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Acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai has a hit television show

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When a TV show is a hit in China, it gets millions and millions and millions of viewers, and a TV show based on a bestselling book has taken China by storm. "Blossoms Shanghai" is a 30-part series directed by the acclaimed Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. NPR's Jon Ruwitch asked why the show has become such a big hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLOSSOMS SHANGHAI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Shanghainese).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Shanghainese).

JON RUWITCH, BYLINE: "Blossoms Shanghai" follows the story of A-Bao, a young businessman hustling to make it at a time when China's economic reforms were just taking off. It was the go-go years. Anything seemed possible, and opportunities were blossoming. The show is Wong Kar-wai's first foray into television, and the cinematography bears his fingerprints - dark scenes, plush sets with saturated colors and brooding characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLOSSOMS SHANGHAI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Shanghainese).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking Shanghainese).

RUWITCH: It set a new bar for television in China, but it's not just the visuals that have struck a chord. Shanghai's Huanghe Road used to be the go-to strip for the city's nouveau riche, and it figures prominently in the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLOSSOMS SHANGHAI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, speaking Shanghainese).

RUWITCH: Wu Shasha and Ma Mingyue came to see it for themselves from a province several hundred miles away.

WU SHASHA: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Wu says "Blossoms Shanghai" did something rare for a Chinese TV show.

WU: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: It stirred a sense of nostalgia in her.

MA MINGYUE: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Ma says everyone wishes they could have the kinds of opportunities available back then.

MA M: (Through interpreter) A few years back, there was a bull market, and you could at least invest. But in the wake of the pandemic, for various reasons, the global economic situation is bleak. Everyone wishes they could go back.

RUWITCH: China in the early '90s was in the midst of a tectonic shift. The state was stepping back, downsizing the communist-planned economy. Private entrepreneurship was taking flight. Shanghai, which had just reopened its stock exchange, epitomized the spirit of the day. And the TV show is in Shanghainese - not Mandarin - another marker of how different things were. The dialect has become much less prevalent after decades of government policies promoting Mandarin.

Ma Shanglong is a writer born and bred in Shanghai. NPR met him at a cafe at the Peace Hotel, an institution that also figured prominently in "Blossoms." Fans crowd the lobby now and can even spend a small fortune to stay in the suite that the main character used as an office.

MA SHANGLONG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Ma says the contrast between the '90s and today is part of what makes the show so appealing. Back then, he says, people were full of dynamism and desire, and that comes through.

MA S: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: He says life was like playing one of those claw machines at the arcade where you put a quarter in, and you can try your luck at grabbing a stuffed animal.

MA S: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: If you couldn't grab one, you'd just keep on trying again and again. People in the '90s, he says, had that kind of hope.

MA S: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: To be sure, life in China today is immeasurably better in a material sense. But the economy is foundering, and many think the authorities are not doing enough to give it a charge. Also, the '90s were a time when the state seemed to be getting out of the way. Today, the ruling Communist Party is asserting itself in every corner of society. Ma says living in China today is like being on a cruise.

MA S: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: It's comfortable, but there's a feeling that you're just along for the ride, with no say in where you're headed.

MA S: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: For Ma, there's one character in the show who stands out and is his favorite - Ms. Wang, played by the actress Tiffany Tang.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLOSSOMS SHANGHAI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character, speaking Shanghainese).

RUWITCH: She worked at the state foreign trade company and did deals with the main character, A-Bao. She also harbored hopes for a romantic relationship with him. But when she ran afoul of the corruption watchdog and got sidelined, it was a wake-up call. She realized her previous successes and social status had all been a result of her relationship with A-Bao, and she wanted to stand on her own two feet - or, as she puts it, to be her own dock on the riverbank.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLOSSOMS SHANGHAI")

TIFFANY TANG: (As Ms. Wang, speaking Shanghainese).

RUWITCH: Ma says she's like a lot of Shanghainese people at the time, with the desire and determination to control her fate - something that's less obvious today.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.