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Asura flops, but shines a light on China’s increasingly sophisticated film audience

Vivienne Chow says that the devastating failure of the Chinese film industry’s most expensive production ever, despite rising box office numbers overall, shows that filmmakers now need original storytelling to woo a domestic audience of growing discernment – and that’s good news for the Chinese film industry

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2018, 5:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2018, 1:25pm

In Indian mythology, an Asura is a demigod with three heads, who is obsessed with power, ego and violence. This week in China, the film Asura represents not only an epic failure, but also an important lesson for the country’s fast-growing film industry’s ambition for box office success that outshines Hollywood. In other words, the Chinese film industry itself is an Asura.

To be fair, the future of China’s film industry has never looked so promising. The country overtook North America as the world’s largest film market in the first quarter of this year, and though it lost the title halfway through 2018, as North America went up to nearly US$6 million through June, China’s film industry is still on the rise.

The half-year industry report from Ent Group revealed that the Chinese box office has achieved the best-ever first six months in 2018, totalling 31.6 billion yuan (US$4.8 billion) with 889 million viewers, a 16 per cent increase from the 27.2 billion yuan recorded during the same period of 2017.

Of the half-year box office receipts, 18.8 billion yuan, or 59.6 per cent, came from domestic productions, with local blockbusters Operation Red Sea and Detective Chinatown 2 driving movie-goers to the cinema.

The figures have given a great deal of confidence to the film industry, with many industry players believing that this could be the year that China will eventually become the world’s No 1.

But the truth is, China’s film industry is still at a developing stage, and the epic flop of Asura is a wake-up call.

Billed as China’s most expensive film, Asura was pulled from the screens three days after it opened. With the a star-studded cast – Hong Kong heavyweights Tony Leung Ka-fai and Carina Lau Kar-ling joining 18-year-old heartthrob Leo Wu Lei to play the three-headed demigod Asura, a budget of 750 million yuan, and an army of special-effect workers billed as up to Hollywood standard, the fantasy epic took six years to make.

Yet, it scored only 49.05 million yuan in receipts during the opening weekend. The film’s producers – Zhenjian Film Studio and Ningxia Film Group – decided to yank the film out of theatres.

Watch: Most expensive Chinese movie pulled from theatre after disastrous opening

What did China’s US$100 million box office flop spend money on?

The embarrassing outcome reflects how little many filmmakers as well as investors understand their audience.

According to mainland media company Jiemian, most Chinese movie-goers are aged between 24 and 29, a group who may be young in age but are already mature denizens of the cyberworld. Despite China’s censorship controls, these young people are plugged into the internet via their smartphones. They play online video games.

And despite the fact that China imposes a quota on foreign cinema, they watch a great deal of foreign TV series via internet streaming platforms, legal or not. In other words, they are no longer the country bumpkins who know nothing about the outside world.

A lot of criticism on China’s social media and movie rating platforms confirmed this. Many complained about how Asura was a rip-off of many top-notch foreign productions they have seen, such as Game of Thrones and Avatar. They are not interested in another localised version of a fantasy epic.

And, most important of all, they are interested in great stories, which, apparently, Asura failed to deliver.

Judging from many of the recent box office successes, a good storyline holds the key. One can argue that Operation Red Sea is just another patriotic blockbuster, but it hits the emotional soft spot for movie-goers across all ages, who genuinely believe that China is a rising global power.

Another film that has touched Chinese hearts is Dying to Survive, a black comedy based on the true story of a leukaemia patient smuggling cheap but unverified cancer medicine to China from India. The film made nearly 273 million yuan in the box office after 16 days of screening, and earned a score of 8.9 out of 10 on the movie rating platform Douban. The film even prompted Premier Li Keqiang to call for price cuts for cancer drugs.

Chinese films overtake Hollywood at the box office in the first half

Box office records also show that Chinese audiences are looking beyond Hollywood. Foreign language films, particularly from Bollywood, have been performing well in China in recent years. Secret Superstar , co-produced by Aamir Khan, earned 747 million yuan this year. Khan’s sports film Dangal took nearly 1.3 billion yuan last year, and became the most popular non-Hollywood foreign film in China, ranking at 19th of the country’s all-time highest-grossing films.

Spanish thriller Contratiempo raked in US$25.6 million, with a 8.7 rating on Douban, surpassing Spider-Man: Homecoming five days after it opened. And the Thai comedy Bad Genius also earned both critical and commercial acclaim last year.

Watch: Trailer for Thai comedy Bad Genius

The numbers show that Chinese audiences demand interesting, original stories that resonate emotionally. They are tired of formulaic Hollywood blockbusters, let alone a localised version that does not offer better special effects or a better storyline.

Even recycling the success formula of Hong Kong cinema from the 1980s and ’90s does not work – the failure of Hong Kong veteran filmmaker Vincent Kok Tak-chiu’s Perfect Couple and Keep Calm and Be a Superstar were classic examples, despite the latter starring Eason Chan Yik-shun, the city’s biggest Canto-pop star of the past decade.

Its rich heritage is unquestioned, but Hong Kong cinema faces uncertain future

Most importantly, in a country where politics is not to be discussed and freedom of speech is controlled, the diversity of film selection available in the market becomes even more important than ever. Chinese audiences cannot select their leaders and criticise the Communist Party, but they are free to select what films they want to see and which they want to critique.

The film Asura may have flopped, but China’s increasingly discerning movie-goers have surely won a victory. It is to be hoped that their demand for better quality will be heard by filmmakers and production companies, and China will finally have a film industry it can be proud of.

Vivienne Chow is a Hong Kong-based journalist and cultural critic. She is the founder of Cultural Journalism Campus

Correction: An earlier version of the story listed Alibaba Pictures as one of the producers of the film Asura. This is wrong. It is one of the investors.