Mainland Chinese films are rarely noticed internationally. With the exception of an occasional gem, most turn out pretty disappointing, and even international kung fu classics often tend to have ties to Hong Kong or Taiwan. Summer’s smash hit Wolf Warrior II, a high-flying action blockbuster with production value comparable to Hollywood’s, had people talking as though maybe that was all set to change.
But one director is ready to nip all that cinematic development in the bud, with one of China’s worst movies to premiere in recent years. That director is Bi Zhifei.
Pure Hearts: Into Chinese Showbiz is about a group of aspiring young actors trying to break into the entertainment industry (something that Bi Zhifei should never have succeeded in doing). The ragtag group of students are led by their teacher, played by Bi, in a script full of terrible moments, written by Bi. Yes, the man is a triple threat. In case that trailer didn’t render you blind, here are some translations of the text that accompanied it:
EIGHT YEARS OF WRITING.
THREE YEARS OF POST-PRODUCTION.
50,000,000 YUAN BUDGET.
Yes, this is the real promotional poster.
The film, which is objectively terrible, was reamed out on social media after its premiere in 2016. It received 99% one-star ratings on Douban, setting a new record for the site. Douban as a social media platform is known for its outspoken and worldly users, so it comes as no surprise that none of them were willing to humor Bi for his effort.
However, a series of controversies have kept the film in the national spotlight, a major one being that it was held as a triumph by many of China’s most influential film figures, from critics to professors to academy members.
“The techniques used in this film are really top-notch,” said a leading member of the China Film Association. “It should be a contestant for the Golden Rooster Award.”
“It’s down to Earth, and will definitely be a hit with young people,” said a professor at the Chinese National Academy of Arts. “It’s a reflection of mainstream values and full of positive energy.”
Well-known girl group SNH48 was roped into doing this song for the film (music written by Bi Zhifei). After recording the song, they broke contract by refusing to record a music video. Bi Zhifei, cinema’s least lovable manchild, tried to sue the group.
Bi spoke out in defense of himself, denouncing the Douban rating as manipulated.
“Douban should issue a public apology for its rating of the film. The site’s algorithm determines a film’s rating by aggregating user reviews, and the film now holds almost 100% one-star reviews. It should be clear, this is not possible.”
He went on to accuse Douban users of registering multiple accounts to pull down his film’s overall score, and to suggest that this was Douban’s way of extorting money from the production team to have the situation amended. Of course, that’s not how Douban works, and the film actually just performed terribly among the site’s users.
What’s more is that in recent weeks, a new truth has come to light. As it turns out, the first-time director’s father-in-law is the CEO of a powerful investment bank, with high-level connections to major media players across the board. So it seems that the widespread laudatory reviews have been kind of coerced, or otherwise cajoled out of critics. Bi later came forward to point out that the film won an award at the San Francisco International Global Film Festival. But when investigated, the only real records of this festival occurring are on Chinese websites, all linking back to the stunning victory of Pure Hearts: Into Chinese Showbiz. It seems the San Francisco International Global Film Festival (not to be confused with the San Francisco International Film Festival, a real festival without the redundant “Global”) was orchestrated solely to provide credibility to what might be one of the worst films in the history of modern China.
We reached out to one Douban user for her opinion on the whole thing.
“China’s film industry’s expansion is slowing down these days. It’s because the audience is getting smarter – you can’t fool us anymore. A couple of years ago maybe we’d go see a shitty movie just for the experience of going to a movie theatre. But now, people don’t want to pay for a lame movie.”
So it seems that the supposed victim of manipulation is really the manipulator himself. The movie’s Douban score, and overall reception in China, continue to plummet. You can give this one a miss, but I’m sure you already knew that.
Co-writing, translation, and paraphrasing by Zhao Yinyin