When Tiny Times 1.0 broke box office records in China, raking in $11.9 million on opening day, some executive (presumably with dollar signs for eyes) decided to move the release of the sequel, which was shot together and slated for a holiday release, up to August. Not only would an August release capitalize on the momentum of the first film, but it would also allow high-school and college students—the key demographic—to double their fun before the start of the school year.
With the first film earning its share of infamy, I thought there’d be even more buzz around Tiny Times 2.0—lines of teenage girls, shrieking with excitement and dressed as their favorite characters. But as I walked to the theater Friday evening (the day after opening day) to subject myself to the film, I was surprised to find it less than half-full.
The audience was 70 percent female; most were in their 20s or younger with not a soul over 40. Apart from a young woman wearing a gold version of the high-tops that the protagonist Lin Xiao (Yang Mi) wears in the first film, there was no palpable sense of anticipation or excitement.
Far from the opening weekend of a big sequel, it felt like we were about to watch an employee training video, or a public execution.
As for the film itself, I’ll start with the positive: Tiny Times 2.0 tries to tackle deeper, more grown-up issues than its predecessor. As our four main characters Lin Xiao, Gu Li (Amber Kuo), Nan Xiang (Haden Kuo) and Tang Wanru (Hsieh Yi-lin) graduate (though we’ve never seen them study because that’s, like, boring), they deal with cheating, betrayal, and the fragmentation of their friendship. Since it’s the second film in the trilogy, there’s real loss and even a slightly bittersweet ending.
But if Tiny Times 1.0 is HIV, then Tiny Times 2.0 is AIDS—more developed but not necessarily better.
The film largely bungles its grown-up themes because writer-director-novelist-wannabe auteur Guo Jingming doesn’t really have anything to say about them. What little heart there is becomes lost in an insipid pseudo-plot about a corporate takeover.
Not surprisingly, Tiny Times 2.0 is more of the same, which is to say a bunch of pretty faces with blank stares and first-world problems doing things that most Chinese can’t but wish they could.
Though I never found the conspicuous materialism of the first film particularly offensive, there is noticeably less shopping in 2.0. Expensive dinners, shiny cars and flowing gowns, however, remain de rigueur. At one point, to clear out a packed coffee shop on campus so the girls can talk, Gu Li persuades the owners to make a cup of coffee 120 RMB, thereby pricing out everyone else. Man, it’s so great to be rich.
Because the characters still have no real goals or thoughts, coincidence again takes the place of plot. Characters appear when required, then disappear for acts at a time. Illness and death materialize to move the story forward, mercifully allowing the characters to remain their passive selves.
As in the first film, what little story exists is recounted through extended flashbacks or lengthy voice-overs. Characters say what they think because Guo skipped the lecture on nuance and subtext. Burlesque passes for wit; mugging passes for acting; and slow-motion shots of beautiful torsos or sepia-stained memories passes for cinematic grammar.
Lin Xiao sniffles and squeals her way through another two hours while Gu Yuan (Ko Chen-tung), Nan Xiang, and the slack-faced Gong Ming (Rhydian Vaughan) continue to battle for this century’s worst performance.
Though I found the film funny at precisely two points, the audience laughed at a fair share of the jokes, especially a group of three 20-something girls in the back row. But at multiple times, the audience tittered during melodramatic moments which I took to be embarrassment for the movie.
All that said, Tiny Times 2.0 still grossed $8.8 million its opening day, great considering it’s a relatively small film but short of the domestic box office record for a 2-D film set by Tiny Times 1.0 and a far cry from the all-time record of $21 million set by Iron Man 3.
As for the audience, I failed to find anyone willing to go on record saying they had actually liked the movie.
Heng Shuo, a young woman who saw it with three girlfriends said it was “okay.” I asked her which character she identified most with. “No one really, but if I had to say, Tang Wanru.” Tang is the “unattractive” one of the group, existing solely to absorb fat jokes and to provide comic relief.
“It was interesting,” said another young woman named Doman. Her male photographer friend Rex, whom she had dragged to the movie, said it was “very pretty, very smooth” but “disjointed.”
Even the three girls cackling throughout the film refused to comment. “I don’t know what to say,” one told me.
The young women I met that night weren’t the rabid Twihards I’d expected. Far from it, they all knew what they were getting into. They weren’t expecting a great work of art, or to come out of the theater on another plane of enlightenment. It was just a bit of harmless fun on a Friday night.
Though I didn’t find anyone who really enjoyed the film, Wu Liwei, a 23-year-old who works at a British organization, hated it. “It’s laughable,” she said. “So far removed from reality.”
I could see what she meant. For a movie that takes place in Shanghai, there’s no mention of the smog (though it’s featured unwittingly in several scenes), skyrocketing real estate prices, economic inequality or dead pigs in the Huangpu River. Instead, we watch a cast of immaculate dolls trying to perfect their lives without ever doing any real work. Wu put it this way:
“It’s a movie for the post-90s generation,” she said. “It’s a fantasy.”