Found in Translation

China’s Most Provocative Sci-Fi Movie Never Stood a Chance

Guidance flopped in Chinese movie theaters. It still deserves to be seen.

Originally Published: 
Lais Borges/Inverse; Photo by Neysan Sobhani
Found in Translation

If there was a pill that gave you the ability to detect if someone was lying, would you take it? Would humanity benefit from knowing the truth behind every lie? Even white lies? Would having no more deception lead to empathy? Can the truth set you free?

In Chinese director Neysan Sobhani’s 2021 independent sci-fi drama, Guidance grapples with those very questions against the backdrop of a dystopian future. Nearly a decade after the Great War wreaked havoc on the country — taking thousands of lives and afflicting others with radiation poisoning — tech entrepreneur Su Jie (Francesco Chen) invents something incredible. Using his late father’s designs, he creates Guidance, a digestible nanotech pill that installs itself in the body and uses AI to turn its host into a human lie detector machine. Su Jie believes that dishonesty caused the devastating conflict (his father’s inventions also played a role, contributing to his own guilt) and hopes a world with no lies will be a better place. You can probably guess if his plan works out.

Rather than explore this type of surveillance technology in the grand scheme — a touchy subject in ChinaGuidance plays it safe by keeping the story contained to a single couple. If a relationship cannot survive perpetual truth, then how can we, as a society, expect to?

In the wake of China’s current golden era of science fiction, blockbuster movies like The Wandering Earth and Moon Man have dominated the global box office, prompting enthusiastic investment in more sci-fi cinema. Sobhani, a Chinese resident of Iranian descent, initially had plans for an explosive, big-budget, ‘hard’ sci-fi movie. But when the government called for a wider range of films, he decided to work on a smaller scale instead, blending two genres rarely seen in China: arthouse and science fiction. While the movie was a commercial failure, it’s a promising sign for the future of Chinese sci-fi outside the confines of big-budget spectacle.

After Su Jie invents Guidance, his employee and former lover Miao (Jia Sun) receives an early prototype. During a romantic getaway, Miao and her boyfriend Zi Xuan (Harry Song) hesitantly install the program to prove their love can withstand anything. Before too long, they begin asking deliberate questions regarding their fidelity, while they each avoid giving direct answers. As Guidance detects their little white lies, cracks in their relationship begin to show.

With a micro-budget of 2.5 million yuan (roughly $350,000), Sobhani uses minimal special effects. When a character lies, a red aura forms around their head, while a green aura confirms the truth and yellow reveals uncertainty. Sobhani and cinematographer Saba Mazloum also play with different screen aspect ratios to set the tone and the intimacy of each scene.

Guidance takes place in China a decade after a fictional “Great War.”

Neysan Sobhani

Through several flashbacks, Miao’s secret is revealed — a regrettable moment of passion with Su Jie. Su Jie then plants the idea in her head that Zi Xuan has been unfaithful, too. Determined to catch Zi Xuan’s betrayal, Miao begins to act jealous throughout their trip, including his decision to name his A.I. voice after his ex-girlfriend.

Miao is revealed to have trained weeks prior in the art of the lie so she can conceal her own secret. Since she couldn’t hack the system, she “hacked herself.” Throughout Zi Xuan’s questioning, Miao uses her expert lying skills to gaslight him — “I opened up to you and this is how you treat me?”

Ultimately, the couple uninstalls Guidance to protect what’s left of their shaken romance. Finally free from the constraints of technology, Miao prepares for her admission of guilt to Zi Xuan until he reveals his secret: he is slowly dying from radiation poisoning. As Miao tearfully reacts to the news, the film cuts to a screen showing that global users of the now-released Guidance are steadily decreasing. Like Miao and Zi Xuan, the world is not ready for the consequences of the truth.

Guidance makes the most of its limited budget with some impressive location scouting.

Neysan Sobhani

Though the film was approved by the Chinese Film Administration to screen in theaters, Guidance failed to perform well at the box office. Many viewers simply didn't understand the movie’s message, with some arguing it was too experimental for Eastern audiences. The distributor also made the unfortunate choice to release Guidance on Singles Day (an unofficial holiday celebrating those not in relationships) and suggested moviegoers not bring their partners with them. This didn’t go over well.

Sobhani blamed the low performance on the movie’s limited release, with most movie theaters unwilling to give up valuable showtimes to an art house film. The future of Chinese independent sci-fi doesn’t look great either, with government guidelines emphasizing pro-China stories and high-tech productions.

But not all is lost. Despite its failure in China, Guidance found new life with an international following. It’s available to stream in over 90 countries. And as China continues expanding its sci-fi genre, one can only hope that these types of films will finally be given the recognition they deserve.

You can watch Guidance for free on Tubi.

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