The film Asura is an original dramatization of ancient Tibetan mythology, with different characters ruling different heavenly realms. Teenage actor Leo Wu plays the heroic protagonist–a young boy who is going on an epic journey to save Asura, which is the godly dimension of pure desire threatened by a coup from a lower kingdom. Hong Kong actors Tony Ka Fai Leung and Carina Lau also star as mythical demigods.
Costing over $110 million, this Chinese fantasy epic Asura was promoted as China’s most expensive film ever made. Asura is produced by Zhenjian Film Studio, Ningxia Film Group and Alibaba Pictures Group — three of the major investors along with other minority investors. The producers were hoping that this film would be the beginning of another major fantasy franchise. With such a huge budget, the team expected good box office, only to find out that this film only made $7.1 million over the weekend when it opened.
Sunday evening in Beijing, the film’s social media accounts officially announced that Asura would be pulled from theaters as of 10 p.m. that night. This announcement made on social media platforms provided no explanation for this surprising move. But a representative from Zhenjian Film Studio claims that they are planning to make a few tweaks to the film and will release it again.
Apparently, the film’s backers spent a lot of time and money on foreign production and extravagant special effects. The costumes were designed by Oscar-winner Ngila Dickson (Lord of the Rings). Hollywood’s Martín Hernandez was the audio director (The Revenant, Birdman). The film is also the directorial debut of Hollywood’s Peng Zhang, former stunt coordinator who is now a director (Rush Hour 3, Twilight 1 & 2).
Nearly 90% of movie tickets in China are purchased online, mainly on two major mobile ticketing platforms Tiao Piao Piao and Maoyan. Both apps feature average user review scores, which is similar to that of Rotten Tomatoes. On such platforms, ghostwriters for hire are called “shui jun” in China, a term that literally means “water army.” They get paid by companies to post bad reviews and low scores for films.
Asura‘s producers are claiming that they have fallen victim to a “water army” attack. Following the first announcement they made to pull the film, a new post says that they have discovered that a portion of the reviews for the film posted on Maoyan are from suspicious accounts because there is a growing difference between the average score on Maoyan (4.9/10) and that on Alibaba’s Tiao Piao Piao (8.4/10). They questioned the integrity of this platform and urged Maoyan to take actions to address this “water army” problem. The post also criticized the “water army,” calling them “dirty, stupid, and ridiculous.”
Even though the fake rating has had a huge impact on the film, Asura is affected by more than this issue.
When the film first opened, it was up against exceptionally strong competitors: blockbuster Dying to Survive had an 11-day total of $366 million, while veteran actor-director Jiang Wen’s highly anticipated action movie Hidden Man opened to $46.2 million. Both films also have been rated high: Dying to Survive 8.9/10 or higher across all Chinese platforms and Hidden Man 7.4/10.
Updates indicate that Asura’s score on Maoyan went up slightly to 6.4/10, while its rating on Tiao Piaopiao dropped to 7.1/10 by Sunday. Meanwhile, on Douban, Asura has an exceptionally low score of 3.1/10. Fair play or foul play? Let’s hope we will soon have an answer.