Victorious Vicki?

A Chinese hit movie battles a Hollywood blockbuster using social media

Victorious Vicki?

Flying high in China? Robert Downey Jr

In April the actress-turned-director Vicki Zhao was said to have paid a visit to China’s film distribution authorities. Although it’s not unusual for filmmakers to meet the censors, the Yangtze Evening News says the first-time director made quite an impact. Tearfully, she allegedly talked the authorities into delaying the release of Iron Man 3 so that her own film So Young could have a head start before the Labour Day holiday.

Zhao has denied the rumours, telling Tencent Entertainment that she would have asked the authorities to delay Iron Man 3’s release by a whole month if she really had such sway with the authorities. Nevertheless, it was certainly a blessing that her low-budget film (which cost only Rmb60 million, or $9.77 million, to make) avoided a face-off with the Hollywood blockbuster on its opening. So Young, which came out on April 26, five days ahead of Iron Man 3, surprised the industry by taking Rmb350 million at the box office in its first week.

A nostalgic drama about a Chinese woman who reconnects with her college sweethearts, So Young is the latest in a string of Chinese productions to rely on a formula first made successful by low-budget hit Love is Not Blind back in 2011: adapt a popular novel (To Our Youth That Is Fading Away); cast young, good-looking actors (Mark Chao and Han Geng); and market aggressively to young female moviegoers through social media like Sina Weibo and WeChat.

Zhao herself featured in much of the sales effort. Exhibit one: a mysterious microblog post that appeared on Sina Weibo last month showing a series of pictures of Chinese heartthrob Huang Xiaoming with Zhao, at a talk show promoting the film. Echoing the sentiment reflected in the plot, the microblog says “there are no relationships deeper than those formed when we were young”.

As cheesy as it sounds, the line was reposted thousands of times on weibo, even inspiring the hashtag “a relationship like Huang Xiaoming and Zhao Wei”.

Zhao also recruited some of her A-list friends like actress Shu Qi and singer Faye Wong to tweet about the film on their personal weibo.

Perhaps taking a cue from Zhao, Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr also opened a personal Sina Weibo account in late April. So far he has posted just five messages (“Hello China” was his admirably succint opener) but fans of Iron Man have flocked to the cinema since it opened last Wednesday, spending Rmb130 million on tickets.

The strong showing helped to quell some of the concerns among Hollywood executives that Chinese moviegoers were losing interest in Tinseltown imports. To that end, Iron Man 3, partly financed by Chinese firm DMG Entertainment, had already made a few changes to the local version of the film to appeal to audiences. For instance, in an apparent effort to get past China’s cinema censors, the name of the film’s villain, the Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley, was translated in a way that obscured its connection to its English meaning. The version shown in China is also three minutes longer than the rest of the world’s, allowing time for a special appearance by actress Fan Bingbing, as well as scenes in which actor Wang Xueqi, a heart surgeon in the film, uses Chinese medicine to cure Iron Man (Wang appears in the international version but only for a second or two; Fan is omitted completely).

Other “Chinese elements” in the movie seem to have backfired with local critics. More extra footage also included a lot of China-specific product placement. Gu Li Duo, a dairy drink from Yili, Chinese electronics maker TCL and industry giant Zoomlion all make a showing in the film.

But audiences have complained that the additional footage felt out of place. “When I watched Iron Man 3, I felt it was like a corny Chinese movie. The added Chinese characters are abrupt and totally incongruous. There are also some Chinese product placements. Why do they only appear in the Chinese version?” one netizen lamented.

Another critic: “The Chinese version is a hot mess of poor planning. The addition of Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi does absolutely nothing to advance the flow and plot points of the movie – I mean, seriously, who comes to China for heart surgery?”

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