In 2018, Asura hit the big screen after six years in production. The fantasy epic, which was bankrolled by Alibaba Pictures, had a production budget of $115 million, rendering it the most expensive film ever made in China at the time. The studio thought that the mix of a plot inspired by Buddhist mythology with special effects of Hollywood standards would deliver a major hit, leading to a lucrative franchise akin to Star Wars or Harry Potter.
It was not to be. Asura stalled from the start after a flurry of negative reviews. It went on to collect just Rmb49 million ($7.7 million) in its first three days at the box office before it was pulled from the screens by its producers, who said they wanted to relaunch the film at a later date (it has never made it back to the big screen).
So when another fantasy blockbuster was compared to Asura, it’s safe to conclude that it wasn’t a compliment. Last week The Curse of Turandot, which took director Zheng Xiaolong almost two decades from conception to production and cost Rmb300 million, finally made its way to cinemas. Almost immediately, it was hit by a barrage of criticism online, with some bemoaning that it would be impossible to find a worse film to see this year.
The negative word-of-mouth was a surprise for the film’s director Zheng. He has worked as the executive producer and director behind many iconic TV series such as Empresses in the Palace (2011), Red Sorghum (2014) and Legend of Mi Yue (2015), to name but a few. But his latest labour of love was not well received, earning just Rmb20 million in ticket sales over the first five days of its release. On Douban the film also received a dismal rating of just 3.4 out of 10 (for comparison, Asura scored a rating of 3).
Based loosely on Giacomo Puccini’s 1926 opera – famed for its aria Nessun Dorma – the film centres on the love story between the mythical Princess Turandot (played by Guan Xiaotong) and the Persian Prince Calaf (played by American heartthrob Dylan Sprouse) who pretends to be a commoner but ends up falling in love with the princess.
Turandot also stars well-known actors such as Hu Jun and Jiang Wen. Internationally acclaimed French star Sophie Marceau even has a cameo, playing Calaf’s mother.
Zheng says he wanted to use the film to showcase the power of love. But early audiences were decidedly unmoved by his efforts. “The main reason for the failure of Turandot is that while the story is expansive, the logic is weak. The film also fails to integrate all the different arcs – the king and the queen fighting hand-in-hand to protect their kingdom; an army chief wanting to usurp the throne; a foreign prince falling in love with a cursed princess – in order to make the stories flow logically,” one critic complained.
“The whole movie is a lengthy cliché and illogical fairy tale. The hero and the heroine fall in love for ‘some’ reason. The audience are told that they are in love, but we cannot feel that they are in love,” another blasted.
Others think the problem lies with the director being too ambitious in the plot. “If he simply tells the story of a hero saving a beauty, Turandot may not have been the subject of such harsh ridicule. But Zheng Xiaolong sets up an extremely elaborate background for the movie, with elements of magic, love, adventure and an abusive amount of CGI,” was Morning Herald’s dismissive verdict. “Coupled with that is the fact that Guan Xiaotong and Dylan Sprouse have zero spark on-screen and that Jiang Wen’s costume [he plays the emperor] is such a joke that people start laughing as soon as he comes on screen. It is hard for young audiences not to mentally check out.”
“After The Great Wall, Legend of Gods and Asura, Chinese audiences are tired of star-studded fantasy blockbusters,” claimed Poison Eye, a popular film critic. “It is clear that the film was the remnant of the domestic film bubble in 2018.”
A common rebuke for films of this type is that they try too hard to mix Chinese storylines with Hollywood techniques and special effects. But for Turandot, the screenwriter Wang Xiaoping (also the wife of Zheng, the director) tried to give the story a Chinese makeover with an imagined version from ancient China. The adaptation went through so many rewrites, chides Poison Pen, that the final draft was “incomprehensible”, with none of the characters in the story ever coming to life.
“Domestically produced fantasy films have become synonymous with disaster,” concluded China News Service.
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