What do you do when you find yourself forced to live with a group of strangers for three weeks in a remote location? The latest reality show from Tencent Video follows a similar format to Survivor, the format from the United States that ignited the genre, except the contestants don’t have to worry about how to start fires and build shelters as castaways on a beach.
They do need to learn how to make friends and cook their own food, however.
The show, 50km Taohuawu, follows 15 celebrities (none of whom knew each other prior to filming) as they live together for 21 days in a retreat. While the majority of the cast are in show business – there’s actress Shu Qi, 45, actor Zhang Han, 36, and stand-up comedian Li Xueqin (see WiC514) – others are from the fashion industry or work as artists. They are filmed at a location in a small town called Taohuawu, about 50km from Beijing (hence the show’s name).
Producers of the series say that one of the objectives is observational learning: that viewers can learn something about themselves by watching how the celebrities behave as they are dropped into unpredictable, uncomfortable situations.
That sounds a little high-brow and based on the first few episodes it is hard to learn much from what goes on in Taohuawu. The first episode, released in late May, quickly revealed one of the show’s failings – a lack of direction. There was no one to host the series or move the story along, with most of the celebrities looking confused as they arrive at the premises. When artist Chen Chenchen volunteers to be the leader of the group, he tries to set an agenda for their first meeting. But agreeing what goes on is not straightforward. Shu wants to find out who is in charge of buying drinking water. Zhang wants the group to define a collective purpose for coming on the show. Li quips: “Every time someone speaks up, the meeting has a new agenda.”
Actor-comedian Guo Qilin summed up the challenge, noting how half the group had attempted to take on a leadership role: “It’s like how eight emperors can’t rule a single kingdom. With eight CEOs having to run the same company, do you think that’s going to have a positive outcome? There’s a reason Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan [the three central figures during the Three Kingdoms historical period] were not in the same kingdom.”
On movie and TV show review site Douban, 50km Taohuawu has scored a middling rating of 6 out of 10, with many reviewers complaining of boredom. “Watching 50km Taohuawu is really a test of the mind. It is noisy, cringeworthy and annoying. After the end of the programme, I felt like I’d survived a disaster. When I found out that paying subscribers to Tencent Video receive advance screenings to the show I was so scared that I quickly unsubscribed. I don’t think I have to courage to accept this ‘privilege’,” one critic mocked.
The purpose of the show, says Xie Dikui, its director, isn’t to create unnecessary drama. “If the point of the show is to see celebrities bickering, audiences may tune in but they will not be healed. They will ask: did the celebrities come on the show to argue every day? What we are looking for is for these people to freely express their feelings and perspectives,” he explained to 36Kr.
Despite some of the negative feedback, the series has generated debate on social media. In the first episode, Su Mang, a former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar China, protests that Rmb650 ($72.34) isn’t enough to cover a day’s meals. “You don’t drink milk or have eggs in the morning? Rmb650 is too little. We have to eat better, I cannot eat with such low standards,” she says.
The comment soon caused consternation online, with many netizens criticising her lavish expectations. Su later clarified that there was a “misunderstanding” and that the amount she referred to was for all 21 days of filming – although many netizens were unconvinced.
“I’m really curious, what do you eat normally? As a commoner, I just want to know,” one queried. “Show business is really the best place to make money. Even soldiers fighting on the frontline don’t eat nearly as well as Su Mang,” another snorted.
The third episode generated more internet discussion, when starlet Zhou Ye, 23, finds she has been left behind by other cast members in her dorm. Looking lonely and dejected, Zhou admits to the camera that she feels left out and let down. She later confesses her feelings to another member of the cast and requests that she isn’t “socially excluded” again.
“A lot of people admire Zhou Ye for her honesty. Most of us would conceal our insecurity, accepting that ‘nobody likes me’ or feeling depressed about being left out. But watching Zhou Ye, they realise that there’s another way to deal with those emotions and that is just being straightforward. When they encounter a similar problem, they can deal quickly with the situation,” says NorthPark, a social commentator.
The Zhou episode may have resonated with more of the audience after a period when more people admit to feeling lonely and isolated after long periods of social distancing. Research conducted in 2020 by Beijing Youth Daily and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences claimed that over 40% of young people had reported some degree of social anxiety and that more than half reckoned that they lacked social skills.
So while the show has some structural problems that make it hardgoing, its cheerleaders believe that its educational component eventually wins through.
“50km Taohuawu is really aimed at present-day conditions. Many young people are mostly 996 animals [i.e. they work from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week]. Their lives revolve around work and home – and there’s little time for social life. As much as we want to socialise, we have nowhere to exercise our social skills,” ThePaper.cn lamented. “The producers seem to recognise that. Through a reality show, it gives viewers a time-saving and cost-effective way to learn about how to make friends quickly.”
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