Author：Verbena C. W
Sanctum, the 3D underwater adventure film adapted from screenwriter Andrew Wight’s real-life cave-diving experience in Western Australia, was released in Mainland China on September 9th of this year. Five weeks later, the film had already racked up over 112 million Renminbi in ticket sales, besting even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows-Part II over the same period, to become the highest-earning dark horse flick of Chinese fall movie history. Post-viewing, some audience members said that Sanctum was like watching a dream come to life, while others said that its atmosphere was so effectively stifling that they found it hard to breathe. But far more said that its story and thrills left something to be desired. The real reason for the movie’s box office victory, they asserted, was the allure of its 3-D technology and the prestige of having James Cameron as a producer.
According to many of these same audience members, what they’re really excited for is the upcoming movie based on Dark Prospects (Chinese title: Damo Canglang), the series of Chinese suspense novels about an elite military team tasked with exploring a mysterious cave. Nanpai Sanshu (real name:Xu Lei), the author of the series, is one of China’s top-selling writers.
Although it remains to be seen whether Dark Prospects’ producers will fork over the cash necessary to film in 3-D, based solely on the author’s fame within China and the suspenseful, multilayered nature of the novels’ narrative, they should be able to easily recoup their investment and then some. First of all, Dark Prospects’ story and characters are far more interesting and complex than anything Sanctum has to offer. Many of its readers have written online that only after finishing the series did they truly begin to understand how all the pieces of its plot fit together.
The puzzle at the series’ end has proven especially difficult to solve, prompting some to reread the books three or four times in search of the truth. As a result, ever since the books were released in 2010 there has been heated discussion online as to what really happened. In post after post, fans compete to see whose assessment of the finale is the most probable. When Nanpai Sanshu was once asked in an interview (by his editor, no less) for the solution to this puzzle, he merely laughed cryptically and said that he didn’t want to ruin readers’ fun by giving everything away. But perhaps when the movie comes out the answer will finally be revealed…
Unlike in Sanctum, the protagonists of Dark Prospects did not set out on their mission for the thrill of it. Nor were they are driven by any lofty ambition to learn the secrets of the unpopulated parts of this world. Instead, as an elite team of military prospectors, they have been ordered to explore this sprawling, silent cave in service of an assignment so confidential that even they are not privy to its details. Little do they know that a previous team has already entered the cave, and that most of its members have died…
In the Dark Prospects series, the schemes of men are far more dangerous than any natural disaster. Had the Japanese really hidden a World War II-era bomber in the depths of the earth? Or was this all just a big conspiracy? Why would the Japanese, on the brink of defeat, have hauled an enormous plane 3, 600 feet underground? And what strange and terrible things would the prospectors find down there?
Awaiting them is a giant, maze-like dam—built by the Japanese—just beyond which gapes a rare geological marvel of awe-inspiring proportions. Soon enough this black and desolate environment becomes the perfect deathtrap. Escape will not be easy. And if our heroes are to discover the truth behind the mysterious film that the Japanese made of their activities beneath the Earth, some will have to pay with their lives.
Of course there’s also one more element: a torrid love affair, built on misunderstandings if not outright deceptions. And though it flowers only briefly, it alone holds the clues to the series’ most enduring mysteries.
Dark Prospects’ literary predecessors are the grave robbing novels, a genre that has been wildly popular in China ever since Ghost Blows Out the Light (Chinese: Gui Chui Deng), the first of its ilk, was serialized online in 2006. These novels skillfully combine dark and silent tombs, zombies, mountains of rare treasure, and strange and deadly beasts into action-packed narratives. As the fictional protagonists explore these mysterious worlds, danger—whether natural or man-made—haunts their every step. And just like detective novels in which the private eye is always smarter than the police, the deadly tomb puzzles that confound professional archaeologists are no match for the grave robbers. By taking the unusual step of making thieves their heroes, authors have satisfied readers’ curiosity about what “really” happens in China’s antiques black market.
While Dark Prospects retains the rich imaginative detail and strange, suspenseful atmosphere of the grave robbing novels, the series differs from that genre in several significant ways. First of all, the protagonists, as military prospectors, are now on the right side of the law. And not only did Nanpai Sanshu deepen the detective novel-inspired deductive reasoning aspects, and increase the scares and suspense, he also crafted a story that is more intelligent and more nuanced than the competition. How much do we really understand about human nature, the series seems to ask? Or as narrator and chief protagonist Old Wu writes at the beginning, “Maturity always comes at a price. Looking back on my life, I realize now that each time I reached some new level of maturity, it was always accompanied by lies and sacrifice. This is unavoidable.” Perhaps upon reaching the end of the story, you too will find that your favorite character was actually the series’ secret villain, pulling all the strings from backstage.