Best of Times, Or Worst of Times?

What Tiny Times Says About Our Times

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The summer box office hit “Tiny Times ” ( 小时代) – directed by celebrity author Guo Jingming, and based on the first volume of his fictional trilogy of the same name – stunned many film critics and analysts when it earned more than US$ 43 million its first week and beat the Hollywood blockbuster “Man of Steel” at the box office.

Once they had flocked to see it, “Tiny Times” shocked the critics even more with its “unconditional indolence,” “materialism,” and “hedonism” (People’s Daily); “shallow approach, inexplicable storyline, childish characters and lavish lifestyles” (Beijing Review); “pathological greed” (Beijing News); “unabashed flaunting of wealth, glamour and male power,” and “twisted male narcissism”(ChinaFile, carried also by Atlantic Online). A Guangdong Daily critic, borrowing a line from Eileen Chang, delivered the most damning review of all: “The whole film is just like ‘a luxuriant gown covered with lice.’”

The barrage of negative reviews almost certainly helped the film, which continued to pull in viewers from Guo’s passionate, mostly young and female fan base. Indeed, it did so well that the release of “Tiny Times 2.0″ was moved forward by several months to early August. But, as the controversy swelled alongside ticket sales, some people began to fear (incorrectly) that a ban might be imminent.

“The controversy is bigger than I anticipated,” Guo Jingming told me by email at its height. “But, I have been accompanied by controversy from the time I started writing books right up until today.”

Guo – who first came to national attention in 2001 when he won the New Concept Writing Competition sponsored by Mengya Magazine – has indeed been shadowed by controversy, most notably a 2006 scandal in which he was charged with plagiarism.  That led the writer Wang Shuo (whose sub-specialty is trashing other writers and artists) to call Guo an “out-and-out thief” – Guo responded by noting it was “normal for the previous generation to discipline the later generation.” (And his fans responded by buying a million copies of his next book in 10 days.) He was equally diplomatic when I asked him why he thought the film caused such an uproar.

“I don’t know, maybe the emergence of new things is always accompanied by controversy,” he said. “There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s hearts – every person will have his own interpretation of the same movie.”
“Tiny Times” is a fairly straightforward fantasy that documents the loves and longings of four fashionable girlfriends at a Shanghai college. Critics have been most upset by the prevalence of opulent designer goods – the “sisters,” as Guo calls them, are struggling students who wear Gucci, Dior, and LV while the boss of the magazine at which one of them interns lives in a spectacular glass penthouse, commutes in a chauffeured Bentley, naps under Hermes blankets, and collects drinking glasses that cost nearly US$ 5000 each. Certain lines – “Love without materialism is just a pile of sand!” – also gave many commentators conniptions.

But, whether you love the movie or hate it, the hullabaloo that has surrounded “Tiny Times” provides some fascinating insights into the current state of popular culture in China.  Here are a few that occurred to this particular Hamlet (with a little bit of subtitling help from Shakespeare’s Hamlet):

“Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Since the Cultural Revolution ended and the era of opening and reform began, the Chinese government has preached the gospel of materialism.  The Deng-era slogans “To get rich is glorious,” “Development is the irrefutable argument,” and “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse” have been thoroughly absorbed.  Wealth-generation has become virtually the sole measure of success – for the nation, provinces, localities, leaders, and individuals. It thus comes as little surprise that a movie in which young people are obsessed with luxury goods and opt for money over love and in which parents will do anything to see their child marry rich – a mother in “Tiny Times’ tells her son’s girlfriend, “Our family is not open to the lowly poor like you!” – should be popular with young people.

On the contrary, it looks like a true reflection of contemporary society in which conspicuous consumption is often the dominant ethos; those who vocally advocate an alternative path – of religious faith or opposing politics – do so at their own risk; and the elite inhabit a parallel universe of privilege that, on those occasions when it is exposed (as following a sports car accident, a corruption trial, or a gang rape) makes the wealth-flaunting in “Tiny Times” seem truly tiny.  A rethinking of official rhetoric is already underway and I, for one – while recognizing the need for continued growth – hope that the new “Chinese dream” will encompass goals other than getting rich at any cost.

“Words, words, words.”

“Tiny Times” has received an astonishing number of write-ups in both the domestic and international press.  Healthy arts criticism is a pillar of a vibrant culture, but is largely lacking in China.  It has been refreshing to see negative reviews in major papers – and would be even more so if those same papers and writers would publish equally honest reviews of films, books, and other creative works by establishment and state-supported artists.  In this vein, it was also heartening to see critics of the film come to its defense as soon as they feared it might be banned.  Raymond Zhou – who eviscerated the movie in his review – defended its presence in theaters on CCTV’s “Crosstalk” following the ominous “People’s Daily” commentary. “As long as you don’t ask for banning the movie,” he said, “it’s ok, because it’s freedom of speech.  But once you are hinting that government power should be used to either promote or to curb a movie, that’s disturbing.”

“Steep and thorny” vs. “the primrose path”

Cinematic and literary tastes are changing in China – fast. Ticket sales for domestic films increased 144 percent so far this year while those for imported films fell by 21 percent. Third and fourth tier cities accounted for 34 percent of ticket sales in 2012, a number expected to reach 42 percent by 2015. The average age of a moviegoer has fallen to 21 – and China currently has about 450 million people under the age of 25.  The tastes of young people who live in rapidly expanding interior cities differ from those of the older generation and, to a certain extent, from those of long-time denizens of sophisticated mega-cities like Shanghai and Beijing.  They seem to prefer domestic-made films about regular people with aspirations similar to their own; enjoy tales of the city, rather than the countryside; and – like pretty much everyone – are sick of big-budget historic costume dramas.  In other words, they prefer primroses to thorns, Guo Jingming to Mo Yan – a fact Mo tacitly acknowledged when he said (pre-Nobel Prize), “Guo Jingming is the only writer who’s able to live the life he is living through writing.” (In fairness, Guo has said that he himself reads Mo’s works in his spare time.)

“This above all – to thine own self be true.” 

Where critics see materialism in Guo’s books and movies, fans see individualism.

“I have seen a lot of comments by young viewers,” Guo told me.  “They are moved by the friendship of the sisters in the film and by their struggles to realize their dreams, which really resonated.  I think this better reflects the theme of the movie.”

I personally prefer individualism to materialism and respect Guo for the extent to which he advocates it – and lives it.   Indeed, when I asked him if the response to the first two “Tiny Times” films would affect his approach to the third, he told me that he had noted all the “technically useful” comments on the films.

“However,” he said, “when it comes to ‘Tiny Times’ the work itself, I feel that I will stick with my own ideas – after all, I am the person who best understands ‘Tiny Times.’

This story was first published at Caixin: http://english.caixin.com/2013-10-12/100590994.html

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