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China's Most Expensive Film Could Prove Its Biggest Movie Flop

Actor Wu Lei and actress Zhang Yishang attend a media conference for the film <em>Asura</em> in January in Beijing.
VCG via Getty Images
Actor Wu Lei and actress Zhang Yishang attend a media conference for the film Asura in January in Beijing.

Asura, a fantasy epic based on Buddhist mythology touted as the most expensive Chinese film ever made, has been pulled from theaters after a dismal opening weekend.

On the film's official Weibo account (roughly China's version of Twitter), producers offered "deepest apologies to viewers who did not get a chance to watch the film, as well as to all the Chinese and international participants who were involved in its production over the past six years."

The Weibo post did not give a specific reason for the decision, according to The South China Morning Post.

The Guardian describes Asura as a combination of "complex special effects, big-name stars and [a] huge crew."

"Named after the triple-headed demigods of Buddhist mythology, Asura stars 18-year-old heartthrob Wu Lei as a shepherd who turns out to be the reincarnation of one of the heads of a warrior king – also called Asura – aiming to invade heaven (Tony Leung Ka-fai and Carina Lau Kar-ling play the other two heads)," the newspaper writes.

It reportedly cost 750 million yuan ($112 million) and the production involved 2,500 people from all over the world, according to the Post, which said it was mostly shot in Qinghai, Ningxia and Hebei provinces but spent 15 months in post-production in the United States.

According to People's Daily, Communist Party officials attended the film's opening earlier this month and gave it a thumbs up.

Even so, that apparently was not enough to make up for a poor reception from the movie-going public: on the Chinese review site, it got 3.1 out of 10. That was reflected in Asura's opening box office — a disappointing 49 million yuan ($7.3 million). That was a far smaller take of the till than another film, Hidden Man by Chinese director Jiang Wen, which opened the same weekend and took in $51 million.

A representative of Zhenjian Films told the Chinese news portal Sina that the decision to pull the film "was made not only because of the bad box office," but "to make some changes to the film and release it again."

As the BBC notes, "Unless the film achieves much greater success the second time round, Asura's [$105 million] loss would make it one of the biggest flops in movie history."

However, The Hollywood Reporter reports that the film's producers believe they may have been the victim of trolls paid to game the review sites.

Hollywood Reporter writes:

"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 producers are now alleging that they were targeted by a particularly aggressive 'water army' attack. In a second social media post, they say they discovered a large number of 1/10 reviews for Asura posted to [review site] Maoyan by suspicious accounts immediately after the film's release."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.