by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
Tiny Times (Xiao shidai), a Chinese summer blockbuster based on a book of the same name, ranks as far and away the worst movie I’ve ever seen—and I sat through all of Sex and the City 2, because I’ll watch almost anything to distract me on the Detroit-Shanghai flight. Even allowing for the fact that the target audience of Tiny Times is teenage Chinese girls, and I am decidedly neither a teenager nor Chinese, it’s still a terrible movie, an hour and fifty-five minutes of meandering plot and cringeworthy moments, occasionally interrupted by musical montages. The nicest thing I can say about it is that some of the songs are rather catchy.
Tiny Times has more in common with Sex and the City 2 than being awful: the film follows the lives of four female friends in Shanghai as they struggle to find professional, personal, and romantic satisfaction. The four young women are college students—though they don’t appear to attend class—who live in a sumptuous on-campus loft apartment that bears no resemblance to the cramped Chinese dormitories I’ve visited. Precocious and successful, the foursome’s members write a magazine column, run a major fashion show, and design a line of clothing. Though only one of the girls is described as rich, the other three don’t lack for material possessions. Watching Tiny Times becomes far more entertaining once you start playing “I Spy the Luxury Good”: the slick red sole of a Louboutin pump; the curvy metallic rectangle of an iPhone; the interlocking LV logo on a Louis Vuitton handbag. (Warning: Don’t turn this into a drinking game—no one’s liver could survive the entire movie.)
Although a commercial hit, Chinese viewers haven’t failed to notice that Tiny Times is awful, many deriding its obsession with high fashion and material goods. At Douban, a popular reviewing site, more than 146,500 users have given the movie an overall rating of 4.8/10; over 50 percent of them awarded Tiny Times only one or two stars. As Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore discusses in a post at the Economist website, the film has laid bare China’s generation gap, leading forty- and fifty-year-olds to lament the crass consumerism of those born in the 1980s and ‘90s, whose enthusiasm for Tiny Times has induced the director to move up the release of a sequel by four months. Only China’s media regulator, the General Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television, can prevent Tiny Times 2 from being inflicted on the world (this officially marks the first time I’ve ever hoped that the Chinese government would censor something).
Having read a number of reviews, I knew all along that Tiny Times would be terrible, but I decided to endure it anyway. Why? Because it’s set in Shanghai, and I wanted to see how important that location—the city where I live—is to the film. What I concluded is that although Tiny Times is very much a movie about the present, it continues a century-old tradition of thinking about Shanghai as a decadent global city populated mostly by Chinese but with strong ties to the West.
Critics have repeatedly compared Tiny Times to Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada, and Gossip Girl, three vastly superior productions whose influence on the film is clear. As those three are all inseparable from their New York setting, Tiny Times could really only take place in Shanghai, the sole mainland Chinese city with the requisite glitz and glamour to make the characters’ lives even semi-believable (which still requires a massive suspension of disbelief). Going back to the city’s heyday during the 1920s and ‘30s, Shanghai has long been associated with conspicuous consumption and cosmopolitan lifestyles. In the long-running, sometimes-friendly debate between the “Jingpai” (Beijing loyalists) and “Haipai” (Shanghai supporters), the Jingpai represents cautious conservatism, while Haipai stands for exuberant commercialism. Whether or not that’s a bad thing depends on which faction one belongs to.
The four young women of Tiny Times hearken back to this earlier golden age in the city’s history. They’re descendants of the “Shanghai girls” of pre-World War II advertisements used to sell cigarettes, soap, alcohol, and other products; artists painted their models wearing stylish form-fitting qipaos (or less), Western high heels, and elegant jewelry. The movie’s leads are Shanghai girl advertisements come to life, modeling a lifestyle that young viewers might aspire to, even if few have realistic expectations of achieving such a level of consumption.
Tiny Times is a bad movie that will, with any luck, go the way of Sex and the City 2 and be quickly forgotten. The uproar about it, though, is significant for the window it offers into the concerns that many Chinese have about their society: its materialism, its treatment of women, its shallowness. For the past two decades, Shanghai has led the charge toward economic growth and improvements in living standards, measured first by the purchase of regular consumer goods and now by the acquisition of luxury products.
If ticket sales are any indication, younger Chinese are still enthusiastic about the type of global urban lifestyle portrayed in Tiny Times. But through their criticisms of the film, older Chinese are questioning the government economic model—the triumph of the Haipai—that has driven China for much of their adult lives. If the end result is a generation obsessed with material goods but lacking in depth, they seem to be asking, where is China headed? Tiny Times and its vacuous cast of characters aren’t the stuff of lighthearted comedy in this scenario; they’re a glimpse of Shanghai’s, and China’s, dystopian—though impeccably dressed—future.