Spring Festival box office champion falls in swirl of controversy, what happened?
Published: Jan 29, 2023 09:07 PM Updated: Jan 29, 2023 09:02 PM
Moviegoers check in at a cinema in Dongguang, South China's Guangdong Province on December 14. Photo: VCG

Moviegoers check in at a cinema in Dongguang, South China's Guangdong Province on December 14. Photo: VCG

As once desolated movie theaters again returned to a golden era after the three-year COVID-19 pandemic, during China's Spring Festival holiday, one comedy is now standing out among all leading Chinese New Year movies. Man Jiang Hong, or Full River Red, has been widely praised for its suspenseful historical theme and for its rhythm, yet the movie has also caused heated discussion.

The movie, directed by well-known Chinese director Zhang Yimou, tells a revenge story which is set during the Shaoxing period of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), between the patriot national hero Yue Fei and Qin Hui, a treacherous official who murdered Yue.

The film takes its title from the undying poem Full River Red, which is believed to have been composed by Yue right before his death to express his grief and indignation at the fall of China's Central Plains.

However, on Thursday, the movie's Sina Weibo account posted an announcement in response to online allegations toward the movie, after many netizens had accused it of "stealing the box office from other movies, manipulating the market , and even plagiarizing content from a TV series."


The announcement said that all the accusations were "nonsense." And two days later the movie issued an official announcement that said it will sue four Weibo users over their "fabricated remarks, which caused widespread misinformation."

In the Weibo announcement, the movie's account (which has filed a lawsuit to the Beijing Internet Court) wrote that "a large number of lies...seriously endangered the legal rights of the film...and the Internet should not be a lawless place."

As a response, the four Weibo users, one with 400,000 followers and the other three with millions of fans, expressed their discontent and two of them decided to appear in court to face the lawsuit.

On Wednesday, one of the four sued Weibo bloggers, nicknamed Miaosila, posted a dialogue screenshot of the 2013 Chinese historical TV series Longmen Biaoju, which includes a storyline similar to that of the movie.The Weibo blogger posted the hashtag of the movie Full River Red together with the screenshot, implying its suspected plagiarism.

The original post from another blogger nicknamed Tulong Yanzhijing on Thursday attracted more than 1.5 million views, the opinion also targeted the movie director Zhang Yimou's suspected close relationship with IMAX China, suggesting that there may be irregularities about the box office.

Polarized reviews

As early as a few days after the film was released on January 22, the first day of Chinese New Year, targeted comments about the film started to spread on Chinese social media.

On the evening of January 24, several netizens posted on Weibo that the movie tickets for The Wandering Earth 2 they bought were refunded by the theater on the grounds of "equipment failure." Yet later on the theater played Full River Red at the same time of the day to the same screening room, suggesting that it's an irregular move to steal the box office.Some compared the movie with another hit, Wandering Earth 2, in terms of funding, production, story, etc.

Public figures show that the production cost of Full River Red was around 500 million yuan ($73 million), while a business insider told the Global Times that the latter was estimated to be more than 1 billion yuan ($147 million).

On Sunday, an opinion piece from Chinese news website Caixin Media noted that in terms of the choice of subject, Full River Red may sound like a majestic epic production where scenes of thousands of troops are stunning, but at its core the movie is nothing but a set of a sitcom with twists.

"The production cost should be only a fraction of The Wandering Earth 2," wrote Caixin Media.

Nevertheless, regardless of negative reviews on social media, the allegations have not been confirmed and how the two parties will behave in court in the near future is still unknown.

Ding Xing, a producer/movie critic from a Beijing-based entertainment production company, told the Global Times that the controversy cannot be "ruled out to be a deliberate commercial game."

Yet overlooking the controversy, such a historical subject has indeed captured the hearts of many moviegoers.

"The movie has gathered all the popular domestic entertaining elements in the past two years: comedy, script, and China's favorite themes," Wang Xinnai, a freelance screenwriter, told the Global Times on Sunday.

"The script packs such a story and such a distinctive main theme into comedy and suspense, while a careful foreshadowing end blooms into a romantic and splendid epic tale," Wang said.

"Full River Red originally existed in my student days as a poem, but now the movie makes this history more concrete in my mind," Liu Lu, a 30-year-old moviegoer told the Global Times.