It was supposed to be the patriotic holiday hit. “Confucius,” the government-backed bio-epic about the ancient philosopher, was tailor-made to stir national pride over Chinese New Year.
What they got instead was China’s answer to “Ishtar” -- a box-office dud with the misfortune of having to compete against the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.”
“Confucius says: flop” read a headline in the Shanghai Daily.
Even a historian who was invited to the film’s prescreening to offer the project a shot of credibility gave the thumbs down, saying the movie was riddled with inaccuracies.
“It’s been, in a sense, a loss of face,” said Stan Rosen, a Chinese film expert at USC. “It really backfired.”
China has a tradition of releasing high-budget, nationalistic films over major holidays, and “Confucius” was chosen to ring in the Year of the Tiger.
The movie marked a milestone of sorts for a philosopher whose teachings were reviled under Mao Tse-tung but are enjoying a rebirth in modern China. The nation’s leaders have made Confucian principles of social harmony and respect for hierarchy a driving mantra now that communist dogma has lost its cachet.
The filmmakers seized on the philosopher’s rebounding status. A 77th-generation member of Confucius’ family was trotted out to promote the film -- a politically correct, two-hour feature on the sage’s later years as a bureaucrat and scholar. There’s some violence, but to the disappointment of some, no sex.
A record 2,500 copies of the film were distributed nationwide. And with Hong Kong action hero Chow Yun-Fat playing Confucius and starlet Zhou Xun cast as an imperial consort, the government hoped that millions would flock to cinemas to see the homemade blockbuster.
Millions did show up at theaters -- but mostly to see “Avatar.”
With the Oscar-nominated film’s groundbreaking special effects and youth appeal, critics say it was unfair to expect “Confucius” to put up a serious fight.
“ ‘Confucius’ is not fashionable,” said Yang Jia, a 22-year-old college student inside a Beijing cinema where “Avatar” was selling out. “I’m just not interested in historical movies.”
“Confucius” may never have been expected to compete with the Hollywood hit had it not been for a controversial move by film regulators. Days before the Jan. 22 opening of “Confucius,” 2-D versions of “Avatar” were pulled from theaters to clear the way for the domestic release.
That set off a media backlash in print and online, pitting “Confucius” against a global sensation that had already become China’s top grossing film of all time.
Wu Renchi, a movie blogger based in Shanghai, called for a boycott of “Confucius” to protest what he said was state manipulation of the film industry.
“They took the rights of moviegoers away,” said Yu, whose site has attracted nearly 800,000 hits and many “Avatar” fans. “It’s just an excuse to protect domestic films.”
State officials defended the move, explaining that “Avatar” was not drawing sufficient interest in 2-D. The more profitable 3-D version was allowed to remain on 900 screens.
Yu said he couldn’t help but smile when he learned that “Avatar” had outsold “Confucius” 6-to-1 in the first two weeks.
“I have no sympathy, this is what they deserved,” he said. “The government went against market rules and acted like we were under a planned economy.”
Instead of trying to defuse the conflict between the two films, the makers of “Confucius” went on the offensive. The movie’s prickly director, Hu Mei, suggested to local media that “Avatar’s” producers were exaggerating their loss of screenings to win publicity.
"['Avatar’] hasn’t left any impression on me except those special effects,” she said at a news conference after her premiere. “All I could remember were those pixies flying around.”
Days earlier, she and one of her screenwriters had fired barbs at Bao Pengshan, a historian at Shanghai University who was asked by the crew to view “Confucius” before its release. In his critique, Bao called the film sloppy for misquoting the philosopher and getting the name of Confucius’ son wrong.
While the ugliness ensued, “Avatar” fans continued to line up outside cinemas, sometimes overnight, to score tickets that cost double the price of ordinary 2-D films.
“I didn’t want to leave after it finished,” said Tian Xue, 23. “It’s already my favorite movie.”
Meanwhile, “Confucius” tickets were reportedly being given away to government workers and schoolchildren to boost box-office figures.
One theater in southern Guangdong province gave a free “Confucius” ticket to anyone who bought two for “Avatar.” Later, the same cinema offered coupons to a beauty salon to boost interest in the film.
The latest box-office results show “Avatar” still firmly in first place with $146 million in sales in China in its first 35 days. “Confucius” was fourth with $14.6 million in 17 days, trailing the kung-fu thriller “14 Blades” and the cartoon sensation “Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf 2.”
The lackluster response to “Confucius” may have been hard to swallow for stewards of China’s film industry. Days after the movie’s disappointing opening, China’s State Council, or Cabinet, said theater operators needed to reserve two-thirds of all screen time for domestic films. The requirement was introduced several years ago but has long been ignored. The Cabinet also announced new funding to improve Chinese-made films.
Officials have long been wary of competition from Hollywood, which boasts the four most profitable movies to ever run in China: “Avatar,” “2012,” “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Titanic.” Foreign films are limited to 20 a year in Chinese theaters, which has helped fuel rampant pirating and illegal downloading.
Rosen, the film expert at USC, said China’s $911-million film industry may never match the success of Hollywood’s big-budget hits.
“Politics still trumps everything else,” he said. “There are limits to how far Chinese films can succeed.”
Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.