BEIJING -- Forget Zach Snyder's "Man of Steel" or Keanu Reeves' "Man of Tai Chi." China's movie of the summer is a chick flick that has touched off a mini-culture war while raking in the renminbi -- and a sequel is just weeks away.
"Tiny Times" tells the story of four fashionable college girls in Shanghai and is perhaps best described as "The Devil Wears Prada" meets "Sex and the City" (minus the sex) with a dash of "The Bling Ring." The movie is based on a trio of popular young adult novels by Guo Jingming, a waifish 30-year-old celebrity author/entrepreneur who also directed the film.
Guo's fans say he's the voice of a new material-minded generation, but many critics have savaged "Tiny Times" as a vacuous homage to consumerism that sets a bad example for Chinese youth. In a country grappling with a yawning wealth gap and the striking emergence of a sometimes crass class of nouveau riche, the film has touched a deep nerve about the values of Chinese society.
Yet the battle lines are not neatly drawn. Some commentators closely allied with the Communist Party have improbably rallied to the film's defense, while a number of usually "liberal" voices have decried it.
"I have seen 6,000 or 7,000 movies, and this is one of the few that I hate. I was aghast at it," Raymond Zhou, a well-known critic said in an interview. Reviewing it for the Beijing News, he called it "totally intolerable" and said its promotion of materialism was far worse than advertising in luxury magazines.
When "Tiny Times" opened in late June , some multiplexes turned over all of their screens to the film. As of Sunday the movie had taken in $77.8 million, according to EntGroup. That makes it the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year in China, ahead of Hollywood imports including "The Croods," "Skyfall" and "Star Trek: Into Darkness."
The sequel, which was filmed at the same time as "Tiny Times," was originally set for release in December. But the distributor, Le Vision Pictures, has moved up the release date to Aug. 9 to capitalize on the movie's popularity -- and the heated debate surrounding it.
Although some of the four main characters supposedly come from families of modest means, they live in a posh apartment and flaunt their Gucci, Dior and Louis Vuitton possessions. One lands a job as assistant to the suave director of a Vogue-like magazine called "M.E.," who is chauffeured around in a Bentley; she struggles to attend to his every whim (and his collection of crystal drinking glasses) as she helps him plan a fashion show.
One of the young women proclaims: "Love without materialism is just a pile of sand" and rejects her wealthy but anti-consumerist boyfriend as a naïve moron.
"The movie is instigating the kind of money-worship that will bring up a generation of gold diggers," Zhou said. "Ordinary people can only attain this level of wealth by becoming mistresses to the wealthy."
Ren Shanshan, a writer for the Guangdong Daily, commented: "No matter how the box office is thriving, 'Tiny Times' is a mishap by any pure artistic standard: its story lines are incomplete; its characters are flat and simplistic; life is unreal and soft-filtered." Borrowing a line from "Lust, Caution" author Eileen Chang, Ren added: "The whole film is just like 'a luxuriant gown covered with lice.'"
Guo and his legions of teen and twentysomething fans have hit back, saying critics are fuddy-duddies who are out of touch with China's "post-90s generation." This group came of age as the nation's consumer culture was taking off and have no memory of the days before the Communist-ruled country began adopting capitalist ways.
"Materialism is something we face every day now, and it is not dirty," Guo told the state-run China Daily newspaper. He and his defenders say the film actually focuses on the "power of friendship" and the compromises and struggles of young people in a materialistic world.
The image-conscious, media-savvy Guo is a polarizing figure who runs his own publishing company and isn't shy about making a show of his wardrobe and fashionable Shanghai home. But after critics began savaging "Tiny Times," he received a surprising amount of support from prominent state-run media outlets.
Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the Global Times, a paper closely affiliated with the Communist Party, praised Guo's mastery of "subtle emotions" and said he was glad to see an author "from the grass roots" attain such success. "I believe [Guo] is a superman who can decipher many types of delight and sorrow," he wrote on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblog service.
Meanwhile, commentators who disliked the film came in for rebuke; the online arm of CCTV, China's state-run broadcaster, ran a package of articles about the debate, including one headlined, "Shut up, you public intellectuals with big influence on Weibo."
Zhou said he consciously chose not to pen his "Tiny Times" review for China Daily, where much of his criticism normally runs, because it is one of the state's flagship publications and he feared his pan would be taken as government-sponsored anti-capitalist propaganda. He said he was caught off-guard by some of the attacks leveled at him and other critics by state-run media.
"This movie is totally apolitical, but if you want to put it in the political realm, it's totally opposite the Communist values system," Zhou said. "I would expect something like this if I had attacked a film about [model Communist worker] Lei Feng, but not 'Tiny Times.'"
Zhang Zhao, chief executive of Le Vision Pictures, a 2-year-old film branch of the online portal Le TV, which is distributing the film, said he wasn't bothered by the war of words. He attributed some of the criticism to established film industry figures who feel threatened by the success of a "young amateur" such as Guo.
"This war is very emotional," Zhang said. "Parents are worried their kids will follow this example. And ... A-class filmmakers are saying, 'with movies like this succeeding, I don't know how to make a film anymore.'"
Zhang said that based on feedback from fans, Guo and his team are currently tweaking the sequel -- which focuses on the quartet's breakup post-graduation -- to add a bit more levity. By the end of July, Le Vision will make "Tiny Times" available for free on its sister website, letv.com, which attracts 20 million viewers a day, and use that to promote ticket pre-sales for "Tiny Times 2."
Females made up 85% of the audience for "Tiny Times," with most ages 15 to 25. "This is a student-oriented film, so we thought we would get it into theaters before they go back to school," explained Zhang, adding that a third and fourth film are in development.
Still, with the sequel now just weeks away, some are questioning whether it's too much, too soon. An opinion article by journalist Liu Qiong in Monday's People's Daily was shared more than 60 million times on Weibo.
"If we bombard our eyes and ears only with 'Tiny Times,'" she wrote, "materialism and consumerism will rule the society."
Nicole Liu in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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