Pop Culture

Asian-led space exploration? It's about time for this in film

If science fiction drives the plot, the film adaptation of the novel The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin will be a breakthrough for Chinese cinema

Ah, space. The final frontier. The place of infinite possibilities and endless adventure.

Unless you are not a white American male. Then you might assist the handsome captain, as a button-pushing member of the crew. Or you might contribute your body to the cause, by dying in the first act, provoking the captain into heroic action.

This is why I'm looking forward to the release of the film version of the acclaimed Hugo Award-winning novel The Three-Body Problem by Chinese writer Liu Cixin, which was published in English in 2014.

I am keeping my fingers crossed that the made-in-China movie, due to be released later this year, will stay true to the book genre of "hard" science fiction, which imagines far-out scenarios, but with the laws of physics as we know them today driving the plot.

If so, this will be a breakthrough in Chinese cinema, which makes plenty of comedies, romances and action-thrillers, but no science fiction.

For the first time, we might see space-faring people speaking Mandarin and watch scientists based not in Houston or Cape Canaveral, but in Beijing.

It will be interesting to see how the literary, character-driven tone of the book will be made more commercial. But more interestingly, how will the film be received in Asia? Will audiences in Singapore, Seoul or Kuala Lumpur buy the idea of a science-fiction world rooted in Chinese characters and Chinese locales on Earth? The book does feature American characters and casting notes show that this notion has been carried through to the movie.

After all, in Singapore we have been weaned on American science fiction, from hard stuff, such as Gravity (2013), to soft fantasy, such as Star Wars, and the in-betweens, such as Star Trek.

It would be - pun intended - an alien experience to see an Asian nation at the forefront of space exploration.

But why isn't The Three-Body Problem a Hollywood property?

There is a distinct possibility that the reason the film rights do not belong to a Los Angeles studio, as has happened to other Asian science-fiction works, is that despite its critical acclaim, its appeal is too niche.

The Three-Body Problem might have been saved by its obscurity.

Hollywood, for example, de-Japanised Hiroshi Sakurazaka's popular novel All You Need Is Kill, turning it into the movie Edge Of Tomorrow (2014), starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. That was a well-constructed movie and a commercial hit.

Another Hollywood adaptation of a Japanese property, this year's Ghost In The Shell, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow, was neither good nor a commercial success. It would be awful if the lacklustre makeover given to Shirow's creation were given to Liu's book.

We have grown up with movie science fiction that depicts a future in which American men rule the known universe, even if on paper, it is supposed to be a universe run by a pan-planetary union comprised of human and non-human citizens.

I guess that's show business.

There were a few moments when I glimpsed an alternate timeline of Things That Could Have Been, such as when Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi appeared in the monster epic Pacific Rim (2013), or when Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong and Hiroyuki Sanada were in space disaster movie Sunshine (2007).

The latter three (spoiler warning) were rapidly disposed of, leaving the stage clear for the standard heroes to take the spotlight.

Kikuchi had a larger role, but it was a sprawling, ensemble movie, with much screen time devoted to male lead Becket (Charlie Hunnam).

I am not a Star Trek fan, but the release of the trailer for upcoming American television series Star Trek: Discovery a few days ago raised the hope that once more, science fiction might represent the make-up of Earth properly.

Chinese Malaysian actress Yeoh has a recurring role as a starship captain, as does African-American Sonequa Martin-Green, playing the protagonist Michael Burnham, the first officer of the ship.

Space is vast, and it is about time there was room for other kinds of heroes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline 'Asian-led space exploration? It's about time for this in film'. Print Edition | Subscribe