Telemad

Telemad: Why the Chinese Running Man has nothing on the Korean Running Man

Left: Vicki Zhao (second from left) plays a high-flying marketing executive who takes time off the rat race to get her daughter into a good primary school. Below: Stars caked in mud in the Chinese Running Man.
Left: Vicki Zhao (second from left) plays a high-flying marketing executive who takes time off the rat race to get her daughter into a good primary school. Below: Stars caked in mud in the Chinese Running Man.PHOTOS: STARHUB, WEIBO/RUNNING MAN
Left: Vicki Zhao (second from left) plays a high-flying marketing executive who takes time off the rat race to get her daughter into a good primary school. Below: Stars caked in mud in the Chinese Running Man.
Left: Vicki Zhao (second from left) plays a high-flying marketing executive who takes time off the rat race to get her daughter into a good primary school. Below: Stars caked in mud in the Chinese Running Man.PHOTOS: STARHUB, WEIBO/RUNNING MAN

Chinese TV's Tiger Mom worries too much, and the hosts of China's Running Man don't play hard enough

Chinese philosopher Mencius was an impressionable child who lived close to a cemetery and started mimicking mourners, worrying his mother, or so the story goes.

Mother and son moved near a market, where he began imitating vendors. Finally, for the sake of his learning environment, she moved next to a schoolhouse.

That was more than 2,000 years ago, though, so it is a little insane in the drama Tiger Mom when high-flying marketing executive Bi Shengnan (Vicki Zhao) insists on emulating Mencius' mother in a China with modern housing prices.

Her husband, video game designer and addict Luo Su (Tong Dawei), and her in-laws feel she is losing it. The couple simply can't afford a small, overpriced apartment in the district of the best primary school in Beijing, however much she wants to enrol their five-year-old daughter there.

But her in-laws are shamed into supporting her scheme financially when they hear of a model dad in the neighbourhood, a rag-and-bone man who camped at a good school till it let his daughter in.

Shengnan's dad, a retired teacher, takes her side.

But then he was a tiger dad and now he wants to be a tiger granddad, reminding his daughter about the story of Mencius' mother when her resolve to get his granddaughter into the top school flags.

Evidently, parenting in modern China has evolved into a competitive sport with too many coaches, especially in an extended family with only one child.

The show's approach to the topic can be too black-and-white. It seems to have only two types of parents - the pro-homework tigers (Shengnan and her father) and the pro-play kittens (her husband and in-laws). And two young women Shengnan deals with at work are extreme examples of parenting failures: one is a scheming, lying straight-A student and the other a complete weakling.

But Shengnan grows into a complex character with a complicated relationship with her success.

In the show, she was content to concentrate on her career and let her in-laws cosset her child in a world of fairy-tale make-believe, before she meets a string of well-trained children - one of them is a colleague's son on the way to an interview for a place in a primary school - and senses her daughter is falling behind.

Soon, she is taking time off the rat race for a more crucial competition: getting her daughter into a high-ranking primary school to give her a head start in life.

But then she examines her own upbringing and wonders whether she paid too high a price as a child for her success as an adult.

After all, the story of Mencius' mother isn't about excellence: She didn't move near the best school, she moved near a school.

Running Man, the Chinese adaptation of the South Korean variety show, is too excellent to be much good.

Zhejiang Television works hard to replicate the magic of the original, changing pop cultural themes, costumes, special effects and game rules every episode, and it is impressive. You admire how intricate the show is and how big the budget must have been.

What the Chinese version can't quite reproduce is the Korean show's loose, seamless sense of fun - the sense that you are watching adults play with the freedom of children.

Instead, Zhejiang Television's cast - even the most fun members, actor Zheng Kai and actress Angelababy - play like squares.

Some of them play to win, even if it is just a playground game of "eagle catches chick". Others are afraid of "dying", even if it is just having their name tags torn off their backs and sitting the episode out. (Which is good for a few laughs, admittedly. Actors Bao Beier and Li Chen are cute when they turn their backs to each other in a life-and-death test of trust.)

A rare entertaining guest is Angelababy's significant other, actor Huang Xiaoming.

He isn't here to win. He is here to play a love-struck hitman in a silly escape game, eliminating every player except Angelababy, worshipping the ground she walks on and gladly losing to her. Attaboy.

woeiwan@sph.com.sg