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November 13, 2009

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Doomsday and disaster flicks: That's the ticket to ride

THE end of the world unfolds today, as Hollywood's latest doomsday flick "2012" opens worldwide, and in Shanghai theaters near you.

Nothing sells like disaster, horror and special effects, so the catastrophe beat goes on. The Hollywood end-of-the-world film "Knowing" was released in the Chinese mainland on October 30. The South African sci-fi/apartheid/aliens film "District 9" will have its China premiere on November 27.

Chinese audiences love foreign cataclysm movies, ("Titanic" 1997, "Twister" 1996, "Deep Impact" 1998), but the disaster genre isn't well developed in China. The first major domestic disaster film was "Super Typhoon" released last year, based on a real storm in 2006. It lost money.

Next year comes the release of "Aftershock" about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that claimed an estimated 240,000 lives. It was the world's largest earthquake of the 20th century, based on death toll.


The US$200 million film by Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day" 1996, "The Day After Tomorrow" 2004) takes utter-destruction films to a new height, or depth, with California sliding in the ocean, Rome burning and other very real apocalyptic visions.

What's interesting is that the end of the world is confronted by a black American president, but the technology to save the world is made in India, the transport to convey humans to safety is made in China and other world leaders are involved in saving the planet. Point made about the world's center of gravity.

There are Chinese, Indian and other actors and at the end there are scenes from the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 which left 90,000 people dead or missing. The scene is a tribute to the unyielding spirit of the Chinese people.

During shooting last year, Emmerich was very much concerned about the earthquake rescue news, says Zhang Miao, an official from Columbia Pictures, the film's producer.

"He was deeply impressed by the strength and devotion of Chinese soldiers and volunteers facing disasters," he says.

According to the Mayan calendar, the world comes to an end in 2012 - Chinese are very interested in astrology, prophesy and predictions of all kinds - so in addition to providing a high-tech blast, it should be intriguing.

More than 600 copies will be shown in China, in simultaneous worldwide release.

"The film covers every disaster you can imagine, earthquakes, floods and volcanos," says Zhang. "Depicting the sudden destruction of so much of the world's landmark architecture will be a feat and a milestone in this film genre."

It stars John Cusack and Amanda Peet.

The script was finished 10 years ago but at that time no investors wanted to risk shooting such a costly and breathtaking film. Emmerich condensed it into "The Day After Tomorrow" about saving the world from an alien invasion - a huge success that grossed more than US$500 million internationally.

That boosted confidence in putting the original "2012" script on the screen.

It is reported the film aims to reap a box office of 350 million yuan in Chinese mainland.


Unlike typical doomsday films in which mankind pulls through, "Knowing" presents a darker view. Nicholas Cage plays a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who discovers terrifying predictions of an imminent solar flare disaster and sets out to prevent it. The film's hope lies in the survival of children, who arrive at a tree of life in a new garden of Eden.

'District 9'

The South African film about aliens stranded in a craft above Johannesburg resonates with notions of apartheid, segregation and white supremacy. There's a bitter message about South Africa, human nature and how we treat each other.

Stranded aliens are rescued and relocated in District 9, but the frightening aliens - known as "prawns" because they look like elongated humanoid shellfish - are to be removed from the city and relocated after 20 years.

The protagonist leading the persecution and relocation is himself transformed into a prawn, and is himself hunted in the film directed by Peter Jackson.

Disaster genre

Many Chinese people's affinity with this doomsday genre goes back to American offerings in the 1990s, such as "Titanic," "Twister" and "Deep Impact." The films were highly successful at the box office and created a strong fan base.

In the history of Chinese cinema, however, there are virtually no disaster films of significance.

Last year, China produced and distributed more than 400 films, but only one big domestic disaster film, "Super Typhoon," was screened - it lost money.

The film costing 50 million yuan (US$7.4 million) was based on the real catastrophe caused by typhoon Saomai, which hit the southeast coastal city of Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, in 2006. It was filled with special effects.

To shoot on-the-spot disaster scenes, director Feng Xiaoning and his crew spent weeks chasing storms during the typhoon season along the southeast coast.

But the box office was a meager 20 million yuan.

In an earlier interview, Feng called the disaster film genre the most challenging and costly job for a film maker.

Disaster blockbusters use large-scale special effects, which makes them very expensive, along with war epics and sci-fi. US production costs can exceed US$100 million.

"Though Feng's film is less competitive than foreign blockbusters in its visual effects and plot, it fills the void for this genre in domestic film industry," says Zhou Qiong, a manager of Stellar Cinema City and a fan of disaster movies.

She can name a very few disaster-related films, such as Zhang Jianya's "Crash Landing" (1990) and "Rescues in the Polar Region" (2002).

Chinese disaster films not only lack technology and funding, but also reflect an outdated concept of heroism, she says.

"Many movies with disaster elements are shot with strong educational and insipid elements," Zhou says. "They usually depict how big shots instead of ordinary people confront disasters. They widen the gulf between characters and the audience."

Industry experts say disaster films will always be popular escape as many people have an "end of the world" complex and are fascinated by things and forces beyond their control.

Senior producer Li Xiao at the local Documentary Channel shot a series about the Tangshan earthquake in northeast China. It's always difficult to depict the actual moments of a natural calamity in a novel way, he says.

"Nowadays even a small disaster-themed documentary includes many digital 3D shots, stunts and acting to recreate the scenes, and that's not a mega-budget film spectacular," Li says.

Over the decades Hollywood has developed an effective formula for disaster movies. Big casts of stars are facing a crisis, a brave man or woman is called upon to lead the struggle, and there are many plot lines involving other characters.

"A good disaster film usually focuses on the common people, and their courage, emotion and unity in facing the tragedy," Li says.

"There is great power in the human spirit in overcoming fear. It seems a golden rule for shooting of the genre."

Next year, "Aftershock" by director Feng Xiaogang will tell the story of the 7.8-magnitude Tangshan quake. The story revolves around a seven-year-old girl who survives. Local film projects

The Shanghai Film Group Corp, celebrating its 60th anniversary next Monday, has announced its film and TV projects for next year.

Movies include Jia Zhangke's "Shanghai Legend," a documentary about the city's history and culture, action epics "Mulan," "14 Blades" and ancient-times fantasy film "Jung Ku - The Man from 18th Hell."

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai will direct a biopic about kung fu master Yip Man. The film group will produce a light-hearted sports film with the support of American Basketball Association.

Jackie Chan's 2005 film hit "The Myth" will be made into a TV series and aired by China Central Television.


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