An Iranian director's Chinese odyssey to guide sci-fi flick into orbit

Iranian Neysan Sobhani has spent years directing a Chinese language movie that turned out not many people wanted to see.

Photo provided to Jiemian News by Neysan Sobhani.

Photo provided to Jiemian News by Neysan Sobhani.

By JIANG Yunan


Neysan Sobhani was born in Iran. Turmoil and war set him drifting from country to country, from Iran to Sri Lanka onto Canada with many stops along the way. He can’t say for sure where his homeland exactly is, but three days after he set foot in China in 2009, he decided to stay.

For more than a decade now, Sobhani has been a movie director, painstakingly constructing a Chinese-language sci-fi epic, but it appears his work is not to the taste of China’s movie moguls, critics, or market.

China turns out to be the country where Sobhani has lived for the longest. In 2013, his short film trilogy Dimensions was well received at international film festivals. Like all young directors, Sobhani wanted to make a feature-length movie, with all challenges of China’s unfathomable film market that would entail, to say nothing of the director’s pretty much unproven personal capacity.

After 4 years and spending 2.5 million yuan (US$390,000), Sobhani has done the impossible and almost singlehandedly taken Guidance from an incipient concept to securing a public screening license. The curtain finally went up on November 11.

Guidance is set in the not-too-distant future. The plot is about SU Jie, the son of a famous scientist who invented a piece of AI that played a decisive role in a cataclysmic world war and swayed humanity’s future. Ten years later, Su, now also a scientist, invents Guidance, a nano-computer that can be swallowed whereupon it detects the “real” thoughts and truths of its human host.

Sobhani’s tenacity does not extend to marketing. Box office halted at 115,000 yuan after three weeks. Its allocated screens never exceeded 0.1 percent. On Douban, a Chinese version of Rotten Tomatoes, no rating of Guidance has been released yet. The comments run from two stars (“I don’t get it.”), to five stars (“It’s unpleasantly amazing.”). Some of the best reviews are simply from fans of Khalil Fong, the music producer who produced the movie. But Fong’s name was not enough to actually cause people to open their wallets and visit the cinema. Social media is not box office.

After the preview on November 9, celebrities including Angelababy, Mark Chao and Darren Wang, endorsed the movie but most of them were personal friends of director of photography Saba Mazloum. Sobhani isn’t a fan of smartphones or social media. He seems trapped in the old-style Beijing art circle. Angelababy’s share attracted more likes than the original.

Sobhani doesn’t like too much interference in his work. He couldn’t care less about the feedback from the market or audience. Or, for that matter, from investors. Tired of endless fruitless meetings, he reached out to friends outside of the filmmaking industry and raised just enough money to start shooting in 2019.

Many of the scenes were shot in a Beijing studio. The venue was costly. After shooting, Sobhani did the post-production on his own and acquired a public screening license. He was pleased with the extremely low cost. “I hope someone will notice this talented team. If I was an investor, I would want to work with such a team that doesn’t give up and always look for ways to get the film done.”

This film is both sci-fi and arthouse. After the screening, viewers were surprised and shocked. But few grasped the director’s intention. Guidance was not well received. Distribution is a big challenge for a non-mainstream non-commercial independent film.

No one expected Guidance to turn a profit. Nonetheless, Dax Pictures guaranteed theatrical release – target audience: women interested in discussing intimate relationships, sci-fi fans, and fans of Khalil Fong.

Singles’ day, November 11, was selected as the public screening day with the slogan “Do not bring your partner with you to this film.” Three weeks after release, and China’s Rotten Tomatoes counterpart Douban hasn’t been able to calculate a rating yet because of the low numbers of reviews. The 4- and 5-star reviews came from fans of Fong. Single star ratings listened sins including unnatural dialog, pretentious story, bad FX, poor production, and the list goes on.

Guidance failed to draw much attention on social media. Sobhani blames the Chinese film market. “It is mass-oriented. 99.99 percent of films are driven by profit,” he said. 

“I don’t want to pander to the audience. When I feel a story that needs to be told, ideas that need to be discussed, I make a film out of them,” Sobhani said when asked where exactly are the fans who understand his art. "But I know they are out there somewhere and the film is for them."