Thursday, August 27, 2009

China's Meteor Shower: Thumbs Up, or Thumbs Down?

This month saw the running of Meteor Shower - or to give it its full title, Let's Go Watch a Meteor Shower (一起来看流星雨) - an idol drama produced by Hunan TV. Meteor Shower is the mainland version of one of East Asia's most successful soap opera franchises. Set on a university campus, it centres on the relationship between a poor female student and a group of rich and handsome but arrogant boys.

The cultural phenomenom started out as a manga comic called Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers), and was first made into a Japanese anime series that ran in the mid-1990s. In 2001, Taiwanese TV station transformed it into a TV series, Meteor Garden. It's huge success resulted in two sequels - Meteor Rain in 2002 and Meteor Garden II the following year. It also launched one of Taiwan's most successful and endearing boy bands, F4 or, as they are now supposed to be known, JVKV.

Japan reclaimed the story in 2005 with the production of its live action version, Hana Yori Dango. Again the series was one of the year's most watched programs, so in 2007 a sequel followed, Hana Yori Dango Returns. Korea got into the act at the start of this year with its own production of Boys Over Flowers, and riding on the wave of its country's reputation for popular drama, the show was a hit not just in Korea but in the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

So China becomes the fourth country to produce the series, and the jury is still out on how much of a success it has been. On the positive side, some critics have been pleasantly surprised by its touches of originality, while others have praised its use of humour. Fans of the show have found it addictive, and the male lead, Zhang Han (张翰), appears to have captured the hearts of numerous teenage girls. The verdict on the acting has been mixed, some critics complimenting the performances of the mainly inexperienced cast, while others have lambasted them for their wooden portrayals.

Then there have been the complaints that the cast isn't pretty/handsome enough, the production values lame, the plotline rambling, and even that the boys don't seem rich enough. Others have seen the show as just another example of the shanzhai (or cheap knock-off) attitude that seems to characterise modern China. At times there almost seems to be a cultural cringe going on - the chip-on-the-shoulder belief that if it's a mainland TV production it can't be any good.

What is not in doubt is that it has drawn in large viewing numbers - its premiere attracted an estimated 40 million viewers, and audience numbers continued to grow - which will please those numerous companies canny enough to place their products in the series. Already, and almost inevitably, there is a talk of a sequel on its way. Meanwhile, the Philippines are working on their version of the story.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Is Chen Lu Yu Too Thin?

TV talk show host Chen Lu Yu (陳鲁豫), known as the "Oriental Oprah", has recently become the subject of speculation over her weight. Her already bird-like frame has seemed even more skeletal in recent public appearances, most noticeably at a promotional launch for a popular toothpaste brand last week. In a culture where a fat build is often associated with good health, and thinness means you're sick or don't eat enough, it's not surprising that people are expressing concern about her weight, with some entertainment websites labelling her figure "scary".

Chen hosts the popular and acclaimed chat show, A Date with Lu Yu on Chinese television's Phoenix network. Her wide appeal lies in her warm, approachable personality and an insightful interviewing style that isn't afraid to tackle difficult issues without being confrontational. The multi award-winning 39 year old has fronted A Date with Lu Yu since 2002. She began her career hosting a travel program before moving to the talk show format. Initially she was best known for her celebrity interviews but, influenced by the Oprah Winfrey Show, began tackling more serious issues on the program

She has also published several books. In one of her books she wrote openly about her weight obsession during her student days at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Khalil Fong's Album of Covers at Number 1

Khalil Fong (方大同, pinyin: Fāng Dàtóng), the Hawaiian-born, Shanghai- and Hong Kong-raised singer, is this week's number one on the Taiwanese G-Music charts. The prolific 26 year-old has now released five albums in his short, four year career, and his latest, Timeless (可啦思刻), is made up entirely of cover songs.

Choosing songs that have inspired him at various stages of his life, there's several easy listening favourites on the album. He covers his biggest musical influence, Stevie Wonder, with You are the Sunshine of My Life, as well as Ray Charles' Georgia on My Mind, Nothing's Gonna Change My Love, and closing the album with Henry Mancini's Moon River. There are a couple of more adventurous choices: Michael Jackson's Bad for example, and A-Mei's Remember.

Singing in English presents no problems for Fong, being his first language. He fact he sings in four languages on Timeless. As well as English and Mandarin, he performs - apparently his first ever Cantonese recording - Kwang Chiu (狂潮), a song from the 70s originally sung by Susanna Kwan. He even tries his hand at Spanish with a slightly slowed down version of La Bamba.

The album is released by Warner Music. As usual, Chinese Music Blog has an informative album review.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A-Mei Triumphs at Metro Mandarin Awards

Another music awards ceremony was held this week, the Metro Mandarin Awards 2009 on Sunday August 9. The Awards, known as the 国语力 (Guoyuli) and with a focus on Mandarin rather than Cantonese music, are organised by Hong Kong Metro Radio and have been awarded since 2002. On a very busy night at the Hong Kong Convention Centre, over 100 awards were announced, many of them joint awards. There was a royal battle between the female stars, with A-Mei (阿妹 or 张惠妹, pictured right) emerging queen of the night. She took home six awards, ahead of Hong Kong superstar Joey Yung (容祖儿, pinyin: Róng Zǔér) and Taiwan's pop diva Jolin Tsai (蔡依林, pinyin: Cài Yīlín) (five awards apiece).

A-Mei's awards included Metro's Best Performer Award, Best Mandarin Female Singer, Most Popular Artiste, and the big one, "the World's Supreme Female Singer" award. Joey Yung's haul of awards included a shared Best Mandarin Female Singer and Most Popular Mandarin Idol awards, and one of the Most Popular Asian Singers. Jolin was named Best Singer of the Year, had the Best Mandarin Dance Song, and shared an Extreme Global Stage Award.

Among the men, Eason Chan (陈奕迅, pinyin: Chén Yìxùn) was the most successful on the night with five awards. They included Best Song of the Year, Best Mandarin Male Singer and Most Popular Artiste. He was also "the World's Supreme Male Singer" in the eyes of the award bestowers. Other singers to be well rewarded on the night were Show Luo (罗志祥, pinyin: Luó Zhīxiáng), Wilbur Pan (潘玮柏, pinyin: Pān Wěibó) and Khalil Fong (方大同), all with four awards each.

In the band/group categories, most successful on the night were Sodagreen and Lollipop, who both took out three awards. Sodagreen (苏打绿, pinyin: Sūdá lǜ ) was named Most Popular Asian Band and Best Mandarin Band, while boy band Lollipop (棒棒堂, pinyin: Bàng Bàng Táng ) was Best Mandarin Group and Most Popular Group.

Metro Radio also handed out a Hall of Fame award to Tsai Chin (蔡琴, pinyin: Cài Qín). The 51 year old Taiwan singer (pictured above), who started her career back in the late 70s, is renowned for her beautiful voice and engaging stage presence. Fans of the Infernal Affairs movies might remember the haunting presence of one of her best-loved songs, The Forgotten Times (被遺忘的時光) in that trilogy.

For a full list of awards, see this Asian Fanatics forum post. This Wikipedia entry also has the full awards list in Chinese, plus links to previous awards lists.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Charity Effort Conquers G Music Chart

Faith Map (信心地圖), a compilation album from various singers going under the name of New Artist Family (新藝人家族), has reached the number one position in the G Music album chart for the week 31 July to 6 August. Released early in July, its sales have been steadily growing, and the two-disc collection has now pushed Jam Hsiao off the number one spot.

Faith Map is the Taiwanese music industry's response to the Global Economic Crisis. Concerned that so many people have been plunged into unemployment and financial distress by recent economic events, a group of singers got together and recorded an album to inspire confidence and faith for these dark times. Featured artists include Singaporeans He Yaoshan and JJ Lin in a duet, Faith in Travel, F.I.R members on a couple of tracks, Liu Hong and Wang Wanfei. The 14 songs on the album have inspirational titles such as Hero, Change and I'm Ready. There's a gospel flavour to some of the tracks, not surprisingly when notable evangelical Christians such as Will Liu and He Yaoshan are involved.

The artists agreed to donate their services, and album sale proceeds go to charity.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The McDull Craze

McDull Wudang (麦兜响当当) is the fourth installment in a series of animated films starring McDull, the unsophisticated but lovable piglet with the birthmark on his right eye. The film, also known as McDull: Kung Fu Kindergarten, posted strong box office figures in its opening weeks on the Chinese mainland. According to CRI English, it drew in box office earnings of 63 million yuan (about US$9 million) on the mainland in its first two weeks. According to the film's distributor, the film has a good chance of ending up China's highest-grossing domestic cartoon. Meanwhile, the people of Hong Kong will have to wait until August 13 for the film's release.

The new movie is, for the first time, a joint mainland-Hong Kong production. And possibly reflecting the mainland's involvement, this time McDull ventures outside Hong Kong to travel to Wudang Mountain on the mainland and learn tai chi at a Kung Fu Kindergarten (shades of Kung Fu Panda).

McDull started out as a comic book character back in 1988, created by the Hong Kong husband and wife team of Brian Tse and Alice Mak. In 2001 McDull became a movie star, in My Life as McDull, followed by McDull, Prince de la Bun (2004), and McDull, The Alumni (2006). A five-part series of educational TV shows featuring McDull was produced in 2006. As is the way of all successful cartoon characters, expect a flood of toys, books, DVDs and other merchandise to follow in the latest film's successful wake.

It's not difficult to see the appeal of McDuff . He represents a Hong Kong Everyman, not always successful in achieving his dreams but never conceding defeat or giving up hope. And despite his simple-minded nature he has a winning innocence and heart of gold. Another factor in McDull's popularity is the distinctive Hong Kong humour, sometimes surreal, sometimes crude (one featured character, a man made out of dung, was called Excreman), and lots of clever puns and word play. Judging by the film's success over the border, it seems mainlanders can relate to McDuff too.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Chinese TV's Flying Apsaras Award nominees

The not-so-catchily title Flying Apsaras Awards (飞天奖) - I prefer the pinyin-titled Feitian Awards - have been described as the Chinese Emmys. Like the Emmys they recognise artistic merit, although (unlike the Emmys) "ideological value" is taken into account as well. Originally an annual award that was first given out in 1981, more recently they have been held every two years. This year's award, the 27th edition, will cover the period March 2007 to February 2009. For the upcoming awards, viewers were allowed to take part in the voting process through an online poll on the Sohu web portal.

A shortlist of nominees for Best Feature Drama, Best Actor and Best Actress has been announced, and include (according to this Chinese-language China Daily article):
Pathfinding to the North-east (闯关东), the 2008 epic series that narrates the struggles of migrants from Shandong who ventured to the harsh north-east region during the early decades of the 20th century.
Golden Marriage (金婚), a 2007 hit series about the 50-year marriage of a Chinese couple while providing a potted history of the Chinese People's Republic. It starred Zhang Guoli and Jiang Wenli as the husband and wife.
Soldiers Sortie (士兵突击), another smash hit from 2007, that made a star of Wang Baoqiang as a kind of Chinese Forrest Gump - a simple-minded soldier (nicknamed Idiot Number Three) who overcomes bullying and wins over everyone with his honesty and integrity.
The Legend of Bruce Lee (李小龙传奇) which premiered in October 2008 and attracted CCTV's highest ratings for a TV series since 2000. It starred Daniel Chan in the title role.

Other TV shows in the running include: Factory Girl (女工), Meditations on the White Birch Forest (静静的白桦林), Traffic Police (交通警察), Beautiful Thing (漂亮的事), Spring Grass (春草), Great Artisan (大工匠), Harbin Under the Curtain of Night (夜幕下的哈尔滨), The Struggle (奋斗)

Best Actor candidates are:
Sun Honglei (孙红雷)
Zhang Guoli (张国立)
Li Xuejian (李雪健)
Li Youbin (李幼斌)
Wang Baoqiang (王宝强) pictured right
Lin Yongjian (林永健)
Cheng Yu (程煜)
Jiao Huang (焦晃)
Wang Zhifei (王志飞)
Duan Yihong (段奕宏)

Best Actress candidates:
Sarina (萨日娜 Sa Ri Nuo)
Yan Ni (闫妮) (pictured left)
Yao Chen (姚晨)
Jiang Wenli (蒋雯丽)
Pan Yuchen (潘雨辰)
Wang Yajie (王雅婕)
Liu Jia (刘佳)
Chen Xiaoyi (陈小艺)
Wang Luodan (王珞丹)
Tao Hong (陶虹)

This English-language CCTV article identifies five "odds-on" favourites for the awards, namely Li Youbin, Zhang Guoli, Sun Honglei and Wang Baoqian amongst the male nominees, and Yan Ni as the female standout. Award winners will be announced in September.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

What is Crosstalk?

Crosstalk in action: the late Ma Ji (left) and Tang Jiezhong

[Part 2 in my (very) irregular Q&A series on Chinese pop culture - Part 1 is here]

Crosstalk (相声, pronounced xiàngsheng), is a popular comedy style pretty much unique to China. It usually has two performers, but can be done solo or with a group of three or more. Crosstalk relies on puns, impersonation, vocal agility, gentle satire and lots of sarcasm. It's probably the dominant form of performance comedy in China, in much the same way stand-up comedy dominates in the English-speaking world.

Channel-surf the dozens of Chinese TV channels, and it always seems to me that at least one of them will be showing crosstalk. It comes into its own every Lunar New Year, when the most-watched TV show of them all, CCTV's New Year Gala variety show, will feature several performers. The best-known crosstalk exponents are household names with lucrative advertising deals and whose books and DVDs are best-sellers.

The popularity of crosstalk seems to wax and wane. Its origins date back to the mid-nineteenth century, and it was a popular form of entertainment in the tea-houses of the northern cities of Beijing and Tianjin in the first half of the twentieth century. With the founding of the Communist Party's New Republic in 1949, teahouses began to disappear, and the performers were incorporated into state-run performance troupes.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s China embarked on its Opening Up period which saw a relaxation of both economic and social policy. With a greater sense of freedom, satirical crosstalk staged a mini-revival, before its popularity flagged again in the 90s. However, crosstalk's status as a component of the much revered "Chinese traditional culture" means it enjoys official favour, so heavy exposure on the State-run TV and radio keeps it firmly in the public spotlight.

It remains to be seen whether it can win the hearts of the young generation of Chinese, a more sophisticated audience who have been exposed to Korean sitcoms and Western film comedies. Some younger people see crosstalk as old-fashioned, while even older audiences look fondly back on the "good old days" of crosstalk. The criticism of the present generaton of performers is that they are much more derivative and unoriginal, their sketches written by committees or even solicited from the internet. The satire sticks to safe topics (unscrupulous business, rampant materialism), and studiously avoids any subject that might not meet government approval. Sketches might even contain an uplifting message, fitting in with the government's concept that art and entertainment should provide a positive influence.

Crosstalk's popularity also has a distinct regional bias. The north is where crosstalk has its roots, and from where most of the top performers come, and that's where its biggest fanbase lies. In the south and western regions of the country, however it hasn't taken the same grip on the public's affections, and is overshadowed by other forms of entertainment.

Sadly many of the biggest names in crosstalk have recently passed on. Ma Sanli, Ma Ji and Hou Yaowen all died in the past six years. The baton has been passed to the new generation, names like Guo Degang and Feng Gong, whose challenge is to maintain the tradition while keeping it relevant to modern audiences.

Perhaps the future belongs to the newest star to emerge, Xiao Shenyang (pictured right), who came to prominence just a few months ago with his performance in the CCTV New Year Gala show. Unlike the greats from the past, Xiao Shenyang usually performs on his own - sometimes his wife or another person will act as the straight man/woman. Impersonation and physical comedy, important components of crosstalk, are his trademarks; yet to Western audiences his style seems much more accessible because of its similarities with stand-up.
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