Tight plots, great acting, film-like quality cinematography, and a beautiful soundtrack… you wouldn’t immediately associate these types of compliments with a Chinese Web drama. However, the new series The Bad Kids, or 隐秘的角落 (The Hidden Corner), is changing those beliefs. The show has garnered more than 200 million views in China and is currently rated 8.9 out of 10 on Douban, China’s version of Rotten Tomatoes. One of the most upvoted comments read: “Do you know how long I haven’t seen such a Chinese drama like this?”
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Zi Jinchen, The Bad Kids features the aftermath and conflicts between three children and their families due to several suspected murders. The show not only provides a thrill and some suspense in the hot summer months, but also touches upon deeper issues in China’s society.
Dark Sides of Children
Besides its impeccable production quality, the practice to address issues about family trauma and its impact on children stirred heated discussions online in China.
The main character, Zhu Chaoyang, was born in a divorced family in which his mother always ignores him except for pushing him to excel in school. His father re-marries a young woman, and his step-mother and half-sister dislike him and have a bad relationship with him. He also suffers from bullying at school.
The other main characters, Yan Liang and Pu Pu, were raised in an orphanage and then escape to Zhu Chaoyang’s city in search of funds to cure the leukemia of Pu Pu’s younger brother. All three kids come from broken families that cannot provide them with attention, affection or security that other children enjoy.
The show simply asks questions about who should be responsible for the actions of the bad kids, and how these traumatic experiences are forcing out the dark sides of their personalities. In the original book, the three children display more darker sides. In order to navigate through China’s strict censorship rules, the show got rid of some plots, such as sexual assault and Zhu Chaoyang’s murder of his half-sister and Zhang Dongsheng, his math teacher who is also a killer.
The unusual setups for the characters and the themes behind the story deconstruct the traditional business model of China’s entertainment industry and the story narration structure to promote “positive energy” under the regulations of censorship officials.
The “Let’s go hiking” Meme is Born
A meme featuring the scene when Zhang Dongsheng holds the camera saying “Let’s go hiking” went viral on Chinese social media with the euphemism “for wishing to do someone harm.” The scene is in the first three minutes of the show, turning a casual family hike into a dark and unexpected murder. Many netizens claimed that it is the “meme of the year.”
The meme has been widely used on the Internet, from the comment sections related to the show to even other random posts by people who haven’t watched the show. A phone case featuring this quote also became a best-seller on Taobao.
Qin Hao, the actor who plays Zhang Dongsheng, has been widely praised and finally recognized by the majority of Chinese audiences for his impeccable portrayal of a serial killer. Qin also placed first on a trending chart on Weibo after the debut episode of the show. Before his performance in this show, Qin was mainly known as the young husband of a famous actress, Yi Nengjing who is 10 years older than him, but rarely recognized despite his 15-year career in more than 30 films and TV series, including some award-winning films introduced at several major international film festivals.
The popularity of the meme and the outstanding performance of Qin Hao are just a few examples of how a certain kind of fandom culture moves into the mainstream and becomes known by everyone, or 出圈 in Chinese.
Streaming Giants Are Innovating Chinese Suspense Dramas
As Chinese audiences are getting tired of TV series featuring political propaganda or romantic stories between young people, major video platforms are looking for ways to jump out of the box.
Many profit-oriented Chinese shows often have 50 or more episodes and feature romantic stories with young celebrities or idols with huge fan groups. With a majority of the budget spent on casting, the production quality and the story itself are often sacrificed. However, this drama is more like a Netflix crime show, with multiple storylines, and unexpected plot twists, all told within 12 episodes. The Bad Kids production team hired Joe Cacaci, one of the scriptwriters for Netflix’s TV series House of Cards, as the script consultant.
In order to attract more viewers and membership subscribers, Chinese streaming platform giants have attempted to innovate web dramas by searching for high-quality scripts, inviting new but talented faces, and establishing a more professional production team. For The Bad Kids, its Director Xin Shuang and Executive Producer Han Sanping, have a solid reputation in the Chinese film industry and their names undoubtedly speak for the quality of the show.
The production team spent nearly two years polishing the story and revising the script for its online release. The show moves along at a breathtaking clip, jumping from one situation to another in rapid succession, leaving audiences eager for more and, more importantly, glued to their screens. Each episode lasts 30 to 70 minutes depending on the narrative pace, which is rarely seen in many TV series.
“It is more like American suspense dramas, like CSI,” commented Zhang Ziyi on Weibo, a prominent Chinese actress who gained international acclaim for her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Many critics believe that these platforms are attempting to imitate the Netflix model. However, instead of producing crime and suspense dramas over several seasons, major Chinese video platforms tend to focus on short-form drama productions.
Broadcast on video platform iQIYI, The Bad Kids is the platform’s second in a series of suspense dramas called Mist Theater. In June, iQiYi published the film list and the official trailers for the series and six suspense dramas are among them, as an attempt to innovate the suspense drama market. Most of the scripts are adopted from popular crime novels with tight and complex plots. These stories have proved successful in the market, and therefore, will help gain more exposure to and more attention from audiences.
Other platforms, such as Tencent and Youku are also focusing on creating online suspense and crime drama series. In 2020, these three platforms released 30 suspense web dramas in total. The practice not only brought long-lost excitement and hopes to the drama market amidst the pandemic, but also created a competition for domestic suspense dramas among several major video platforms.
China’s streaming platforms are having a hard time, however. In 2019, iQIYI saw a 9.3 billion yuan loss while it spent 80% of its revenue on content production, while its biggest rival Tencent Video lost about 3 billion yuan the same year.
But as popular as The Bad Kids series is, it hasn’t generated much profit. With fewer episodes and higher production costs, it’ll take a longer time to see the rewards. Hopefully, The Bad Kids may take the production quality of Chinese shows to another level. In the suspense drama market competition, the competition may have just begun.