Did China's ban on time travel make Looper a bigger hit there?

One of the reasons Looper has turned out to be such a profitable film: It's one of the year's most successful films in China, where some scenes were shot and a longer version opened in theaters. Now, one observer suggests there could be a surprising reason for Looper's success. Chinese audiences, writes Zhang Zihan in the Global Times, are "starved of time travel movies" due to a ban by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).

Top image: Yao Ming, via Looper Movie Tumblr.

This ban was huge big news last year — but at the time, we heard that this was actually based on a mistranslation. The Chinese authorities hadn't actually banned anything, just "discouraged" certain forms of entertainment — and they were objecting to over-the-top representations of historical figures, not so much actual time travel.

Now, Zhang Zihan, writing for a Chinese publication, seems to be suggesting that the ban is real, and that Looper may have satisfied a demand for time travel stories that's had no outlet in China. Writes Zhang:

Even today [time travel] remains especially popular, despite the time travel ban for TV and film productions from SARFT that was imposed in April last year.

A search using the Chinese term for time travel, chuanyue, on qidian.com, China's largest online literature portal, yields 74,000 results. Novelist Tong Hua's debut story Startling by Each Step (2005) about a modern young woman who travels back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and fascinates princes was adopted into TV series Scarlet Heart before the restrictions were introduced and was easily 2011's most discussed TV drama.

Chinese time travel fiction usually follows a similar plot that involves protagonists traveling back to past and showing off their knowledge of 21st century history, literature, art and science to win the heart of their lover, who is invariably a well-known historical figure.

The interesting thing about Looper is that it involves time travelers visiting from the future, rather than people from the present going back to the past — which Zhang says is the usual mode of time-travel stories in China. Going back to the past is romantic, and Chinese people have 5,000 years of pretty well-known history to visit. And it allows for a particular type of escapism: fleeing the oppressive present, for an idealized past. (Which may be one reason why these sorts of TV shows and movies were banned, or at least not encouraged, by the government.) In any case, Looper may have benefited from China's attempt to place the fourth dimension off limits. [Global Times]