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Pervasive sense of inadequacy

中国日报网 2014-04-01 16:37





Chinese television series producers need to up the ante to ward off competition from South Korean soap operas.

Soap operas from South Korea have been popular in China for two decades now. So, it is not the first time domestic fare has paled in comparison. But this time, the one-two punch from The Heirs and My Love From the Star really hurts, ahem, our self-respect-to the point that it turned into a topic for chatter at the annual two sessions where policy-makers and top advisers usually discuss less fluffy issues.

A senior official freely admitted to being an occasional participant in the vast club of Korean soap watchers. It has also been reported that he follows House of Cards, an American political thriller that would understandably fascinate him. His remark opened the floodgate of kvetching about why we are falling behind in the creative industry.

Most seem to agree that, given some content restrictions, China's television industry is not capable of producing something like House of Cards, which is very dark and fraught with conspiracy. But there is a concern about our inability to make something as innocuous and entertaining as My Love From the Star, a Korean love story about a time-traveling professor and a tantrum-throwing movie star.

Korean influence goes deeper than shows that speak Korean. The biggest runaway hit in reality programming, Dad, Where Are We Going?, is not an original Chinese show. Its format was licensed from South Korea although not many in China are aware of that fact. The tentacles of Korean creativity go into every corner.

"I'm all for the easing of restrictions, but showbiz in China lacks the professional basis for making television series of this kind of quality," wrote Gao Qunshu, an outspoken filmmaker, in his microblog. He didn't go into details.

Personally, I don't see much difference in production values between, say, My Love From the Star and some of the top shows from China. Despite the genre of romance, the former does not feature steamy sex scenes, which might have made the show difficult to get past censors. It took 10 episodes for the lead couple to have an on-screen kiss.

The narrative element of time travel could be problematic because science fiction, like fantasy, is often viewed with suspicion in China. It is argued that viewers in less educated circles might not be discerning enough to infer the things portrayed on screen are not possible in real life and therefore should not be imitated at home. This could have been true half a century ago, but it seems condescending now that the whole nation enjoys a nine-year mandatory education and few adults, if any, would blur the line between fantasy and reality on screen.

Judging from Chinese shows in recent years, time travel is not strictly forbidden, but allowed when it is used as a background and handled with kid gloves. A spate of palace dramas is built on the premise that the female protagonist is transported from contemporary times back to antiquity, playing the game of a damsel in distress and a real prince coming to her rescue.

US and British television shows enjoy a somewhat exalted status in China, but their audience size is more limited due to their relatively unfamiliar culture and fast pace. Although there has been a sporadic effort to duplicate some of these shows, with a Prison Break wannabe a fiasco and The Love Apartment, modeled on Friends, a moderate hit, the scope in subject matter lies far beyond what Chinese showmen can reasonably yearn for.

This was borne out by the attempted airing in 2005 of a few episodes of Desperate Housewives on a Chinese channel, which garnered miserable ratings. When streamed, though, these shows get a far more urban and knowledgeable crowd. And they also enjoy much more latitude as they are self-censored by the websites rather than by a regulating body. When Charles Zhang, CEO of Sohu.com, the website that licenses many Western shows, said matter-of-factly that House of Cards, especially season 2 with its heavy Chinese content, had not run into censorship problems, the Western press was amazed.

Among industry insiders there is an implicit understanding that Western shows are to be watched, but not imitated. Even the wider public is not ready for a Chinese production of Breaking Bad or Black Mirror, with their morally ambiguous characters and complex plotting.

But we have a closer cultural affinity with South Korea. Shows from this neighbor seem to be only marginally better, with their plodding tempo and endless variations on the Cinderella theme. Yet they have created storms that swept across all social strata in spite of their female-oriented aesthetics.

One secret that has been deciphered is the blending of traditions and fashions. Korean soaps are very conservative in values and tend to promote the country's culture unabashedly. At the same time they often exude a sense of hip that connects with the young demographic. It is a hard act to pull off because the two strands usually go in opposite directions.

In addition, they have found a way to reconcile what is traditionally considered male and female qualities. Many of these shows have reversed gender roles by making the man an object of desire and the woman the pursuer. The objectification of the modern Adonis is not only making waves in the world of fashion, but the ripple effects are seeping into gender politics. For one thing, it has become a subconscious benchmark for many young urban Chinese women in their choice of dates or spouses.

This is not women asserting their sexuality as much as their right to dream. Some have interpreted it as an oblique comment that Chinese women have made on Chinese men. The male response? This is "pornography" for women who fantasize.

By default, Chinese couch potatoes should and would prefer locally produced content, as testified by a recent poll that puts the rate of preference at 53 percent. But a limited free market-with productions open to all but television channels monopolized by State entities-has created the strange outcome of quantity trumping quality, with some 15,000 episodes churned out each year but precious few winning the hearts of the viewing public.

Of course there are multiple reasons why Chinese soap operas have become the favorite punching bag. Other than overzealous censors and the bar of viewers' reception set by the lowest common denominator, the industry itself has never set right its mechanism for operation. The role of the creator, the most important job for American scripted programming and often assumed by the head writer, is vacant in China.

Writers are often considered dispensable for those who invest in Chinese soap operas, and unsurprisingly, denied parts of the compensation stipulated in the contract. Because Chinese television sprang from the film industry, few have realized that, unlike director-dominated films, TV is the art of the writer, which is accepted in almost all countries with highly developed television industries.

When the most crucial position in a creative industry is relegated to a hack, you can imagine what kind of product will ensue. There is no pride, only money, in the business. And people have little incentive to sharpen their skills when the money is numbingly intoxicating. So everyone involved treats it as a fly-by-night operation.

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily )





























(英文:中国日报周黎明 翻译:xiongxiong1314)



















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