In the penultimate episode of the hit Chinese family comedy, A Love For Separation, two lonely dads are having a heart-to-heart in a bar in Beijing. Both their households are in different states of disarray, after they sent their teenagers to senior high schools overseas.
One dad, ophthalmologist Fang Yuan (Huang Lei, whose comic delivery is as tip-top as ever), has diagnosed the other, businessman Zhang Liangzhong (Wang Jun, the drama's director who has given himself the role of resident jerk), as having a mid-life crisis and is talking him through it.
"In this life, from birth to death, man undergoes a separation from the world. But, in order that you're not so afraid before you die, there can be a few more small ones before that, a few small separations, so you can get a preview and prepare yourself."
Middle age, when your children leave home, your parents depart this life and you feel empty - this is all just an intense rehearsal for your own eventual demise, in Yuan's view.
And this prickly, sweet drama serves as a preview too.
In probing the anxieties of middle-class parents in hypercompetitive modern China, the show is specific, but will be familiar to anyone who has survived - or is surviving - an educational pressure cooker in Asia.
Familiar, but also more extreme: Early in the drama, it is the year of an important junior high examination for the children of three families in Beijing, and chaos ensues. The house of Yuan, his wife Tong Wenjie (Hai Qing) and their daughter Duoduo (Zhang Zifeng), practically becomes a war zone.
The exam is a vital step on the narrow road to success, according to cosmetics executive Wenjie. "If you can't enter a top senior high school, you won't be able to enter a top university. If you can't enter a top university, your life is over," asserts the tiger mum, who has only one cub and therefore only one chance to get it right.
She piles test sheets on Duoduo, and overreacts to the teen's attempts to do anything not exam-related, like keeping a pet dog or writing an online novel. Accusations are hurled. Doors are slammed. Tropes of war and crime shows are cycled through to dramatic and comic effect.
After Wenjie catches Duoduo committing a "repeat offence" of not focusing on her studies, Yuan takes on the role of negotiator, reminding his wife she isn't the police and their daughter isn't a criminal.
The drama is able to step back from the hysterics, however, and Wenjie, in particular, reflects on her obsession with her daughter's success and her anxieties about her own career.
Ultimately, the show plays by the rules of comfort television. Separations happen in the drama just so the reunions can be fonder.
VIEW IT / A LOVE FOR SEPARATION
cHK (Singtel TV Channel 510), Mondays to Fridays, 9.15pm
WEIGHTLIFTING FAIRY KIM BOK JOO
Viu the website and app, any time on demand
The South Korean romance, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo, stretches the rules of K-drama just a little.
It is an easy-going little show in which boy meets girl, and she happens to be a weightlifter (Lee Sung Kyoung).
There have been K-romances with big or normal-sized girls before. In 2005, there was My Lovely Sam Soon. In 2015, there was the weight-loss drama, Oh My Venus.
The cool thing about Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo is that it doesn't portray female weightlifters as ugly ducklings who are just a few diets away from becoming worthy objects of affection.
They're healthy women with healthy egos, who can live with being less slim and popular than the gymnasts, so there.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2017, with the headline 'Middle-aged tiger parents roar and moan'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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