Netflix’s Next Gen paints an Americanized vision of China
Next Gen isn’t an American film. But you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s American.
It’s from China, based on a comic from a Chinese forum, produced by Alibaba Pictures and Wanda Media.
And yet… it doesn’t quite feel like a Chinese film.
It looks like something out of Pixar. It features a bunch of well-known American actors like John Krasinski and Michael Pena. Its main character has a Chinese name... but it’s pronounced wrong.
The film is even debuting in the US before China. It’s out on Netflix right now, after it paid $30m for exclusive streaming rights -- but moviegoers in China have to wait until it hits cinemas in October.
Next Gen is a story of teenagers and robots -- a little like Big Hero 6. It’s about a girl, Mai, whose father left and her lonely mother becomes addicted to digital companionship through robots and VR.
Mai has grown to hate robots, but she accidentally befriends a superbot called 7723. Naturally, she grows to like the robot. And, of course, 7723 just happens to be the key to saving humanity (and Mai’s mom) from a robot overlord.
Oh, and Mai is traumatized, hate-filled, and one lightsaber away from becoming a full-rage Anakin Skywalker. Y’know, normal stuff.
Next Gen is beautiful -- up there with Dreamworks and Disney -- and entertaining. But what fascinates me is this Chinese film’s vision of an Americanized China.
It paints a picture of a tech-worshipping, multi-racial and individualistic China in the future. It’s simultaneously both aspiring and extremely weird… and it’s also not entirely unimaginable, given how techie and capitalistic China has become.
The characters are designed with American characteristics. Besides the fact that Mai behaves like a member of The Breakfast Club, her name itself is very American… so American that it’s deliberately pronounced wrong.
While the Chinese spelling of her name, which does appear in the movie, suggests that her name is Su Xiao Mai, her name in the English version was pronounced May rather than the correct Ma-i.
And while she has purple-colored hair like many Asian female characters in Hollywood movies, she also has Emma Stone-esque freckles. (Not that Chinese people don’t have freckles, but nothing like Emma Stone’s.)
While signs, ads and names of places in this movie are mostly written in Chinese, the school Mai attends is highly multiracial and she lives in a typical American suburban home -- complete with a shed -- something you’re more likely to see in LA than Shenzhen.
All the other characters in the show also have names that feel simultaneously American and Chinese -- Justin Pin (the villain), Tanner Rice (the doctor) and Momo (the dog).
Speaking of Justin Pin -- a tech CEO controlled by a killer robot… you know how there’s a whole generation of Chinese entrepreneurs who self-proclaim they are the disciples of Steve Jobs? I’m talking about Xiaomi’s Lei Jun, LeEco’s Yueting Jia and Smartisan’s Luo Yonghao, the sort of tech leaders that hold keynotes where they pace around and ask questions like “What’s the next big thing?”
Justin Pin is very much like the culmination of all of them and more -- sporting bamboo sandals and a man bun.
In one scene, Pin appears on a late night show hosted by Nima Wang, a Chinese online comedian. But Wang’s late night show feels very much like a traditional American talk show like Jay Leno’s show.
Wang is actually the movie’s script writer. Next Gen’s story is in fact based on a comic by Baozou, a Chinese media company Wang founded as a forum for rage comics -- but later evolved into China’s version of Funny or Die.
Next Gen is an entertaining movie. It’s certainly not original, but it’s fun. The only word of caution I’d give is that it’s a recommended watch only if you can put up with an extremely high-maintenance teenage lead that’s suffering from the classic only child syndrome (guess what, all us young Chinese people have it) and a unconditionally loving robot Jesus.
Also, Michael Pena’s voice-acting as Mai’s dog is absolute gold.