来源:Ben Ross’ Blog  作者:Benjamin Ross  2010年04月5日–5月27日

Ben Ross


Getting Started on 蜗居

After finishing Fen Dou and taking a short break from Chinese television shows, I am now 11 episodes into a new series, Wo Ju (蜗居). Broadcast in 2009, Wo Ju has been the most popular and controversial series to come from Mainland China in some time. Due to its controversial subject matter, Beijing TV pulled the plug on Wu Ju ten episodes in, and Shanghai moved it from prime time to a late night time slot. Many people (myself included) have thus taken to the Chinese Internets to watch the series in its entirety.

I am currently 11 episodes into Wo Ju, and the following is a brief synopsis and analysis of what has gone down so far. (There are some minor spoilers coming, so if you don’t want to know the result of the first 11 episodes, I’d suggest you stop reading here.)

Wo Ju begins with a couple, Su Chun and Hai Ping, who both grew up in rural China, have recently graduated from top tier universities and moved to Jiangzhou, a fictional Chinese city reminiscent of Shanghai. They live in a tiny studio apartment and work low-level, white collar jobs, providing just enough income to scrape by. Yet they are happy just to be together, content that they are “making it” in the big city.

The story then flashes several years into the future. Su Chun and Hai Ping are still in the same studio apartment living the same post-college lifestyle. In the interim however, two major changes have occurred. First, Hai Ping’s sister Hai Zao, seven years her junior, has also graduated college, and at Hai Ping’s encouragement is looking for a job in Jiangzhou. Secondly, Hai Ping is now pregnant, further compounding the stress of living in a cramped studio apartment.

Hai Zao soon finds a job as well as a boyfriend (Xiao Bei), and begins her own life in Jiangzhou. Once their baby (Rang Rang) is born, Su Chun and Hai Ping face the spatial limitations and inconveniences of raising a child in a studio apartment. While visiting Jiangzhou, Hai Ping’s mother is appalled at their living conditions and convinces Hai Ping to allow her to take Rang Rang back to the village. The plan is for Rang Rang is to be raised in the village until Su Chun and Hai Ping can afford to purchase a condo. Hai Ping is reluctant to give up Rang Rang (Su Chun is indifferent), but realizes there is no better option.

Again we flash forward several years and Su Chun and Hai Ping travel back to their home village where Hai Ping spends every moment with her beloved daughter, now a toddler. However, she is discouraged to find that Rang Rang hardly regards her as more than a stranger, having been raised her entire life by her grandparents. This brings Hai Ping to a sudden realization. She and Su Chun must no longer delay home ownership. For the sake of keeping their family together, they need a condo, and they need it now! But the problem is that neither she nor Su Chun have enough money for a down payment. This problem is continually exacerbated as real estate prices escalate.

Meanwhile, Hai Zao has been doing very well for herself, both at work and in her personal life with Xiao Bei with whom she is now cohabitating. But as an attractive, young female Hai Zao must deal with 陪酒, an annoyance common in the Chinese business world for young women like her. 陪酒 refers to accompanying her boss to face-garnering business meetings (over meals, on the golf course, etc.) for the sole purpose of drinking and socializing with his potential business partners. Hai Zao despises this aspect of her work and even contemplates quitting her job. Ironically though, through these social engagements she strikes up a seemingly innocuous relationship with one of her boss’ business partners, Song Si Ming, a wealthy married, businessman in his forties (for point of reference, Hai Zao is still only a few years out of college).

Su Chun and Hai Ping meanwhile continue to struggle with the financial realities which subject them to living in a cramped studio apartment and subsisting on instant noodles. They still cannot afford a down payment for a condo, and Hai Zao, who credits all her success and good fortune to the help and guidance of her older sister, feels compelled to rectify the situation. The issue comes up in casual conversation between Hai Zao and Song Si Ming, and Song Si Ming cordially offers to loan Hai Zao the money for Hai Ping’s down payment. It is apparent, but not spoken, at this point that Song Si Ming has an interest in Hai Zao which extends beyond platonic and business relations. It is also apparent that he has something which Hai Zao, or more specifically Hai Zao’s sister Hai Ping needs, cash. Thus we have the setup for a situation which has to potential to become quite juicy.

Up to this point, I can already tell that by all measures that Wo Ju is a show of much higher quality than Fen Dou. The acting is better, the production level is of relatively high quality (I haven’t seen a single overhead mic yet), and the story line is much more realistic. (The plot of Fen Dou was about as plausible as your average Harry Potter flick). But what I like most about Wo Ju so far is that it showcases real problems and conflicts which are regularly encountered by Chinese urbanites, such as corruption, infidelity, and the housing bubble. It portrays them in a realistic light, and without cheesy miracle fixes and crackpot story lines to undermine the plot’s integrity. I still have 24 episodes left, so I’m sure there is much more action ahead. I’ll try to keep everybody posted.


Meet the Cast of 《蜗居》

I’m now a little over 2/3 through 《蜗居》 and it is shaping up to be a truly captivating series. 《蜗居》 is not fast moving, nor action packed. The plot develops at an unforced, natural pace, relying little on sensationalism or action. Instead, 《蜗居》’s strength its complex and dynamic characters…whom I would like to introduce below.

There is no one central character in 《蜗居》, but if I had to approximate who figures most prominently in the plot it would be Hai Ping. Hai Ping is in her late 20’s (possibly early 30’s) and lives with her husband Su Chun in a tiny apartment in Jiangzhou, the fictional city where 《蜗居》 takes place. She is a graduate of a top tier university but is currently working in a dead end office administrative job.

Hai Ping’s tragic flaw is in her greed, although this manifests itself in what she wants for her family, not for herself per se. Namely she wants to buy a condo. The driving force behind this is her daughter Rang Rang. Since apartment is too small and their expenses tight, Rang Rang is being raised in their hometown by Hai Ping’s parents. Once a condo is purchased, the plan is for Rang Rang to return to her parents.

Hai Ping’s husband Su Chun is your typical Chinese Zhang San (John Doe). He has a danwei job as a designer which provides a modest income, drinks and smokes in moderation, is faithful to Hai Ping, but also does nothing to stand out as an exceptional husband or father. This is not good enough for Hai Ping, and she frequently berates him on account of his mediocrity.

Hai Ping’s sister Hai Zao has also moved to Jiangzhou upon graduation from college. Hai Ping too works an office job in Jiangzhou and lives with her boyfriend Xiao Bei. Seven years younger, Hai Zao is naïve, immature, and inexperienced compared to her older sister whom she frequently turns to as role model and advisor. Hai Zao’s has deep admiration and feeling of gratitude towards Hai Ping, which turns out to be her own tragic flaw.

Hai Zao is prettier than Hai Ping and has attracted the attention of Song Si Ming, a married, wealthy, government official in his 40’s. The casual work relationship between the two evolves into a full-fledged affair, which the two manage to keep secret from their respective partners for some time. Hai Zao thus remains trapped in between two separate lives, her legitimate boyfriend Xiao Bei, and her sugardaddy Song.

Xiao Bei is Hai Zao’s boyfriend (and also my favorite character thus far). Like Su Chun he holds a steady job and is not independently wealthy. However, unlike Su Chun, he knows how to please women. Whether it’s cooking her dinner, taking her out window shopping, or sending cute instant messages to Hai Zao (whom he calls “Little Pig”) during the work day, Xiao Bei always knows how to make Hai Zao smile. Additionally, when it comes to serious matters such as finances or major decisions, Xiao Bei always has a prescience which seems behind his years. In short, he is excellent husband material…which is maybe why he is getting the short end of the stick? Xiao Bei is also perceptive and intelligent and it is seemingly only a matter of time until he finds out about his girlfriend’s affair.

Song Si Ming is not the bullheaded, chain smoking, pleather man-purse toting, tinted window Audi driving, alpha male know-it-all Chinese bureaucrat that we all love to hate. He is well-mannered, soft spoken, doesn’t smoke, and has yet to be belligerently drunk on camera. Outwardly he treats others with respect and has the calm demeanor which would seem to make him an ideal family man. At face value, Song is likeable guy, one who seems to have retained a sense of humbleness regardless of his immense financial resources. Song seems to have everything a man could want, good job, beautiful wife, healthy kid, etc. Yet as he looks at himself in the mirror one morning, he realizes how old he has become. With all his money and success, he still feels a void in his life—a void which can only be filled by the object of a new obsession, Hai Zao. This proves to be his downward spiral as his obsession with Hai Zao tears him from his family and sends him on a mad quest for control and power. Cognizant of Hai Zao’s connection to her sister, on multiple occasions Song uses his money and power to bail Hai Ping and Su Chun out of otherwise formidable situations. Ironically though, it is often Hai Ping, not Hai Zao who is uncomfortable with this tacit arrangement.

Thus we have the bulk of the cast. There are several other minor characters, but the majority of the plot focuses on these key individuals. I’ll try to keep posting as I finish up the show. The deeper I get, the juicier it becomes.



Just finished 蜗居…and Other Observations on Chinese Television

I just finished 蜗居. And rather than spending multiple days to write a be-all-end-all overly-protracted blog post, which often hampers the progress and content of this blog, I’m going to try to keep my thoughts short and sweet as I blog my reactions to the show.

Watching 蜗居 was one of the most rewarding China related experiences I have had in a while. For anyone willing to allocate a significant chunk of time to improve their language ability and understanding of modern-day China, I highly recommend 蜗居. Counting pauses, re-watches, and time for looking up words, I’d estimate it is around a 50-75 hour time commitment to get through the whole thing.

After finishing the show, my internal reactions felt as if I had just finished reading a long novel, rather than watching a television show. To be sure, much of this is due to the theme and character development of 蜗居, but it is also due to a particular characteristic of Chinese television show production.

TV series in China are generally not broken into seasons. Instead the entire show is filmed as one block, often thirty of forty episodes long. The disadvantage in this is that bad shows get a full run, rather than being canceled after a season or two. The advantage though is that it enables producers to plan out the entirety of the show all at once, rather than season by season. 蜗居 takes particular advantage of this fact. There are very few plotlines which are self-contained in a single episode, and the climax of the show occurs at the very end. Since there are no season breaks, it is unnecessary to build in extra climaxes at points where broadcasting would drop off for several months.

Thus, 蜗居’s 35 episodes, each lasting exactly 42.5 minutes are essentially a single long play movie, clocking in at just over 24 hours in length. The end of one episode often cuts off mid-scene leading directly into the next. Thus, watching 蜗居 is like reading a novel, in that one can pick up and leave off at arbitrary points, rather than taking each episode as a single unit.

Owing to this characteristic of the Chinese television industry, the producers of 蜗居 were not subject to the constraints of creating superfluous plotlines and climaxes. Instead, it allowed them to develop the story in a more natural fashion, along the lines of how a writer pens a novel. This presents a contrast to American TV shows, which even if they continue episode to episode (i.e. Lost, Sopranos), they still must be broken down into seasons with some resolve at the end.



The Ending of 蜗居

Ok, so if you want to watch 蜗居, and you’d rather not find out the ending, I suggest you stop reading this post. But for readers who don’t plan to watch the show and are instead relying on me to spill the beans, here goes.

So a major turning point happens about 2/3 of the way through the series when Xiao Bei finds out about Song Si Ming and Hai Zao. After much crying, bickering, and screaming, Xiao Bei agrees to take her back, although says he can’t guarantee that he will forget everything. The one condition is that she must never see Song Si Ming again. One slip up and Xiao Bei says he’ll leave. Xiao Bei is clearly shell-shocked by the knowledge that his girlfriend was cheating on him with a guy almost twice his age, but as time progress he slowly reverts back to his old self.

Meanwhile Hai Ping and Su Chun find themselves in a bit of a pickle as Su Chun is arrested for stealing designs from his work unit. (This was done in order to make money off them to appease his materialistic wife). Through a seemingly inexplicable chain of events and guanxi, Su Chun who had been facing several years of jail time is set free. Originally Hai Ping is led to believe that it is Mark (an American whom she has been tutoring in Chinese) is behind the dropped charges. Later she discovers that it was the work of Song Si Ming.

Hai Zao and Xiao Bei’s relationship gradually reverts back to normalcy until one day when Xiao Bei finds a text message on Hai Zao’s phone from Song Si Ming. The message is old, from before Xiao Bei’s discovery, but he is incensed at the fact Hai Zao had not deleted it. Xiao Bei walks out, and other than a brief flashback, this is the last we see of him in the series.

Hai Zao immediately flees to Song Si Ming. Song has an apartment for Hai Zao to move into and more or less takes her in as his concubine. Hai Zao stops showing up to work, and spends most of her days sitting around reading magazines and killing time waiting for Song to return. Song finds himself balancing his life between Hai Zao, his work, and his wife and daughter who become increasingly impatient with his constant absence.

While Song seems to be handling his personal life with ease, his situation at work becomes increasingly stressful as he finds himself involved with some sketchy real estate deals. It’s at this time he also is being investigated on corruption charges (this is the area where of the show where I had some difficulty figuring out the details, so if anyone would like to fill in the cracks, please be my guest).

The crescendo of 蜗居 begins when Hai Zao reveals to Song that she is pregnant. While Hai Zao’s reaction is to get an abortion, Song insists on her keeping the baby and she finally agrees. At the same time, Song’s wife, who is entirely cognizant of her husband’s extracurricular activities, demands a divorce, to which Song will not comply. As the stress at home and at work builds, Song takes a bank passbook with 5 million RMB and gives it to Hai Zao for safekeeping. He tells her that if anybody tries to take it from her, do not give it up.

When Song’s wife (we never learn her real name) finds out about the money, she pays a visit to Hai Zao. She demands the passbook, and when Hai Zao refuses to give it up, a skirmish breaks out. The altercation leaves Hai Zao passed out on the floor with her maid rushing inside believing that she is dead.

Later we find out that Hai Zao is ok, however her unborn child has been killed in the fight. Meanwhile, Song is at his corruption hearing when he receives an urgent call about the situation. He rushes to the hospital and en route his car is struck by oncoming traffic, killing him instantly.

We then flash forward three months. Hai Zao is in bed being spoon fed by her mother and refusing to talk. (Apparently she has not said a word since the day she lost her baby and Song Si Ming.) Hai Ping takes her for a walk and in a soliloquy lasting about 8 minutes, summarizes everything she has learned from the preceding events. Ultimately it had been Hai Ping’s greed which had caused the events leading to Hai Zao’s unfortunate circumstance, and the speech touches on these ideas as well as several positive notes on chasing dreams. (If anybody has a transcription, it would be worth posting, since this essentially sums up the message of the series.)

After her speech, Hai Ping receives a call from Mark who asks to see her immediately. Mark reveals to Hai Ping that before Song had died he had wanted to give a new life to Hai Zao and their baby, and had arranged for them to go to the United States. Mark also tells Hai Ping that he wants to invest money in her to open a Chinese school for foreigners in Jiangzhou. This had been Hai Ping’s dream she had alluded to in previous episodes, but for brevity’s sake I had not mentioned in past posts. In the last two scenes we see Hai Zao at the airport being sent off to the US and then a frame of Hai Ping in front of her new school.

蜗居 is a deep series, and I would be lying if I denied having any emotional investment in the show. You knew it had to end with a bang, but I really did not expect such tragedy. I also did not expect much hope to come from the unfortunate chain of events. Everything is still sinking in, and I’m going to try to post a few more analytical thoughts in the days to come. As Chinese is not my native language, and as I have yet to go through the online plot summaries, there may be several inaccuracies in my description of the show. Please feel free to make corrections where necessary.