BEIJING (AFP) - With a budget of around 750 million yuan (S$152.7 million), the most expensive Chinese film ever made has become a flop of historic proportions, pulled from theatres on its opening weekend after bringing in a paltry US$7.3 million.
Alibaba Pictures' special effects-heavy fantasy film Asura was intended as the first instalment in an epic trilogy inspired by Tibetan Buddhist mythology, part of a drive by the authorities to promote works bearing elements of traditional Chinese culture.
The film opened last Friday (July 13) but Chinese ticketing platform Maoyan said it took in only just over US$7.3 million (S$9.94 million) at the weekend.
By Sunday, the film's official social media account posted a statement declaring that it would be removed from theatres as of 10pm that night.
"We express our apologies to all those who wanted to but won't have the chance to see it," it said.
Most of China's biggest blockbusters to date have been made with half the budget lavished on Asura.
The estimated loss of US$106 million would make it the fifth-biggest flop in movie history worldwide, behind front runner Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas which suffered losses of US$125 million, according to data from website Box Office Mojo.
State media had touted the movie before it was released, with the China Daily hailing Asura as "the most hotly anticipated blockbuster of China's competitive summer season".
"It's a very imaginative movie. We wanted the film to raise confidence in our own culture and train more domestic talent," Yang Hongtao, chairman of Ningxia Film Group, one of the movie's backers, told the paper ahead of last Friday's opening.
Six years in the making, the film was heavy on expensive visuals, featuring 2,400 scenes with special effects in its runtime of just 141 minutes, the paper noted.
Bankable Hong Kong actors Tony Leung Ka Fai and Carina Lau starred, while high-powered foreign talent - such as Oscar-winning Ngila Dickson, costume designer for the Lord of the Rings franchise - also took part.
Yet the film garnered a rotten 3.1 rating on Douban, China's most influential user review platform.
"My god, it's horrifying! It's just a magnificent pile of excrement!" one user wrote.
Wildly different reviews on the country's two largest ticketing platforms prompted a virulent retort from the movie's production team, posted last Friday to its social media account.
On opening day, Asura netted an 8.4 rating out of 10 on Alibaba-owned Tao Piaopiao. But on Maoyan, backed by Alibaba's rival tech giant Tencent, reviewers had given it just 4.9.
The team accused Maoyan of using fake, paid reviewers to post 1-star ratings to artificially deflate the film's score, calling the alleged move "despicable, foolish, and ludicrous".
Many users dismissed the film's team's statement.
"It was garbage anyway," one reviewer wrote.