It’s Doctor Strange but true

Director Guo Jingming’s blockbuster pulled from screens over plagiarism


Wang Ziwen: stars in Guo Jingming’s controversial new film

Few people will shed tears on saying farewell to 2020. But with many parts of the world still struggling to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the celebration of the start of a new year was nevertheless subdued. Times Square in New York was eerily empty. Popular places for crowds to watch the fireworks around Sydney’s harbour were off-limits to the public. Hong Kong cancelled its fireworks display completely.

In China many chose to ring in 2021 by going to the cinema for a bit of escapism. On New Year’s Day, box office takings reached Rmb600 million ($93 million), up over 100% from a year ago and the highest for that particular day since records began in 2011, according to online ticketing platform Maoyan.

Among the bigger winners was the drama A Little Red Flower, a movie that tells the story of two families battling cancer. The film, which has raked in more than Rmb800 million in ticket sales since it opened on New Year’s Eve, stars one of the biggest names in Chinese show business, Yi Yangqianxi, who plays a 20 year-old cancer patient (Yi, a noted KOL with an array of brand endorsements, was originally in the boy band TFBoys).

“The film uses the painful topic of illness to tell a heartwarming story,” Xi’an Evening News gushed. “It focuses on two teenagers in their fight against cancer as they lean on each other for support… While life is never easy, the film shows that every person, sick or not, has his own challenges. After going through 2020, that story must resonate with a lot of people.”

Romantic comedy Warm Hug was another box-office success. It follows a young man with obsessive-compulsive disorder (played by actor Wang Weiren) and his journey to overcome his illness to find love. The surprise hit took Rmb518 million in the first four days of its release.

But it was writer-director Guo Jingming’s new film Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity that generated the most controversy over the holiday period. The fantasy costume drama, which stars heartthrob Deng Lun and starlet Wang Ziwen in the lead roles, made its debut on Christmas Day. The story is adapted from the popular 2001 novel Onmyoji by Japanese writer Baku Yumemakura. However, soon after the cinematic version was released, eagle-eyed cinemagoers noticed a few scenes that looked strikingly familiar. In fact, some spotted as many as six scenes that appeared almost identical to the 2016 Marvel film Doctor Strange.

“You can’t say they are ‘similar’; it should be ‘exactly the same’,” one netizen laughed.

Guo has a long history as a subject of controversy (see WiC202) and it isn’t the first time he has been accused of plagiarism. In 2006, the bestselling author came under fire for copying some of the work of writer Zhuang Yu in her book Never-Flowers in Never Dream. Guo was found guilty and ordered to pay damages, but he never publicly apologised.

The latest allegations prompted a group of industry insiders to launch a boycott of the writer-filmmaker. In a joint letter over a hundred of them called Guo a “representative of plagiarism” and rumours were soon circulating that Yin-Yang Master would be pulled from cinemas just a week after debuting on the big screen.

Any cancellation risked being financially crippling: the film is well short of the Rmb1 billion in ticket sales that the big-budget production needed to turn a profit.

With so much at stake Guo published a lengthy statement on his personal weibo on New Year’s Eve admitting to his previous offence for the first time, but failing to address the more recent charges directly. “It’s not that I was unwilling to admit my mistake, but that I had no courage to say sorry,” he wrote in a belated apology to Zhuang, the author that he had previously plagiarised.

“I hope my experience will be a warning to every creator. Respect the original works and respect the law, ” Guo added.

Most industry commentators were unimpressed, seeing the apology as a PR stunt in which Guo was trying to get back in audiences’ good graces (he certainly has staying power; we first mentioned the novelist-turned-director in WiC’s very first issue in February 2009).

“It is clear that Guo Jingming smelled trouble was brewing, so he quickly apologised,” noted Zhengguan Huanghe Review. “But clearly the apology is not enough. With Yin-Yang Master now at risk of being pulled, it shows that the society has come to a consensus: that is, we can’t let the plagiariser off so easily. They apologise while they make the same mistake time and again. And worse, we are allowing them to make money while doing it.”

For Guo, the expression of remorse turned out to be a case of too little, too late. On Tuesday Yin-Yang Master was removed from cinemas, along with comedy Bath Buddy, another new release accused of plagiarism. After the controversy, it remains to be seen whether Netflix, which acquired the overseas rights to Yin-Yang Master, will release it in a slot scheduled for the Chinese New Year celebrations next month.

Bigger-picture, China’s cinema sector is one of the very few bright spots for the global box office. Last year, the country’s cinema takings were $3.2 billion. That was significantly lower than the record $9.1 billion in 2019, but still higher than the $2.1 billion recorded last year in the US, meaning that the Chinese market surpassed the US in revenues for the first time.

Much of the ticket sales came courtesy of the battle blockbuster The Eight Hundred (see WiC507) which opened in the summer and became the world’s highest grossing film of 2020, raking in Rmb3.1 billion. The Chinese blockbuster’s success also marked the first occasion in which a Hollywood movie wasn’t the top earner worldwide.

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