Celebrities turn detective for a creative TV show which lauds the spirit of China's craftsmen and women in a fresh new way, Li Yingxue reports.
A special, exquisite invitation made of chocolate, bearing an enigmatic challenge, lured the five "detectives" to the wedding. The challenge stated that four items made of chocolate were hidden somewhere at the wedding venue, disguised as everyday objects. The challenge was to find them all.
Maybe it was the skill of the chocolatiers, or perhaps it was the work of a secret saboteur, but the detectives failed to discover any of them.
It turns out that the desk at the entrance to the venue, a plate holding some candy, a ticking clock and a statue of Cupid were deftly disguised confectionary.
It was a scene from an episode of a new variety show that premiered on April 18 on Hunan Satellite TV named Qiaoshou Shentan (meaning "the craft detectives"), which aims to show the audience how magical handicrafts can be.
Five episodes in and the show is already a hit on micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo, having been discussed more than 12 million times, in posts that had been read 1.4 billion times. Numerous viewers have been impressed by the craftsmen's work and showed interest in trying their hand at recreating some of the handiwork demonstrated on the show themselves.
Xu Qing, 49, producer of the show, came up with the idea for the show at the beginning of last year.
"Our team was inspired by popular short videos of craftsmen, and we noticed that handicrafts have become a new trend among young people, so we were thinking how we could do something that covers this niche field," Xu says.
"This field is a trail set for blazing, but also a challenge at the same time."
The most difficult of which is how to present the craftwork while holding the audience's interest for more than an hour.
After several rounds of brainstorming, the team decided to use deduction stories as the narrative to attract the audience and pull them in－connecting the craft with a bit of mystery. The craftsmen's work is hidden in the storyline and set among the objects at the location for the detectives to uncover.
The craftsmen come from a wide range of specialty fields, mainly of the traditional Chinese arts and handicrafts, such as dough modeling, embroidery and jade carving.
There are also more contemporary crafts on show as well, such as high-tech gadgetry and objects, like bionic animals and special effects props.
"We invited craftsmen of traditional skills, who inherit them or innovate with them, and we also invited some who are leading domestic trends that will be fresh to a young audience," Xu explains.
In each episode, the production team builds three themed rooms to illustrate the crafts that fit the story. "It's like small exhibitions for each craftsman," she says.
Patience is a virtue
According to Xu, there are some crafts that the team has not managed to figure out a proper way to exhibit yet, but the team is working on it for the next season of the show.
"All the pieces of craftwork presented in our show are tailor-made for us by the craftsmen, which makes the preparation time of the show longer," Xu says.
That additional time, however, can pay dividends in the quality of the production and the effect the team is trying to achieve.
For instance, when the film crew brought back the rushes of the episode featuring wax statue maker Zhou Xuerong, the work was so good that Xu mistook the wax statue of Zhou's grandmother in the video for Zhou herself.
"It was so real, from the skin texture to each individual hair," Xu says. "Because she only makes wax statues of people close to her, with whom she is so familiar and has deep feelings for, she puts her heart into the creation."
"It breaks our fixed impression that wax statues are only for celebrities," Xu adds.
The celebrity detective group is another highlight of the show－anchor Du Haitao, singer Zhou Zhennan, director and actor Xiao Yang, actresses Tan Zhuo and Angelababy－they are all so different from one another, but have subtle chemistry together. For example, the director Xiao, 40, a graduate from the School of Fine Art under the Beijing Film Academy in 2005, brought his fine art background to bear in the show, revealing a side to him with which the audience may not be familiar.
"Each detective displays elements of their personality that are new to the audience, because this show is different to others they have participated in before," Xu says.
"They are all so devoted to the show, and every craftwork interests them, so they are like the eyes through which the audience see the delicacy of each piece."
Xu says that, as the group members get more familiar with one another, the show is getting funnier.
Angelababy, she notes, has an eye for detail and she is interested in making craftwork herself.
Tan, it turns out, is a fan of card game The Werewolves of Millers Hollow－a game in which players' roles are sometimes obfuscated for nefarious purposes－which as Xu points out "is similar to the show, because in each episode one of the detectives has the secret role of hindering the team to help the craftsmen".
Du, meanwhile, has taken to social media to praise the production, posting on his Sina Weibo account that the show is made by TV craftsmen to tell the stories of the craftsmen around them.
The show has received 7.5 out of 10 points on review site Douban. User Weizhuang expressed surprise at how designer Wei Minghui turned waste into shimmering fashion－from the model's clothes and accessories to bags－for a catwalk show.
"It's not only the display of a creative idea, but also the process of recycling resources, and the fact that the uniqueness of the materials can satisfy the youth's pursuit of personality," the user comments.
Origami master Liu Tong impressed another user, named Think, with his paper folding skills, which use precise calculation, including analytical geometry, calculus and mathematical analysis.
From a vase, a three-foot vessel to the Archangel Gabriel, art of all shapes and sizes can be realized by Liu's magic hands.
"It turns out that mathematics, plus paper folding, can really 'fold' the whole world," Think writes on Douban.
Leng Song, a video reality show specialist, says the success of Qiaoshou Shentan is due to the creative way that it pays tribute to craftsman spirit by creating suspense and uncovering the secrets of the crafts on display.
"Xu's team is always at the forefront of tackling the topics that others dare not. The show combines the best of a variety show, interactive experience and the craftsman spirit," Leng says of the show.
Xu considers it a show that looks up to the craftsmen it portrays. "They can bear the loneliness and hard work," she says.
Unlike the documentary Craftsman of Great Powers, made by China Central Television's news channel in 2015, Qiaoshou Shentan is aimed more precisely at young people, the main audience of Hunan Satellite TV.
"We want to show the youth that there is not only elite education, but also a blue collar education, which can turn their interests into a successful career and bring them happiness," Xu says.
"Also, we often neglect the craft skills in our daily life, but if we have the interest, it can be part of the high-quality life we pursue."