Entertainment, Society

China’s Michelin stars

A culinary drama has an extravagant budget but divides critics

Jiang Shuying

A culinary drama has an extravagant budget but divides critics

After collecting years of data, Netflix found that on average, it takes subscribers a week to binge-watch an entire season of their favourite television series. And those viewers are dedicating a significant amount of time to do so: they watch over two hours a day.

Some people watch for far longer than that. Indeed, one 18 year-old girl in Wuhan spent three days and nights glued to her computer using a local streaming service to watch the drama To be a Better Man. By the time her 42-episode binge was over, she was suffering from a detached retina from excessive use. Thankfully she reached the hospital before any permanent damage was done, says Wuhan Evening News.

Since its premiere in late May, To be a Better Man has dominated the ratings on both Jiangsu and Zhejiang Satellite TV. Similarly, the series has accumulated over 10 billion views on various internet video platforms.

The drama follows the story of a Chinese chef named Lu Yuan – played by star actor Sun Honglei – who heads the kitchen at a 3-star Michelin restaurant in the US. After a close colleague is killed, Lu returns to China with his ashes. But he soon finds that the woman of his dreams (his-ex-girlfriend) is now in a relationship with his best friend. Adding to the complexity, he then falls for his best friend’s sister (played by Jiang Shuying).

But what has grabbed the headline is the programme’s lavish budget: the series reportedly cost Rmb150 million ($22.5 million) to make. High-production values are reflected in its insistent attention to detail: “The series is fastidious in its pursuit for the perfect shot: every set, each prop and costume is precise and well thought-out,” enthuses Lanzhou Morning Post.

Indeed, the producers went to great lengths to make sure every scene in this foodie drama is as true to reality as possible. For instance, the kitchen knife on the show is a professional chef’s tool that costs Rmb180,000. In a scene featuring an actress soaking in a bath of red wine, 63 bottles were uncorked to fill it. Director Zhang Xiaobo says the money was well spent: “Audiences are more and more sophisticated. They have the financial means to enjoy the finer things in life so they can definitely tell when we are cutting corners. When we film a piece of steak, we use tenderloin for tenderloin, filet for filet. We don’t fudge around,” he told Beijing Morning Post.

Nevertheless, some are questioning if the extravagant production is too wasteful. As Beijing Morning Post points out, what is the point of using a bath of real wine when the audiences can’t smell the bouquet.

Critics concur, saying that the series has too much gloss but too little substance. “Giving the plot half of a point [out of 10] is already too generous. The story line is incoherent and filled with plot holes. The director tries to get around it by putting in flashbacks to fill the gap,” the Shanghai Times complains.

“Are we expected to believe that Lu Yuan doesn’t know that his best friend has a sister after all these years even though their bond was stronger than steel? Audiences are not idiots. This is just so ridiculous it defies any logic.,” one wrote on Douban, the online TV and film review site.

Still, China News Service says from a TV ratings perspective, bigger does seem to be better. Recent ratings winners like Langya Bang, and Ode to Joy were all big-budget productions. Another soon-to-air TV series, Ice Fantasy, reportedly cost Rmb330 million.

Tencent Entertainment reckons that the reason studios can afford such big budget productions is because satellite networks are willing to splurge for the broadcasting rights to the next hit series. Under rules that came into effect early last year, the same TV series is not allowed to air on more than two channels during primetime. As a result, the leading shows have become the subject of bidding wars.

Similarly, the intense competition amongst internet video platforms has driven up the prices for online broadcasting rights. Ice Fantasy, for instance, managed to recoup all of its production cost before filming had even wrapped, thanks to the strong demand for the rights from five video streaming sites.

“On the surface online video sites seem to have little to do with the production of television series. But indirectly, they have become a big source of funding for the studios. That’s because most of the viewers online tend to be younger; young viewers have high spending power. And that is very attractive for advertisers.”

And in another new trend foreign broadcasters may also help Chinese studios recoup some of their investment. For instance, Fox Network has acquired the international rights to To Be a Better Man for an undisclosed amount.





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