“Luhan Has Destroyed Chinese Sci-Fi”: What This Epic Flop Says About China’s Changing Moviegoers

The momentous, catastrophic, and unexpected failure of Luhan-helmed, would-be blockbuster "Shanghai Fortress" says a lot about China's changing moviegoers

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2:57 AM HKT, Tue August 13, 2019 2 mins read

Someone has destroyed the Shanghai fortress — and no, it wasn’t a legion of mechanical aliens, with their glitchy CGI explosions, plot hole-ridden narratives, and goal to obliterate mankind and pillage our planet. According to Weibo, it was actually just fresh-faced star Luhan.

Released across China on August 9, Shanghai Fortress was supposed to be China’s second great science fiction blockbuster. It seemed to have all the trappings of a box-office smash — a 360 million RMB production value, endless rounds of pre-release media hype, and of course, Luhan, ex-K-pop-star-turned-actor, and an emblem of China’s seemingly insatiable appetite for “little fresh meat.

But it wasn’t a smash. It was an enormous flop.

Box office revenue took over three days to break the 100 million RMB mark, the film’s rating on user review site Douban has sunk to 3.3 (out of 10), and microblogging site Weibo is aflame with fiery criticism of the plot, the CGI quality, and the actors involved. Critics speculate that it would take a near miracle for the film’s revenue to hit the 200 million RMB mark, as ticket sales continue to stagnate amidst frigid reviews circulating online.

“If Wandering Earth showed us hope for Chinese science fiction, Shanghai Fortress showed us the desire for money,” one user wrote.

In fact, it was so bad that director Teng Huatao took to Weibo to formally apologize for the movie.

To be fair, Shanghai Fortress’s failure to deliver may be partially attributed to the standard set by its exponentially better-received sci-fi predecessor, Wandering Earth. When Wandering Earth was released earlier this year, it was widely regarded by audiences and critics as a breakthrough for the Chinese film industry, which has historically struggled to create films with global appeal and domestic propriety.

With a whopping gross revenue of 700 million USD, the undeniable success of Wandering Earth signified, to many, a new era in China’s science fiction film genre — an era within which China’s creative voice could be heard, unconstrained by Hollywood’s long history of market dominance.


If Wandering Earth opened that door to a new era in Chinese filmmaking, Shanghai Fortress seemingly closed it, sealed it, and blew it up with really bad special effects.

But ultimately, Shanghai Fortress is just another bad movie. There’s no shortage of them, and there probably never will be. Yet its monumental failure points to a significant change in the way Chinese audiences consume films, and stories in general: throwing big wads of cash at any old story and slapping a fresh-faced pop idol on top just doesn’t quite cut it anymore.

China’s moviegoers are becoming more discerning — something that rings particularly true in the context of the science fiction genre, whose stories by nature must concern themselves with the looming existential questions of the human condition. When you’re trying to tell complex, epic stories, you can’t rely on the same formula you use to sell fried chicken.


It’s about more than just bashing on Luhan’s acting chops — Weibo has provided more than enough of that.

One Luhan fan account posted, “The director came out to apologize and still can’t change the fact that Shanghai Fortress is a bad film; Luhan’s performance isn’t just bad, it’s bad luck. I’m worried he won’t be cast in any other roles.”

Many users poked fun at Luhan’s well-coiffed, pop-friendly hairstyle in the face of battle.

It may have only been in theaters less than a week, but Shanghai Fortress is already being talked about as one of the biggest failures in the recent history of Chinese cinema, a development that may also suggest that the classic formula of “franchise + pop star” could be on its way out.

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