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It's really funny, but also real


The TV drama Rustic Love is made exceptional by its focus on ordinary people and realistic portrayals of true life, Mu Qian believes.

Zhao Benshan’s status as China’s most established comedian was demonstrated when his withdrawal from CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala occupied national headlines.

Zhao’s skits are so popular that his absence tarnished the CCTV gala. Fortunately, he has compensated for this letdown with the fifth season of his TV sitcom Rustic Love, which airs on five satellite TV stations.

In 2006, Zhao created Rustic Love, which is set in his hometown of Kaiyuan, Liaoning province. Zhao and his students play ordinary farmers.

It is so beloved by viewers that Zhao and his team keep making episodes. And the drama has remained a hit every Spring Festival. A special term has even been coined to describe fans - xiangmi.

I must admit, I’m one of them.

I rarely watch any TV dramas but have savored nearly every Rustic Love.

It’s set apart by its natural acting, which many agree doesn’t seem like acting at all.

The actors are indeed playing themselves to some extent, because they mostly come from Northeast China’s countryside and know the characters’ lives, mindsets and language all too well.

No doubt, the show exaggerates the characters’ comic elements. But many of their conversations could come straight from the actors’ actual experiences - and in the same vocabularies and accents.

Most other Chinese TV dramas present worlds far removed from reality. What dominates TV are fictionalized period dramas, time travel serials and espionage dramas set against the Chinese War of Liberation (1946-49).

And the few shows with realistic themes still stray from real life. The actors are all good-looking, and their language, tones and accents are purified. That’s just not how life is, off-screen.

Chinese artists have long venerated dogma of seeing art as something "from life but higher than life". Mao Zedong declared in 1942 that: "Life, as reflected in works of literature and art, can and ought to be on a higher plane - more intense, more concentrated, more typical, nearer the ideal and, therefore, more universal than actual, everyday life."

For decades, Chinese films and TV dramas have tried to portray characters as idealized versions of real humans to the extent they become archetypes, who behave and speak differently from us.

We had become used to perfect-looking characters, who speak in perfect Putonghua, until Zhao and his students reminded us TV dramas can be more realistic.

Chinese TV dramas are monopolized by actors from a few elite colleges, such as the Beijing Film Academy, the Central Academy of Drama and the Shanghai Theater Academy. But the Rustic Love cast hails from a different lineage - that of errenzhuan, a grassroots performance art form that focuses its aesthetics on remaining as close as possible to actual life.

Errenzhuan performers don’t try to make performances something higher than real life, and they tell jokes you don’t hear on TV. That’s why errenzhuan venues are packed with people who are tired of polished portrayals.

Thanks to Zhao, we can watch a TV drama by a group of actors, who has neither academic training nor stunning physiognomies but do have the ability to portray common people’s lives realistically. Their comic improvisation skills also add color.

Not everyone agrees this is a good thing.

Xue Jinwen, a doctoral student at the Communication University of China, opines in a People’s Daily review that Rustic Love fails in terms of "social responsibility, artistic mission and aesthetical ideal" because it doesn’t "bring audiences hope and faith in the relief of sufferings, conquest of difficulties and solace of sorrows". Instead, Xue argues, it focuses on "such marginal scenes as ’pregnancy celebrations’, ’extramarital affairs’ and ’conflicts between love rivals’."

To me, that’s the sitcom’s very merit. What Rustic Love does is focus on parts of farmers’ lives that exist in villages but not onscreen.

There’s much in the way Chinese TV dramas could do more to engage viewers.

But a good starting point would be to have actors speak the way real people do.

Source: China Daily

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