China’s first sci-fi movie: Death Ray on Coral Island (1980)

Sci-fi books?  China’s got tons of those.

But when it comes to sci-fi movies, China’s really falling behind.  One that really did impress me, though, was the very first to be produced in China: 1980’s gorgeous, fun, and campy “Death Ray on Coral Island” (珊瑚岛上的死光).

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In “Death Ray,” a good-hearted team of Chinese scientists, based in what appears to be San Francisco, finally succeed in completing their fabulous futuristic invention. That is, until the sinister back-stabbing Americans, played with Bond-villainous glee by Chinese actors in whiteface and prosthetic noses, decide to steal the invention for their evil plots. They use sabotage, death-ray guns, murder, and even cocktails, to get what they want. The head scientist, shortly after being gunned down with a 激光 laser and left for dead, hands off the circuit board to his brave son-in-law.  “Take this, and flee!”  But those lousy Americans don’t give up…  they shoot down the kid’s plane over shark-infested, death-ray-filled waters, and he ends up on a mysterious Dr Moreau island.  On this island?  Oh, just more death rays, a robot, a mute dogsbody (ahem), some cool sound effects, and loud disembodied “Number Two” announcements.  Oh, it just keeps going!

Okay, “Death Ray” is very cheesy… The effects are terrible, the plot– based on the story by Tong Enzheng — is wildly convoluted, and it really reminds me a lot of the 1950s American sci-fi films.  With more awesome Hawaiian strings on the score.

But it’s also earnest, and a really interesting slice of Reform & Opening Up China. At its core is the duelling lust & hate for the West…  shots of the futuristic and desirous overseas American life, which is ruined only by the evil Americans who live there.  (I remember experiencing the same duality as a schoolboy in England: all of my classmates were obsessed with America, but hated Americans.  I guess we all experience this everywhere…)

And then there’s the dancing, the glorious ballroom dancing!  It was all the craze in the mainland at the time, so there’s a great extended (8 minutes or so?) scene, which is set in a ballroom dancing party.  Not much point to the scene, except to watch (and study) the moves.  If you haven’t already, don’t miss Ginger Huang’s wonderful article from The World of Chinese magazine about “The Last 30 Years of Dancing in China.”  Not only is she a great writer, it’s a fascinating story.  (Executions for holding dance parties…  and more.)

The film remains unsubtitled, which is a crime — it’s delicious fun — so I’m working on fan-subtitling it. (Help always appreciated!)  But in the meantime, here are some colorful pix from a VCD copy.

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Don’t miss the futuristic backgrounds.

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I’m confused about this classic clock in among all the futuristic computery, but it works.

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The floppy disc took me back to my younger days. Plus, love the bathroom tile walls.

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What is this machine?  “Pox license”? “EGG”?

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The white-skinned, red-headed, prosthetic-nosed force of evil…

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Eight minutes of ballroom dancing.

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The evil sweater is sweet. Later, he dramatically rips off his sunglasses. Won’t reveal the shocker.

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Cut back to dancing for a while.  A long while.

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That henchman’s shnozz has to be prosthetic, no?

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Death ray effects.  Have to say…  kinda weak.

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More henchmen.  That’s a wig on the redhead, right?

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I think I know this robot guy from Fisherman’s Wharf.

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I wish you could see the massive speedboat she’s helming, but… you get the idea.

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This brilliant scientist isn’t really insane.  You have to see their trickery to believe it…

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The evil boss, in his younger, permed wig days.  I love this guy.

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Great asylum design!  Especially adore the droopy white lines.

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I won’t give away the ending, but…. well…  *KABOOM!*

If you want to help with subtitles, let me know!

10 thoughts on “China’s first sci-fi movie: Death Ray on Coral Island (1980)”

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  2. Hi, I’d like to show some excerpts of this fine film at a conference here at the ANU. If you could help with subtitles that would be great.

    Thanks, Ben

  3. I’ve just seen the film, it’s very cheesy, but interesting. My favourite line was:
    Evil Boss: “Are you insane?”
    Dr Mathew: “I’m awoken.”

    One fact you didn’t realize is that although the evil boss was an American, the one who turned their laser guns and thunder-makers into killing machines was actually a SOVIET navy officer called Shaburov. The evil boss and his gang were just outlaws, after all, and the Russians were the mastermind.

    And in the end, it’s two Soviet sailors who shot dead the “crazy” scientist’s mute helper, and set up that nuclear time bomb to destroy Mathew island.

    China in the 1980s was a deadly enemy of the “Northern Superpower” and a quasi-ally of the United States. Chinese people grown up in the 1980s had this mentality that “Everything the Russians do is a conspiracy for world hogemony, and everything that’s gone wrong have the Russians behind it.”

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