If he were alive, Mao Zedong might shudder in disgust. The founding father of the People’s Republic of China had a predilection for propaganda movies. But in today’s China one of the biggest film sensations is Tiny Times – a romantic-drama series that would no doubt shock and perplex him.
Tiny Times couldn’t be further from Mao’s ascetic communism: it is a wholesale celebration of conspicuous consumption and materialism that has been described as a cross between Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada.
The series follows four attractive, fashion-obsessed young women in Shanghai: Lily, Ruby, Lin and Nan Xiang. It chronicles their lives and romances. The actresses look perfect – nicely groomed and slim. There are constant references to sports cars and expensive brands such as Prada and Gucci. The characters are often in opulent surroundings as they enter into relationships with handsome, well-dressed men.
“It is essentially a visual version of Vogue, strung together by a thin plot made up of pretentious dialogue,” says Bede Cheng, senior program manager at Metroplex Cinema in Hong Kong. To him the series is “essentially a film about rich, spoiled, single kids, made for spoiled single kids, who want to be rich and beautiful like the characters in the film”.
But clearly not everyone is put off by this franchise – it has legions of fans and support for its craftsmanship. “I think it’s right up there with Hollywood films. It’s a very polished look, you’re getting great art design, great set design, you’re getting great costumes. You know I was very impressed when I first saw it just from a cinematography or visual standpoint,” says Los Angeles-based Robert Lundberg at China Lion Film – the company that distributed the first two Tiny Times pictures in the US.
It’s also a concoction that’s proving to be exceedingly lucrative, bringing in more than $200 million so far at the Chinese box office. When the third installment opened last month it was sufficiently potent to push the heavyweight Hollywood blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction into second place. A fourth film is in the pipeline eagerly awaited by hordes of fans.
According to Beijing-based Stephen Cremin, who publishes Film Business Asia, the arrival of the first Tiny Times installment last year heralded a new development in China’s cinema. It was, as he puts it, “the first high-profile film to appeal primarily to the generation born in the 1990s who’ve become the main moviegoing audience in China”.
This audience has strongly aspirational tastes and it’s changing the face of Chinese cinema. It represents a huge new market that’s come into being as a result of reforms in China in the 1990s that fostered economic growth.
“I couldn’t imagine in the late 80’s that you would have movies like this,” says Tansen Sen, a professor of Asian history at Baruch College, “This is a totally new phenomenon. Things changed very rapidly. By the middle of the ‘90s this materialistic world was in place.”
The Tiny Times films have most definitely touched a raw nerve – and one that remains quite sensitive. The franchise has rankled those who think individualism and materialism have gone too far in China.
“It’s a mirror to how society has traveled in the past decade or two, the lack of moral grounding, the blatant material worship, the lack of real humanity, real purpose in life,” says Ying Zhu, professor of media culture at City University of New York.
She is also perturbed by the way in which the young women in Tiny Times are portrayed. “Women are depicted as nobody,” she complains. They’re inhabitants of this materialistic universe with values defined by money. “They aspire for wealthy men,” she says.
This film franchise is very much the product of a single individual, 31-year-old writer-turned-director Guo Jingming. The films are based on his novels.
“He sees China as a very pop culture oriented society,” says Tansen Sen. “There’s no sense that this was a communist society that he was describing. So I think there’s a disconnect between what he is writing about and the society in which he lives.”
Guo's work – and the values found in his writings – partly reflect his background and longings.
“He was a single-child who tasted the first fruits of China’s economic reforms. From a modest middle-class background in Szechuan he probably has dreams of making it big in the big city,” says Bede Cheng.
His background puts him in a very good position to understand his target audience – young people who live in what are referred to as ‘second-tier- cities, such as Chongqing, Nanjing and Wuhan. In other words it’s a young urban audience, but not one that resides in the metropolises of Beijing or Shanghai. It’s an audience group that’s perhaps less sophisticated but has strong materialistic longings – and Tiny Times caters very skillfully to it.
Massive cinema growth in China in recent years has also enabled the film business to harness the purchasing power of this young audience. It’s an expanding group that, having now tasted Tiny Times, is demanding more of the same. The film industry is rushing to make the movies that this group wants to watch.
“Gone is the epic history drama. The teen romance and romantic comedy have become the predominant genre now. Producers have moved in like a swarm to make these,” says Bede Cheng.
To one of China’s leading film critics, Raymond Chou, Tiny Times is quite simply taking the country in the wrong direction. “It’s hinting to the young generation that you can do anything to win material goods because that’s how your value is determined, [by] the kind of clothes you wear, the kind of bags you carry,” he says. “That’s the message.”
But Cremin suggests that all the fuss over Tiny Times, especially when it was launched last year, may be an over-reaction. Some of the oppositional passion has now dissipated – much, but not all of it, was coming from older people – a group that clearly isn’t the target audience. He says, “It’s like the first McDonalds opening in China – but a year later it’s just another part of the ever-changing film landscape.”
However, Tiny Times remains a film franchise that still fires up its critics. Not all of them view it – and the materialism of modern China that it reflects – as an unstoppable force. Professor Ying Zhu says, “There are people who are pushing back, there are people who are more critical who are trying to put a distance, trying to put a stop or pause on this fast-moving trend. They are a younger generation who are very critical of the film. Society is a lot more complex then what this film tries to capture.”
But in the meantime the appealing young faces of Tiny Times with all their shiny designer outfits and material riches will continue to light up cinema screens across China. Its bold, materialistic worldview couldn’t be more different from the austere and collectivist one envisioned by Mao Zedong more than 60 years ago. But Tiny Times is more than a film series capable of startling the founding father of the People’s Republic – it also demonstrates how cinema be part of an intense debate over a country’s future.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.