A Rite of Passage to Nowhere

“Tiny Times,” Chinese Cinema, and Chinese Women

Tiny Times, a Chinese feature film set in contemporary Shanghai, made headline news on its opening day in late June by knocking the Hollywood blockbuster Man of Steel from its perch atop the domestic box-office and breaking the opening-day record for a Chinese-language 2D release.

The film follows four college girls as they navigate romance and their professional aspirations, but the bulk of the film is about the female longing for a life of luxury in the company of a good-looking man. Tiny Times is not a women’s film, though it does feature female characters, draped from head to toe in designer clothes and easily mesmerized by the presence of supposedly visually stunning males—not the usual, muscle-bound Hollywood types, but Asian boys of androgynous demeanor with compact frames, exquisite facial contours, and the look of perpetual youth.

Courtesy of Tiny Times

At first glance, Tiny Times might be mistaken for a Sinicized Sex and the City, but soon it becomes clear that the four boy-crazed, mall-loitering characters in Shanghai have little in common with the fiercely independent career women in Candace Bushnell’s New York. Positioned in the market by Le Vision Pictures of Beijing as a coming of age story, the rite of passage for one dazed girl in the film is to grow into a competent personal assistant to her oh-so-handsome male boss whose aloof demeanor and penetrating gaze constantly destabilizes her. Another girl from a nouveau riche family showers her boyfriend with expensive clothes and accessories. The third girl—chubby, suffering from stereotypically low self-esteem and emotional eating—is made fun of throughout the movie as she obsesses over a young tennis player, the one man in the movie who actually possesses something resembling muscle. The fourth girl, a budding fashion designer from a humble background, is trapped in an abusive relationship with yet another good-looking boy.

Taking a page from the book of popular East Asian “idol dramas” that cater primarily to youth in their teens and twenties, the film features popular singers, actors, and actresses, cast regardless of any actual acting ability. Good idol dramas frequently feature teen romance, in which brooding characters with dark secrets and painful pasts elicit pathos and real emotion. Tiny Times, however, has done away with complex story arcs and character development. The film looks great but ultimately lacks substance.

The four characters’ professional aspirations amount to serving men with competence. The film is a Chinese version of “chick flick” minus the emotional engagement and relationship-based social realism that typically are associated with the Hollywood genre. The only enduring relationship in Tiny Times is the chicks’ relationship with material goods. The hyper-materialist life portrayed carries little plot but serves as a setting for consumption, and is more akin to MTV or reality TV than real drama. With its scandalously cartoonish characters, the film would have worked better as a satirical comedy, except that the director is too sincere in his celebration of material abundance to display any sense of irony.

We were caught completely off guard, stupefied by the film’s unabashed flaunting of wealth, glamor, and male power passed off as “what women want.” Its vulgar and utter lack of self-awareness is astonishing, but perhaps not too surprising. It appears to be the product of full-blown materialism in modern, urban Chinese society. The film speaks to the male fantasy of a world of female yearnings, which revolve around men and the goods men are best equipped to deliver, whether materially or bodily. It betrays a twisted male narcissism and a male desire for patriarchal power and control over female bodies and emotions misconstrued as female longing.

Whatever happened to Chairman Mao’s proclamation that “women hold up half the sky”? In Tiny Times Chinese society has regressed to an earlier era. Years of accelerating economic growth have brought unprecedented social and geographic mobility and increased pressure on Chinese men to succeed, to follow the trail of power and money, leaving their women behind. Economic growth has exacerbated the gender gap, often reviving cultural traditions that reduce women to a sub-human status. The contempt for women that I have witnessed in China in recent years is alarming. The male chauvinism in the film is symptomatic of a society where the choices for women are severely limited. The ones with bodies are enticed to become material girls under the thumb of men, the ones with brains who dare to use their thinking faculties are condemned to eternal loneliness, and the ones possessing neither are banished to a corner.

Much to our horror and dark amusement, Tiny Times’ director, Guo Jingming, won the award for “best new director” at the recently concluded Shanghai International Film Festival. A film school dropout turned popular fiction writer, Guo aspires to be an author of contemporary Shanghai. Though not a Shanghai native, he nevertheless invokes the renowned Shanghai novelists Eileen Chang and Wang Anyi as his predecessors. Guo’s imagination paints Shanghai as a world city whose very spirit is equated with wealth and the attendant decadence. Never mind that he paints a world devoid of compassion and humanity. Never mind that the fabulously wealthy Shanghai in his fictionalized world is hardly the reality for the majority of city-dwellers.

Guo claims to represent the post 1990s “me generation” and has apparently hit a home run with the youth audience. According to the latest statistics from the China Film Distribution and Exhibition Association, the average age of a moviegoer in China has dropped to 21.2 years in 2012 from from 25.7 years in 2009. Tiny Times owes its success partly to a marketing campaign that relied heavily on social media networks reaching tens of millions of students.

The Chinese film industry has come aboard celebrating a work of fiction with a dubious imagination, awful acting, and a story that is non-existent. One can only surmise that Chinese cinema has momentarily lost its way—in its desperate pursuit of domestic market share in competition with a growing number of imported Hollywood blockbusters, the Shanghai International Film Festival traded cinematic quality for box-office returns. If this pattern holds, Chinese cinema will soon hang by a thin thread. It cannot rely on weightless movies like Tiny Times to sustain its market momentum.

It comes as a consolation to us that the film averaged low ratings of 3.4 and 5.0 out of 10 on China’s two most-visited online movie portals, Mtime and Douban.

Director Guo said that Tiny Times allowed its viewers to dream about a future with “a great career, great friends, and a handsome boyfriend.” We're not at all sure if this is what Chinese President Xi Jingping had in mind when he announced his opaque “Chinese Dream.” We sure hope that both Chinese cinema and Chinese women can envision their own alternatives.