October 17, 2023
BEIJING – Drawing inspiration from traditional culture, Hong Kong director breaks new ground with contemporary homegrown superhero tale, Xu Fan reports.
From animation to TV shows and live-action movies, over the decades, Hollywood has established a “world” in which both superheroes and ordinary people reside. For example, audiences can see Spider-Man swinging around on the streets of Brooklyn or Batman silently safeguarding the citizens of Gotham City.
So, could China — a country with thousands of years of history and a rich cultural legacy — have its own superheroes living with us in the modern era? This audacious question has been lingering in the mind of Hong Kong director Derek Hui for a long time.
The answer finally arrived when he was shooting the countryside comedy Coffee or Tea? in 2020. During an occasional gathering with some of the cast and crew, one of the actors, Peng Yuchang, recommended that he read The Outcast, a popular comic series.
Coincidentally, his other directorial effort, the esports-themed Cross Fire, was also being streamed at the time. The lead actor, Lu Han, also mentioned his interest in the tale during a conversation with Hui.
As the renowned comic artist Mi Er’s most well-known work, The Outcast tells the story of Zhang Chulan, a college student who encounters Feng Baobao, a mysterious yet powerful woman, after he returns home to find the body of his grandfather, who passed away years ago, has been stolen from the grave.
After the terrifying discovery that the thieves are a group of zombies being manipulated by another young woman, Zhang discovers an even more shocking fact: He was born to be one of the members of the “yiren” (people with special abilities). Sort of like a Chinese equivalent of the mutants in Marvel’s X-Men franchise, or the wizards in the Harry Potter stories, they live among ordinary people, just like everyone else, but possess extraordinary powers.
“I read the comic book series when it was first published in 2015.The recommendation triggered my memory, so I reread it and had the idea to adapt it into a series,” Hui recalled during an interview with China Daily.
After convincing the investors, Hui and his fellow creators spent more than three years producing the 27-episode online series, I Am Nobody, which is currently available on Youku’s domestic and international platforms. It has so far accumulated over 160 million views overseas.
With its faithful portrayal of iconic characters, such as Wang Ye, a Tsinghua University-educated Taoist monk with the ability to manipulate time, the fantasy drama has achieved a high score of 8.1 out of 10 on the popular review aggregator Douban.
Speaking about the tale’s attraction, Hui says that, despite the fact that superpowers or supernatural abilities are a common subject featured in Chinese fantasy dramas, these tales are mostly set in ancient China or a fictional world.
“However, I Am Nobody is set in contemporary China, with most of the plots and settings familiar to modern urban Chinese viewers. It builds a foundation for the audience to relate to the characters, making it a fresh addition to the Chinese fantasy genre,” he explains.
For instance, in contrast to the portrayal of highly skilled Taoist practitioners as reclusive hermits living in distant mountains, as depicted in most Chinese martial arts novels, the drama presents these characters as individuals who engage with modern society. They are seen playing mobile games during their leisure time and taking photos with tourists at scenic spots, demonstrating a positive connection with the everyday world.
More examples like this include a confidential organization that recruits yiren from different clans, disguising itself as an express delivery company. On days when there are no missions to save the day, or villains to fight, its “employees” perform the routine delivery of packages.
For the director, who has worked in the film industry for nearly 20 years, the drama has also fulfilled his yearning to tell a superhero story rooted in Chinese history and traditional culture.
“China has a rich literary tradition of mythological stories that depict heroes with extraordinary skills, such as the Journey to the West and Investiture of the Gods (both classic novels, written between the 16th and 17th centuries). The influence of this legacy can be seen in many martial arts stories, and I have always thought that we could absorb inspiration from that legacy, but create a tale set in a modern environment,” he says.
“Moreover, it should have distinct Chinese characteristics and not be as science fiction-oriented as movies adapted from Western comic books. Instead, it should be based on China’s unique understanding of the origins of the world,” the director explains.
To realize this goal, Hui and his fellow creators have faced a lot of challenges, especially how to vividly recreate the super abilities depicted in the comic books.
After the script was revised many times, the shoot took place between January and July last year. The most visually stunning plot, which revolves around a grand competition of all young yiren, was filmed at Longhu Mountain in Jiangxi province, while the urban scenes were shot in Chongqing.
Hui recalls that postproduction took more than a year to complete, resulting in over 10,000 special-effects scenes. One of the standout moments involves the protagonist practicing his trademark skill of delivering a powerful blow which is done by generating a dazzling golden light.
An art graduate from City University of Hong Kong, Hui started his filmmaking career as the editor of award-winning director Peter Chan’s 2007 martial arts movie The Warlords.
After gaining a reputation as a consummate editor by working on blockbusters like The Founding of a Republic (2009) and Soulmate (2016), Hui shifted to the director’s chair for his debut feature This Is Not What I Expected, starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhou Dongyu.
Despite most of his previous work having realistic themes, Hui says I Am Nobody has given him a strong impetus, and he wishes to develop the tale into a franchise. In order to do so, he has established a production company called Passionate Animal Alliance, with the hope of gathering fellow creators who are imaginative and have a strong interest in telling Chinese superhero stories. Together, they can create more stories like I Am Nobody.
“Movies actually help me to get a deeper understanding of life, to better know the world we live in, and to reconsider the origin of the universe,” says the 41-year-old director, adding that he believes modern-day fantasy stories set in China will better help Chinese culture reach an overseas audience.