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Film unveils dark side of China's TV talent shows

Poster of the documentary film Wo Jiu Shi Wo (I Am Myself).

Publication Date : 01-08-2014


Film attempts to justify Chinese TV's young stars and celebrates a decade of televised talent shows in the country


They are called the "super boys" and "super girls", as descriptions of achievers among China's post-1990 generation. However, a section is often tagged with stereotypes of vanity, shallowness and selfishness.

The criticism largely hasn't deterred the rise of some skilled youngsters to stardom, as evident from the multiple talent and reality TV shows across the country.

Behind their masks of confidence, however, lie faces that also seem confused, sad and sometimes angry.

In Wo Jiu Shi Wo (I Am Myself), a documentary film based on recordings of backstage scenes from the 2013 Super Boys competition, young contestants are seen struggling for around 100 days leading up to the finale with issues such as crumbling families, unstable friendships and the constant pressure to "become a celebrity".

The official English title of the documentary is No Zuo No Die, a catchy Chinglish phrase recently listed in the American online Urban Dictionary. It literally means "dying while asking for trouble". As last year's most popular cyber idiom in China, it was perhaps originally intended to be a sarcastic projection of the post-1990 generation but ended up showing off its die-hard spirit.

The film attempts to justify Chinese TV's young stars and celebrates a decade of televised talent shows in the country.

In 2004, Hunan TV took the initiative by producing Super Girls, China's first American Idol-style talent show, and followed that with Super Boys in 2007. For the first time, the Super series allowed Chinese audiences to vote for their favorite contestants.

Young idols such as Li Yuchun, described as an "Asian hero" by Time magazine, were born.

In the past decade, TV viewers in China have seen several shows similar to the Super series. But none has managed to match its success in building a fan base or gaining social influence.

It was through millions of fans that the film crowdsourced around 5 million yuan (US$810,000), which secured its successful shooting and a nationwide release in theatres on July 25.

Though industry insiders undervalue its performance at the box office, Long Danni, head of EE-Media which co-produced the Super shows, believes that at least 100 million yuan can be grossed. The money will go toward making two more films featuring its young stars, she says.

Long's confidence is boosted partly by director Fan Lixin's reputation. Fan is an award-winning documentary maker, known for his works on social realities, and was selected in 2013 by The New York Times as one of "20 directors to watch".

He rose to fame with the documentary Last Train Home, which recorded the annual journey of migrant workers from their urban workplaces to rural hometowns for Spring Festival.

The film won more than 60 prizes in different countries, including best feature-length documentary award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in 2009.

Prior to directing No Zuo No Die, Fan hadn't watched any Super shows but he took the job because in addition to questions they raised about society, he was curious to see the people who are "the country's future".

"While they feel stressed inside what appears like a machine that makes stars, they struggle or compromise in their own ways," Fan says. "It makes me think that every one of us is in the middle of a talent show. It's more a social metaphor than a simple TV programme."

These days Fan describes himself as a showman jumping from location to location to promote the value of documentaries. He says that directing the film was a "practical choice", too, given the influence the young stars hold in the market.

Chinese film distributors and cinemas have shown little interest in documentaries.

Securing a nationwide release in China for a documentary was an uphill task for the makers of No Zuo No Die.

Despite the critical acclaim Last Train Home received globally, very few cinemas across a handful of cities showed the film.

"I hope good documentaries will prove to the market that the film has a reason to exist," he says.

To maintain the quality of his work, Fan says he has avoided making No Zuo No Die a flattering piece and has kept it as realistic as possible, something that his genre of film making demands.

In No Zuo No Die, there are reflective moments where the participants become aware that the programme is "draining their souls, turning them into commodities" and that fame can fade quickly.

"But of course the audiences are allowed to see for themselves. Some of them can read between the lines, while others may see it as pure entertainment," Fan adds.

Sun Li contributed to this story.


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