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This section introduces conceptual questions that instructors can familiarize themselves with before they teach the film. They can be adapted for class discussion after the screening. I suggest pairing general questions with specific moments in the film that allow students to discuss the question. In section 5, I offer examples of such exercises.

Propaganda and Technological Spectacle

The question of “propaganda” is one of the most difficult hurdles in analyzing popular Chinese cinema in the American classroom. While, as noted above, The Wandering Earth was not commissioned as a propaganda piece, it does illustrate a future world that is attractive to the Chinese geopolitical establishment. Yet, to write the film off as “mere propaganda” fails appreciate that propaganda is complex and meaningful. It is also seductive, visually and ideologically. Examining what strikes us as propagandistic messaging closely can deepen our understanding of what appeals to foreign audiences and why. In approaching Chinese cinema that foregrounds pro-Chinese national and geopolitical imaginaries, we might also consider how films like Top Gun (and its recent sequel) act as (very enjoyable) American geopolitical fantasy—or propaganda. Likewise, superhero films like The Avengers, allegories of American intervention in global conflicts, are analyzed by scholars of international relations as representations of great power competition (Ho 297). It is important to remember that like American audiences who may at once enjoy and be skeptical of Top Gun or Avengers, or not enjoy these films at all, Chinese audiences are not monolithic in their response. Opinions and takes on the film vary and Chinese viewers are savvy commentators of domestic and international film and political culture.

  1. Propaganda is a loaded word, usually associated negatively with non-liberal regimes that use disingenuous messaging to obfuscate reality for an audience not conscious of the manipulation it is subjected to. If we assume a critical distance from this definition, and understand that cinematic fantasies around the world sustain ideological regimes (including American’s self-perception as a world power), how else might we understand propaganda? What knowledge is foreclosed when we label something “propaganda”? What assumptions about the response to a film are we making when we proclaim it to be propaganda? Can propaganda be read critically?
  2. One of Xi Jinping’s political visions is the “Chinese Dream,” a concept that many scholars agree is inspired by the “American Dream.” Broadly, the Chinese Dream espouses a bright, peaceful, and prosperous Chinese future in which society is governed by mutual respect and a sense of social responsibility toward the welfare of others (Confucian values). What is the American Dream? What is the function of a national “dream”? How does this dream conform or conflict with American/Chinese reality?
  3. What vision of China in the world does this film propagate? What elements of the film strike students as “propaganda”? What is coded negatively and what is coded positively? How does The Wandering Earth differ from films like Armageddon, in which Americans heroes save the world from planetary apocalypse? The point here is not to evaluate which film is more or less propagandistic, or more or less “realistic,” but to understand how heroism and martyrdom are represented. What sustaining fantasies and myths are created?

The Wandering Earth appeals to Chinese audiences, not only in its narrative of Chinese world-saving heroics, but also a technological spectacle. The film’s special graphics, executed by Chinese firms, are impressive and the film, especially on the big screen, is immersive. In that sense, this is a both a story about futuristic technological mastery (moving the entire planet with “Earth Engines”) and a performance of contemporary technological achievement.

  1. What view of technology does the film have? How do characters interact with technology? Note that this is not always a positive relationship but at key moments in the film, there is significant antagonism between the human and the technological. For example, MOSS, the AI that runs the space station, must be eliminated for the earth to be saved.
  2. As audiences, how do we experience cinematic spectacle? The Wandering Earth is streaming internationally on Netflix, but it was intended first as a theatrical experience. It opened during China’s biggest movie season, the Chinese New Year, akin to the December holiday season for Hollywood films. Consider the differences in the viewing conditions of a movie theater vs. a classroom vs. a personal screen. Why go see films at the movies?
  3. How does the film immerse/overwhelm the audience? What scenes in the film can be examples of the “technological sublime” (i.e., inspire awe and wonder, perhaps even terror)? What is the function of such imagery and the emotions it produces?

Family, Home, and Apocalypse

The Wandering Earth premiered during China’s biggest box office season, the Chinese New Year. The film’s narrative also begins during the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), suggesting a certain continuity between the real-time experience of the holiday and narrative immersion in the film. Chinese New Year, like major American holidays, is a time of family reunion. Often, the country’s transportation infrastructure barely accommodates the extra traffic (again, much like American air travel prior to Thanksgiving). Fittingly, family and home are major themes in the film.

  1. How do the characters relate to the idea of family and home? Note that most characters repeatedly express their desire to “go home.” What does “home” mean when the world has been transformed beyond recognition? What spaces of home are included in the film?
  2. How are family ties maintained in times of planetary emergency? One of the main conflicts in the film revolves around the main character Liu Qi’s resentment of his father’s decision to prioritize the boy’s survival over his mother’s health. The two have not spoken for years, but the film’s narrative relies on their patriarchal bond—they must work together to save the world and to heal the rift in their family.
  3. How does the film portray gender? Wu Jing, the actor who plays Liu Peiqiang, is a self-conscious stylist of a new Chinese masculinity. His vision calls for strong men who act as heroic protectors, essentially, action heroes. Does the film favor a patriarchal vision of national/planetary salvation? What is the role of women in saving the world?
  4. The journey of the earth in the film is supposed to take 2,500 years. This is a tremendously long plan. The film itself begins only halfway through the 21st century, a length of time that is much more manageable. The film’s characters live on a dramatically different planet, but they remember the world that we inhabit. In other words, there are points of emotional connection  that audiences share with characters, but also the suggestion that mankind will go into a much more foreign future. What are we to make of the timelines suggested by this film?

Cosmopolitanism vs. Nationalism

Cosmopolitanism, the idea that all of humanity shares a community, and nationalism, a narrow identification with one’s home nation, are at tension in the film. Much of the film’s action happens in China, whose geographic specificity is underscored when maps of the heroes’ journeys are superimposed over travel montages in the film. The Earth, however, is governed by a United Earth Government, an entity whose emblem highly resembles the UN logo. The characters navigate a potential apocalypse at both the national and international level.

  1. In the film, the Earth surface has become uninhabitable, first destroyed by natural disasters, then frozen over. This means that every place on the globe presumably looks more or less the same, national icons like geographic landmarks are mostly absent from the film. The montage exploring the surface of the Earth in Beijing, for example, does not resemble contemporary Beijing. How does the film represent China in the absence of such typical markers of “Chineseness”? What elements of costuming and mise en scène, for example, are recognizably Chinese? How might an underground America retain a sense of “Americanness”?
  2. How, in turn, is the United Earth Government represented? In addition to sequences that feature an international crew aboard the space station, we get frequent views of screens that communicate information about and from the UEG. What role does this united government play in the film and how does it contrast with the roles of the Chinese heroes?
  3. The film features multiple languages. Most dialogue is of course in Mandarin Chinese, but we also frequently hear Russian, English, and French. What does this mix of languages mean? How do they work together? Note that French is still considered the “international language of diplomacy” and was adopted by upper class speakers throughout Europe regardless of national origin as an aristocratic class marker. Yet another example of tension between the national and the cosmopolitan. The reference to this Francophone cultural and diplomatic cosmopolitanism is a relatively subtle nod to another previous vision of the world.
  4. We know that the Chinese heroes of the film ultimately save the world, but who has access to Chinese identity in this film? Ethno-nationalism, i.e., the identification of an ethnicity with nationality, is challenged when Tim, the Chinese-Australian character, proudly proclaims that he is Chinese.
  5. While Tim works with the Chinese protagonists on Earth, Liu Peiqiang’s closest friend and partner in saving the world in space is a Russian astronaut. A Russia-China alliance was not as controversial when the film came out in 2019 as it is today, but choosing to pair the two nations as heroic saviors was meaningful. How is Russia represented in this film? What role does the Russian past play in the Chinese future?
  6. Although the film uses allegory (the quickly expanding sun), the threat of actual climate change underscores the apocalypse plot in The Wandering Earth. In other words, while viewers can appreciate the fantastical narrative conceit, it’s difficult to watch the film without thinking of images and discourses of climate change that we hear in the news. How does the film engage with contemporary news and imagery to produce a sense of a shared catastrophe and shared redemption?