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‘Fifteen of Us’: This is the Chinese Utopia

Fifteen people with different backgrounds build a new society: one place, hundreds of camera’s, starting from scratch. The format of Dutch reality TV programme Utopia has now made it to China. The question is: what will Chinese Utopia look like? Who are the contestants? Will their society be communist or capitalist?

Manya Koetse

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Fifteen people with different backgrounds build a new society: one place, hundreds of camera’s, starting from scratch. The format of Dutch reality TV programme Utopia has now made it to China. The question is: what will Chinese Utopia look like? Who are the contestants? Will their society be communist or capitalist? What’s on Weibo brings you an overview of the show thus far.

In the Netherlands, Utopia first aired on December 31st, 2013. The reality show is a social television experiment that puts 15 people from different backgrounds together to create a new society. The contestants have to start from scratch, and learn how to make survive as a group. They can decide on their own rules or laws, but there is an important general restriction: contestants cannot leave the premises, that cover around 1,5-2 hectare. The show is recorded 24 hours per day, and can be followed by viewers through online live streams on the Utopia app. Besides the live streams, there are daily 30 minute recaps on TV. Every month, the contestants have to vote on their least favourite resident, who will then be eliminated from the show and replaced by a new contestant. Contestant are supposed the stay in the show for one year. If they decide that they want to leave earlier without being eliminated, they will be fined by the television company. Apart from sporadic letters, they cannot communicate with their friends and family.

Utopia is produced by Talpa, a top-notch Dutch production company that has launched various popular TV formats, such as The Voice, which also became a huge success in China (中国好声音). The Chinese version of Utopia is called  ‘The Fifteen of Us’ (我们15个), and first aired on June 29 this year. It is a joint production of Talpa and the Chinese online group Tencent.

In the Netherlands, Utopia has seen a rich variety of participants; gay and straight, black and white, young and old, religious and atheist. The contestants had different backgrounds as artists, singers, accountants, philosophers, carpenters, psychics, some jobless, one homeless.

Besides an official website, the Chinese show also has an official Weibo account, that regularly updates with everyday developments on the show.

According to Variety, as many as 100,000 people applied to take part in the the Chinese Utopia. The show’s selected fifteen contestants have diverse backgrounds and ages.

UTOPIACHINAThree of the 15 contestants, from left to right: Yi Qiu (the vagabond), Tan Limin (feisty auntie), Zheng Hu (wannabe singer).

The show’s oldest contestant is Tan Limin (谭利敏) a retired 61-year-old Shanghai woman with a young mind and feisty nature. The other participants range from 21 to 51 years old. Yi Qiu (易秋), with his unique look, is a vagabond with no stable job. Zheng Hu (郑虎) is a chubby 26-year-old music lover from China’s northern Shanxi province, who wants to lose weight and work on his career as a singer.

utopia2Three of the contestants, from left to right: Deng Biying (the model), Liu Zhixuan (the fashion designer), Taiwanese 44-year-old Zhang Tingxuan (the perfectionist mum).

Deng Biying (邓碧莹) is the young and sexy 24-year-old car show model. The extravagant Liu Zhixuan (刘志轩) from Zhejiang is a 27-year-old fashion designer. Zhang Tingxuan (张婷媗) is the show’s only Taiwanese participant. She is 44 years old, a ‘hot mother’, and a perfectionist with extreme willpower.

chineseutopia3From left to right: Sun Ming and Nie Jiangwei (both veterans), and Liu Fuhua (divorced dad).

The youngest is the 21-year-old veteran Sun Ming (孙铭), for whom discipline is the main thing in life. Nie Jiangwei (聂江伟) is also a veteran, 51 years old. Electrician and daddy Liu Fuhua (刘富华, 30 years old), is trying to get over his failed marriage. Furniture maker Guo Daohui (郭道辉) from Qingdao is the rebellious one of the group. The handsome Qiu Zijian (丘子健) is a professional boxer and model.

utopiachina4From left to right: Rebel from Qingdao, Guo Daohui, professional boxer Qiu Zijian and fashionista Liu Xi.

Another fashionista is the 26-year-old woman Liu Xi (刘希), who majored in fashion at Shanghai University. Liu Luoxi (刘洛汐) is an ambitious 25-year-old super model and business woman from Chengdu, who is active in the online game industry. Song Ge (宋鸽) is a 27-year-old female Harvard graduate, majoring in psychology. Xiao Fanfan (肖凡凡) is the last one of the group: a young and pretty university student who loves make-up and cherishes her freedom.

utop5From left to right: Liu Luoxi the super model/business woman, the academic (Song Ge) and Xiao Fanfan, the sexy student.

Similar to the Dutch version, contestants of Fifteen of Us are allowed to bring one wooden case with some items (cooking utensils, rice, sleeping bag, etc) upon arrival.

The show is recorded in the scenic lush green area of Tonglu, in southern China’s Hangzhou. At the start, the contestants only have one shared empty hangar, a grass field, a total of 5000 RMB (about 816 US dollar), and one basic mobile phone. There are also two cows and some chickens.

In the first episodes, the fifteen contestants struggle with their new surroundings, where they have no beds or proper toilets. They spend the days milking the cows, making fire, cooking basic food, talking about how to make money and survive, and arguing on how to divide the tasks ahead. Chubby Zheng Hu practices his singing skills at all hours of the day (check video below).

Supermodel/business woman Liu Luoxi takes on a leader role, much to the disgruntlement of divorced father Liu Fuhua. Veteran Nie Jiangwei, the oldest man of the group, balances her business-like leadership with his own views (“We came here as one group, we will act as one group!”). Besides an apparent leader, supermodel Liu Luoxi is also a dramaqueen. As shown in the video below, she breaks out in tears when the vet comes to Tonglu to check on one of the cows and then states it is sick and needs to take medicine. Although Liu cares for the cow’s health, she also cares about the little money the residents currently have. The medicine costs 200 RMB (32 dollar), and Liu cries out that there is no money.

The humid and basic surroundings already take their toll on the health of the contestants. Within the first week of airing, two participants already had to leave the show to go to the hospital. Young carpenter Guo Daohui suffered from severe backache, and vagrant Yi Qiu was wounded when broken glass cut through his hand (see video below). The chubby and extravagant Zheng Hu seems to suffer mentally, as he cannot stop crying after seeing a snake outside the hangar (video).

Vagrant Yi Qiu severely cuts his hand on a broken window.

Yi Qiu has just cut his hand and is taken to hospital. Zheng Hu is crying because he saw a snake. While some support him, others get angry because of his dramatic cries (see 1:20).

So far, Fifteen of Us has been lacking the more political discussions the Dutch version of the show sometimes had at the beginning, when contestants would have to decide if they would choose for a communist or capitalist-run society. These kind of debates might be too sensitive for the Chinese version, where the show is undoubtedly censored. But censorship of this reality show is not typically Chinese. Viewers of the Dutch show have complained about censorship of the show, and the German version (‘Newtopia’) became the centre of a scandal earlier this year when an allegedly drunk producer was heard on livestreams giving directions to the contestants.

China is not the first to follow Dutch Utopia. The show also has its own version in Turkey. Although there was also an American version, it turned out to be a flop and was cancelled after airing for two months.

So far, the Dutch version has been airing for 1,5 years. The contestants have managed to rebuild the hangar that now holds bedrooms, a bathroom, two kitchens and a gym. There is also a swimming pool and wellness centre. Contestants receive money by letting guests pay for indoor concerts, parties or weekend markets. The show’s storyline has seen some highlights, with an unexpected romance between two young female contestants, a resident caught stealing, one couple having live sex on TV, a number one hit, some fights, the occasional drunken party, and conflicts over homosexuality, religious beliefs and political systems.

China’s Utopia might not get too political, but it could nevertheless offer some interesting insights in today’s society. Contemporary Chinese societal issues such as the rich-poor gap, migrant workers, leftover women or the growing generation gap are bound to come up as items of discussion within this diverse group of people. A lesbian couple? Unlikely, but who knows. We will be watching – and’ll keep you posted.

By Manya Koetse

[box type=”bio”] koetse.148x200About the Author: Manya Koetse is the editor of What’s on Weibo. She’s a Sinologist who splits her time between the Netherlands and China. She earned her bachelor’s degrees in Literary Studies, Japanese & China Studies and completed her MPhil in Asian Studies. Contact: manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.[/box]

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Social Media Reactions to The New York Times Bad Review of Wandering Earth 2

A New York Times bad review of ‘Wandering Earth II’ has triggered online discussions: “China’s gonna save the world, the US can’t stand it.”

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This Chinese Spring Festival, it’s all about going to the movies. After sluggish years for China’s movie market during the pandemic, Chinese cinemas welcomed millions of visitors back to the theaters during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.

Much-anticipated new movies attracted Chinese moviegoers this festive season, including Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the suspenseful Hidden Blade, or the animated Deep Sea by Tian Xiaopeng.

But the undisputed Spring Festival box office champion of 2023 is Frant Gwo’s Wandering Earth II (流浪地球II), the sequel to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (2019), which also became the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

The narrative of the follow-up movie Wandering Earth II actually takes place before the events of the first film and focuses on the efforts by the United Earth Government (UEG) to propel the Earth out of the solar system to avoid planetary disaster. This so-called Moving Mountain Project – which later becomes the Wandering Earth Project – is not just met with protest (the majority of Americans don’t believe in it), it also bans the Digital Life Project, which supports the idea that the future of humanity can be saved by preserving human consciousness on computers (backed by an American majority). The film is all about hope and resilience, human destiny, and geopolitics at a time of apocalyptic chaos.

Outside of China, the sequel was also released in, among others, North American, Australian, and UK cinemas.

Although the film, featuring movie stars Wu Jing and Andy Lau, received an 8.2 on the Chinese rating & review platform Douban, a 9.4 on movie ticketing app Maoyan, dozens of positive reviews on Bilibili, and was overall very well-received among Chinese viewers, a bad review by The New York Times triggered discussions on Chinese social media this weekend.

Chinese media outlet The Observer (观察者网) initiated a Weibo hashtag about “The New York Times‘s completely sour review of Wandering Earth II” (#纽约时报酸味拉满差评流浪地球2#).

The New York Times review of Wandering Earth II, titled “‘The Wandering Earth II Review: It Wanders Too Far,” was written by Brandon Yu and published in print on January 27, 2023.

Yu does not have a lot of good things to say about China’s latest blockbuster. Although he calls the 2019 The Wandering Earth “entertaining enough,” he writes that its sequel is a movie that is “audaciously messy” and has lost “all of the glee” its predecessor had: “(..) the movie instead offers nearly three hours of convoluted storylines, undercooked themes and a tangle of confused, glaringly state-approved political subtext.”

The topic was discussed on Chinese social media using various hashtags, including “The New York Times Gave Wandering Earth II a 3″ (#纽约时报给流浪地球打30分#, #纽约时报给流浪地球2打30分#).

Part of the discussions surrounding the bad review is that many simply do not understand how the reviewer could view the film in such a different light. Many commenters blamed it on the fact that the movie is a new milestone in Chinese cinema, not just threatening America’s domination of the movie industry but also setting a narrative in which China leads the way.

“We’re gonna save the world, and America just can’t stand it,” one commenter replied.

That same view was also reiterated by other bloggers. The author and history blogger Zhang Yi’an (@张忆安-龙战于野) argued that The New York Times review was not necessarily bad; it actually shows that Americans feel threatened by the idea of China’s important role in a new international world order, and by the fact that China actually will have the capacity to lead the way when it comes to, for example, space technology innovation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Zhang argues that if a similar movie had been made by the Indians as a Bollywood blockbuster – including exploding suns and wandering earths – The New York Times would have been more forgiving and might have even called it cute or silly.

But because this is China, the film’s success and its narrative clash with American values about what the international community should look like. Zhang writes: “The China in the movie doesn’t boast itself as the savior of the world, but in reality, China really is capable of saving the world. The United States is no longer able to do so (电影里的中国没有把自己吹嘘成救世主,现实中的中国真的有能力做救世主。而美国却已经不能了).”

One popular Film & TV account (@影视综艺君) also summarized the general online reaction to the bad review in the American newspaper: “Whenever the enemy gets scared, it must mean we’re doing it right. Our cultural export has succeeded.” That post received over 120,000 likes.

Meanwhile, another state media-initiated hashtag on Weibo claimed on January 28 that Wandering Earth II has actually “captured the hearts of many overseas audiences” (#流浪地球2海外上映获好评#), and that the film’s “imaginative” and “wonderful” visuals combined with its strong storyline were being praised by critics.

ON IMDB, the movie has received 5.9/10 and a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score. The Guardian gave it 2/5. Meanwhile, on Weibo, one reviewer after the other gives the film 5/5 stars.

Weibo blogger Lang Yanzhi (@郎言志) writes: “Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks and slander directed at the China-made science fiction movie Wandering Earth 2, especially coming from from Western media and pro-Western forces, because the film’s “Chinese salvation” narrative made them uncomfortable. This was already the case when the first film in the series was released. It is very clear that Wandering Earth is not just a movie: it is a symbol of great influence.”

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Zilan Qian

 

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China Arts & Entertainment

Behind the Short Feature Film of the Spring Festival Gala

The first-ever ‘mini film’ of the Spring Festival Gala struck a chord with viewers for its strong storytelling and authentic production.

Manya Koetse

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This precious and powerful short film by Zhang Dapeng has touched the hearts of Spring Festival Gala viewers. But there is more to the short film than meets the eye. Here’s the noteworthy story behind the 7-minute Spring Festival Mini Film.

On January 21, 2023, China’s Spring Festival Gala, hosted by China Media Group, kicked off the Year of the Rabbit. The annual show, which featured forty different acts and performances, lasted over four hours and attracted millions of viewers worldwide (see our liveblog here, and see a top 5 highlight of the show here).

Traditionally, the Spring Festival Gala always shows several short public service ad films in between the performances, but this year was the first time the Gala featured a “mini-film” or “micro film” (微电影).

Titled Me and My Spring Festival Night (“我和我的春晚”), the 7-minute film was praised among viewers. On Weibo, one hashtag dedicated to the short film received over nine million clicks (#我和我的春晚#).

The film was directed by the Beijing director Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏). Born in 1984, Zhang is a Beijing Film Academy graduate who previously attracted wide attention for directing the Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year movie and the brilliant ad campaign that came with it. Titled What Is Peppa, that short ad film featured a grandfather living in rural China who goes on a quest to find out what ‘Peppa’ is. The promotional video became an absolute viral hit back in 2019 (see/read more here).

Still from ‘What is Peppa.’ 2019.

This time, Zhang’s latest Chinese New Year film is about a hard-working former military man from China’s countryside named Zhang Jianguo (张建国), for whom coming on the show to play the trumpet has been a dream for many years. By featuring his story, the film takes us from the Chinese 1980s, 90s, 00s – as we see him change jobs, move around, and start a family – up to the present.

The main idea behind the film was to honor all the ordinary viewers who have written – and are still writing – to the Gala ever since it first aired in the early 1980s, and to tell a story inspired by these personal letters and ordinary viewers.

Short Summary of “Me and My Chunwan”

At the start of the film, we see Zhang Jianguo dusting off his military honorary awards (光荣军属), putting on his jacket, grabbing his thermos flask and trumpet, and setting out on a journey in the midst of winter.

Riding an electric tricycle in the icy cold, his driver (actor Huang Bo 黄渤) asks him where he is going. “Can you keep your mouth shut?” Zhang replies (“你嘴严实不严实”). “I can,” the driver says, and Zhang then says: “So can I.”

The voiceover narration, a first-person narrative by Zhang himself, explains that he has always been busy: “I never had time for the Spring Festival Gala. My Spring Festival fate is all because of something my captain said.”

The film jumps to a scene showing Zhang as a young military man during the Chinese New Year’s Eve, working outside while people are watching the Spring Festival Gala on a small black and white television inside. As his commander (played by Wu Jing 吴京) hands him his trumpet, he says: “Go and play your trumpet on the television.”

“If the leader asks me to go on the Spring Festival Gala, it’s a task I must complete,” the voice-over says.

But in the military scene itself, duty calls and Zhang has to blow the trumpet to announce dinner time.

In the years that follow, Zhang is always busy during the Spring Festival Gala. Working in the factory, getting married, working on a train, farming cattle, taking care of his family, and always cooking. His trumpet is still there with him, to announce dinner time or hanging on the wall as a memory of times past.

As the years pass by, Zhang realizes that he has gradually forgotten about his commander’s words. Time moves fast. First, he had a son, then his son grew taller than himself, and then his son had his own son. “And I still had never been to the Spring Festival Gala.”

With his captain’s words back on his mind, Zhang, now an older man, sets out on his journey without telling anyone. By foot, by electric tricycle, by bus, and by train, Zhang travels all the way to the famous Beijing Studio 1 to perform at the Spring Festival Gala after being “too busy” for forty years.

Backstage at the Spring Festival Gala, Zhang sits down with famous Chinese Spring Festival Gala performers (Ma Li 马丽 and Shen Teng 沈腾). While unpacking his lunchbox, he tells them he was finally not too busy to come on the show: “I wrote a letter and here I am.” “It’s that simple?” Ma Li wonders.

The producer then rushes to come and get Zhang, who bravely walks towards the stage with his old little trumpet.

A female voice-over then reads out a message, while we see various scenes throughout the years showing Zhang – from young to old – writing letters to CCTV from wherever he is.

The female narrator says: “Dear Uncle Zhang, we’ve received your letter regarding your hopes to realize your cherished stage dream. In this age of emailing, and knowing that you’ve been writing us for 39 years, we’re moved and feel guilty. Our reply may be late, but not our sincerity..

Meanwhile, we see a flashback to a mailman pulling up to old Zhang’s home (the mailman is the actor Wang Baoqiang), and the old Zhang finally receives that much-anticipated letter from CCTV at his remote rural home.

The female narrator continues: “This year, we proudly invite you to be a guest at the Spring Festival Gala and to “ring the dinner bell” [play the sound announcing dinner]. Sincerely, the Spring Festival Director Committee.

In the final shot, we see Zhang blowing the trumpet at the Gala, with flashbacks showing him blowing that trumpet in all those decades before. He has finally made it to the big stage.

A Noteworthy Story

While Me and My Spring Festival Night received a lot of praise on Chinese social media, the story behind the film was not immediately clear to many viewers celebrating the Chinese New Year, but it was explained in several articles and interviews with director Zhang Dapeng.

During the live-televised Spring Festival Gala itself, the airing of Me and My Spring Festival Night was directly followed up by a shot featuring a person (a veteran) in the audience standing up and actually playing the trumpet.

Directly after, the song “Goodmorning Sunshine” began, representing multiple people from all kinds of professions and social groups. About one minute into the song, the camera turns to another audience member: the person who plays ‘Uncle Zhang’ in the mini-film. Later in the song, we can see he is wiping away tears, visibly moved.

Why was he so moved? The older man in the audience, the main ‘Uncle Zhang’ actor in the film, is Jin Changyong (金长勇), and he actually is not a professional actor.

Somewhat similar to the character Zhang Jianguo, Jin Changyong or “Uncle Jin” (金叔) is a hardworking veteran from Hebei’s Huailai County in Zhangjiakou.

Jin Changyong is a 63-year-old farmer who is also active at the Hebei Tianmo Film and TV Park doing security and logistics-related jobs. He served in the army for four years from the age of 19, as, among others, a military chef.

Director Zhang Dapdeng came across ‘Uncle Jin’ one day while shooting another film at the studio. While Jin was busy doing kitchen work, director Zhang saw him and, as he later recounts, was struck by his face that showed he had “lived through many changes” (“这种饱经沧桑的脸”).

Zhang later invited Uncle Jin to star in the movie, and he also made sure Jin’s own story played a role in the script.

Director Zhang Dapeng, image via CCTV.

This makes this short movie all the more special, something which has since been discussed on Chinese social media (#春晚微电影的主演是普通农民#).

The surprising twist in the story is how Zhang Jianguo tells other people he has just always been “too busy” to attend the Gala, while he had in fact already written to the show for 39 years with the hope of one day being invited.

Another noteworthy aspect of the film is how Zhang Dapeng chose to cast some of China’s most celebrated actors as supporting roles to lift up the main character and actor, Jin, who was inexperienced and learnt from his fellow players.

In an interview, Jin expressed that the entire experience of playing in this short film left his overcome with emotion. After the filming had ended, he told reporters that he had sleepless nights because he had not received an actual invitation to the Spring Festival Gala yet, something which he so very much hoped for. Just one week before the show, that invitation finally came.

The fact that Jin, in a way, played a man like himself in the short movie has added to the film’s popularity.

“I was sincerely moved by this film,” one commenter wrote, with others saying: “This was the best program I’ve seen on the Gala over the past decade.”

While some people also remarked that the short film seemed to have been influenced by The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, others praised it for its originality.

“This was just the best part of the night,” several commenters said: “It made me cry.”

“Zhang Pengda – a name to remember,” others wrote.

You can watch the short film on Youtube here.

By Manya Koetse 

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