Telemad

Right stars, right chemistry

Former film goddess Lin Ching-hsia (seated, with actress Xie Na) is the main draw of Up Idol.
Former film goddess Lin Ching-hsia (seated, with actress Xie Na) is the main draw of Up Idol.PHOTOS: WEIBO/UP IDOL, STARHUB
Actor Liu Ye and his son Noe appear in the third season of Where Are We Going, Dad.
Actor Liu Ye and his son Noe appear in the third season of Where Are We Going, Dad. PHOTOS: WEIBO/UP IDOL, STARHUB

Celebrities on Chinese reality TV do not have to do much to make the shows a hit with viewers

The Hunan TV reality show Up Idolliterally rolls out the red carpet for its 10 female stars, but also playfully trips them up.

Soon after arriving dressed to the nines on the Mongolian steppes in Episode 2, actresses such as Ning Jing, Athena Chu and Lin Ching-hsia have to choose to sit on cushy thrones or spiky haystacks. If a star picks a throne, but turns out not to rank among the top five in a local popularity poll, she will have to slink off to a haystack.

Here, former film goddess Lin is brought back down to earth as hosts He Jiong and Wang Han tease her, reminding her she hasn't been in a movie for 21 years and might not be that hot in Hohhot.

"I-I-I have to be in the unpopular group?" she stutters, before He assures her she is safe in her seat. He teases her again: "You still care a little, don't you?"

Such instances are among the brighter spots in the show, which pulls its punches so often that it risks being dull.

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Starry outdoor game shows are big in China now and many of them, based on South Korean formats, don't deviate much from the formula for nice fun. Up Idol, an original show, has a chance to be naughtier and meaner, but it doesn't quite seize the chance.

Maybe the show has lost its nerve or it doesn't wish to hurt anyone's feelings any more. But it stops seating and sorting the stars by popularity after two outings, to Hainan Island and Inner Mongolia.

On the steppes, Lin's team loses and has to stay in a dilapidated yurt with insect-infested beds. But the superstar herself sleeps elsewhere - a nicer tent, possibly - in a mysterious arrangement that is not discussed in the show, but is talked about on the Internet (type in "Up Idol" in Chinese on search giant Baidu and it suggests searches such as "Lin Ching-hsia did not sleep with the others").

Much of the show tiptoes around the idea of female competition. Contests such as arm-wrestling and challenges such as baking mooncakes are, at best, hand-me-downs from more entertaining shows such as Running Man.

The show is more keen on group hugs and talky dinners that, unfortunately, are blander than the gossip you might have read about the stars themselves.

What do you go to the show for then?

Well, two of the stars, Ada Choi and Xie Na, are great fun when they send up their own insecurites.

Former Miss Hong Kong Choi is hilarious when she is sad everyone remembers Chu's role, but not hers, in the 1995 cult classic A Chinese Odyssey Part Two. Choi played Princess Iron Fan, she wails.

She is even more hurt - and more hilarious - when, as a prize for winning an episode, she is given a plastic tiara.

Then there is Lin herself. No, she doesn't do much in the show. (When the others are baking, she is the one watching them and wiping their sweaty brows, for instance.) But she doesn't have to.

When a legend returns to the spotlight and subjects herself to high-definition scrutiny, it's a show.

Hunan TV's other summer show, Where Are We Going, Dad?, returns to happier times in the latest season.

Remember the first season, which was sweetness and light? After a second season that was clouded by controversy - there was much Weibo chatter after the injury of actor Francis Ng's son, Feynman, for example - the mood is right again in the third season.

The show sets the tone in an early episode, when celebrity fathers including Hu Jun and Liu Ye (the stars of the 2001 gay love story Lan Yu), challenged to put on trousers without pulling them up with their hands, begin to break-dance on the ground and wriggle into the garments.

The children have quite a blast too. Four of them are boys and some of them are into the only girl in the show, Poppy, the daughter of actors Phoebe Huang and Christopher Downs.

Boxer Zou Shiming's son, Mingxuan, is a budding Romeo who charms Poppy with gifts. Liu's son, Noe, is a wise boy who is good friends with Poppy.

I can't quite explain it. But sometimes a show's success is as simple and mysterious as finding the right people with the right chemistry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline 'Right stars, right chemistry'. Print Edition | Subscribe