Zhang Yimou to Direct ‘Three-Body Problem’ Movie

Zhang Yimou, director of many of China’s most spectacular and successful movies, is to try his hand at sci-fi. He will direct a film adaptation of “The Three-Body Problem.”

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The project was announced Sunday by Wang Changtian, founder and CEO of Enlight Media, one of China’s top three studios, at a forum organized within the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Wang said that Zhang is in the early stages of preparations for the film. “We hope that director Zhang Yimou can grasp the essence of the ‘Three-Body Problem’ novel and make some breakthroughs and innovations, and gain something in the international market,” said Wang. Zhang has long been a creative consultant to Enlight and has shot several movies for the studio.

Chinese state media subsequently reported that copyright holder The Three-Body Universe Cultural Development had confirmed Wang’s information.

The 2008 novel is the first part of a trilogy written by Chinese author Liu Cixin. Within China, the book has been adapted as an animated series, a live-action TV series and as a radio drama. A film version was produced in 2016, but it went unreleased.

The book has been translated into some 30 languages for international consumption. Earlier this year, Netflix released “3-Body Problem,” a big-budget English-language version, adapted by “Game of Thrones” duo David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and Alexander Woo. The adaptation was produced by Bighead Littlehead, Plan B Entertainment, Primitive Streak, T-Street and the Chinese duo of Yoozoo Pictures and its Three-Body Universe subsidiary. (An employee of Three Body Universe was sentenced to death for the 2020 murder of Lin Qi, Yoozoo’s founder.) Netflix has since announced a second season of its show.

Sci-fi, once a genre that was anathema to China’s film regulators, has in the last decade become mainstream and big box office, mirroring the advanced skills and technology levels of the modern Chinese film industry.

The 2019 film, “The Wandering Earth,” directed by Frant Gwo and adapted from a 2000 short story by Liu, is seen as a breakthrough for the genre. It earned RMB4.69 billion ($651 million at 2024 exchange rates) at the Chinese box office and was followed by a 2023 sequel which grossed RMB4.03 billion ($560 million).

With a range that extends from intimate art-movies to comedies and martial arts, Zhang is one of China’s most prolific and successful directors and part of an elite club whose movies have grossed more than $1 billion. His action spectacles have included “Hero,” “House of Flying Daggers” and “Full River Red.” He also choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

In the last couple of years, Zhang has picked up numerous lifetime achievement awards from major festivals and award ceremonies. But he exhibits no sign of slowing down and may indeed have dispensed with other activities such as screenwriting and producing in order to dispense with distractions and focus largely on maintaining a high directing output.

Liu’s “Three-Body Problem” novel was careful to downplay its criticism of the Cultural Revolution period in the 1966-1976, when intellectuals and bourgeoisie were ostracized and sent to the countryside to learn from peasant farmers. The Netflix series began with a scene of Cultural Revolution brutality, which earned the show scorn in China, though the series has not been officially released there.

Several of Zhang’s films have directly or indirectly dealt with different aspects of the still-sensitive Cultural Revolution. These include “To Live” (aka “Lifetimes”), which won the Grand Prix in Cannes in 2004, but was denied a theatrical release in China and 2014 tragedy-romance “Coming Home.” His drama “One Second,” adapted from a Yan Geling novel, was scheduled to have premiered at the Berlin film festival in 2019 but was pulled by Chinese authorities at the last minute. It was subsequently cut and released in 2020.

Among Zhang’s other upcoming projects is “MGM2049,” a stage presentation and residency at the MGM Grand casino resort in Macau.

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