Down in flames

Has Netflix backed a loser in Meteor Garden remake?


Wang Ju earned national attention as one of the most popular singers on Tencent’s reality show Produce 101. With her heavier frame and darker skin, she challenged public perceptions of female beauty (see WiC413). But was that a one-off victory over local stereotypes? Probably: the experience of Shen Yue shows that expectations for how actresses should look are still grounded in more traditional thinking.

Shen, who is starring in Hunan Satellite TV’s Meteor Garden, a remake of the 2001 Taiwan idol drama of the same name, has been widely benchmarked against her predecessor in the role, Barbie Hsu (also known as Big S) with netizens picking apart her shape and height.

“Compared with Big S, Shen Yue is indeed inferior in appearance and acting skills,” one wrote. “Even though she can’t do anything about her height, she should try to at least lose some weight.”

“I am not saying that all female entertainers need to be fair, beautiful and have long legs. But I think that is very important for idol dramas. After all, we watch idol dramas for escapism. Have you seen anyone less than beautiful on South Korean dramas? So for a female lead of an idol drama to have a body like this…” another opined.

Shen professed to be unfazed by all the critiques, choosing to respond with humour. “They say I’m fat? That is the truth. They say I’m short? I am only so tall, you can see. If I were the audience, I would compare myself with Big S, too. So I don’t think it’s useful to worry too much, better to focus on filming,” she said in an interview with Beijing Youth Daily.

Barbie Hsu’s beloved character turned the original version of the show into a mega hit across Asia when it first aired 17 years ago. Hsu went on to become one of the region’s most recognisable stars, not only in Taiwan but in mainland China too. The other lead actors – Jerry Yan, Vic Chou, Ken Chu and Vanness Wu – were so popular that they formed the boy band F4 after the show (it eventually disbanded in 2009).

That left a strong legacy for the new format to live up to. According to the China Daily, “to a majority of post-80s and post-90s people living on the Chinese mainland, Meteor Garden was the first idol drama they watched in their lives.”

The new series, which is helmed by the same producer Chai Zhi-ping as the 2001 original, tells the story of Dong Shancai (played this time by Shen), a young woman determined to succeed at university. Naturally, she is surrounded by a crowd of dashing suitors, one of whom is the handsome, rich but arrogant Dao Mingsi (played by Dylan Wang from Chengdu).

Meteor Garden debuted in 17 countries and was well received across Asia in 2001,” says Chai. “It was a drama series loved by many, including teenagers and young adults. The new rendition is re-adapted for the millennial generation – from the story and the script to an on-demand viewing platform so that a new generation can enjoy this classic love story. The new Meteor Garden also sets a new high for Mandarin idol drama.”

Chai will also know that remakes of classics often fail to impress the viewing public. And even though the current series is only a week old, the reception has been overwhelmingly negative for the latest version too. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, it has a rating of only 3 out of 10, the most poorly rated show so far this year.

Many netizens complain that the new adaptation has “completely destroyed” their childhood memories. Other complaints are that there are so many product placements that the action feels more like a lengthy commercial. The first two episodes alone have over 15 brands on display, with audiences joking that the series should be renamed “Advertising Garden”.

What’s also different this time round is that the four male leads, all bullies in the original version, are reframed as straight-A students in the new format. The remake clearly wanted to avoid showcasing growing wealth disparity in China, so it also downplays Dao Mingsi’s super-rich background, claiming that he is a wunderkind who made his money trading the stock market (the original has him inheriting his fortune).

In the new series, all the kids use Vivo, an affordable homegrown smartphone (and a sponsor of the show) that costs around Rmb3,000. For the grand romantic gesture, Dao, who offers to buy the Eiffel Tower for the uninterested female lead in the original, brings snacks and drinks to class to show his affection this time around.

“All I can say is, all these years later, Dao Mingsi’s family fortune has shrunk dramatically,” one netizen mocked.

Other critics have questioned why the show needed to be remade. “To put it simply, the new version of Meteor Garden wants to extend the life of an aging intellectual property. It claims that it wants to raise up a group of fresh actors, just like it did 17 years ago, but it has cast a group of people who have no TV acting experience. This kind of shoddy production totally disrespects the audience and is destroying the IP. For the producers, the goal clearly is no more than making a quick buck,” Qilu Evening News thundered.

“Hopefully, Meteor Garden will teach producers a lesson that a drama with no sincerity and no standards – no matter how popular the stars or how high the production values – won’t move audiences,” Entertainment Courier, an entertainment industry blog, added.

Netflix also has a keen interest in Meteor Garden doing well, after acquiring the broadcasting rights in an effort to bulk up its Chinese-language content.

The global media giant has also purchased iQiyi’s Tientsin Mystic, an adventure series set in the 1930s, crime drama Burning Ice, as well as the thriller Day And Night from Youku Tudou.

Netflix cannot operate independently in China, but it has previously sold several of its shows to domestic distributors, including sci-fi series Stranger Things and documentaries Chef’s Table and Making Of A Murderer, to iQiyi, one of the country’s largest video streaming platforms.

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