Moralizing voiceovers, beautiful rich people, heroic spies: an unreal world in Chinese TV

Mao Jian's new book, Winter is Coming, was published in June. Jiemian News talked to the TV and film critic and how Chinese TV has little authentic cutting edge.

By DONG Ziqi


Romance may not exactly be dead but for at least twenty years the version shown on Chinese TV dramas has remained a bastion of the contemporary social order without doing much to scrutinize or reflect the changing state of people's relationships.

Mao Jian has measured her life in TV shows. “I was about to get married when 24 first aired. By the time the third season came out, my son was already born.” For around twenty years, the film and TV critic has sat in front of the TV.

Her new book, Winter is Coming, was published in June. It brings together 88 articles written between 2002 and 2020. The most recent was written during lockdown when she binge-watched all seventy episodes of A New World, a TV drama released in early January before the Covid-19 outbreak. It was set in 1940s Beijing and all 70 episodes were about stories among three men that happened within 22 days.

Mao Jian is a writer and film and TV critic. She also teaches at East China Normal University.

A New World would have been normal if we still live a normal world, but with the epidemic spinning everything around us so fast, it became abnormal. It’s curious to see how slowly things moved in the series. Breakfast could take a third of an episode.”

The book offers Mao's reflections on the interplay between TV shows and socioeconomic reality. Jiemian News talked to Mao Jian on the deterioration in workplace shows and the portrayal of women on TV, as well as the “hard realism” she advocates.

JM: You say in Winter is Coming that audiences have more sympathy now for rich and powerful characters with whom they have nothing in common. Do Chinese TV shows really try to make wealthy characters more acceptable?

Mao: In the 1970s and 80s, people couldn’t get enough of those Taiwanese “Cinderella” shows. They extolled the virtues of a luxurious, carefree lifestyle, but in the end, it was always the penniless guy who won both love and moral approval. Fast forward to the 2010s, the rich are suddenly good-looking and high-minded, while the poor are immoral and despicable. Plus, the rich on the screen is always better looking than the poor.

In Beijing Love Story, the college student was shunned upon for not knowing her liquor.

In Beijing Love Story (2012) for example, the CEO’s son changed from a playboy to a faithful lover after stealing the girlfriend from his poor school friend, who in turn became a money-grubbing fake. Wealth is the gateway to success, love and morality.

It is also perfectly acceptable to show contempt towards the poor. Screenwriters appear to want the audience to feel this way. If someone doesn’t care about high culture or luxury brands, the writer makes the character a figure of fun or derision. This is nothing new. 

TV since the 80s are often about country bumpkins getting lost in the big city, from which the screenwriters make the audience laugh. They actually laugh at being poor and you can't find such laughter in a Chinese movie before the 80s. When China opened up its economy in the late 1970s, we were shocked to see the abundance and sophistication of the so-called West. Similarly, in Western literature after the industrial revolution, "an unsophisticated person gets lost in the big city” was a common trope.

JM: It seems that “winners winning big” is hugely popular these days. In Story of Yanxi Palace (2018) set in the Qing Dynasty imperial court, WEI Yingluo kept winning all the way to the throne. What do you think of this trend?

Mao: On one hand, it’s better than the “sad sacks” common in older shows where ten or twenty episodes were devoted to some wronged character's search for justice. They were both boring and saccharine. The cloying sentimentality wore the audience down. At least the pace is faster today. An episode of Yanxi had dozens of grudges, intrigues and conflicts to resolve!

On the other hand, this change reflects a wider socio-psychological shift. People want to feel better about themselves, and they want to feel better now. "Instant catharsis” cannot wait for twenty miserable episodes. It's simple and brutish. There is no time, nor any demand, for complexity and subtlety. There is no emotional suppression or control, which may not be a great thing for society.

Everyone has seen the epic shoot out in Hong Kong movie A Better Tomorrow (1986) directed by John Woo. Mark Lee played by Chow Yun Fat fired shots like national day fireworks. In real life, that would and could never happen, you need two bullets in the heads to finish two enemies, but what seems excessive and wasteful is transformed into something aspirational on the screen. But there is only one Mark Lee and only one John Woo, too many shows are overloaded with slow-motion scenes that are simply bad taste.

JM: You speak about “hard realism” and the correlation and distinction between personal problems and “our collective historical fate”. Why is “hard realism” important?

Mao: “Hard realism” tackles reality head-on, no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing. The Chinese film and TV industries have gone through colossal commercialization since 2006. These commercial productions tend to be “safe” — sponsors aren't interested in the issues underlying conflicts. There are realistic shows, for sure, but they are still evading the most fundamental and uncomfortable truths. This kind of realism is not hard enough,

In romance shows, a young woman’s misfortune is typically attributed to personal problems — an unloving family, laziness, or her husband’s mistress. In doing this, the story also fails to deal with the wider social issues - for example the conflict between different classes - played a much bigger role in her stories. In this way, our TV shows have made little progress. They validate and uphold the existing social order. 

There are occasionally some good productions, but they are usually older shows or scripts. New productions are safe, soft and evasive. We urgently need more incisive work.

JM: Is this why there is no shortage of "women in big cities” shows, devoted to how to be successful within the existing economic order.

Mao: Yes, indeed. It’s a blatant glorification of wealth and success. Moreover, the poor people in such shows are generally spiteful and abusive. I quite dislike CCTV [the national broadcaster], and particularly abhor national holiday galas in which garishly dressed migrant workers are invited on stage to tell how much money they made and how grateful they are. Alibaba’s Jack Ma makes way more money. Why not bring him on stage?

This kind of perspective has, consciously or subconsciously, infected other TV shows. When shooting a poor person, the camera angles are always revealing, never protective — close-ups of their squalid living quarters are most welcome. When shooting a rich person, however, everything is elegant and beautiful. Their makeup is impeccable even when they are just loafing around at home.

JM: The audience of A Little Reunion (2019) were very critical of the middle-class family's spending of 40,000 yuan (about US$5,700) a month. Life in the TV dramas is somehow estranged from our daily routines. Is such inaccuracy a problem? 

Mao: Of course it is, but especially for those described as “realistic.” To give you an idea, Jane Austen’s novels are very accurate. A two-thousand-pound household used different tableware, carriage and servants from a two-hundred-pound household. On Chinese TV, mortgages, cars, and schools — all closely tied to social or economic standing — are wildly off.

It’s not bad enough that we worship the rich, but even their wealth is hugely exaggerated. The portrayals of poor people’s lives are, unsurprisingly, just as absurd. So we can’t get anyone’s life details right, rich or poor.

Inaccuracy is dangerous. We urgently need some real realism on TV: the real deal.

JM: Many popular shows portray women as professionals, the wife in All is Well (2019)  and Andy in Odes to Joy (2016), for example. What do you make of these roles?

Mao: These women don’t care one bit about their jobs or careers! There are no actual “workplace shows.” The proliferation of lawyers and doctors in shows driven purely by romantic interest has nothing to do with work, and torrid adventures in the boardroom have no relevance to anyone's lives at all, not even company directors.

Spy shows probably have the most sense of a workplace as the main characters are always in the field doing their jobs. But spying isn't a real job, and we have nothing to learn from them. The hero can just sneak into the enemy camp in broad daylight and take his sweet time copying down a secret list. Inaccuracy is at epidemic proportions.

If screenwriters need to constantly resort to romance to fill up the plot, they are not doing a very good job. It’s much easier to make up a silly love story than to get the ugly details of the real world right.

JM: Do you feel that women’s shows have deteriorated?

Mao: I think so. Despite its imitation of Sex and the City, Hero of the Year (2005) was well-made, but that was 16 years ago. There was tension between characters. The script was very clever. While the characters ostensibly talked about clothes, for example, the dialog was stuffed with innuendos and insinuation. In contrast, today’s lines have largely been reduced to product placement: I like your dress. Where did you get it? - MaxMara. It is soulless, empty and irrelevant, except to the sponsors.

JM: What do you think of cop shows?

Mao: Well, some are good but none is great. There are too many clichéd Hollywood-style plots — it takes three people to avenge the death of one person, for example. My biggest problem, still, is that workplace events have to yield to personal stories. The characters' police activities are largely motivated by their personal grievances rather than professional standards. For example, in The Brink (2012) by the second half, the main character was so entangled in his urge to revenge his wife’s death and his feelings for his female partner that the theme was overwhelmed and the plot strayed further and further from its original intent.

I understand that writers want the audience to empathize with characters suffering personal misfortune, but a deeper sense of fatalism and nobility is largely missing in today’s shows: Fatalism because an individual is helpless in the face of history; nobility because he still fights to turn the tide. In fact, personal feelings and sense of history are not mutually exclusive. Take In the Name of the People (2017) for instance, the corrupt Party secretary was a product of his time. He rose from an underprivileged background and was instilled in the values of his class. Personally, he liked to flex masculinity but still had his vulnerable moments. This kind of character is complex makes for a much better watching experience.

We have a tradition of making great cop shows. In the fifties and sixties, cold-war-themed cop and espionage shows dominated the screen. Hong Kong has also produced some excellent cop shows as well. Infernal Affairs (2002) was remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed and won an Oscar. Despite the current mediocrity, we have great potential.

JM: Didn't you claim that voiceover "nudges" the audience toward certain values and characters?

Mao: Voiceovers are actually a legacy from the early years of the film industry when production methods were minimal. We picked it up from Soviet spy movies and that’s why you still hear so much in today’s spy shows. They are a simplistic way to supplement unsophisticated film techniques. It directly conveys the intentions of the screenwriters and directors: no ambiguity, no misinterpretation, but strong moral approval. Instantly, we are told who the good guys are and what to make of their actions, which are, of course, noble.

When a communist secret agent indulges in lavish spending, the voiceover jumps out to educate the audience. He is not indulging, it’s for his work! Plus, it’s such hard work being a secret agent, isn’t it?

But there still can be a disparity between the voiceover monologue and the character’s actions.

This kind of disparity, used intentionally, is not uncommon in western dramas. Think about the duplicitous Frank Underwood in House of Cards: sweet to someone's face while standing them in the back. The voiceover works against him, but Party-approved shows are not western dramas. In China, the voiceover is "the voice of truth." That’s why almost all voiceovers are done by well-established, male actors. Their voices are meant to judge, eulogize, and indoctrinate on behalf of the ultimate authority. A hero dies. The voice solemnly but loftily reminds the audience that he died for a good cause.