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Beijing’s got talent

Beijing’s got talent

Plus, the most expensive German TV drama ever, controversial noir in Egypt, an Indonesian black widow and a channel for Afghan women

Plus, the most expensive German TV drama ever, controversial noir in Egypt, an Indonesian black widow and a channel for Afghan women

February/March 2018

Talent shows have been popular in China since the early 2000s, but now there is a new style in the mix: “Zhongguo You Xiha” (“The Rap of China”, above) is the first mainstream Chinese television show to feature hip-hop. It clocked up over 100m views in its first few hours. Diehard fans panned the show’s judges for being popstars rather than rappers, and rumours abounded on the Chinese internet that the authorities, suspicious of hip-hop culture, were testing contestants for drugs. But the show has been embraced by China’s net-native generation, born after 1995, and coined the phrase that is now on the lips of the nation: “Do you have freestyle?”

Move over, Herr Isherwood
Director Tom Tykwer has managed to live up to expectations by landing a smash hit in his native Germany with “Babylon Berlin”. Hailed as the most expensive and ambitious German television drama ever, the story of detective-inspector Gereon Rath in Berlin’s golden 1920s has captivated viewers. Sky Deutschland counted an average of 570,000 viewers per episode – only one series of “Game of Thrones” has attracted more. Although the show will air on terrestrial channels only next autumn, ARD, the German public-service broadcaster, has already given the green light for more episodes. The first 16 have been sold to 60 countries.

Too close for comfort
With a grisly murder and a world-weary cop, the plot of “The Nile Hilton Incident” is classic noir. But the film, by Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh, is also unmistakably political. Set in the days before the revolution of 2011, it tells a tale of police corruption and conspiracy, one that feels especially relevant in today’s Egypt, where the police are as brutal and venal as ever. It is loosely based on the case of an Egyptian tycoon who hired an assassin to bump off his former mistress, a Lebanese diva, in a Dubai hotel. The film was a hit at Sundance Film Festival, and in capitals from Stockholm to Beirut – everywhere but Cairo, where the police banned it. Undeterred, urban Egyptians have organised their own illicit screenings with smuggled DVDs.

Marlina unchained
It impressed international critics at Cannes; now audiences in Indonesia are also applauding “Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak” (“Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts”) by Mouly Surya. The film follows Marlina, a widow, as she seeks revenge and redemption after she is raped and robbed by a group of men at her isolated farmhouse. “Tonight you’ll be the luckiest woman,” says one of her assailants. “I’ll be the most miserable,” she replies, before chopping off his head. Surya styled the film – set amid the savannah of Sumba in eastern Indonesia – as a Western for international appeal. But locals have crowded to watch this darkly funny story of a lone woman refusing to submit to male violence.

Amazons of the small screen
Zan TV is the first channel in Afghanistan to be dedicated solely to women. Its launch publicity papered Kabul’s billboards with photographs of young, women journalists in leather jackets staring down the camera. In less than a year the channel has broadcast panels on harassment, contraception and violence against women, despite operating on a shoestring. Its news briefing attracts 90,000 viewers each morning. Zan’s novelty has won an audience in a country where young liberal elites are struggling with the deeply patriarchal values held by their compatriots. But with success comes increased personal risk. Zan’s journalists now face constant intimidation from hardline conservatives, who view their work as immoral. 

The best medicine
Although Poland is widely seen as a success story of democratic and free-market transformation, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) rode to victory in 2015 on the slogan “Poland is in ruins”. Only they, naturally, could restore its mythic grandeur. Their bombast has prompted a pair of comedians, Rafal Zabinski and Jakobe Mansztajn, to launch a hit satirical weekly news show, “Make Poland Great Again”. Co-produced by the video team of Gazeta.pl, a liberal news website, and influenced by American satirical television shows such as “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”, it tackles pressing issues like health care and pollution (Poland boasts 33 of the EU’s 50 most polluted cities) with bleak humour and incisive social commentary.