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An Ode to Youth
A TV show sheds light on urban youngsters' diverse lifestyles
By Ji Jing | NO. 27 JULY 7, 2016


A scene from Ode to Joy (FILE) 

Ode to Joy, a light comedy depicting modern urban life, has proved to be a hit in China. The 42-episode drama follows five young women living on the same floor of a high-end residential compound in Shanghai.

It was director Kong Sheng's first dabbling in the genre, having built his reputation on history and war themes. He won the Magnolia Award for Best Director with his costume drama, Nirvana in Fire, at the Shanghai TV Festival this June.

The characters of the five leading ladies are noticeably different, and they come from a wide spectrum of family backgrounds and professions. Fan Shengmei is a resourceful HR worker for a foreign company, whose financially strained parents and brother constantly extort money from her, while Guan Ju'er is a timid foreign company employee from a middle-class family. Qiu Yingying, a novice office worker, Andy, a well-educated and confident chief financial officer, and Qu Xiaoxiao, an arrogant personality from a wealthy background, who runs one of her father's companies, make up the quintet.

While Andy and Qu live in their own apartments, the other three share a flat.

The show has injected a new lease of life into the domestic TV drama industry, which is dominated by mother- and daughter-in-law relationships and family crises caused by husbands finding mistresses. However, it has also spurred heated discussion online over the seemingly insurmountable wealth gaps represented on the show.

Leading actors and actresses of Ode to Joy pose for a photo at the launch ceremony of the show in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, on April 7 (CFP)


Some watchers consider the show to be an ode to money, since the wealthier Andy and Qu are able to find more successful and affluent partners than the other three. Fan aspires to marry a rich man but ends up with a college classmate who has no apartment or car. Many interpret the show's message to center on the difficulty in transcending the wealth gap and finding a spouse with a different social status.

"The latter half of the show reveals the permanence of social status, emphasizing the conception that the rich will always be rich and the poor always poor. It glamorizes the behavior of the rich characters while highlighting the flaws of poorer ones. Such plots have struck a chord with the audience's recognition of a wealth gap that exists in reality," wrote Zhang Yuchi, a PhD holder in psychology, in a show review.

Zhang asserted that the show resonated with uncertainties many young people working in first-tier cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou feel over their futures. Many migrated to these large cities in the hope of prosperity. However, like Guan and Qiu they realized that money is hard to make, and a year's salary cannot even afford them just a fraction of an apartment.

The show's producer, Hou Hongliang, said he didn't expect the audience to react so strongly to the wealth gap portrayed in the drama. "There was no such wide wealth divide 30 years ago. The gap is expanding today. That's why the problem drew intense attention from the audience."

Though the production team purposefully included people from different professions, family backgrounds and social statuses in order to offer a panoramic view of contemporary society, they didn't consciously divide them by socioeconomic background.

"For instance, we selected Qiu not because she represents the less affluent, but because she's young and inexperienced. And we chose Andy not because she belongs to the upper middle class, but because she has rich work and life experience," Hou said.

The close relationship shared between the five neighbors is viewed as idealistic, since in big cities in contemporary China, neighbors are often alienated from each other.

"When we were kids, neighbors used to be close to each other, like the five girls in the show. It's owing to social and economic development as well as the prevalence of the Internet that people are having less face-to-face communication. Therefore, we want to promote the return of such intimate interpersonal relationships through our show," said Jian Chuanhe, the other director of Ode to Joy.

However, some critics argue that tension always exists between the five women, in spite of their close relationship. For example, Qu regards Fan as a "gold digger."

Behind the scenes 

The show was adapted from its namesake online novel, and screenwriter Yuan Zidan spent years working on the script, assimilating personal experiences into the show.

Yuan found a job at an advertising company in Shanghai after graduating in Chinese language and literature from Wuhan University.

"Writing the script is like returning to my four years' experience working in Shanghai. Many details were from my own life, such as the scenes where Guan falls asleep in the bathroom after working overtime, when the landlord raises the rent, and when Qiu's father comes to see her and cooks for her," said Yuan.

The show was produced by Daylight Entertainment, a studio established in 2001 that has produced many TV drama hits. The company's production team is renowned for its attention to detail in the pursuit of perfection. For instance, in order to create a more realistic vibe, the team registered real social networking accounts for Andy and her boyfriend.

However, Yuan admits that compared to their U.S. counterparts, domestic TV dramas still have a long way to go. For instance, Andy never displays any financial knowhow in the show and is merely dressed like a senior executive.

She explained, "A U.S. TV drama usually takes a long time to make. Most importantly, they have professional consultants. For instance, The Big Bang Theory has physicists as consultants, and The Good Wife has lawyers acting as legal consultants."

Unlike most domestic dramas, which often run for only a single season, the production team has already planned to produce two more seasons, with the shooting to begin for season two in September. Yuan said, in the second and third seasons, professional consultants will be invited to give suggestions.

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

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