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.

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