Love him or hate him, 31-year-old Chinese writer-turned-director Guo Jingming knows how to pack a theater. Tiny Times 3, the third installment in Guo’s popular romantic comedy series, premiered at No. 1 at the Chinese box office on Wednesday, taking in more than 100 million yuan ($16 million).
Guo’s movies are all based on his best-selling novels. The Tiny Times series follows the exploits of four female undergrads in Shanghai obsessed with dating, fashion, and shopping.
In 2009 he told NPR that the secret to his success was channeling the aspirations and insecurities of his generation: “Before me, Chinese authors were pretty old. And today’s young people don’t understand life depicted by older authors. So they like my work because it’s by a writer their age about stuff very close to their lives.”
Guo grew up near the southwestern city of Chongqing, the son of a bank clerk and an engineer in a state-owned enterprise. He attended college in Shanghai, where he became a keen observer of the ways in which money and materialism shape values, ambitions, and the arcs (and dissolutions) of friendships.
After the success of his novels made him one of China’s richest authors, he happily flaunted his new wealth, showing up to interviews in Hermès (RMS:FP) belts and Gucci (KER:FP) caps and posting photos of himself decked out in Dolce & Gabbana accessories.
His novels and films’ dangling of luxury brands as plot devices—from Louis Vuitton (MC:FP) to Dior (CDI:FP)—marks his oeuvre as a sort of Sex and the City meets The Great Gatsby. (F. Scott Fitzgerald was 28 years old when he published his satirical bestseller.) But in Guo’s accounts, there’s no moralizing or condemnation of young people pursuing a luxury lifestyle; nor is he interested in history or politics.
Guo has appeared on annual lists of both the top-grossing authors in China and the country’s most-hated celebrities. Assessments of his films are equally polarized. Fans say the movies humorously capture their daily anxieties, while critics worry about what the exaltation of consumerism says about modern Chinese culture.
In response to Tiny Times 3’s opening, Xuan Lang, an associate professor at Shanghai Ocean University, wrote on his Sina Weibo account: “The reality is that many people [in China] are still poor, with too little to eat and not enough money to afford school. Celebrating decadence could encourage many bad social habits, from waste and corruption to a dismal future for our country.”
Another Weibo user, calling herself NB-Cloverdoll, sung the film’s praises: “No matter what your life is like … we all share many common emotions. You quarrel and sometimes hate your close friends. You may start a ‘cold war’ with someone you love, but you also won’t abandon her when she is hurt. Tiny Times 3 captures these common experiences.”
Tiny Times 4 is already in the works, with a planned release date during the 2015 Spring Festival—aka Chinese New Year—holiday week.