TV gaokao drama earns high marks
In the US, high school students take the SAT exam to try for a spot at their dream university. In China, that all-or-nothing exam is the gaokao, the national college entrance examination known as the single-log bridge students have to carefully cross to reach the next stage of their lives.
A Little Reunion, a hit TV drama that puts the spotlight on gaokao, came to an end on Tuesday, wrapping up heated discussions sparked on social media over the past month.
Adapted from best-selling writer Lu Yingong's eponymous novel, A Little Reunion serves as a loose sequel to the highly-rated series A Little Separation focused on the senior high school entrance examination — also helmed by veteran director Wang Jun, known for excelling at urban drama.
Featuring a seasoned cast including Huang Lei, Hai Qing, Tao Hong, Sha Yi, Yong Mei and Wang Yanhui, the 49-episode show follows stories of three Beijing middle-class families as they prepare their youngsters for gaokao, a critical rite of passage.
The drama engages an audience of all age groups by focusing on three families — an optimistic couple with a poorly-performing son and a genius nephew; a divorced couple who later reunites for the sake of their daughter; and a pair of officials struggling to reconnect with their rebellious son after a six-year absence from his life.
As the drama progressed, it saw its score on Douban, China's largest film and TV review site, climb from 8.0 out of 10 to 8.3, making it the highest scorer among all series released through satellite channels in 2019 thus far.
Is there a magic formula this smash hit followed on its road to success? Maybe, maybe not. But we have a few ideas.
Time and again, good themes have proven to yield big dividends for any TV and film productions, as they speak directly to the profound and shared elements of the human experience. A Little Reunion is one such drama, epitomizing this quality with a great theme.
Focused on the gaokao, a watershed moment in the lives of most Chinese, the drama can easily trigger floods of bittersweet memories related to the exam.
"Although the series has run for only a month, it seems I have been brought back to 2014, the year when I sat gaokao," reads one popular comment on Weibo, China's Twitter equivalent.
"Once again I dreamt of racking my brain to answer questions during a mock exam in the senior year of high school. It made me so nervous and I was still in a daze after waking up. I should've not watched the finale of A little Reunion, which is so like reality," reads a Weibo post.
Such posts and comments have been common since the series premiered a month ago. Gaokao, deemed the most likely means of upward social mobility — especially for those from rural families and low-income households — is inarguably the biggest challenge to the mettle of candidates and their parents, resulting in stronger familial bonds as children and parents share anxiety, tears and joy together.
Therefore, tapping gaokao — the reservoir of national memories — the show with stories unfolding in three households has struck a chord with millions of audience members by enabling them to see themselves in the characters and recall their own stories.
Another key ingredient for the success of this realistic series lies in its specific details, which many audience members hailed as "authentic".
To present a warts-and-all portrayal of how three families brace their children for the all-important exam, chief scriptwriter Huang Lei said he mainly used the stories of his friends, relatives and neighbors.
Scriptwriters also visited and interviewed many families with children who have sat or are preparing for gaokao to learn their stories, which the scriptwriters later used to enrich the plot and enhance authenticity.
Many audience members took to social media, saying they also suffered from insomnia ahead of gaokao like the character Yingzi did in the show, and confessing their mothers are also "control freaks" like Song Qian, Yingzi's mother.
Lines in the show are also highly praised as down-to-earth. For example, in the first episode, when Tong Wenjie scolded her son after he made trouble at school, her line – "Don't call me mom. I'm not your mom," – went viral on the internet as many viewers commented that was exactly what they heard their mothers say in anger.
Moreover, important news in the past year such as martial arts novelist Louis Cha's death and the downward pressure on China's economy are ingeniously woven into the plot, making the plot much livelier.
Discerning audiences also point out all the dates in show are in strict accordance with the calendar, and there are textbooks and reference materials stacked on students' desks.
"There is no secret to producing a fine realistic series; the most important thing is to present as much reality as possible. Otherwise, the audience would find our show far-fetched," the director said.
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