Will the new ‘Fifty Shades’ movie make it to the hearts of China’s film lovers?

By Liu Meng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/12 19:13:39

Has the Fifty Shades franchise lost its appeal among Chinese viewers? Some Chinese overseas said they only watched the final installment either out of curiosity or because of the attractive leads. Photo: IC

First-time mom Zhang Cheng, 35, loves erotic romance novels. In fact, she reads them even as she breastfeeds her one-year-old son by lying on her side with her son in one arm and her cell phone in the other, perched above her head at an angle to catch the light from the window. She has managed to keep up her reading habit for over 20 years, despite the challenges of being a mom and working in a foreign company.

Two years ago, when the film Fifty Shades of Grey (2015), which was adapted from the erotic romance novel by British author E.L. James, hit theaters abroad, Zhang, like many other lovers of erotic novels, couldn't wait to see it. However, things have changed. While her love for erotic romance books has not changed, her desire to watch the final film in the trilogy has waned.

The third and final installment of the Fifty Shades trilogy, Fifty Shades Freed (2018), has hit the overseas market in time for Valentine's Day, but Zhang has yet to feel excited.

"At this time two years ago, everyone was talking about the movie. But after I watched it, I felt it was just so-so. I cannot even recall the plot now," Zhang said.

Like the first two installments, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) and Fifty Shades Darker (2017), Fifty Shades Freed will also not to be shown on the Chinese mainland. It premiered in France on February 6 and was released in many other countries and regions from February 7 onward.

The film's storyline somewhat fits the narrative of a trending genre in China called "Mary Sue stories." These types of stories usually feature a woman who is perfect to a ridiculous degree and loved by almost all the male characters in the film. Although the stories are often quite unrealistic, many Chinese women love them because they can fantasize about being like the heroines in the stories.

But the Fifty Shades trilogy is not a cookie-cutter Mary Sue story; it also depicts some erotic practices that are not very mainstream in China, such as bondage, discipline and submission and other BDSM practices. So, given the popularity of Mary Sue stories on the Chinese mainland, is the Fifty Shades trilogy Chinese viewers' cup of tea?

A scene in the movie Fifty Shades Freed (2018) Photo: IC

Curiosity and 'face appeal'

Some mainland fans of the novel flew to Hong Kong to watch Fifty Shades Freed on February 8, according to posts about the film on China's microblogging platform Sina Weibo. Some Chinese overseas also caught the film in their respective host countries.

Zuck Wang, a 25-year-old man who works in Stuttgart, Germany, watched the preview of Fifty Shades Freed in a cinema in Stuttgart on February 7. He said he just accompanied his friend to watch the movie because his friend saw the first two installments and wanted to know how it ended.

"It is vulgar and without a well-designed plot," he said. "The movie rating and review site IMDB gave a score of 3.8 out of 10. But I will give it three points, and the third point is for its soundtrack," he told Metropolitan.

Zuck predicts that the movie will win the hearts of many young Chinese girls because "they love fairy tales in which the heroine, an ordinary girl, finally marries her domineering and wealthy boss and has children with him."

English and Chinese versions of the Fifty Shades trilogy are on sale on China's largest online shopping website Taobao. But the Chinese version is in traditional Chinese characters.

According to an online store owner who sells the Chinese version of the trilogy for 59 yuan ($9.4), the final installment of the film has boosted sales.

"But business was much better two years ago when Fifty Shades of Grey hit the screen," the owner said.

Joyce Wu, 28, whose English level is TEM-8 (Test for English Majors-Band 8), told Metropolitan that she read the novel in English but could not finish it because it is too tedious.

"I don't think it is well-written and the words are rather repetitive," she said.

Having read a lot of erotic romance novels when she was younger, Wu said the Fifty Shades novels are far behind their counterparts in China in terms of detail and plot structure. "Even its Mary Sue plot is too cliché. Such a plot has appeared in domestic novels long long ago," said Wu.

As for the movie, she said it might still attract some domestic viewers. "People are curious. It is an R-rated movie. But the erotic scenes were far from being hard-core. Some viewers will want to find out whether the third movie is better or not," said Wu.

The Fifty Shades movies are rated 5.1, 4.9 and 5.1 out of 10 respectively on Chinese rating website douban.com. According to comments left on the page, the reason Fifty Shades Freed still managed to draw domestic viewers is the yanzhi (face score) or attractiveness of both the actors.

Linda Xu, a 27-year-old woman in Beijing, only watched Fifty Shades of Grey. She said she watched it because of "the strong hype" of the movie.

"It was widely publicized that it was a hard-core movie, the kind that is rarely available to the public and that it has sadomasochistic (S&M) scenes," Xu said."[But] its S&M scenes are so light. It is like a domestic brainless idol drama."

Disappointed, Xu said the film was nowhere near the level of the novels on Chinese literature website jinjiang (jjwxc.net), for example, The Legend of Zhenhuan (a well-written novel that was adapted into a slick TV drama and swept China off its feet in 2011).

"Considering what the first movie was like, I don't want to watch the other two," she said.

However, since it is "an era of face score" in China, Xu thinks some Chinese will still go to see the movie. "Grey is handsome. People will appreciate his face while mocking the plot. I think many girls watch the movie only for handsome Grey."


A scene in the movie Fifty Shades Freed (2018) Photo: IC


Domestic erotic romance preferred

On douban.com, lots of Chinese readers compared how they felt about the Fifty Shades trilogy versus domestic romance novels.

"The vocabulary in the trilogy, as well as the author's imagination, is limited. The erotic romance novel writers on jinjiang are so far ahead," said a Douban user.

Established in 2003, the website jjwxc.net is well-known for providing quality literature, including romance novels and scripts from many popular Chinese films and TV series. It is also one of Zhang's favorite literature websites. Another website she frequents to read romance novels is 91baby.mama.cn.

Zhang doesn't think the Fifty Shades trilogy would be very popular among Chinese viewers.

"Although talking about sex in public is a taboo, the Chinese audience's acceptance of R-rated movies is not as conservative. [The expectation was much] higher than what was shown in the Fifty Shades movies," she said.

According to her, the government has been stricter in cracking down on online porn novels and other products in recent years. But in the past, when the supervision was not so strict, there was a variety of erotic novels online, and many of them were "harder on the eyes" than the Fifty Shades movies.

"I don't think what the domestic audience is in need of is erotic movies or novels, but the courage to break the taboo," she said.

Xu started reading novels on jinjiang in 2006. To date, she has paid hundreds of yuan to get access to some paid novels on the website. Her favorite novel style is BL (Boy's Love) novels.

Xu said many mature writers are on jinjiang and their content is so good that their work could be made into a TV series.

"The plots are catchy. Even romance novels have good logic. They are not simply Mary Sue stories. Commercial wars, family revenge or politics can also be involved in a romance novel," she said. "It is not the childish kind, such as a man and woman meet, and the minute they make eye contact, they fall in love with each other."

Xu pointed out that Chinese tastes are undergoing changes and that in the long run, Mary Sue plots will end up being discarded.

"Most Chinese romance novels lovers are women. But the status of Chinese women has improved, and more and more Chinese women are well-educated," she said. "They are not the ones that were deemed to be purely dependent on a man to live. The changes in their status mean that their taste will also change."

In the past, Xu also loved plots that involved a mighty CEO chasing an innocent girl, but now, she said she feels it silly.

The change is evident when one views the current trend in dramas available on the mainland. Mary Sue-style dramas from Taiwan, which once swept Chinese TV years ago, have gradually disappeared. In their place are more and more Japanese dramas that promote female independence, such as Tokyo Joshi Zukan (2016-17) and Jimi ni Sugoi! Koetsu Girl Kono Etsuko (2016).

"Different from the past when American movies were dominant in the Chinese film market, nowadays, Japan, India, and China are also producing good movies. The more choices we have, the pickier we become," said Xu.


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