike previous generations, who often didn’t have easy access to science fiction, Chinese millennials like Kong grew up immersed in sci-fi culture.
“So many in the younger generation are so passionate about sci-fi as a genre, no matter if it’s literature, movies, or video games,” says Chen. “I think that’s been a fundamental change, because in the ’80s, or even in the ’50s and ’60s, maybe people weren’t ready yet for science fiction.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A still from the film “Journey to the West.” From Douban)