Whether it’s your own personal challenges and tragedies or those of society as a whole, the choice is to either laugh at the absurdity or drown in your tears at the frustration. Rachel Zhou would prefer the former. This young and lauded filmmaker has received attention and acclaim for her productions which find amusement in the baser and seemingly negative aspects of human nature and the human experience. It’s not your typical mass market feel-good fare. However, like documentaries, the works of Stephen King, and classics like “The Twilight Zone”, the message and biting tone of Zhou’s work has gained her a following both among her peers and the public. You won’t want to take your children to see her work but anyone in their teen years and older with an affinity for dark humor will be instantly hooked on them. While her film credits are numerous (A Better World, Los Angeles Kidnapping, Once More, and others) one of the projects she is most beloved for is the web series “Life is Horrible.” Though the story appeals to multiple generations, the online format definitely appeals to a thirty and under segment of the population. The online platform fosters exciting talent in a way that is too risky for more established and conservative mediums. It wasn’t very long ago that Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix were considered not as desirable as traditional broadcast or cable television. A quick look at the Emmy winners of the 2017 will immediately prove that some of the most inventive and lauded programs are coming from nontraditional productions and their creators. Rachel Zhou is creator/writer/director of the web series “Life is Horrible” which has been touted as a dark and devilishly enjoyable new production. Accolades have been heaped upon Zhou and the series. The copious list is vast and includes awards from film festivals in Hollywood, Stockholm, New York, Silicon Beach, and numerous others.
Rachel confesses that rather than ignoring the difficulties and irony of life, she feels it’s better to face them head on…at least in her work. Her perspective is that dark comedy is always relatable to the audience because they can see themselves in the story. The mixture of comedy, tragedy, and violence can be both exciting and terrifying. Dark comedy enables one to laugh at their own miserable, bitter life in a way that is touching and amusing. True to the brashness she professes, “Life is Horrible” depicts stories based around such contemporary social concerns as: abortion, underprivileged losers, commodity prices, polluted food, job interviews, swindles, and others. Zhou describes, “The spirit and emotion demonstrated in this series is nothing but self-mockery. While citizens in present-day society are confronted with helplessness and anxiety from extremely high house prices (especially in China), job stress, and isolation from interpersonal communication etc., so the philosophy of pleasure and enjoyment conveyed through amusement and recreation plays a significant role in healing. This fact is not only persuasive but also educational. For example, one of the stories [in Life is Horrible] is that Mr. Wang kidnaps his boss after he fails in protesting unpaid wages, but his boss is so crafty that he gambles with Wang. Finally, Wang gambles away all his money, the unpaid wages included, and he still owes his boss a large amount. The story tries to reflect the social reality in a comedic way and also caricature them as deprived people who still lead a silly, positive life.”
Another unique aspect of this series is that Rachel has adopted a fairly new template from China called the “microfilm” for the presentation of “Life is Horrible.” There’s no denying that mobile devices have resulted in a greater prevalence of viewing “on the go.” This facet coupled with a generally shorter attention span has given birth to the “microfilm.” This idea was originally inspired by “Knallerfrauen”, a German sketch comedy series that first aired in 2011. This format has become embraced in China and is migrating to different parts of the entertainment world. An outstanding “microfilm” contains for four essential characteristics. It should be terse, well defined, contain strong narration rather than a typical dialogue driven format, and the storytelling plays a less significant part than the environment of humanity, politics, morality, emotions and commercial implantation.
The bitter/sweet quality to “Life is Horrible” is immensely entertaining and satisfying. The endearing quality of these stories is that they reveal the potential for darkness of light in all of us rather than creating an antagonist out of the ether for all to be united against in their hatred. In this manner, Rachel’s series is as much a sociological discussion as it is entertainment, but you won’t notice this when watching “Life is Horrible.” It’s only later than the questioning of one’s self occurs. To illustrate the tone and style of this webseries, consider the following episodes:
The Negotiation - Chinese citizens burn fake money and other valuable fake items because they believe those things can be passed on to their ancestors in their afterlife. When Mr. Lee passes away, his son burns two hot paper made blonde models in an attempt to send them to Mr. Lee; an idea which really pisses off Mrs. Lee. She is very jealous. When the perspective switches to hell, other ghosts are blaming Mr. Lee because his son burnt so much money (sending it to him) that is causes inflation in hell.
Glass Heart: Fred goes to a doctor for help and has been diagnosed with a heart disease called “glass heart.” He has come to the doctor in an attempt to discover the cause of the disease. Discussing his lifestyle with the physician, he recalls a recent family reunion when all his uncles and aunts asked him awkward questions, resulting in Fred seeing himself as a loser.
The Mask: Set in the Victorian era, we see Mr. Brightman excitedly on the way to his wedding night. He has met his wife several times and was impressed by her beauty. As he enters the bedroom, he sees her real face after having removed her makeup…she looks awful. This horrifies the groom. The story suddenly switches to be a part of an advertisement with the host promoting a magic mask for women. Women can wear this mask for a long time without wearing any makeup and men cannot tell. We return to the story with Mrs. Brightman wearing this mask and her husband being none the wiser about her real appearance. They kiss, and it`s a happy ending.
Each of these stories reveal a negative aspect that many of us, perhaps all of us, possess. It’s as much telling about the shortcomings of ourselves and others. “Life is Horrible” almost seems to say “Don’t be so upset, everyone is awful in some way…so get over it.”
Affonso Beato (executive producer of “Life is Horrible”) professes, “Rachel is such an amazing talent! She’s not simply great as a director/filmmaker, she has a unique voice and vision. There are many wonderful filmmakers but the ones we all know and remember are those whom have a signature style. Rachel’s style works with every different theme of production she does. I’ve seen it in romance, action, and the dark humor of Life is Horrible. It’s very exciting to see the awareness increase of her in the community.” For her part, Zhou feels as if she has only begun making films and TV productions. She remarks, “There are a lot of beautiful stories about the underprivileged in this society. I see some film works about them at film festivals but they are rarely seen by the general public. I would like to tell realistic stories about people who should receive more attention from the general public. There are so many options available to tell creative and entertaining stories. Ridiculous things always happen in real life even though sometimes people are used to them. I would like to exaggerate these things and express them in a dark comedy style. I would like to give exposure to the idea that life doesn’t have to be all good or all bad.”