After six seasons and two features films, HBO’s Sex and the City is getting a reboot. The cable network announced that three of the main actresses in the franchise – Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis – will reprise their famed roles as a group of high-powered New York friends balancing careers and messy personal lives (Kim Cattrall, the fourth star in the series, won’t be joining them).
Meanwhile, in China the female ensemble genre is more popular than ever. Since last year’s release of the hugely popular Nothing But Thirty (see WiC506), which charts the lives of three successful 30 year-old women, studios have rushed to make similar formats. And now even the country’s most commercially adept filmmaker Feng Xiaogang – famous for his multi-film If You Are the One franchise and the more arty I Am Not Madame Bovary – has put his name to a new TV series about female friendship.
Feng’s first small-screen project since 1997 is being shown on online streaming platform iQiyi. Set in Beijing, Crossroad Bistro is a story of five women’s friendships as they also (common theme here) navigate the ups and downs of their love lives and careers. At the drama’s outset Dai Xiaoyu (played by actress Jin Chen) is heartbroken when she finds out her fiancé – whom she’s dated for five years – is still legally married. Her cousin Bao Xue (Lan Yingying) is a struggling actress, while her friend You Sansan (Wang Luodan) is a divorced investment manager. They meet housewives Si Meng (Sip Ni) and Feng Xi (Sui Yuan), whose dream in life is to run a restaurant. The five women decide to pool their resources and pursue their culinary dream.
A foodie backdrop and five female leads, what could go wrong?
Quite a bit, it seems. Unlike Nothing but Thirty, Feng’s new show has been getting negative feedback. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, Crossroad Bistro received a miserable rating of 4.8 out of 10.
However, let’s start with a few of the positives: many say the 30-episode series is “aesthetically pleasing” to watch and the production values are high. Wang, despite being a supporting character, has received praise for her acting skills and Feng coaxed some of his A-list friends into making cameo appearances. For instance, the movie actor Huang Bo makes a brief appearance playing a big-name star who forgets his lines in an over-the-top performance. Feng, who is in front of the camera for this particular scene, pretends to direct Huang’s soliloquy and loudly applauds when the actor is done. Of course, the whole thing is a classic piece of satire, reflecting Feng’s disdain for modern celebrities who arrive on set unprepared and behaving like prima donnas.
“Feng Xiaogang is at his best when he makes social satire. But the problem is that Crossroad Bistro is an all-female ensemble drama. It’s about the story of contemporary women in China today. And judging from the show, the director doesn’t know much about women,” one critic complained.
Other viewers claimed that the displays of wealth on the show were jarring, rendering the characters “unrelatable” and “out of touch with reality”. For instance, in one of the many scenes where money is never a problem, the affluent investment manager Wang buys her friend a high-end washing machine after she hears that her current one is broken. Viewers were soon querying why no one thought of trying to repair the existing machine first (or why Wang didn’t even bother to ask for the dimensions of the space the new purchase has to fit into).
“There is nothing wrong with flaunting wealth. But on the one hand, there are all these displays of wealth and yet we are also told to think that the characters are very down-to-earth,” an online critic who goes by the pseudonym Miss Moon lambasted.
The same critic spotted other inconsistencies too. “The Dai and Bai cousins couldn’t afford to rent a house for Rmb5,000 and don’t have the money to invest in the restaurant but the two have a wardrobe of designer clothing and bags? With these kind of spending habits, why do they even pretend to be poor?”
Probably more damningly Miss Moon then compared Feng’s show to director Guo Jingming’s (infamous) Tiny Times, a lavishly materialistic movie franchise about four beautiful and ridiculously rich women (see WiC202).
“Crossroad Bistro feels like the Beijing-version of Tiny Times [which was set in Shanghai],” was the rather withering verdict.
Like Guo’s films, “Feng’s TV show is set in a world where poor people simply do not exist,” another netizen agreed.
“What’s clear is that Crossroad Bistro wanted to capitalise on the popularity of all-female dramas. Indeed, throughout the show, you can catch the shadows of a lot of other similar shows but all the characters and their lives lack authenticity,” Miss Moon further complained.
Feng, 63, has been stung by a string of flops in recent years. His most recent movie, Only Cloud Knows, made only Rmb156 million at the domestic box office two years ago. Another film Cell Phone 2, which was to star Fan Bingbing in a repeat of her lead role from the 2004 original, is now in cinematic limbo after the actress became embroiled in a tax evasion scandal in 2018 (see WiC412).
None of this bad press bodes well for some of the other veteran filmmakers now foraying into TV. Tencent Video’s Blossoms Shanghai – directed by the unpredictable arthouse legend Wong Kar-wai – is expected be released soon. Guan Hu, who directed the hugely successful war film The Eight Hundred (see WiC507), has also signed a contract with Tencent Video to make another series called Candle in the Tomb.
“I think it’s a good thing for director Feng to make an online drama. It means that creators can still express themselves, instead of just relying on the big-traffic stars. In the long run, the quality of online series dramas will only get better and better, which is a good thing for the audience,” another blogger concluded, on a more optimistic note.
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