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Yip Wai Yee
Saturday, Aug 2, 2014

Showbiz

Time travel on the tube

The Straits Times | Yip Wai Yee | Saturday, Aug 2, 2014

Whether it is to undo a wrong or to go into the future to find out what is in store for you or your loved ones, the ability to travel through time is something that has long been a subject of fascination for TV producers and film-makers.

In recent years, Asian TV drama writers in particular seem to be especially intrigued by the subject, as a whole host of shows centred on the concept have come out of South Korea, China and Hong Kong.

In 2012 alone, South Korea had at least five different dramas that made use of the notion of time travel - from the popular comedy Rooftop Prince, about four men from the ancient Joseon era who appear in modern-day Seoul, to the medical drama Dr Jin, starring Song Seung Heon as a gifted neurosurgeon who suddenly gets transported back to the year 1860.

Singapore has jumped on the time-travel bandwagon recently with the new MediaCorp drama Blessings, which is now showing on Channel 8.

In the series, Shaun Chen plays a man who travels from 1940s Singapore to the present, where he is hoping to revive his once-famed traditional tau sar piah pastry shop, which is facing market pressures to close down.

Executive producer of the show Jasmine Woo says the idea behind incorporating time travel here is so the drama can introduce some old traditions to younger audiences.

She tells Life! in a telephone interview: "There are a lot of time-travel shows out there recently, but for us, the central idea is all about traditions. We really want to highlight how values in Singapore have changed over the years.

"For example, Shaun Chen's character is shocked that in the present, Chinese families no longer have the habit of greeting elders before they eat at the dinner table. And he is confused as to why many Singaporean Chinese kids have English names.

"To have this man with these 1940s values live in the present, the contrast in values of the different time periods is more obvious than if he were just a father being shocked by his son."

Nanyang Technological University assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun agrees that the idea of time travel often serves to play up contrasts.

Says the lecturer, who has research interests in Asian pop culture: "Aside from the humorous moments in these encounters between the old and new in fashion, technology and customs, the critical component of this genre lies in the tensions between modern individualism - especially in the pursuit of romance and happiness - and the traditional obligations of feudal kinship.

"Audiences would also expect to watch the clash between antiquated stoicism and modern openness as well as privileged royalty of the past against independent citizens of the present."

Perhaps the fact that time-travel dramas have remained so popular among audiences is a little ironic given that most of them are riddled with scientific loopholes.

Much has been written about theories such as the famous Grandfather Paradox (the notion that it is impossible to go back in time to kill an ancestor because otherwise you would not be born at all) and the Butterfly Effect (the idea that making even the tiniest change to something in history would change everything else that follows).

But TV fans such as Ms Theresa Khong, 29, are happy to cast aside such niggling technicalities to simply enjoy the entertaining stories of time-travel shows.

The financial analyst names China's mega-hit time-travel show Scarlet Heart (2010 - 2011) and British mini-series Lost In Austen (2008) as her favourites.

She says: "Time-travel shows are fun to watch because you know there is always going to be some sort of conflict between how people behave in one time period and those in other time periods.

"Often, the hero is also a lot more romantic if he came from an older time because people then were generally required to be more courteous. In Lost In Austen, when 21st-century girl Amanda goes back in time to meet Mr Darcy, she is of course easily wowed by him because, unlike her modern-day boyfriend, he is a true gentleman. That's also why girls loved the movie Kate & Leopold (2001) so much - Hugh Jackman's 19th-century duke character was so dapper."

Prof Liew picks Hong Kong TVB drama The King Of Yesterday And Tomorrow (2003) as the one time-travel series he enjoyed the most.

Of the series about an 18th-century emperor who becomes a cleaner overnight in contemporary Hong Kong, he says: "Buttressing the excellent cast of veterans that include Kwong Wa and Maggie Cheung Ho Yee was an entertaining and sober script that showed how even the high and mighty have to struggle to get back on their feet when they are brought down to earth overnight."

For many viewers then, whether any of these time-travel shows are actually plausible is hardly the point. The thing that matters, really, is whether new shows are able to come up with fresh, original ideas and concepts regarding time travel.

The story, truly, is king - then and now.

Blessings airs on Channel 8 on weeknights at 9pm.

yipwy@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 31, 2014.
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