Acclaimed for its focus on cyber bullying and online rumors, the film “Post Truth” courts controversy for its shallow view on the surging social issue
Han Lu, a white-collar worker who grew up as an orphan but died in her early 30s and now lies in her grave in a cemetry, is facing an eviction order. The generous 1.36 million yuan donation she made before her death to a local child welfare institute, which made news headlines, somehow lead to the rumor that she was an escort who made the money from sexual services. Now, the children’s welfare center does not know what to do with Han’s donation, fearing it is “dirty money,” while a developer of the graveyard whose brother is buried next to Han believes she brings bad feng shui, and demands her out.
Meanwhile, cemetry agent Wei Ping’an neither believes the gossip, nor agrees to relocate Han, holding himself responsible for her as the one who sold her the plot when she was alive. To defend Han’s name and tomb, he embarks on a journey to trace the root of the rumor, online and offline, from the small city of Ji’an in northeast China’s Jilin province to Inner Mongolia over 1,000 kilometers away, only to find himself the subject of new slander.
Thus goes the story of Post Truth, the most popular movie in Chinese cinemas this March, often considered an off-season for the box office following the busy Spring Festival holiday. Directed by and starring Dong Chengpeng (also known as Da Peng), this comedy film has sold over 8.33 million tickets, and earned over 352 million yuan in revenue by March 19, nine days after its official release. On China’s most popular film review platform Douban, it was rated 7.9 out of 10, surpassing 94 percent of movies in this category on the platform, including Dong’s previous work Jian Bing Man (2015, rated 5.8) and City of Rock (2017, rated 6.6).
In addition to improved storytelling, the popularity of Post Truth is largely attributed to its depiction of cyber bullying and online sexual rumors against women, an issue that has gained increasing attention alongside relevant cases and tragedies over the last decade or so. However, the movie is also criticized for the lighthearted and shallow treatment of the issue.
In a 2020 incident that directly inspired the film (as the director has mentioned in many interviews), a Hangzhou resident known as Ms. Wu fell victim to defamation, as rumormongers used a video clip of her retrieving a package to fabricate a story of her being a married woman seducing a deliveryman. In a more recent tragedy, a young woman named Zheng Linghua took her own life this January, after dealing with nasty online comments on a photo of her showing a graduate school admission letter to her bedridden grandfather—netizens called Zheng an escort because of her pink hair, claimed she “exploited her hospitalized grandfather for attention,” and even made lewd speculations on her relationship with her grandfather. Meanwhile, a student was dismissed from Suzhou University in Jiangsu province on March 19 for posting photoshopped images of his female friends and classmates with fake accounts of their sex lives on a pornographic forum.
After Zheng Linghua’s death many netizens dyed their hair pink in solidarity with Zheng and to show their opposition to cyber bullying. (screenshot from Haokan video)
Many audience members resonate with the film’s theme, which is summarized in a folk saying on its poster, “It takes a few words to create rumors, but exhausting efforts to refute them.” A Douban user by the name Cai Niannian shares in a review of the film that she “cried like a fool” in the cinema, as the film reminded her of many similar victims, even celebrities including Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who recently shared on Weibo her decade-long experience living with rumors that she used sexual favors to advance her career. “Many people may not realize one sentence you scribble online can kill a person,” Cai commented.
Zheng died, but none of the rumormongers were punished. Zhang has not received any apology from her libelers, though she won a legal case last July. But even under news reports of Zhang’s victory in the case, some commenters still side with the rumors and insult her character.
The film borrows the term “Post Truth” as its English title, pointing out that fact is often neglected or ignored in the internet era. In the film, Wei seems to be the only person who cares about truth. He traces down the claim of Han being an escort, from a pet shop owner who passes it to the developer of the graveyard, to an entrepreneur who learns it from his employee and mistress and then spreads it at a dinner party, and finally to a netizen in Inner Mongolia. Most of the rumormongers do not even know Han personally, other than her name in the news. When asked for evidence that Han was an escort, the pet shop owner questions Wei in return, “Why so serious about a piece of gossip?”
Wei’s serious efforts to help Han continue to rouse suspicion. Wei’s sister even forced him to the hospital for an examination, fearing he had a sexual relationship with Han, which in turn fuels more rumors after the video of the scene is posted online, including claims Han died from sexually transmitted diseases.
Ironically, at the end of the story, the Inner Mongolian netizen who spread the rumor online under the handle “Perfect Man 421,” claiming to have paid Han 3,000 yuan for sexual services, admits he simply wanted to write a viral comment under the story about Han’s donation to win free access to one chapter of an online novel, a service that originally would have cost him just 9.9 yuan.
While the film makes an effort to hone in on the absurdity of how online rumors spread through the twists and turns of the plot, many viewers find Wei Ping’an, portrayed as the hero of the story, unconvincing. In the story, Wei risks losing his job—and even his life as he chases down “Perfect Man 421” at a railway station in Inner Mongolia—in order to defend the reputation of an ordinary client. To audiences’ disappointment, Wei simply brushes off his motivation with platitude in two catchphrases: “There is goodness in the world,” and “Do what you think is right.” During moments of difficulty when Wei contemplates giving up, a white horse miraculously appears as a sacred creature to encourage Wei to do the right thing—an explanation that seems lazy at best.
Many have grown fed up with the traces of savior complex in the film. Its Chinese title 保你平安 (“Keeping you safe and sound”) is a play on Ping’an (平安), the first name of the male hero played by director Dong himself, which seems to disproportionately emphasize his importance while overshadowing the issue the film tries to tackle. Some Douban users even find a parallel between the film and Green Book, the 2018 Oscar winner often criticized as exhibiting a white savior complex.
Post Truth, likewise, is most often criticized as presenting a pure story of the protagonist seeking truth and justice for a “kind and innocent” woman, while avoiding the more important and complicated issue—if Han Lu was any more complicated than a perfect victim, would her reputation have remained equally worth defending in this film?
A Douban user by the name Zong Cheng comments that this film seems to “have found a good theme, but sacrificed nuanced exploration for a crowd-pleasing audio-visual style,” terming Dong’s style “opportunistic realism.”
This is a common ailment for Chinese TV dramas and films on similar issues. For instance, in last year’s hit historical TV series A Dream of Splendor, adapted from Yuan dynasty play “Zhao Pan’er Rescuing a Courtesan,” the heroine is hinted to be a virgin, even though she is a prostitute in the original work. “Female characters in such works will probably be frowned upon by the audience once they lose their virginity or fidelity,” a report by Sanlian Lifeweek magazine pointed out early this month.
But female playwrights and directors have been making efforts to create more ”unconventional“ but realistic women in their works, the Sanlian Lifeweek report observed, mentioning romance film B for Busy, written and directed by Shao Yihui, as an example. This popular 2021 romance movie, with 250 million yuan in box office in its first month and an 8.1 rating on Douban, features characters such as a divorcee who once had an extramarital relationship, a middle-aged rich woman whose husband has gone missing, and a single mother—the latter two have each had a one-night stand with the same man—but all of them are developed into well rounded characters instead of dismissed as ”bad women.”
In Post Truth, however, it’s apparent that Dong’s ambition lies elsewhere than promoting complex female characters or nuanced discussions on feminist issues. The vision he offered as he spoke to media during a screening in Changsha, Hunan province, on March 13, is perhaps more vanilla—the film aims to inspire audiences to “become a ‘Ping’an’ and stand up to help others,” to help people believe “there is love in the world,” and to “encourage those upholding justice.”
In the director’s opinion, Wei Ping’an, a stereotypical middle-aged “loser” who was jailed, divorced, and now lives alone in a shabby apartment selling cemetery plots by livestreaming, is a “knight” in the “urban jungle.” In other words, though the story of Post Truth is based on a complicated women’s issue, it has not pushed Dong far from repeating his typical theme of (often male) grassroots heroism.
Can a Comedy Film Combat Online Defamation? is a story from our issue, “After the Factory.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.