Chinese fantasy epic Asura now ranks among the most notorious big-budget flops ever. Produced for $113 million (750 million yuan), it was China’s most expensive movie ever made, involving some 200 foreign crew and cast from more than 35 countries, including at least one Oscar winner. Then it opened on Friday, July 13 to disastrous results, earning just $7.1 million.
But Asura‘s backers have a bold — some might say futile — plan to jump-start the troubled release.
Late on the Sunday evening of its opening weekend, Asura‘s producers released a statement announcing that they were pulling the film from cinemas at 10 p.m. that night. Then they gave an interview in the Chinese press outlining an unprecedented plan: they would make changes to the movie and release it again.
Several movies have been pulled from China’s cinemas in the past — but never voluntarily, and always because of censorship issues.
In 2012, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was abruptly yanked from theaters just minutes into its release. Officials never gave an explanation for the sudden block, but the movie was able to reopen several weeks later after major cuts were made to its bloodshed and brief nudity. The intervening weeks did considerable damage, though, as many local fans turned to piracy to watch the leaked original version. Django ultimately earned just $2.7 million in China.
Last year, local film legend Feng Xiaogang got hit with a major release delay when his period drama Youth was suddenly postponed by censors after already making its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Cuts were ordered for a sequence touching upon China’s politically sensitive 1970s military conflict with Vietnam, and the film missed out on opening over China’s major autumn holiday period. But fans expressed an outpouring of sympathy for Feng and his team and the movie later became a big hit, earning $225 million.
So what are the chances that Asura might orchestrate a similar resurrection?
When contacted by The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week, a representative for the film’s producers declined to comment or elaborate on the rerelease ambitions.
China industry analysts are generally skeptical of the plan though, particularly since Asura has already hit screens nationwide and been roundly rejected by the limited filmgoers who have seen it.
“Films are among the most perishable of products — a one shot thing,” says James Li, founder of Beijing-based movie market research firm Fankink. “Unlike some consumer categories, there is very little chance to resurrect a movie once it is already out on the market.”
Asura‘s story took an even stranger turn when the producers — which include Zhenjian Film Studio, Ningxia Film Group and Jack Ma’s Alibaba Pictures — issued a statement during the opening weekend alleging that the movie had been sabotaged.
The companies claimed that ratings for the film on leading online ticketing platform Maoyan had been unfairly rigged by some unknown party paying ghostwriters to log a huge number of fake negative reviews, dragging the film’s aggregate rating downwards. (Such ghostwriters for hire are known in China as “shuijun,” a pejorative term that literally means “water army,” because companies pay them to “flood” forums with fake reviews.) Asura‘s early average score on Maoyan was 4.9/10, before climbing slightly over the weekend to 6.4/10, which still ranked as the lowest score of any major film on release at the time.
Reached by THR on Thursday, a spokesperson for Maoyan declined to comment on the company’s handling of Asura‘s reviews.
But Maoyan wasn’t the only platform to give Asura a poor score. Leading independent reviews aggregator, Douban.com, rated the film even lower. Douban is known to attract a more discerning, occasionally snarky, reviewer community; but its scores are considered China’s most reliable among movie buffs. Douban’s average rating for Asura sits at a lowly 3.1/10. A spokesperson for the company also says it is confident in the integrity of its reviews: “There is no abnormality in Douban’s scores for this movie,” a spokesperson told THR Thursday.
Asura‘s obvious first task would be to fix whatever viewers disliked so much about the original version (THR‘s review team, like most mainstream publications in China, didn’t have a chance to review the film before it was pulled). Then they’ll have to make a herculean marketing effort to convince the Chinese public that the new version isn’t the same film that flopped so spectacularly.
Asura is an imaginative dramatization of ancient Tibetan mythology, with a vast set of characters occupying different heavenly realms. Teenage heartthrob Lei Wu plays the film’s hero, a young boy who must embark on an epic journey to save the heavenly realm after it is threatened by a coup from a lower kingdom. Veteran Hong Kong actors Tony Ka Fai Leung and Carina Lau also star as mythical demigods.
Some classic films have been rereleased in China successfully in the past, such as James Cameron’s Titanic 3D (2012, $145 million) or Wong Kar Wai’s art house classic Days of Beijing Wild (2018, $3 million). “But those were classic titles that were rereleased in remastered versions or in 3D for the first time,” points out Clark Li, founder of Daybreak Media, a film marketing and promotion company in Beijing. “Asura‘s case is very different,” he adds. “I don’t want to say impossible, but it’s very unlikely.”
The one wildcard potentially working in Asura‘s favor could be its newfound international infamy. The film’s strange saga has attracted media attention around the world by now, generating plenty of name recognition and curiosity in the process.
“After all this, I actually really hope I get a chance to see it,” one U.S. film exec told THR with a chuckle on Tuesday (while also asking not to be named because of ongoing business with Alibaba). “If there’s anywhere I could see someone figuring out how to pull this off, it’s China.”