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‘Asura’: Fate of China’s Biggest Flop Remains a Mystery

Two weeks after it became the most expensive flop in Chinese history, the fate of fantasy film “Asura” remains unclear, with one of its stars telling Variety that he has no knowledge of any re-release plans, despite the producers’ pledge to relaunch the film.

The fantasy epic reportedly cost $115 million to make and was helmed by first-time director Zhang Peng, a well-known stunt performer and coordinator (“Wonder Woman,” “Twilight” saga). The producers, including Alibaba Pictures, yanked “Asura” from theaters July 15 after just three days, during which the film limped to a measly $7 million at the box office.

Although they promised to re-release the film, presumably after tinkering with it, the producers have given no further word of their plans. One executive involved with the production told Variety that “the decision lies in the hands of the investors.”

With a busy schedule of summer and early autumn releases, there looks to be no obvious window anytime soon to relaunch a new and improved version of “Asura.” Exhibitors may be willing to consider it for January, during the traditionally slow period between the Christmas holidays and Chinese New Year.

American actor Matthew Knowles, one of the lead stars in “Asura,” says he has no knowledge of any relaunch plans or new promotional tours. “It was a dream experience to be part of such a big and professional film,” Knowles told Variety. “It didn’t seem to get as much momentum as you’d expect. It got more attention after it was pulled.”

Besides its future, other mysteries surround “Asura,” such as the producers’ choice of release date, whether they had an inkling it would tank, and the negative reception it received on social media.

The film was director Zhang’s pet project and was six years in the making. The story centers on Asura, the dimension of pure desire in ancient Buddhist mythology, which comes under threat from a lower heavenly kingdom.

The distributors and producers chose a release date, Friday, July 13, that set “Asura” against one of the most anticipated films of the year, “Hidden Man,” directed by and starring larger-than-life Chinese actor Jiang Wen (“Rogue One,” “Let the Bullets Fly”). “Asura” was also up against the biggest surprise hit of the year, “Dying to Survive,” a fact-based comedy drama released one week earlier.

Exhibitors scheduled 118,000 screenings for “Hidden Man” for its Friday opening; 108,000 for “Dying to Survive”; and just 46,000 for “Asura.” On Saturday, the theaters readjusted according to the previous day’s results, which included a mere $3.62 million for “Asura,” giving more screen space to “Dying” while slashing screenings for “Asura,” whose revenue then fell by half.

When its earnings dropped even further Sunday, its fate was sealed. Producers Zhenjian Film Studio, Ningxia Film Group and Alibaba Pictures threw in the towel, announcing on social media that “Asura” was to be withdrawn.

“By Sunday evening, ‘Asura’ was already circling the drain, caught in a vicious cycle of low admissions, terrible reviews and dwindling screens, and the producers faced a Hobson’s choice of pulling the movie themselves or having it effectively pulled for them,” said Matthew Dresden, a lawyer at Harris Bricken in Beijing.

The producers allege that many of those terrible reviews were fake. They say 4,000 fake social media accounts were used to undermine “Asura” on review sites such as Douban, where the film’s highest rating was 6.4 out of 10, and Maoyan, where the highest was 3.1. Internet trolling is widespread in China, and companies can hire an “Internet water army” to spread their message or damage competitors, though the government is supposed to have clamped down on the practice earlier this year.

But questions remain over why the producers, particularly Alibaba, didn’t anticipate “Asura’s” disappointing performance. Alibaba’s Tao Piao Piao is China’s top site for movie ticket sales, which should have alerted the company to a looming flop. Some commentators say the reviews of “Asura” on Tao Piao Piao were excessively positive, suggesting that Alibaba did try to use its own vast social media and e-commerce ecosystem to neutralize the alleged trolls. But it’s also possible Alibaba was torn between two movies: The company owns a significant piece of “Dying to Survive.”

For such a big-budget production, “Asura” boasted comparatively low star wattage. Veteran Hong Kong actors Tony Leung Ka-fai and Carina Lau are its biggest names, but neither is considered a top draw for mainland Chinese audiences. The 18-year-old TV star Wu Lei might have provided a small boost. Knowles is a football player-turned-actor trying to establish a career in China and currently finishing a degree program at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.

Plans for “Asura” to launch a major franchise now look premature at best. Not only has the film not been sold to overseas distributors, but the producers have not even appointed an international sales agent. “We very much wanted it to go abroad, and were hoping that the box office in China would help it sell,” the executive involved in the production told Variety, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The movie’s best hope might lie in the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

“If the producers really are going to re-release ‘Asura,’ their plan to pull the movie early may have been a stroke of genius,” Dresden said. “They may have given up a million or so in revenue, but they’re getting that back and more with the free publicity surrounding the mystery of what’s next.”

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