Chinese Coming-of-Age Drama ‘Tiny Times’ Eyeing Huge Local Debut

Tiny Times H

With more than 600 sneak preview screenings planned in over 60 cities across the country, local distributor Le Vision Pictures is pulling out all the stops to tap the rapidly evolving Chinese youth market.

HONG KONG -- Never mind its seemingly self-belittling title: Chinese coming-of-age drama Tiny Times is poised to become one of the biggest hits in the country this year, and its makers are going to extremes to make sure it opens with a bang. More than 600 simultaneously-held sneak previews will take place in China on Wednesday at 8 p.m. local time in more than 60 cities across the country, before the film opens officially on Thursday. It’s slated to take up more than 40 percent of the total screenings in the country on its opening day – quite a feat in itself, given the presence of the recently-released Man of Steel and the Jet Li-starring Badges of Fury.

“For people in their 30s and 40s, it doesn’t really matter whether you get to see a film before everybody else -- they are usually more rational in how they spend their money,” said Guo Jingming, who has adapted his own novel from 2008 -- also titled Tiny Times -- for his directorial debut. “But young people are more impulsive -- they really, really need to see the film the moment it’s available. That’s why we are putting on these 600 shows.”

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Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in his Shanghai office, Guo said he is confident the shows will sell out. His self-assurance stems from the frantic support shown by his fanbase: More than a decade after his career as a writer took off, he counts 19.7 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and all three volumes of his Tiny Times novels -- which revolve around four young university graduates’ rites of passage as they navigate lives as adults -- have been best-sellers in the country.

The world premiere of the film itself at the Shanghai International Film Festival last week was packed to the rafters with his adoring fans whom, as Guo himself said, were mostly young women in their late teens.

Zhang Zhao, CEO of the film’s distributors Le Vision Pictures, told THR the day after the screening that “too many fans were coming to the show from so many different cities. “We tried to keep the number down, but we couldn’t -- it’s crazy,” he added, beaming.

Guo said Tiny Times allows his viewers to dream about the future. “For example, look at Lin Shao,” he said, referring to the film’s protagonist played by A-lister Mini Yang Mi. “She began the story as an ordinary university student, and then she had to face all these things like job interviews and then intimidating bosses in the workplace. But she manages to pull through and her life gets better and better -- she’s got a great career, great friends and a handsome boyfriend. This is every girl’s dream life.”

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And it’s a fantasy befitting a country careening in its turbo-charged way towards commodity-driven capitalism, too. Boasting the production design of Huang Wei -- a former creative director of the Chinese edition of Vogue -- Tiny Times maintains a glitzy sheen, which wouldn’t look out of place in any of China’s burgeoning array of lifestyle magazines. The fact that it’s set in a skyscraper-littered, mall-laden Shanghai adds to the allure of the whole enterprise -- especially for most of Guo’s readers, spread across the provincial cities of the vast country.

“I’ve always lived in Shanghai and I know this city well -- and I’ve seen how it has developed and changed,” Guo said. “When people talked about Shanghai in the past, they would think of [novelist] Eileen Chang’s description of a city of the Bund and the international concessions before the war; later it would be Wang Anyi’s take of life in small halls in back alleys. What I want to deliver is an image of Shanghai here and now -- a modern city at the top of the world. I want to chronicle the city as it is now -- I want people to remember Shanghai as it is now.”

Guo said he’s very aware of how his emphasis in the individualistic pursuits for gratification casts the film apart from the nostalgia-tinged dramas from directors from previous generations. Tiny Times sells imaginings of lives yet to be lived.

“We are very different from people born in the 1960s or 70s -- they were people who dressed the same and ate the same food in the same cafeteria, living the same kind of life,” he said. “But for people born in the 1980s, or even more so for those from the 1990s, it’s about trying to be different from everybody else. Whereas doing that in the past would see you branded as an anomaly, these days it’s all about looking after myself -- saying, 'I want to enjoy life the way I like it.'”

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While Peter Chan’s American Dreams in China (about the lives of three school teachers in the 1980s and 90s) and Vicki Zhao’s So Young (a semi-autobiographical tale about university life in the 1990s) mined the nostalgia of Chinese viewers in their 30s and 40s to maximum box-office effect -- the two films grossed $87 million (535 million yuan) and $117 million (719.5 million yuan), respectively -- Tiny Times might top them both, thanks largely to the demographical changes among Chinese cinema-goers today.

According to the latest statistics from the China Film Distribution and Exhibition Association, the average age of a moviegoer in the country has dropped from 25.7 in 2009 to 21.2 in 2012. While more mature viewers have now elected to stream movies on mobile or home platforms, a trip to the cinema has remained a bonding ritual for students -- and it’s hardly a surprise that they tend to prefer films drenched in optimism and bling.

Having presided over a few successful marketing campaigns during his two-year tenure at Le Vision Pictures -- including that of The Expendables 2, released in the same week as The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man last September -- Zhang Zhao has been pragmatic in his approach to Tiny Times. “We’re not marketing a film -- we’re shaping the market,” he said, referring to the brutally precise campaigns deployed to zero in on the film’s young clientele.

Zhang said most of the film’s marketing activities are online, and that his team “didn’t put up one single advertising billboard” across the country. Knowing their fanbase is mostly high school students, the company put most of their effort into pushing the film through threads in China’s burgeoning social media networks, which count about 94 million students among their users, according to a report about new media released by the Chinese Academy of Social Science on Tuesday.

Not that Guo and his stars have eschewed all of the traditional ways of movie promotion, however. The director has been traveling across the country with his cast -- which, apart from the more well-known Yang, also include Taiwanese stars Ko Chen-tung (You Are the Apple of My Eye) and Amber Guo (Au Revoir Taipei) -- and their presence at the Shanghai festival last week was the pinnacle of their tour, with the director’s pedigree boosted at industry panels at the film market, and the stars getting loads of exposure at the opening and closing ceremonies of premier Chinese festival.

For his part, Guo Jingming said he had turned down the offer of adapting the film in 2010 when Beijing Forbidden City company bought the adaptation rights to his novel. “I didn’t feel I was ready then -- and also the Chinese film market wasn't as vibrant then as it is now. Today the environment is good and allows for the presence of new directors,” he said, referring to how first-timers like Zhao and Xu Zheng (Lost in Thailand) have flourished with their debuts.

The success of homegrown dramas also signals how Chinese audiences have reconsidered what they want in their cinemas, Guo added. “They are not just looking for effects-driven, epic-looking Hollywood blockbusters or simple romantic comedies,” he said.

“We need to find something new so that we can get them excited -- and what’s been lacking are stories addressing how particular generations of people became who they are. So you have to have stories that can resonate with them, something they can call their own.”

With a sequel planned for release in December and two volumes of his Tiny Times novels yet to be adapted, Guo would certainly hope for an unyielding explosion of the obsession.