Most expensive Chinese film ever pulled from cinemas after it bombs

Andrew Pulver
Asura stars Zhang Yishang and Wu Lei at the film’s press conference in January. Photograph: VCG/Getty Images

The massively hyped Chinese fantasy epic Asura has been pulled from cinemas after a disastrous opening weekend.

With a production budget reported at 750m yuan (£85m), Asura – with its complex special effects, big-name stars and huge crew – was hailed as China’s most expensive film ever made. However, its opening weekend takings totalled 49m yuan (£5.5m), and it was immediately withdrawn from cinemas.

The film’s official Weibo account announced the news on Sunday, with producers offering “deepest apologies to viewers who did not get a chance to watch the film, as well as to all the Chinese and international participants who were involved in its production over the past six years”.

Named after the triple-headed demigods of Buddhist mythology, Asura stars 18-year-old heartthrob Wu Lei as a shepherd who turns out to be the reincarnation of one of the heads of a warrior king – also called Asura – aiming to invade heaven (Tony Leung Ka-fai and Carina Lau Kar-ling play the other two heads).

In an article published before the film’s release, Yang Hongtao, chairman of Ningxia Film Group and one of the film’s major backers, expressed confidence in Asura, saying: “It’s a very imaginative movie. We wanted the film to raise confidence in our own culture and train more domestic talent.” The film appeared to have won the publicity battle, with reports saying Asura had generated around 390m mentions on Weibo.

However, audiences failed to respond, with a low 3.1 out of 10 rating on Chinese review site Douban, and a resounding box-office defeat by the 1930s-set swordsman drama Hidden Man.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Asura’s producers are also suggesting that organised trolling has been responsible for negative reactions. A social media post claimed an aggressive attack by a “water army” – a paid team of ghostwriters, aiming to artificially inflate poor ratings – damaged the film’s chances.

This may not be the last of Asura, however. A representative of Zhenjian Film, another of the film’s backers, told the Sina news agency that “this decision was made not only because of the bad box-office. We plan to make some changes to the film and release it again.”