Love and war

A late Seventies love story fails to connect with Chinese moviegoers


Kuo Tsai-chieh: stars in The Story of Xibao

Most people turn to fiction for escapism, but what sets Yi Shu apart is that all her romance novels are loaded with a strong dose of pragmatism. For instance, in Please Forgive Me, the Hong Kong author writes: “Breaking up is a small issue, losing a job is a big deal.” In another book, she has this to say about financial planning with your spouse: “Always be financially independent, never show all your cards.”

One of the most popular – and prolific – writers in Hong Kong, Yi Shu, 74, has published more than 300 novels and short stories over her literary career. Her characters – almost always intelligent and independent women – have also made her into something of a literary feminist icon across China. More recently, The Story of Xibao, first published in 1979, was adapted for the big screen and the film made its debut this month.

It has not been a success, however. So far the movie has collected just Rmb95 million ($14 million) in ticket sales and on Douban, the TV series and film review site, The Story of Xibao received a rating of just 3.4 out of 10, with many netizens saying that the character is “corrupt” and the screenplay is “garbage”. The film is so “unwatchable” that some even wrote on weibo that they had walked out after the first 20 minutes. One of those who made it to the end said it was “by far the worst film in 2020”.

The film tells the story of Jiang Xibao (played by Taiwanese starlet Kuo Tsai-chieh), who emerges from very humble beginnings. By chance, the 21 year-old Jiang meets a wealthy tycoon Xie Cong-hui (veteran actor Chang Kuo-Chu), who is 65. He showers her with money and material things (such as a diamond ring so huge that one critic questioned whether the producers had used a piece of “rock sugar” as a prop).

To stay with him, Jiang gives up finishing her degree at Cambridge. When he dies, Xie leaves all his wealth to Jiang. But even though she now possesses enormous wealth, she realises that she was really in love with the man and refuses to take any of the money.

“The reason for the landslide of criticism is simple: the film is a combination of a screenplay that is complete garbage and a lead that is just not relatable. Worse, not only is the plot illogical, even the editing is a mess. The props and backdrops are so poorly designed that nothing is believable. You can definitely say that this is a movie that doesn’t have one single highlight that’s worth mentioning,” Tencent Entertainment lambasted.

Others concurred: “The movie adaptation has made a lot of drastic changes from the original novel. It spends too little time exploring the complexity of human nature, which is what made the original so compelling, and reduces the story to a romantic drama between a young girl and a rich domineering tycoon. The acting, too, is not helping. It almost makes me wonder why on earth would Yi Shu agree to letting these people adapt her work,” another film critic complained.

The Story of Xibao was originally published in Hong Kong, at a time when the city’s growing affluence was creating disillusionment amongst the middle class. The book raises a lot of questions about whether women could (or should) use marriage to elevate their social status. “I want a lot of love. If I don’t have that, having a lot of money is pretty good, too,” is one of the most famous quotes from the novel.

While some argue that the worldview depicted in the novel is morally questionable, others say it is still relevant today. “Depending on the age of the audience, there will be very different opinions about the film,” one commentator wrote. “Young women may not understand Jiang Xibao’s inner desires, and even less so about why she is so keen on money, willing to give up everything. But when we reach middle age, we are a lot more empathetic. We understand her helplessness and the choices the character is forced to make in life,” one critic opined.

While this movie figuratively bombed, a film full of explosives proved the big hit at cinemas last week. The Sacrifice, which tells the story of a group of Chinese soldiers attempting to repair a bridge while under constant bombardment from US artillery during the Korean War (see WiC515), has collected over Rmb350 million at the box office in just its first four days.

Part of the reason for the strong box office result is the over-the-top praise from local media. For instance, ThePaper.cn reported that “audiences were moved to tears by the scenes that show time and time again the heroic efforts of the Chinese soldiers”, once again reminding readers that they must not forget the great spirit shown in resisting US aggression in the 1950s conflict.

Netizens were decidedly less complimentary. On Douban, the film only got a mediocre score of 6.5 out of 10. Many have complained that the film feels dated and repetitive (not surprising since the same story is told thrice from three different perspectives).

Critics, meanwhile, say it was clear the production team had rushed the film out to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War.

“The movie only started filming in August and was released in October. How do you compare that with The Eight Hundred [another war epic; see WiC507] that took 10 years to prepare and film? It is clear that finishing the film is the goal of the production, not the quality of the film,” Digital Entertainment Factory, another movie critic, mused.

But with patriotism running high in China, such shortcomings may not be enough to deter audiences, especially as The Sacrifice stars Wu Jing, the actor who helmed China’s biggest grossing movie ever: Wolf Warrior 2 which made Rmb5.6 billion (see WiC376).

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.