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China's Millennial Literary Rivals Are Now Battling at the Box Office Too

Which young author-turned-director speaks more to China's youth?

TPG/Getty Images

Consider the most memorable scenes from two of this summer’s biggest Chinese films.

In The Continent, the new road-trip movie directed by millennial literary wunderkind Han Han, the two male protagonists debate the societal pressures faced by Chinese youth. To illustrate, one of them grabs a couple of frogs off the ground, tosses them into a pot, and cranks up the heat. As the temperature rises, he explains, the frogs will panic and jump out. “That’s reality,” he says. His friend suddenly takes the lid and slams it down on top of the frogs. “No,” he says. “This is reality.”

In Tiny Times 3, the latest installment of the blockbuster series directed by millennial literary wunderkind Guo Jingming, four female protagonists frolic across Rome on a wealthy boss’s dime, snapping selfies while saying the word “Rome” over and over in English and giggling hysterically.

China’s culture-watchers have pitted Han Han and Guo Jingming against each other since they were teenagers. The two men, both novelists-turned-directors now in their early thirties, make for a tempting juxtaposition, a sort of Mailer-Vidal rivalry if they wrote YA fiction for Chinese teens. For more than a decade, their careers have run in parallel: Both won the prestigious New Concept Essay Contest prize while in high school; both published their first novel before their twenty-first birthday; both have been hailed as unique voices of the post-eighties generation and dismissed as superficial divas; both have sold books in the millions; both have recorded pop music albums; and now both have refocused their attention from the page to the screen.

Each man, however, developed a distinctive style. If Han Han was the smartaleck at the back of the classroom heckling the teacher, Guo Jingming was the emo kid sitting in the corner writing fan fiction. Han’s novels satirized China’s soul-crushing educational system, and his essays mocked government hypocrisy from behind a shield of high irony. Guo’s stories dealt with the tribulations of high school love, the handbag-and-heels world of rich young Shanghainese, or, in at least one novel, the struggles of an Ice Kingdom prince to protect his throne. Offline, Han cultivated a somewhat forced bad-boy image as a racecar driver and ladies man, while Guo went for a more androgynous, guylinered image. (Han once bluntly described himself as “male” and Guo as “female.”) Over time, Han became a standard-bearer for restless, engaged Chinese youth, while Guo was seen as representing his generation’s indulgent, status-obsessed id. Han bemoaned China’s moral void; Guo peered into it and saw gold. Not surprisingly, Guo has been the bigger commercial success.

Both men realize the marketing value of their rivalry. “I’m better than him in every way other than the fact that I earn less money,” Han said in a 2009 interview. He has also said that Guo “teaches cheap values,” and charged that his stories appeal mainly to “post-90s kids.” After Han made his “male”/”female” comment, Guo responded with incredulity: “I would never say that to anyone. … I don't understand his logic for saying it.” When Guo was caught in a plagiarism scandal in 2006, Han attacked Guo’s fans, calling them “stupid and naïve” for blindly defending their idol. “I’m me, my readers are my readers,” Guo wrote on his blog. “Don’t hate my readers because of me.” Many fans delight in the spats: One person Photoshopped a picture of the two men walking through a mall holding hands. Another wrote a short love story featuring Han and Guo. At a recent event, the two directors were asked if they could become friends. “I am a person of few friends,” Guo said.

Their new films don’t change the Han/Guo dynamic so much as raise its stakes, as both men go from author to auteur. Not only is filmmaking more lucrative than book-writing, cinema offers a larger canvas for their competing visions of Chinese society. (Han credited China’s batch of young directors, presumably including Guo, for making his film possible.) Now their battle for the hearts and minds of China’s youth isn’t just playing out in far corners of the Internet, it’s occurring in enormous theaters nationwide whose content has been approved by the government. As the gap between rich and poor widens in China, young people are being forced to decide whether they worship money or ideals.

Making the case for the latter is The Continent. The film is every bit as caustic as one of Han’s essays, a treatise on millennial disillusionment masquerading as a harmless road trip movie. At the outset, three friends pile into a beat-up SUV planning to drive from China’s eastern-most island to the country’s western territories, and take a photo together to commemorate the moment. Along the way, they encounter fellow twenty- and thirty-somethings whose lives haven’t lived up to their dreams: A pregnant prostitute who runs scams so she can have her baby overseas, an old would-be-flame trying to make it in the film business as a body double, and a philosophizing hitchhiker struggling to get over his girlfriend’s death. The voice of cynical reality takes the form of the prostitute’s “uncle,” played by art-house god Jia Zhangke. “Only kids think there’s a right and a wrong,” he says. “Adults believe in pros and cons.” Repeated disappointments and betrayals leave the two main characters questioning their ideals, and coming to different conclusions about the world: One rages against its cruelty; the other chooses radical empathy, trying to understand rather than judge the thieves and bullies who populate their journey. At the end, the friends look back at the photo they took on day one, only to find their faces are cropped out, their individuality erased. It’s a bleak take on Chinese society, all the more shocking when seen in a Beijing theater full of young couples on dates.

Tiny Times 3 and its predecessors, meanwhile, are like Sex and the City, but without the wit, charm, nuance, insight into the struggles of modern working women, or sex. This summer’s installment picks up where the second film left off: Four attractive girlfriends—an assistant at a high-end fashion magazine, a corporate heiress, a fashion designer, and a hopeless romantic whose main purpose seems to be comic relief—set off for a vacation in Rome. The plot hinges on the mystery of whether the protagonist’s blow-dried boyfriend, who dies suddenly and inexplicably twenty minutes in, has or has not come back to life as a surgically-altered blond male model for the fashion magazine where she works. What the movie lacks in coherence it makes up for in product placement and soft-lit music video-like montages. The supposed core of the movie—the friendship between its four protagonists—fails to convince, while the characters and dialogue are so vapid that the film seems constantly on the brink of knowing parody. But the wink never comes.

Defenders argue that the Tiny Times series accurately depicts the aspirations of upwardly mobile young Chinese people, especially those in second and third-tier cities, who dream of a better life, and who can’t yet afford Han’s blasé ennui. But Tiny Times’ most egregious failings have less to do with values than with storytelling, dialogue, directing, staging, lighting, camerawork, and acting.

The Continent offers a more nuanced portrayal of what it’s like to be young and ambitious in China. Most of the characters could be called wenyi qingnian, a subset of Chinese youth that translates roughly as “artsy young people.” Curious about the world, but often aimless and disaffected, it’s a group for many of whom China’s economic boom isn’t a ticket to the top, but a dubious promise. They know that money doesn’t buy happiness, but they’re not sure what does. In the meantime, they’re more interested in traveling and taking pictures and reading Catcher in the Rye than going to work in a factory.

The Continent bumped Tiny Times 3 out of its No. 1 box office spot in July, but Guo’s film has done better overall—no surprise, given the success of the first two films in the series. But the fact that The Continent made it into theaters at all is a promising sign for Chinese cinema. It’s by no means a masterpiece. Han over-relies on pratfalls and easy cutaway jokes. (One character sternly refuses to give up the wheel; next shot, he’s in the passenger’s seat!) The dialogue feels stilted, the music hokey, the didactic messaging more than a little ham-fisted. But—and I admit to some grade-inflation here—it’s a small price to pay for a rare glimpse of thoughtful filmmaking in Chinese theaters, and one that targets the kids who might otherwise be taking their dates to a second viewing of Tiny Times 3. At a press conference, Han was careful not to make any grand declarations about the film, saying it’s just a road movie. Then again, so was Easy Rider