A poster of Lost in Russia (FILE)
For a middle-aged man, accompanying his mother on a train trip for six consecutive days with no connection with the outside world is a challenge. Chinese director and actor Xu Zheng presented this bitter-sweet journey in his latest movie Lost in Russia screened during the Spring Festival, which is treated as a rare opportunity for family gathering in a year.
"This idea came out of the reality that many Chinese people are trapped in the controlling love of their mothers," the 48-year-old director said. Mothers tend to interfere in children's life because of care and love.
China's annual migration around the Spring Festival shows how important families are, but the weeklong holiday often adds pressure on kinship, too.
"It's hard to speak out or fill the gap which turns family members familiar strangers," Xu said. He hopes that the movie, which includes many scenes from daily life, helps each side relax and think out of the box about themselves and understand the other.
Shift to online release
Compared with the movie itself, its promotion strategy caused more discussion.
The potential theatrical blockbuster was one of the seven movies to be released during this Spring Festival, when watching movies tailored for the Lunar New Year season has been a tradition since the late 1990s. However, due to the novel coronavirus outbreak ahead of the festival, the producers together with cinemas announced to cancel the release in order to encourage people to stay at home as a precaution.
Huanxi Media, the major producer of Lost in Russia, announced that the movie would be first streamed online from January 25, the first day of the Lunar New Year. Viewers could watch it for free on ByteDance-owned channels including Douyin (also known as TikTok), Toutiao and Xigua Video.
Huanxi canceled the release agreement with Hengdian Film which had promoted the movie for months and cooperated with ByteDance, which paid Huanxi 630 million yuan ($90 million) for the streaming right and other future projects.
This high-profile promotional strategy boosted the volume of downloads of Toutiao and Douyin apps, extended the time users spend on those apps, and drew more advertising revenue. Meanwhile, people engaged in the movie industry worried that Huanxi might set a trend of cooperation between producers and online streaming websites instead of the traditional practice of releasing films in cinemas first.
But Internet analyst Pei Pei said "acquiring the right of the first release is just a strategic trial and not enough to overthrow the whole video industry and even the entertainment industry."
This change was welcomed by netizens who expressed gratitude for the free film. As of January 27, Lost in Russia was streamed more than 600 million times.
But the shift, which boosted Hong Kong-listed Huanxi's stock price by 43 percent on the day it was announced, was opposed by the movie industry.
Film professionals from Zhejiang Province in east China where Hengdian Film is located released a statement claiming that Huanxi had flouted industrial regulations and infringed on stakeholders' interests.
A letter jointly issued by cinema chains including Wanda Film alleged the online release of Lost in Russia intended to destroy the current movie industry and promotional mechanism and would have a long-lasting impact, according to ThePaper.cn.
"The cancelations of the release of seven films are destructive for cinema chains. Lost in Russia's shift is an irresponsible act," cinema investor Xi Jia told ThePaper.cn.
"We had increased the number of halls for the Spring Festival season as well as the stock of other materials including popcorn and drinks. We also had agreements with advertisers for ads to be played ahead of the movie."
Some industry insiders however hold the opposite view. They argue that the move by Huanxi is a pragmatic decision given the epidemic, and other film producers may not follow suit. For the streaming websites, TV or online dramas remain the main content.
"The current video industry has experienced 10 years of exploration to establish its current business model with TV dramas as the top priority," said Li Xingwen, a movie critic.
A poster of Lost in Russia (FILE)
Ways to reconcile
Lost in Russia focuses on the traditional mother-son topic: The train from Beijing to Moscow witnesses a caring mother and a rebellious son. The middle-aged son Xu Yiwan is trying to save his marriage but has to go with his mother Lu Xiaohua, who is set to take part in a performance in a city some 8,000 km away.
Lu still takes care of Xu as if he was still a child. She keeps offering him cherry tomatoes which he doesn't want and is busy talking on the phone. Only when Lu talks about her dream of singing, does she come out as not just a mother but an independent person with dreams.
Audiences may have empathy with that because in many Chinese families mothers spend much more time taking care of children than fathers do. Mothers get used to focusing on raising the children. The gradual lack of balance between love and interference makes both mothers and children frustrated.
"It's a Spring Festival-tailored movie in terms of its topic and content. Topics about mothers and children or family are always popular during this period," said a commentary in the lifestyle magazine Lifeweek. "If the epidemic was not there, this movie would have aroused more discussion."
"The real problem for the relationship is that both sides are not sure how to reconcile," said Sir Movie, a popular movie opinion leader on WeChat, adding that the movie presents the contradiction between two generations with rich details but has little guidance on real reconciliation.
The reconciliation happens when Xu saves his mother from a bear attack in a snowy forest after which he finds out that she suffered from domestic violence and understands his mistake in blaming her for the lack of father's love in his life.
But the question is, what is the real problem between the mother and son? Is it the way they treat each other, or the father? The movie doesn't make it clear.
However, it shows how much we want to control the people we love though. Xu tells his mother, "You have a fake image of son in your mind."
Xu Zheng, the director, gave his explanation in an interview. "How does one side apologize to or thank the other is the most difficult part in dealing with this mother-son relationship. It's not because Chinese people don't want to express themselves but because they prefer a more subtle way to express their emotions."
Copyedited by Madhusudan Chaubey
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