SHANGHAI — America has its “Gossip Girl”, Brazil has “Mulheres Ricas” (“Rich Women”) and India has its Bollywood confections. Films and television programmes that serve as little more than showcases for the lavish lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy are a global phenomenon. But the furore surrounding a new smash hit set among the fashion houses of Shanghai is uniquely Chinese. The reaction to this movie is laying bare the gaping chasm between a socially conscious older generation and its individualistic, “aspirational” youth.
“Tiny Times”, the film in question, is directed by a popular young author and all-around cultural sensation named Guo Jingming. Mr Guo had already written a best-selling novel under the same title. “Tiny Times” follows the fortunes of four female friends at university. At its centre is Lin Xiao (played by Mini Yang), a Chinese girl who lands her dream job as a personal assistant to the austere, half-Asian, half-European editor of a luxury fashion magazine.
The film is derivative of two American hits, “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Sex and the City” (minus the sex). The girls totter around campus in red-soled Christian Louboutin stilettos and buy Valentino gifts for Christmas (a Western holiday). Lin Xiao’s editor lives in a house built of glass and snoozes under a camel Hermès blanket. The fictional fashion bible’s name is revealing. Called “M.E.”—and touting the catchphrase “Be yourself”—it is unabashed in fetishising the material ambitions of China’s post-’80s and -’90s “me” generation.
So far they have flocked to see the film. In late June “Tiny Times” set a new box-office record for a non-3D release in China, taking $11.9m on its first day alone. In the process it knocked aside an American blockbuster, “Man of Steel”. In its first three weeks, it has taken in $77m. “Tiny Times” has struck a nerve with teenagers of the one-child generation, who have grown up in relative peace and prosperity. The fur coats, luxury cars and penthouse apartments (the true stars of the movie) will remain a daydream for most. As far as daydreams go however, in the metropolitan China of today, this daydream does not seem outrageously farfetched.
Public opinion, however, is sharply divided. Those who came of age in the turbulent Maoist-era tended to scorn “Tiny Times”. Many fault its gratuitous display of material riches. To them it looks like celebrating China’s contemporary ills: a society with increasing inequality, moral corruption and a dearth of social responsibility. In a review of “Tiny Times” published in the Beijing News a renowned film critic scolded the movie for its “sick” parade of beauty and wealth. Raymond Zhou, who is 50 years old, wrote that it exhibited signs of “pathological greed”.
Mr Zhou has since been attacked on social media by tens of thousands of “Tiny Times’” fans. A criticism of the film Mr Zhou posted on the micro-blog Sina Weibo has so far been retweeted more than 60,000 times, but many of these retweets are most definitely not endorsements. The retorts have been virulent. “You are insulting our young people,” challenged one user on Weibo. “We have enthusiasm and dreams. We can fight for what we want.”
Standing at the heart of the debate is the figure of the writer and director, Mr Guo himself, who is only 30 years old. While the contemporary Chinese literature canon is largely focused on trials set during the Cultural Revolution, Mr Guo has capitalised on stories closer to the experiences and dreams of today’s youth. His writing taps into the anxieties of young urbanites in particular: career pressures, existential crises and loneliness predominate. Individualism and conspicuous consumption emerge as a sort of alternative value system. “Tiny Times” the novel, which sold over 24m copies, was nicknamed “a guide to luxury goods” by state media for its detailed descriptions of the latest hot brands.
The author’s personal story has fuelled his popularity—and provided his fans with a tangible example of success. Mr Guo hails from a modest background. He won a national writing contest and leapt out from obscurity when he was just a teenager. He has since built a publishing empire around his personality, topping the Chinese writers’ rich-list in 2011 with earnings of 24.5m yuan ($4m).
It helps that he steers clear of politics and history. In “Tiny Times” there is no indication as to where his characters might have come by their bountiful money; certainly there is no mention of corruption. Some of Mr Guo’s most scathing critics are not Maoists at all. They say that Mr Guo is taking part in a pact that should look familiar to anyone in China today—namely, to accept prosperity in exchange for political apathy. Paul Clark, a professor of Chinese at the University of Auckland and the author of a book titled “Youth culture in China: From Red Guards to netizens”, believes that the apparent embrace of naked consumerism can be seen as itself a “rejection of politics”. The “Tiny Times” generation is refusing to subscribe to the “serve the people” ethos that motivated previous generations.
Mr Zhou, the film critic, believes that “Tiny Times” has been lucky to avoid trouble with the censors. After all, the Chinese Communist Party is on a campaign to promote austerity, and the government is not afraid of cracking down on popular entertainment. (In 2011 it abruptly ordered that “immoral” and “vulgar” prime-time TV broadcasts be taken off the air. They were replaced with “morality-building” programmes.)
Mr Clark agrees that this could be a last hurrah of sorts. “Tiny Times” features a host of fu’erdai or “second-generation rich”, the spoilt children of China’s millionaires, living it up in one of China’s most international hubs, while probably most of its viewers are teenage girls stuck in second- or third-tier cities. He speculates that the Party might soon become hesitant to permit movies that raise the sort of consumerist expectations that cannot be fulfilled. In vast swathes of the population, Party strategists might reason, they might lead to resentment and frustration.
That day might be near. On July 15th the Party-run People’s Daily ran an op-ed that was critical of “Tiny Times”. The editorialist was prepared to draw big conclusions from what is after all a bit of cinematic candy floss: “The capitalistic manoeuvres of an individual or a small group might have succeeded, but the humanistic development and communication of an era will have spun out of control.”
Despite its detractors, “Tiny Times” is flying high. Mr Guo has announced plans to release “Tiny Times 2” this August, a full four months earlier than scheduled. For now the box-office appeal of its freewheeling, materialistic characters is just as frothy as the Champagne they swill.