Guo Jingming is no stranger to controversy. A bestselling author and purportedly China’s wealthiest writer, Guo is not always the most popular figure. Indeed, he was voted China’s most hated male celebrity for three years in a row. He was once convicted of plagiarism too, but refused to apologise for it in public.
Guo’s directorial debut Tiny Times (based on his novel of the same name) has proved similarly contentious and may turn out to be one of the most divisive movie releases in recent years.
The film follows four girls who become friends at a palatial college in Shanghai. One character Lin Xiao – played by Yang Mi – later becomes the assistant to an ill-tempered editor-in-chief at a fashion magazine. With the help of her friends, Lin faces the challenges at work. All four girls support one another’s dreams and various love pursuits.
If the story line sounds familiar, that’s because it is reminiscent of the American TV series Gossip Girl, as well as the film The Devil Wears Prada, in depicting the lifestyles of the rich and arrogant, as well as the struggle for success, friendship and love. Guo’s previous works, including The City of Fantasies and the Tiny Times series, are bestsellers. But not for their gritty realism or highbrow philosophising: the books are bought by a reading public keen on plots in which the characters are good-looking, talented and rich.
Seemingly, film audiences are similarly impressed. Tiny Times smashed China’s box office record for the opening day release of a non-3D film and has raked in more than Rmb426.6 million ($69.4 million) since its debut on June 27, according to figures released by China Film News. It has even outperformed Hollywood blockbusters like Man of Steel and Keanu Reeves’ Man of Tai Chi. In fact, Tiny Times is so successful that its producer Le Vision Pictures has brought forward the release of its sequel from December to next month.
The critics are less impressed than the moviegoers, it seems. Many called the script shallow and materialistic, with Raymond Zhou, a well known commentator, arguing that it would corrupt young people with its “twisted value of worshipping money”.
The rebuke isn’t entirely surprising as Guo’s original novels, which sold tens of millions of copies, have often been mocked as ‘Luxury Goods Guides’ for their exhaustive descriptions of brand name merchandise (see WiC1 for our first mention of the novelist). Of course, luxury brands also feature prominently in the film. Fans have been counting the on-screen appearances and found Louis Vuitton appeared eight times, Gucci 10 times and Dior on 12 occasions. The winner? Christian Louboutin, with a whopping 21 close-ups (four female characters means lots of pairs of shoes).
Not that the critic Zhou was impressed by all the fancy footwork. “It wasn’t that long ago when Switch [see WiC198] set the standard for the worst domestic production in Chinese history. But it took less than a month before Tiny Times broke that record,” he complained. “Its shameless money worship has reached a state that’s pathological.”
Shi Hang, another film critic, wrote sarcastically on weibo: “The director does a very good job at directing: not one actor seems to have gone to acting school so they are all equally bad.”
Guo’s fans have been fighting back against their idol’s detractors. Some made personal attacks on the critics, saying that they are “too old” to understand the film and should “retire early”.
“Some people say Guo Jingming only knows how to use good-looking actors in the film but what’s the big deal? There is no denying that the film is polished and refined to a degree that’s unseen in domestic movie productions. Tiny Times is the textbook example of how to make a good idol film. Few people have Guo’s eye for beauty,” one fan wrote on Douban, a popular film forum.
The director himself says he is “unperturbed” by the controversy. “It is normal for people to pursue a better life and there is nothing wrong with enjoying it,” he told Xinhua in an interview.
“Film audiences are changing and films are not,” he notes, quipping, “It’s the elephant in the room that you pretend not to see.”
Guo also says the film is designed to project a fantasy for its viewers. “For example, look at Lin Shao,” he says, referring to the film’s protagonist. “She began the story as an ordinary university student, and then she had to face all these things like job interviews and intimidating bosses in the workplace. But she manages to pull through and her life gets better and better. She’s got a great career, great friends and a handsome boyfriend. This is every girl’s dream life.”
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