Breaking up is always hard to do. In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a professional layoff man that corporations hire because they are too reluctant to do their own firing.
In China, Breakup Guru tells a similar story – though at the personal rather than the corporate level. The comedy film follows the ruthless Mei Yuangui (played by actor Deng Chao) whose job is to terminate relationships via a slew of cringe-inducing antics. For example, one day a client approaches Mei because he wants to dump his mistress (played by starlet Yang Mi) so as to clear the way for his company’s IPO. To that end, Mei resolves to trick the mistress into falling for none other than himself. Despite all his overemphatic mannerisms, he succeeds.
The film marks the co-directorial debut for Deng and Yu Baimei, a former theatre director. It has become one of the biggest hits in China since its release in late June. Already, Breakup Guru has raked in over Rmb570 million ($92 million) and will likely reach Rmb600 million by the end of this week. Not bad for a film that cost only Rmb30 million to make, says Tencent Entertainment.
But the reviews were overwhelmingly negative – a common complaint being that the story is an illogical and incoherent jumble. Some say Deng’s acting is so over-the-top he wears more faces than Jim Carrey in The Mask. On Douban, the film was given a rating of 5.8 out of 10.
“There is close to no substance in the film. It’s brainless and a waste of time,” one netizen wrote.
“Even though Deng’s intention to bring laughter to the audience is good – it is also obvious that he tries very hard – but as a film, the bottom line is, there needs to be at least some aesthetic value. Just because it is a comedy it doesn’t mean the film needs to stoop to this level of ugliness and vulgarity,” says Beijing Youth Daily.
Some are slightly more positive. “For me the film is acceptable. I have never seen a production that tries so hard to get the audience to laugh (I laughed, and not just once). It’s better than all those filmmakers who try to pass something clearly rubbish off as highbrow art!” another commented.
Still, the harshest comment came from film critic and screenplay writer Lu Tianming, In an interview with Southern Entertainment Weekly, Lu said: “Of all China’s domestic productions, I have never seen anything that is so vulgar and disgusting.”
His comment quickly prompted an uproar amongst fans of the film. Some say Lu is being too critical (“It’s just a comedy, why so serious,” one remarked). Others say Lu is in no position to critique the film since he is not even a well-known comedy film director like Feng Xiaogang and Stephen Chow.
In response, Wang Changtian, chief executive of Enlight Media, the studio behind Breakup Guru, says he is aware of the negative noises on the internet, but “whether it was praise or criticism, whether the person wanted to see or didn’t want to see it, it’s their personal freedom and we kindly accept them.”
The strong box office is also a result of non-stop media bombardment by Deng. The actor-director has appeared in more than 10 television shows over the past few weeks to promote the film. Over the last month, he has also travelled all over the country on media junkets to drum up interest (he’s reportedly slept no more than four hours a day for the past month).
Enlight Media also made a risky bet by releasing Breakup Guru on the same date as Transformers 4: Age of Extinction. “While everybody was frantically changing their release date to avoid direct competition with Transformers 4, we actually announced the date of the premiere for Breakup Guru far in advance and did not change our schedule. It looks like our bet has actually paid off,” says Deng.
For many moviegoers, it became their only choice if they weren’t keen on seeing a Hollywood blockbuster.
Any of WiC’s readers in North America that have an interest in watching the film will have a chance as well: it is now showing on 12 screens in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto. But so far box office figures are dismal. Hollywood Reporter said it has made $147,000 abroad since its debut in late June.
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