Man of the moment

Can an actor single-handledly save a film – in China the answer is yes

Xiao Zhan-w

Xiao flanked by his co-stars Li Qin

Star power doesn’t always deliver, as the performance of sci-fi film Shanghai Fortress demonstrated (see WiC463). Despite the presence of Lu Han, who has a huge following among millennials, the blockbuster concluded with a disastrous Rmb121 million ($17 million) in ticket sales. But just a few weeks later the power of celebrity has been crucial to another film’s success.

That was the message with Jade Dynasty, the box office winner by a huge margin over the three-day Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. The fantasy film, which is based on a novel of the same name by Xiao Ding, features Xiao Zhan in the lead role, depicting his struggle to change his destiny, as well as the relationships he develops with two women along the way (starlet Li Qin and Meng Meiqi, a member of the popular band Rocket Girls). The movie made Rmb270 million during its opening three days, accounting for nearly 34% of ticket sales during the holiday period. “This Mid-Autumn Festival we have Xiao Zhan to thank. If it weren’t for him, it would have gone down in history as one of the slowest holidays at the box office. Thankfully, though, the ‘high traffic star’ has now set the record for the biggest Mid-Autumn Festival weekend in the last five years,” enthused Entertainment Unicorn, a blog.

Xiao, 28, became a breakout success this summer thanks to the online TV series The Untamed. The historical drama, which also stars pop idol Wang Yibo, has accumulated over 200 million views on Tencent Video since its release in early July, rendering it the most viewed show so far this year. Xiao has consistently been the most talked-about topic on Sina Weibo over the same period, transforming him from a little-known member of a boy band to the biggest name in Chinese showbiz. He now endorses everything from Xiaolu Tea (see this week’s “China Consumer”) to Olay.

On crowd-financing platforms, his fans have even been raising funds to snap up pre-sale tickets and drum up buzz for his film. According to Entertainment Unicorn, his devoted supporters raised as much as Rmb4 million to purchase cinema tickets in bulk across the country. “Jade Dynasty is very important to Xiao Zhan. It is the first time he has been the lead in a film. Success or failure all depends on us!” one fan urged others.

Despite the strong takings, word- of-mouth marketing for Jade Dynasty hasn’t always been kind. On Douban, it scored just 5.3 out of 10, with many complaining that Xiao and his co-star Meng had “destroyed the film with their terrible acting”. Other critics scoffed at a plot full of holes and unrealistic dialogue. “The studios clearly didn’t respect their audience by choosing a group of actors who can’t act. It’s like they are using the film to launder money,” one netizen fumed. “Everything from the casting to the screenplay is rotten. As a fan of the book, I am very offended. Can I give a negative score on Douban?” queried another.

So what’s the explanation for how Jade Dynasty could still enjoy such strong box office numbers? Probably Xiao’s phenomenal popularity. “Jade Dynasty shows that the power of ‘high traffic stars’ is definitely alive and well. In fact, those who claimed that ‘traffic has died’ are now biting their tongues,” observed Entertainment Unicorn.

Another release over the same period has struggled to generate the same momentum. The Last Wish, backed by the embattled Huayi Brothers, is a remake of the 2016 South Korean hit The Last Ride – a comedy about a young man who wants to lose his virginity before he dies of a terminal illness. Originally scheduled for release in July, it ran into trouble when censors took issue with its original title in Mandarin. The producers wanted A Great Wish but, according to Variety, censors had a problem with the adjective “great” (伟大), which they felt should be reserved for descriptions of China’s leaders and important matters of state.

The Chinese title was switched to A Tiny Little Wish (although it maintained the name The Last Wish in English) but the change and a marathon marketing campaign did little to boost audience numbers. On Douban, it scored another dicey rating of 5.2 out of 10, with audiences deciding that the plot was too choppy (probably the result of censorship of some of the racier scenes) and that it had failed to do the Korean original justice.

A Tiny Little Wish probably won’t deliver the big box office Huayi Brothers is hoping for,” another of the critics concluded (see WiC462 for more on the studio’s financial problems).

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