Feng the furious

Star director returns with big hit, but gets into spat with movie critics

Bai Baihe w

Tailor-made for success: Bai Baihe stars in Feng Xiaogang’s blockbuster

Hollywood studios usually invite critics to advance screenings of a film. The hope is a positive review ahead of its opening day (although distributors sometimes withhold the invitations if they believe the response is going to be too negative).

In China the practice has taken a different twist. Huayi Brothers, one of the largest film studios, didn’t invite any industry insiders for an early glimpse of its latest offering Personal Tailor, directed by the country’s most commercially successful filmmaker Feng Xiaogang. But it did grant a sneak preview to a group of fund managers before the premiere in mid-December.

The movie, which stars Ge You and starlet Bai Baihe, was one of the most anticipated releases of the year. In the run-up to its debut Huayi Brothers shares soared over 30% on ChiNext. But the studio was hoping for more, so it organised the advance screening in an effort to entice institutional investors to raise their position in the stock.

“Because the film is Feng Xiaogang’s return to comedy after the If You Are the One franchise, everyone expects it to surpass Rmb1 billion ($165 million) at the box office ahead of the Lunar New Year. We are all very excited,” a media analyst earlier told CBN.

Personal Tailor follows a group of characters who run a company that helps people live out their fantasies and is a sequel of sorts to Feng’s 1997 hit The Dream Factory.

But the studio’s promotional plan seems to have backfired. After the screening, some fund managers were less than impressed with Feng’s latest work, says Xinhua. “The theme was vague and plot was very inconsistent,” was one verdict. “It was way below my expectation,” another investor complained. A third warned that that he “couldn’t even stand to watch the second half”.

If this criticism wasn’t bad enough, three fund management firms dumped shares in the studio the day after the screening, leading to a 10% drop in Huayi Brothers shares and wiping out about Rmb4 billion in market value.

But were the fund managers qualified to judge whether the film was going to be a commercial success? By the look of it, no. Personal Tailor soon grossed a record-breaking Rmb500 million in its first 10 days at the box office, passing the former best for a 2D movie opening in China according to data from Entgroup, set by Journey to the West (directed by comedian Stephen Chow) last year.

Longtime reviewers already complain that their input is undervalued by cinema audiences and that studios often care little whether their feedback is positive or not. More important is that the critical debate creates a stir, pushing the film to the forefront of public attention.

“Only in China do you see cases of the bigger controversy, the more that people flock to the cinema. Film critics play a huge role in determining the fate of a film in most mature markets. Only in China do you see a film that is so widely lambasted become a winner in the box office,” says film critic Xiao Ying.

Once it had been released Personal Tailor didn’t win much critical acclaim either. Zhang Guanren, a critic, wrote on his blog it was “lousy”. On Douban, a popular forum that allows users to rate films it scored a mediocre 5.4 out of 10. Similarly, it received an average score of 5.7 out of 10 from over 9,500 scores on China’s biggest film review website Mtime.com.

That suggests that Personal Tailor traded on the ‘Feng Xiaogang premium’ for its launch success, relying heavily on its director’s reputation. And Feng himself initially claimed not to be too bothered by adverse comment as long as his work gets talked about. “Criticism and compliments have both helped make the film a red-hot topic,” he told the press. “My thanks to those who criticise, mock or praise the film. It adds controversy to the film. I welcome everyone’s praise as well as mockery.”

Really? A week or so after the film was released, Feng seemed to change his mind, losing his cool on his personal weibo as he defended his film. Over two hours, he made six posts slamming his detractors for being “shallow” and “thinking too highly of themselves”.

“I gave the movie an overall score of five (out of 10)… But to the majority of those movie critics who think they understand movies, I score you a three… your mockery only reflects your shallowness,” he wrote. “It’s such an embarrassment that you have the audacity to mislead the audience.”

Feng’s diatribe got worse. “Shame on the critics for not being able to tell a satirical comedy when they see one,” he fumed. “I say tell them to go die.”

Let’s hope his mood improves by the end of this month, when he takes the helm at CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala, the most watched programme in the world. In recent years the show has lost some of its traditional lustre, disappointing sections of its massive audience. But if Feng’s reaction to the feedback on Personal Tailor is any lesson, viewers would do best to keep negative thoughts to themselves…

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