That's what HBO Asia drama The Teenage Psychic and Channel 8 drama Eat Already? 2 are made of
Times are hard in The Teenage Psychic and a temple manager, Teacher Kim (Akio Chen), is trying to talk the resident medium and title character, Ya-zhen (Kuo Shu-yao), into jazzing up her practice and making it more crowd-pulling.
"The other mediums are channelling deities such as Lord Guan, Goddess Mazu or the Lotus Prince. Not like you… your way of doing it is too plain," he complains.
"But I can see the spirits without doing anything fancy," she protests. "Not every medium needs to go into a trance and act possessed. That's so not cool."
That's pretty much a declaration of intent from this HBO Asia drama too, which approaches a coming- of-age story with supernatural elements in a confident, naturalistic style more redolent of Taiwanese youth cinema.
The show establishes Ya-zhen's double life as a student and a medium with a bold stroke of an opening. On a lazy afternoon in a high school, an insistent buzz is coming from a stage coffin in a drama club. It's a call from the temple for Ya-zhen, who has to cut short her nap for another emergency - a man possessed by a spirit Teacher Kim can't subdue.
Then the drama colours in the two worlds she lives in. At school, she is surrounded by whiny chatter, mainly in Mandarin, that wouldn't be out of place in a teen comedy. After school, she is in the realm of folksy realism, doing a job with the temple that requires her to speak sternly to spirits - sometimes in Hokkien (hello, some ghosts just aren't conversant in Mandarin) - and to hear out devotees with their garden-variety grievances.
She has a gift for talking to dead people, including her invisible grandma, whose presence at home is suggested by tinkling wind chimes. But she is less skilled at dealing with folk who are alive, whether it is a new boy (Kent Tsai) in school she likes or one of her frequent patrons, a child who is pretending to be possessed to get his parents' attention.
Spirits are simple, people are complicated, and Ya-zhen's education in the ways of the world of the living is only just beginning. That's the theme that runs through the episodes, some of which are more satisfying than others.
Perhaps it is the easy, breezy manner of the show, but some problems here are resolved in ways that feel unearned.
Still, the plain-spoken, rough- diamond charm of the drama shines through.
Eat Already? 2 is less lucky. Although this Channel 8 drama has been hailed as a revival of Chinese dialect television in Singapore, it turns out to be, I'm afraid, a state-controlled zombie.
For decades, language restrictions have made it hard for Mediacorp to create authentic slices of Singaporean life and recreate the flavours of the vernacular of the streets. Many Channel 8 shows take place in an HDB theme park which has had Singlish and incorrect Mandarin scrubbed off, leaving actors who have to speak proper Mandarin with hopefully indigenous accents.
VIEW IT / THE TEENAGE PSYCHIC
HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601), Sunday, 10pm
2 Channel 8, Friday, noon
Now, although some restrictions have been lifted to make Eat Already? 2 possible, the dialect drama is set in an alternate Singapore that is just as improbable.
Its little red dot is a country where young strangers (Zhang Yaodong and Lee Baoen) bump into each other and burst into Cantonese, as if the Speak Mandarin Campaign never happened to their generation, and white-collar parents (Wang Yuqing and Priscelia Chan) speak Hokkien, not English, to their only child. Like, really?
Sure, I get it. Naturalism isn't a priority for a show that exists first and foremost as a daytime public service drama to draw elderly viewers' attention to health and other issues.
And the rest of the dialect-starved audience are meant to lap up the show and not notice it whenever it sounds like an information pamphlet (for example, when commendable actors such as Marcus Chin, in the middle of an otherwise effective scene with a victim of elderly abuse, switch to proper Mandarin to say keywords such as "Family Violence Specialist Centre", as if the words were in bold in the screenplay).
I noticed, however, and also hope to live to see the day a local drama can move freely and easily between languages, in service of a truly Singaporean story.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2017, with the headline 'Sugar, spice and Hokkien'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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