“Now that Meteor Garden 2018 is over, what are we gonna watch?” a friend asked.
“Watch it again… and again… and again,” I replied.
To be honest, I never expected to like the 2018 reboot. In fact, I was ambivalent when I first heard of the news that Cai-jie was producing a remake. It’s been 15 years since I watched the first one and 17 years since it was first shown. Jerry Yan, Vic Zhou, Ken Zhu, and Van Ness Wu are no longer known as F4, not even JVKV, the name they settled for when the former got into copyright issues. Barbie Hsu has since married, became a tai tai and moved from Taipei to Beijing. The friends I spazzed with that time have moved on to other things and other fandoms. I have moved on as well.
But here I am back to where it all started.
For the sake of comparisons, I’d be comparing the 2001 and 2018 adaptations, and disregard Japan’s Hana Yori Dango (2005) and Korea’s Boys Over Flowers (2009). Compare oranges with oranges, not with apples. I say this because MG and MG2018 were both produced by Taiwan’s top lady producer. (I have interviewed Angie Cai twice during previous visits to Taiwan and I really admire her chutzpah a lot.) She has been very hands on with this version (and even makes a cameo in the end). This time though, she is armed with lessons from the 2001 version, and is backed by China money and Netflix, which makes for a very glossy, sleek, if not long, adaptation (48 episodes!!!) that tries to stay true to the manga.
It is this length that has allowed the new adaptation to play with its storytelling and develop the characters better than the first ever did. True, the length also gave it many unnecessary story arcs but they also had more than enough room to flesh out back stories making for a more satisfying denouement. Of course it’s not a perfect version but it keeps a good balance between correcting the mistakes the first one made and giving a nod to the things that worked back then too.
Like MG, MG2018 boasts of a newbie male cast. (Interestingly, the female leads had more experience: Barbie was already a TV host when she appeared in MG and Shen Yue has acted in another drama before MG2018.) Jerry, Zai Zai, Ken and Van Ness were plucked fresh from the catwalk, streets and auditions. Same thing with Dylan Wang, Darren Chen, Connor Leong and Cesar Wu who all are acting newbies. The edge of the 2018 batch is that they trained with Angie in Taipei before they were assigned roles; this was probably to develop chemistry, be more comfortable with one another and psychologically prepare them for the aftermath of debuting in a very famous franchise that has launched many successful careers. Even Angie herself did not predict the crazy outcome of MG that suddenly thrust its ill-prepared cast into fame and as a mother figure to the new cast, she probably wanted to ensure that they were well prepared for what’s to come, fame, warts and all. That Taipei workshop was obviously very effective based on the performance of the young cast. To be blunt, the acting in MG, especially of Jerry, was akin to watching a duckling swim for the first time (Disclosure: Jerry remains my favorite). But with ample preparation, the young cast of MG2018 took to the water like fish; for sure, they’re still rough diamonds but they did well in their screen debut. It was also a nice touch to bring back some actors who played support characters in MG like Yu Sao and Shan Cai’s mom (who referenced her “son-in-law” in the new version).
While the basic plot remains–rich boy and poor girl hate each other but fall in love later and conquers all the odds–I appreciate the tweaks that the production team made to make the drama feel more up-to-date. Many things are largely still not politically correct but at least there was a consciousness in treating themes like bullying and the gap between rich and poor with more sensitivity. F4 are not just rich in accord of their wealthy families, nor are they just merely pretty boys with no grey matter in between their ears. In fact, they are world bridge champions and top students in school. Dao Ming Si is a savvy stock trader who earned his first 1 million yuan at the age of 18. (I will write a separate post on the 2018 Dao Ming Si and my partial mourning over the loss of the idiot who mixed idioms all the time.) Owing to restrictions imposed for productions in China, F4 were not really depicted as “crazy rich Chinese” and perhaps one of the craziest that Dao Ming Si ever did was travel to London where he’s been supposedly enrolled in business courses only to return to Shanghai after a few days, or bringing his posse to a local island–the horror–instead of to Hawaii to impress the (pine)apple of his eye with being able to catch squids. They also offered a more developed story arc on the dynamics between Ah Si and Hua Ze Lei (that Spiderman backstory put a lot of context into the history of their friendship), as well as an explanation on Lei’s personality (he just doesn’t love to sleep, but also has autism–which prompted me to research on it and learn about the different types of autism). Shan Cai’s parents were not that money-hungry; well, not too much. The father even had the dignity to look embarrassed over his money troubles, and the mother came through towards the end when she took a stand against Ah Si’s marriage proposal. The romance between Xi Men and Xiao You was given enough screen time to blossom (and rightly so if they were going to give that Caina girl that bewildering–and might I say, pointless–screen time that took half of an episode, for five episodes, filled with her pathetic uncle romance woes that remotely had nothing to do with the main characters, even Mei Zou; it would have been much fun if Mei Zou’s mother and sisters were featured instead). Li Zhen was also not an annoying character here and was given time to redeem herself (the actress who played her also had this ethereal quality to her beauty). These little tweaks made the 2018 adaptation more fleshed out, despite tendencies to also stretch out some scenes by the use of flashbacks that became more terrible in the last two episodes. And most of all, I thank the drama gods that there was no amnesia arc that made MG2 so unwatchable (I have never forgotten the nightmare that was Yesha). Well, technically, they flirted very briefly with amnesia in the new version, but it came out more like a snark, and who knows, an attempt by Cai-jie to let the fans know she is rectifying the mistakes MG2 made. So, all good.
The hair is so much a part of Dao Ming Si’s iconic character from the manga to the different adaptations. Dylan’s hair was styled with more sophistication than Jerry’s one that was held up mostly by bobby pins. (Dylan, in his farewell letter to his debut character, chided Dao Ming Si for using a lot of hair spray that might cause him baldness.) The pineapple hair fitted Dylan too and highlighted his chiseled looks that made him look like he just jumped out of Margaret comics.
Anyone who watched MG would see many familiar scenes, though scrambled, in MG2018. In particular, they took the iconic break-up scenes: throwing the necklace to the lake, running after the bus, saying goodbye in the pouring rain, speaking through the closed door… they were heartbreaking to watch then, and were equally heartbreaking to watch now. But they also added more, such as that other break-up scene over hotpot, which made me cry and marvel at the acting chops of the newbie actor Wang He Di and sophomore actress Shen Yue. The 2018 adaptation is littered with many familiar tropes to make the viewing experience relatable to MG fans, but also updated so they won’t be predictable, and fresh for the new fans.
This deserves special mention because it offers an interesting contrast between MG and MG2018. It’s been widely written how MG had so little budget they could not afford a lavish production, including providing luxurious clothes for F4, who are supposed to be filthy rich and therefore, should be rolling, or rather, swaggering in haute couture. Instead, the clothes that the Jerry Yan-led F4 wore were bought from Taiwan’s nightmarkets; some of the clothes even looked like they came from a charity shop but at that time, 17 years ago, sponsorship deals were not a widely used practice especially by high-end fashion brands. Nonetheless, those who watched MG managed to look beyond the horrendous fashion (Dao Ming Si’s head band still gives me nightmares). They didn’t have to in the 2018 version, with F4 dressed like modern-day fashionable idols. I liked Dao Ming Si’s rock star looks in contrast to Lei’s soft pastels, for one.
However, the downside of an era that utilizes sponsorship deals to the maximum is the many product placements, some more blatant than others. If I thought giving Yakult to a pair of island castaway soon after they were rescued was laughable, I had another think coming because the Clear shampoo PPLs were the worst and for amusement’s sake, let us recall them: Dao Ming Zhuang catching a bottle of Clear from out of nowhere to give it to a bodyguard with a serious dandruff problem; Ah Si soaking in the bath with his clothes on and washing his hair (of course with a bottle of Clear on his side) to deflect the attention of bodyguards; Shan Cai threatening to wash Ah Si’s hair with, what else, Clear. I also could not get the logic of using an app to send voice messages instead of just making a voice call direct to that person, but then I’m no Chinese millennial to understand these things.
I’m a big pop music fan. Give me a poppy soundtrack and we’re good. MG2018 is no exception, and props to the composers of the new songs (my faves are Didi’s soft rock “Don’t Even Think About It” and Wei Qiqi’s ballad “Love Exists”). But this era’s “oh behbeh behbeh my behbeh behbeh” is “for you-ooh-ooh-ooh.” It remains to be seen whether the Dylan Wang-led F4 will have a music career to match their predecessors, complete with concert tours and several albums as a group, but I’m already psyched up for that nevertheless. Also, MG gave birth to two songs that are now classics: Penny Tai’s “Ni Yao De Ai” and Harlem Yu’s “Qing Fei De Yi”. It’s nice that the 2018 production brought these songs back and gave them extensive air plays throughout the drama (aside from F4’s “Meteor Rain”). Also, that ending scene with Harlem singing on the street and Dao Ming Si and Shan Cai passing by is a nice salute too to the ending of MG. This time, we get the entire cast (plus Angie) and if that doesn’t tell you that the 2018 adaptation is both an apology and a tribute, as well as an improvement and a new chapter, then I don’t know what will.
MG had Taipei and Barcelona, MG 2018 has Shanghai and London. I remember wanting to go to Taipei and Barcelona as part of my MG hangover (I managed to do both later). I’ve been to Shanghai and London too, but watching the 2018 adaptation makes me want to go back to these cities and retrace the steps of Dao Ming Si and Shan Cai.
If for anything, this only proves that the charm still works: Meteor Garden as a drama still makes us swoon over the leads, sing along to foreign songs and make us want to go places.
In the meantime, excuse me while I go and watch my favorite scenes again.
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