Critics face Great Wall of fan-atics
FANS play a special role in pop culture and the entertainment industry. Not only do they spend heavily on their idols and evangelise for them, but fans also often assume the positions of attackers and defenders as if in a blood sport.
Han Haoyue belongs to a consortium of critics who review and score major film releases. When he gave a "Not recommend" to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he expected an army of loyalists throwing mud at him on his micro blog.
He got a pleasant surprise: It didn't happen.
"Not a single crazy remark so far," he wrote, "which shows that the Star Wars franchise has Chinese fans who are very mature and rational, perhaps above the age of 40."
In China's burgeoning film industry, fans act as the Stormtroopers who whip up a storm of frenzy, giving a general impression that the movie has gained mainstream acceptance or even snowballing enthusiasm, engulfing even non-fans and pushing up the box-office tally.
In mature markets like North America, fans, though small in number, tend to propel word of mouth which, in turn, could stimulate overall attendance.
The problem with fans in China is a quasi-religious zealotry.
When I first criticised Tiny Times, tens of thousands of writer-director Guo Jingming's fans swarmed to my micro blog, leaving all kinds of nasty - but often childishly laughable - words.
Guo had won a base of some 10- to 20-million loyalists through his fiction, most of whom are teenage girls.
His public response to my criticism essentially started a call to action.
I was only one of hundreds of critics who lambasted his film, yet I was turned into a symbol of acerbic criticism since he responded to only mine, thus "elevating me out of mass oblivion" in the words of some Guo devotees.
A so-called fan film - one with a sizeable fan base, not one created by fans a la fan fiction - is not really a genre like romance or horror. Yet, it is a reality any film-maker has to come to terms with.
First of all, it is resistant to reviews. If you're a fan of Guo, it doesn't really matter how good or bad the film is.
There was a saying back then that Guo could have shown two hours of PowerPoint slides and still get a standing ovation from his audience.
If you're a fan of a teen idol, all you care about is whether and how he appears in the movie, not how well he acts.
This brings me to my latest encounter with China's fan culture. In my review of Mr Six, I spent much space extolling the performance of Feng Xiaogang, who is a master director in himself but this time delivered a lead performance that beat all actors at their game.
In passing, I mentioned that Kris Wu, a young singer-turned-actor made popular in South Korea, "held up pretty well in his scenes with Feng".
In the following days, I got thousands of messages thanking me for my appraisal, all assuming the tone of Wu's buddies. It took me a while to realise none of them was commissioned by Wu to show their gratitude.
That movie, now widely considered 2015's best Chinese work, is crafty enough to enlist not only Wu, but also Li Yifeng - a pop idol from Sichuan who sounds nothing like the Beijing native that his role requires - and in a cameo appearance, TFBoys, a trio of youngsters who are barely into their teens.
Against the stalwart Feng, this casting choice looked like a desperate act to win the youth market. But it worked.
Feng's disdain for this batch, whom he often calls "sissies", added to the authenticity of the dynamics.
As for TFBoys, they should be in braces. Liu Chun, a media manager, thought aloud about the meaning of the initials. "Could TF mean taofen?" he wrote in his micro blog, referring to a Chinese homonym of "digging up dung".
As expected, a cloud of fanatics descended on him, until he issued a public apology worded in a "cultural revolution"-style letter of contrition.
"I'm guilty. I deserve to die. I bow to you revolutionary guards. I don't know enough English. I'm clumsy with words. Call me dung-digging dog or dung-digging pig!"
The fans were elated, unaware that the sarcastic statement implicitly equated them with the Red Guards of the bygone era. In a way, die-hard fans have brains wired somewhat like the Red Guards'.
They take one thing in life as absolute and are willing to defend it to the death. They are generally unable to hold a rational debate with those having opposing views. Rather, they would resort to violence, verbal or physical if necessary, to protect their idols.
There is the occasional tragedy when a teenager, whose idolatry reaches a feverish pitch, has to confront a parent and, in a fit of madness, this results in a scuffle or even death.
One father killed his daughter after she blurted out: "My idol means more to me than you do."
Teenagers of all times go through that phase.
What differentiates this generation is unprecedented purchasing power. Being single children, they can afford to "chase stars" with real money.
An industry insider told me that a fan base of 100,000 is sufficient to sustain a major-league entertainer.
That translates into hundreds or even thousands of yuan per person. At some level, fandom resembles a cult.
Most of China's hot idols are androgynous young men. Ironically, they are good at selling projects to investors but not necessarily effective at selling the finished movies to viewers.
Movies starring one of them - in contrast to Mr Six, where they have supporting roles - have underperformed in general. Most wound up in the 100- to 200-million-yuan (S$22 million to S$43 million) range, which is respectable but won't quicken your heartbeat.
The new Star Wars instalment used one of them, Lu Han, as a marketing tool.
The new champion of United States box-office records is deemed by many in China as a "fan film" but its Chinese fan base is paltry compared with that in other countries.
Employing Lu, now given the new moniker "China's Justin Bieber", would certainly raise the movie's awareness among the all-important demographic for movie consumption. But it remains to be seen whether it will translate to a ticket-buying frenzy.
By definition, a "fan film" can be a turn-off for those who are not fans.
CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK