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‘Madame Bovary’ Release Exposes Rivalry Between China’s Huayi and Wanda

Which is bigger: China’s largest cinema chain or the country’s most consistently successful film director?

The question is being asked as Feng Xiaogang, director of “Aftershock” and “Back to 1942,” and Wanda Cinema Line tussled Friday over the release of Feng’s latest movie “I Am Not Madame Bovary.” The film, which debuted in Toronto and won prizes in San Sebastian, went on commercial release today.

The spat is being played on big screens and small all over the country. Feng used his social media account to accuse Wanda of not giving his film enough screens and deliberately hampering its box office prospects.

Wanda said little. But Wang Sicong, son of Wanda group chairman Wang Jianlin, and a character with a penchant for loud living, did not hold back. On his own microblog Wang Sicong asked, “Aren’t we allowed to reduce screen time because we think your film is no good?”

Wang Sicong, who as well as heading the Prometheus investment fund also personally owns stock in Wanda Cinema Line, however, also pointed to an ongoing dispute between Wanda and Huayi Brothers Media, one of the producers of “Bovary.” Wang said that Wanda remains unhappy that its high ranking executive Jerry Ye (aka Ye Ning) joined quit Wanda to join Huayi as its head of movie operations earlier this year.

In June, Huayi said that the release of its U.S. animation “Rock Dog” had also been dented by Wanda’s retaliatory actions.

Popular on Variety

The “Bovary” tit for tat continued through the day. Feng later argued that Wang’s unhappiness over Ye’s executive shuffle had colored Wanda’s judgement of the commercial merits of “Madame Bovary.”

The film is certainly not conventional. Featuring superstar Fan Bingbing as a dowdy country woman who causes havoc with China’s justice system as she refuses to back down from a 10-year campaign against the consequences of a fake divorce, it is a dark social satire.

Even its presentation is unusual. For most of its running time, the film is presented in an experimental, circular format, though it occasionally switches to a square.

Speaking in Toronto in September, Feng told Variety that his career trajectory is the reverse of most directors’ journeys. Feng said he started his career making his most commercial films, and that subsequent pictures are becoming more personal.

Personal it may be, but Feng may still have his finger on the public pulse. The film’s exposure of bureaucratic corruption and pettiness has great contemporary relevance in China and could make it a hit.

Box office data till mid evening showed “Bovary” comfortably on top of the box office, having deposed previous chart topper “Doctor Strange.” Nationwide “Bovary” appears to have had some 39% of screening slots. Though in Wanda’s theaters the figure was closer to 10%.

“It would make financial sense for Wanda to play ‘Bovary’ on more screens,” said one source close to Feng. “But even with these numbers that doesn’t look likely to happen. It is personal now.”

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