Summer surprise

Tencent’s TV show left in the dust by the Party’s new history drama

Zhou Dongyu-w

Feeling blue: Zhou Dongyu’s latest small screen drama flopped

Actress Zhou Dongyu’s road to stardom wasn’t straightforward. When she was still a high school student she first auditioned for the lead role in Zhang Yimou’s 2010 movie Under the Hawthorn Tree, a love story set during the Cultural Revolution. The famed director was unimpressed with her audition, eliminating the 18 year-old in the first round.­

However, an assistant director asked Zhou to stay behind to film another scene, which later convinced Zhang to take a chance on the young and inexperienced actress. At the time, many were sceptical of his decision to cast Zhou who, at first glance, doesn’t look like a conventional movie star. Her features are delicate, almost plain, some argue; she is also very skinny, which gives the impression that she is frail and vulnerable.

More than a decade on, she has established herself as one of the most successful actresses of her generation. She’s since won best actress in various film awards, first in 2016 for Soul Mate and more recently, for her moving performance in Better Days (see WiC473).

Last week, audiences readied to catch the actress in her latest TV drama Ancient Love Poetry, which debuted on streaming platform Tencent Video.

The series is set in a fictional historical period and follows the love story between Shang Gu (Zhou), who is a leader of the plot’s four immortals (think wizard-meets-martial arts heroes), and Bai Jue (actor Xu Kai). During an epic fight with other immortals, Shang sacrifices herself and falls into a deep sleep. Meanwhile, Bai uses all his powers to retrieve bits of her soul so she can wake up. When roused, however, her memories of what happened hundreds of years previously have been wiped out. So after all the trials and tribulations, will the two end up together?

The show has so far attracted 200 million views on Tencent Video and is her second TV outing. Zhou’s small screen debut, Love is Life and Lie back in 2017, received a miserable rating of 3.7 out of 10 on review site Douban. Her second try has been even worse. Ancient Love Poetry was so poorly received that Douban has hidden the rating, something usually demanded by the production studio if the score is dismally low.

So what went wrong? Critics say Zhou’s girl-next-door image clashes with the character she plays, who as an immortal is supposedly powerful and striking. “The simple make-up on the show makes Zhou Dongyu’s already plain appearance even more ordinary and unphotogenic,” a critic opined.

Ancient Love Poetry is Tencent Video’s third consecutive flop in the costume drama category this year. Before that, there was top Uighur actress Dilraba Dilmurat’s The Long Ballad and A-list star Zhao Liying’s highly-anticipated return from maternity leave, The Legend of Fei. Both scored less than 6 on Douban.

“Audiences don’t watch dramas just based on gimmicks. They look at the plot and cast. However, all the recent productions from Tencent Video are more glitz than substance… Tencent thought it could mass-produce breakout series: to put the highest traffic stars with the hottest IP and turn on its PR machine. But the failure of the show proves that audiences are not dumb, we all have our own set of standards in judging what makes a good drama,” MengShen Mumu, a TV and film critic, wrote.

So what has been the breakout show for young audiences this summer? Surprisingly, a series with almost no recognisable stars that dramatises the early history of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Age of Awakening, which was aired by state broadcaster CCTV, tells the story behind the founding of the CPC in 1921, and has garnered a lot of positive reviews. The show focuses on Chen Duxiu (as well as Chairman Mao), a key founder of the CPC, and how his New Youth magazine sparked an intellectual charge among young students, which eventually triggered the history-turning May 4th protests (or the New Culture Movement, see WiC450), as well as the CPC’s founding.

The 43-part series has received an unexpectedly high rating of 9.3 out of 10 on Douban (the Friends Reunion got 9.5, which we pointed out in WiC544 was incredibly high by Douban’s standards).

Age of Awakening has been so popular that, according to the Global Times, it has renewed a trend of visiting “Red tourism spots”. Cultural products inspired by the show, such as bags and phone cases with the words “New Youth”, have also become trendy among young people.

“How does a drama with a propagandist theme; a show that depicts the New Culture Movement that led to founding of the Communist Party in China between 1915 to 1921; a TV series that focuses on a group of students giving speeches, having meetings, discussions and disagreements from beginning to end; end up being so entertaining and fascinating to watch?” one netizen asked on Douban, answering his own rhetorical question thus: “The show does not tell history in a cold or detached manner. It allows you to feel a period of history that was desperate and passionate but with humour and liveliness. It’s refreshing to be able to feel such rich and intense emotions.”

The interest in Age of Awakening has been also partly stoked by propagandist organs which are setting the stage to celebrate the CPC’s 100th anniversary on July 1.

However, the propagandists might have stoked unwanted fervour among some of its younger viewers. One of the most talked about topics on Chinese social media this week has been an internal directive for CPC cadres. The document warns against “major event risks at campuses” – the worry seemingly being that young students, inspired by Age of Awakening, might rally and protest against school policies.

This has already happened in Henan University of Science and Technology, where students collectively and repeatedly shouted “air-con, air-con, air-con!” from their dormitory, demanding AC be installed (they were unhappy that only overseas students were provided with air-conditioned rooms). The circular to cadres warned that similar protests were now being staged at other universities – triggered by the TV drama and by video footage of the Henan students spreading across China’s internet. For instance, another air-con protest had subsequently taken place at Hunan First Normal University. In something of an irony that happens to be Mao Zedong’s alma mater…

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