Many of the best love stories end with heartbreak. From Romeo and Juliet to Titanic or the more recent A Star is Born, the timeless tale of lovers who come to a deadly end is a Hollywood staple.
Another story of sacrifice has been doing well at the box office in China. More Than Blue, a Taiwanese production, took Rmb650 million ($96.66 million) in its first nine days at cinemas, putting it on track to surpass Disney’s Captain Marvel. Maoyan, the online ticketing site, reckons the film, which cost Rmb30 million to make, could even reach Rmb1 billion in ticket sales, rendering it hugely profitable.
Based originally on a South Korean film released a decade ago, the story follows two friends K (Liu Yi-hao) and Cream (Chen Yi-han) who grew up together as orphans.
K learns that he has leukaemia so instead of confessing his love to Cream, he sets out to find her a suitable husband.
A successful dentist (Chang Shu-hao) is deemed appropriate for his friend and she eventually accepts his marriage proposal. But then Cream finds out about K’s leukaemia and breaks up with her new husband so she can be with him.
The film ends in the manner of Shakespeare’s original “star-crossed lovers” in death.
Despite its strong performance at the box office, reviews of the film have been overwhelmingly negative. On Douban, the TV and film review site, More Than Blue scored a rating of just 4.8 out of 10, while the South China Morning Post described the behaviour of the characters as “baffling” and called the plot “ridiculous”.
Netizens haven’t sounded too impressed, either. “What’s sadder than A Story Sadder than Sadness [the literal translation of the film’s title in Chinese] is paying money to watch it,” one complained.
“I can’t believe that in 2019 a trashy film like this would still be the biggest box office surprise with people lining up to watch it! I think women today have an excessive amount of tears. If that’s the case, I would suggest that they chop up some onions. Don’t waste your money on this film!” another thundered.
Others lambasted the plot as far too predictable. “Having the lead die from an incurable disease is a ploy used in so many K-dramas that even the Koreans are fed up with it”, said Tanxinshe, a critic on NetEase, a portal. “It hasn’t stopped Chinese filmmakers from using the same ruse to attract audiences. But in order to make audiences cry, the film disregards all moral values (Cream dumping her husband to go back to her lover, for instance) to convince impressionable young audiences that this is what people do for perfect love.”
Blue Whale Media, another news portal, looked at the ticket data for More Than Blue, finding that the majority of the audiences was female (72%). “The kind of people that like these sorts of movies are those between 20 and 30 years-old, and the majority of them live in second, third and fourth-tier cities and are not the most educated,” it added, rather snootily.
All the same More Than Blue is clearly a hit with women, doing better than action-filled blockbusters that had hoped to do well with female audiences, like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. Women accounted for about 47% of ticket sales for Captain Marvel, for instance, while Wonder Woman did a little better at 51%.
The marketing of More Than Blue played up its sentimentality unapologetically. To target younger audiences the film’s backers promoted it persistently on short video site Douyin and encouraged people to post footage of themselves crying at the end of the movie. The film also adopted the tagline, “The only reminder you need is to bring enough tissues”.
“The main reason for the success of More Than Blue is that it unashamedly copies the format for South Korean soap operas: there is love, cancer and death. Meanwhile, it was promoted on short video platforms to lure young audiences to the cinema. All these strategies really generated a lot of attention,” reckoned Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment blog.
Yiyu Guancha added that the movie’s success seemed to confirm that young Chinese women are more attracted to melodramas than action films. “At a time when the status of women is increasing and women are pursuing gender equality and greater independence, why are Chinese female moviegoers still so obsessed with ‘crying films’ while action films with feminist elements have fallen flat?” it queried. “The success of More than Blue suggests that when it comes to female audiences, they are looking for a film that could be an emotional catharsis. Whether the story is realistic or not does not seem so important.”
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