Writer-director Guo Jingming is no stranger to controversy. In the same year that he became China’s highest paid novelist – he was believed to have made Rmb700 million ($105 million) in 2007 – he was also voted the country’s most hated male author. He held that derogatory title for three consecutive years. Many have complained that his young adult novels are “lowbrow” and “trashy” (see our profile of Guo in our first issue).
His foray into filmmaking was equally controversial. In 2013, Guo made his directorial debut – in what became the first of four filmed instalments of his Tiny Times novels. The franchise was a huge success commercially, taking almost $300 million in the box office. But critics were unimpressed, slamming the films as “shallow” and “meaningless”.
The criticism hasn’t deterred Guo from pursuing his cinematic dreams. In late September, right before China’s week-long public holiday – which is also one of the busiest seasons for moviegoing – Guo released Legend of Ravaging Dynasties. Based (again) on his own novel, the story is set in a world of mysterious sorcery that is split between four nations – Water, Wind, Earth and Fire. It follows the adventures of the top sorcerers as they fight evil forces within these imaginary realms.
The film stars some of the biggest names in China like actresses Fan Bingbing, Yang Mi and newcomer Lin Yun. But audiences won’t see their favourite actors in the flesh. That’s because the film is shot entirely in CGI using motion-capture technology. Popularised by James Cameron in Avatar, how it works is that the actors perform in front of the cameras and then get reinserted into a virtual world.
“The cast should thank Guo Jingming. When everything is computer generated, all the girls have the perfect figure: even those with short legs now have the legs of a supermodel,” Tencent Entertainment jokes.
When it screened in China in 2009, Avatar was the first blockbuster to earn over Rmb1 billion ($149.8 million). Since its release, L.O.R.D. (as it has been abbreviated) has become the most talked-about topic in Chinese social media, although not for necessarily the right reasons. Reportedly the production cost of the CGI effects alone were more than Rmb100 million but audiences say the special effects are like “cheap video game visuals”. Others complain the story “makes no sense”. On Douban, the country’s leading film review site, netizens gave the film a rating of 4.1 out of 10.
“If you value your time, which is priceless, you should skip the film,” one reviewer wrote on Douban. Another was equally dismissive: “The characters seem completely devoid of real emotions, which is very typical of Guo Jingming’s movies.”
Despite the overwhelmingly negative comments online, film critics were (surprisingly) less scathing. “I was expecting the film to be a joke. But it turns out to be a hugely entertaining computer-generated movie,” says the film critic of Guangzhou Daily.
Southern Metropolis Daily agreed: “I will be honest, I was so scarred from the Tiny Times franchise I didn’t expect L.O.R.D. to be any different; it’s going to be a joke,” wrote the newspaper’s reviewer. “But after watching the film, I have to say L.O.R.D. is surprisingly good and fun to watch. The production is meticulous compared to other domestic CGI-heavy films.”
Perhaps netizens’ criticisms may have more to do with Guo than the film itself. “To be honest, I think L.O.R.D. is no different from other Hollywood blockbuster films. In fact, compared with some of the recent domestic blockbuster films, which are lousily written and filled with shameless product placements, L.O.R.D. is a strong film,” reckoned Tencent Entertainment. “The truth is, Guo has an image problem and the public perception is not going to change with one film.”
Luo Zhong, a film critic, told Xinhua that Guo deserves more credit for embracing filmmaking technology, as well as for successfully building a convincing fantasy world. “Put away your bias for Guo Jingming and keep an open mind, maybe you will see more,” Luo advised.
Guo, meanwhile, has airily claimed to be unconcerned about all the negative comments. “L.O.R.D. is a new type of genre and the whole time I felt like I was just experimenting. It was like fulfilling a dream. So I don’t really care whether the audiences accept it,” he told a local newspaper.
And while the online backlash shows he has a lot of detractors, in a country as big as China it’s still possible to have a large fan base as well. Guo’s loyal supporters flocked to see the film, which collected Rmb200 million in ticket sales over the weekend.
Despite these healthy box office takings, L.O.R.D. is unlikely to lift China out of its current box office doldrums. Ticket tracker Ent Group says third quarter sales were down about 16%.
Will L.O.R.D. prove of interest to audiences outside China? Hollywood studio Lionsgate has purchased the distribution rights for overseas markets. As of the end of September, the film was already showing in North America, the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, reports Variety. “[Lionsgate] felt it fitted well with its track record of success with films in this genre, such as the Hunger Games and Twilight franchises,” says Le Vision Pictures, the film’s producer.
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