Horrors of student life in anthology series On Children more compelling than Meteor Garden reboot

The first two episodes of the Taiwanese anthology series On Children is currently available on Netflix.
The first two episodes of the Taiwanese anthology series On Children is currently available on Netflix.PHOTO: NETFLIX

For many teenagers growing up in the early 2000s, Meteor Garden (2001) was all anyone ever talked about during school recess, never mind that it looked cheap and had cheesy dialogue.

It was the first Taiwanese idol drama of its kind and it became an instant classic.

The story about a feisty but poor young woman named Shancai and her romantic and friendly dalliances with the rich, handsome group of boys known as the F4, was the ultimate Cinderella story.

The new China version of Meteor Garden, however, whose first six of 48 episodes were released on Netflix last Friday, does not have the same magic. Not even when it is being produced by veteran Taiwanese producer Angie Chai, who had also been behind the original Meteor Garden.

Sure, the four actors playing the new F4 members are good-looking enough to pass off as pop idols, but they lack both acting skills as well as charisma.

These may be early days yet, but for now, it is hard to imagine Chinese actor Dylan Wang, as short-tempered heart-throb Daoming Si, becoming as big as Taiwan's Jerry Yan or South Korea's Lee Min-ho for the same role.

His idea of looking angry or frustrated is to scrunch up his eyebrows and open his eyes wide, and he often delivers his lines in a flat manner.

He shows so little emotion that I nearly missed it when he mumbled one of Yan's most famous and funniest lines in the original show: "If apologies worked, would the police be needed?"

 

Chinese actress Shen Yue's portrayal of Shancai also makes the character impossible to like.

Instead of coming across as a confident young woman, Shen's version appears to stand up to bullies due to arrogance and a sense of self-importance.

There is little chemistry between her and Wang's Daoming Si, too, which makes it difficult for the viewer to root for their relationship.

As for the rest of the F4 members, they are given too little to do to leave an impression.

Even the character of Huaze Lei (played by Taiwan's Darren Chen), supposedly the second most important male character after Daoming Si, is rarely given his time in the limelight.

The worst part of the show, though, has to be the product placement. With a production budget of NT$15 million (S$670,000) an episode, the new series is said to have cost 30 times the original and that shows in more upscale sets and fancier cars. But there is also horrendous product placement throughout each episode, for everything from mobile phones to lemon soda.

Another new series about student life, also showing on Netflix, is Taiwanese anthology series On Children, whose tone could not be more different from Meteor Garden's.

The first two of five episodes are available and both are surprisingly bleak and twisted.

Mother's Remote bears similarities to the critically acclaimed Black Mirror (2011 to present), the British anthology series about the horrors of speculative new technologies.

Here, demanding tiger mum Shu-li (played by Ko Su-yun) buys a special remote control that can turn back time in her teenage son's (Liu Tzu-chuan) life.

She overdoes it as she wants him to keep taking the same tutoring class until he finally manages to ace his exams.

Things get violent when she threatens to erase his memory of a girl whom he falls in love with.

The second episode, Child Of The Cat, is less sci-fi and more horror, but it is also about a student (Liu Hsiu-fu) pushed to extremes by his nagging parents. He has his own way of dealing with the pressure though - by butchering kittens in a parallel world.

Both episodes dare to go dark, which is rare for a mainstream Chinese-language TV drama. Child Of The Cat gets very bloody at one point, but the gamble pays off.

They highlight the immense mental stress that some students face at home and in school, and the idea that not all families are loving and perfect.

Despite the series having sci-fi or supernatural elements, it feels more real than Meteor Garden will ever be.

View It

METEOR GARDEN

Netflix, any time on demand. Six new episodes will be released every Friday.

2 stars

ON CHILDREN

Netflix, any time on demand. A new episode will be released every Saturday.

3.5 stars