A still from an episode of “Love, Death & Robots” that takes place in a futuristic Hong Kong.

How China inspired the makers of Netflix’s ‘Love, Death & Robots’

Apr 10, 2019

One of the most divisive shows on Netflix is Love, Death & Robots, an animated series heavily drenched in science fiction, sex, and gratuitous violence.

The series—an anthology of 18 self-contained episodes—has been billed as “an R-rated take on the Black Mirror” and lays out a much darker and more disturbing vision than anything Netflix has released so far.

Adding to the series’ mystique are the names involved: director David Fincher of Fight Club and Se7en, and Tim Miller, a visual effects artist who made his directorial feature debut with the genre-busting superhero movie Deadpool.

The series has polarized viewers, some of whom criticize its graphic violence and hypersexualization of women.

But one place where it has done surprisingly well is China, where Netflix isn’t even available. Hardcore gamers and sci-fi fans who are always on the lookout for cutting-edge shows that are in tune with their virtual lives have sought out the series through unofficial channels.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the masterminds behind the series, Fincher and Miller, are already well-known in China—Fincher for House of Cards, which resonated with Chinese viewers, and Miller for Deadpool in a country where Marvel films always bring in big money.

On Douban, China’s Rotten Tomatoes, Love, Death & Robots currently has a score of 9.2 out of 10.

One reason for the popularity is the way in which Chinese places and Chinese culture inspired two of the episodes: Good Hunting and The Witness.

A still from “Good Hunting.”
A still from “Good Hunting.” / Photo: Netflix

In particular, Good Hunting, an adaptation of a steampunk story based on Chinese mythology, has resonated with Chinese viewers.

The story, written by Chinese-American author Ken Liu, starts with a man teaching his son, Liang, how to catch a fox spirit.

The fox spirit, known in Chinese as a hulijing 狐狸精, often appears in literature as a shape-shifting nine-tailed fox that can transform into a woman and seduce men. The spirit is often depicted as a dangerous creature that feeds on men.

Liu’s short story, which can be read online, turns that narrative on its head, with some feminist undertones.

When Liang encounters the fox spirit’s daughter, Yan, she argues that is men who lust after them rather than the spirits luring the men. In a bout of sympathy, Liang lets her off as his father comes running to catch her.

The fox spirit, as depicted in its mechanical form in “Good Hunting.”
The fox spirit, as depicted in its mechanical form in “Good Hunting.” / Photo: Netflix

Later in colonial Hong Kong, Liang becomes a railroad mechanic and rejects much of his traditional upbringing in favor of learning Western technology.

He also develops a friendship with Yan, who is slowly losing her magical powers and has taken on the semi-permanent form of a sex worker.

Eventually, Yan catches the eye of the colonial governor, who has a particular fetish for prosthetics. He mutilates her and replaces her body with robotic parts.

The governor and Yan in “Good Hunting.”
The governor and Yan in “Good Hunting.” / Photo: Netflix

When Liang discovers this, he helps Yan seek revenge by turning her robotic body into a mechanical fox, her freest form.

In China, Good Hunting has been perceived as a metaphor for countering the West by mastering its technology, an idea that has existed since the 19th century, when China was carved up by colonial powers.

For his part, Liu, the writer behind the original story, has become a well-known name among science fiction circles in China.

Author Ken Liu speaks at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in 2017.
Author Ken Liu speaks at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival in 2017. / Photo: Hong Kong International Literary Festival

His most famous work, The Paper Menagerie, won several awards, including a Hugo, one of the highest honors in science fiction.

Another episode inspired by Chinese elements is The Witness, which takes place in a Hong Kong of the future.

A still from “The Witness.”
A still from “The Witness.” / Photo: Netflix

The story itself is straightforward: a woman witnesses a murder from her apartment across the street and flees while the apparent killer pursues her.

While the episode has been criticized for its stale plot and gratuitous nudity—–the protagonist spends half her time running through the streets with her shimmering red kimono half-open—the hand-painted backdrops have been praised for their remarkable accuracy.

A still from “The Witness.”
A still from “The Witness.” / Photo: Netflix

During the chase, the characters fling themselves into red taxis that pass under signs for “Tsim Sha Tzu” and “Hoh Hom” station.

They drive along streets with neon signs that pop in coral pink, violet and aquamarine, projected out into the canyons of buildings climbing upwards into white cloud. Storefronts are lettered in Chinese, Cyrillic, and English, advertising, among other businesses, the “Bank of Banks.”

A still from “The Witness.”
A still from “The Witness.” / Photo: Netflix

The episode’s director, Alberto Mielgo, was inspired to make the setting Hong Kong after searching through photographs he had collected over the years.

Two images caught his eye: one of Hong Kong’s Kowloon district and another of an apartment in Berlin where he could see the people living inside other buildings.

“And that was very much how I started thinking about a crime that happened across the street,” he says.

“You can feel there are different lives.”

Alberto Mielgo

Mielgo flew to Hong Kong and purposely got lost for five days, wandering around the neighborhoods of Kowloon from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., drawing, taking photos, and storyboarding sequences.

As the days unfolded, he found the city was an ideal backdrop for the theme of the episode.

“When I was thinking about The Witness, I realized that Hong Kong was full of windows,” Mielgo says. “You can feel there are different lives, and you feel there can be a lot of witnesses of something happening in the street.”

A still from “The Witness.”
A still from “The Witness.” / Photo: Netflix

Mielgo was also drawn by how Hong Kong has crammed eras one on top of the other, with the future bolted precariously onto the past.

“It has a lot of different ingredients from different times,” Mielgo says. “But it doesn’t feel like the present. There is something about that city that makes me feel neither in the future or in the past. I loved it.”

Science fiction has been undergoing somewhat of a renaissance in China, buoyed by a crop of emerging writers and funding from big studios.

The Wandering Earth, a space epic about efforts by humans to move the Earth to a new solar system, shattered box offices this year, becoming the second highest-grossing Chinese movie ever.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.