Looking for something new to binge-watch? Check out these four Chinese dramas to switch things up. Warning: Spoiler Alerts
- The Bad Kids （隐秘的角落）
Shabby streets, bottles of sweet sparkling pop, vintage machines of arcade games, and deserted whitish bay boats... The drama “The Bad Kids” not only successfully brought back many Chinese millennials’ memories of the 90s with nostalgic scenes setting. As a crime drama, it also revealed many underlying social problems in a highly competitive society in China through its detailed and heart-wrenching storytelling. Three leading juvenile characters are the most talked about in this show not just for their excellent acting skills. The development of their characters shed light on how the world of adults suppresses and mistreats juveniles around them and how easily this impact is neglected. In a story with messy moral codes, no character is far from going dark.
In the murder’s conversation with the three “bad” kids, the famous French-born mathematician René Descartes’ love story was mentioned and told in two different endings. Interestingly, the ending of this drama also has a hidden alternative. Just like what the line says in the conversation, “Do you want to believe in the truth or the fairy tale?” It’ll be the audience’s choice to decide which one they’d want to believe.
- Joy of Life (庆余年)
Conspiracy, royal crown princes, and black knights with armors. It’s a Chinese version of Game of Thrones. Artificial intelligence, time travelers, and the post-nuclear era. It’s also a sci-fi series. As one of the most popular shows in 2019, “Joy of Life” became one of the most successful c-dramas adapted from net literature. Although the original novel has been criticized as being cliche with a “Gary Stu” main character, which is a common fantasy feature in the early 2000s internet literature, the play writer Wang Juan gave new life to this show with his skills of setting plot twists and cliff hangers (despite the fact that some people also think too many curveballs are unnecessary).
It’s a show with obvious pros and cons. But it’s nevertheless a compelling and light-hearted start if you have never watched a c-drama before. Season two is going to broadcast in 2022. So before then, you still have plenty of time to catch up.
- Nirvana in Fire Season One (琅琊榜）
As a phenomenal historical drama in 2015, Nirvana in Fire is still highly discussed today on Chinese social media by its huge fandom and known for attracting many more overseas audiences into c-dramas. Many audiences are stunned by the blockings in the show with features of traditional Chinese ink wash painting and classical topos familiar to many Asians.
The use of the metaphor of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon in this show is a very well used topo that represents the life of the protagonist, who was framed by a political battle as the young Marshal Lin Shu and rose up twelve years later as the counselor Mei Changsu, maneuvering the politics to fight the justice for his family and the unjust deaths of seventy thousand soldiers.
There are a few who compare “Nirvana in Fire” with “The Count of Monte Cristo” written by Alexandre Dumas. But I personally found it unfair to make such rough comparisons. Despite both featured with the motif of revenge, the two works take on completely drastic cultural values and character build-ups. It’s true that there is no way we can compare the author of “Nirvana in Fire”, Hai Yan, to the world-renowned literary giant. But there is still a lot of stuff original and unique about “Nirvana in Fire”.
Unlike Edmond Dantès from “The Count of Monte Cristo” who revenges with enmity, the protagonist Mei in “Nirvana in Fire'' is more reserved in revenge and more idealistic. Mei is a tragic character in many aspects. On the one hand, he is thoughtful and intelligent, knowing how to have enemies in the palm of his hand and playing the political chess game. On the other hand, he despised scheming and calculating but has no choice to lead a path that he resents. This tone of tragedy is constantly emphasized whenever he struggled and repent during the process of revenge.
“You know, this pair of hands, used to bend bows and tame horses. But now it can only hide in the dark and stir the pot.”—Mei Changsu
Hence, when all the dust settles in the end, it’s not surprising that Mei volunteered to go back to the battlefield as his rest place fulfilling his wish to fight for his country and friends.
“Mei Changsu’s already accomplished his mission. But Lin Shu still has his duties to fulfill. The fires of war are raging on the Northern Borders, there is no one in the court to lead the army. As a descendant of the Lin Manor, how can I stand by and watch on…I am still Lin Shu. Even though 13 years have passed, I am still the young Marshal of the Chiyan Army, Lin Shu. I wish to return to the Chiyan army’s battlefield years ago. For that is the real place where I belong.”—Mei Changsu
- Nirvana in Fire Season Two (琅琊榜之风起长林)
Speaking of sequels, most people immediately think of those failed works with many plot holes and going out-of-character compared to the original. Making a sequel is never easy especially when the original is considered a masterpiece by many. But Nirvana In Fire 2 fortunately and surprisingly avoids the “curse” of the sequels, making its own way to the top charts of TV shows in China.
NIF2 tells the story of the Changlin family, one of the most powerful royal families with strong armies defending the borders of the realm. The story begins with its protagonist Xiao Pingjing who is the second son of the Changlin family, investigating a suspicious supply shortage during the time when his brother Xiao Pingzhang battled with enemies near the borders.
In terms of shooting, NIF 2 has the same production team as NIF 1. Cinematography is more polished compared to the first one. The show incorporates many scenery shots in order to render serenity and formidability from nature (it’s like a drama version of photography 101). Ascending Langya Mountain roads, classy wooden pavilions, and vast wilderness that appeared in the first season recall the viewers' memories. The music preserves the main melody from season one, adds solo chanting, and highlights the timbre of Xiao, a traditional type of flute, making it more enchanting.
Despite continuing the qualities and some features from NIF 1, NIF 2 has completely different cast members due to its story setting 50 years after season one protagonist Mei’s death. The main characters in this successor are closely connected to the ones in season one, but the two-generation gap makes season two entirely independent of its own storyline and its own design of characters.
Even though you don’t have to watch NIF 1 to understand the sequel, NIF 2 is a complementary story of NIF 1 not just for its style continuation but also the core values of the NIF universe.
If NIF 1 is depicting a story of political idealism, NIF 2 is just the opposite of that. In NIF 1, Mei rose up from doom and gloom, creating a new era of peace for the chaotic dynasty. While NIF2 witnessed the decline and fall from that situation merely 5 decades later. As audiences dig into the story of the Changlin family’s rise and fall, the words said at the beginning of the show became the best footnote of this motif.
“The mortal world is full of mediocrity. When the wind blows, it is hard to stop it. What remains constant, generation after generation, other than emotional ties people share, are the imperial power, wild ambition, and schemes and conspiracies."
Following the steps of NIF 1, the metaphor of cicada in NIF 2 is more obvious in implying the fate of characters as the protagonist Xiao Pingjing recited the famous “Ode to the Cicada” when he played sword in the backyard,
(Noble and virtuous cicada)
(resembles the fabled abdicator.)
(Imperial officials wear its pattern）
(to worship their moral deeds.)
(Cao Zhi, 192-232) “Ode to the Cicada”
The reference to the famous work “Ode to the Cicada” in the show is to imply the parallel between the Changlin family and cicada. Cicada does not seek prestige and fame but only sings with joy. Yet goldfinch, mantis, and kids are trying to harm and eat it. The fate of the Changlin family will be just the same as the cicada. But no matter how miserable the life of cicada is, it never concedes and always keeps true to its values, singing piercing sounds until it's voice becomes hoarse as death approaches when the autumn frost hits.
I hope you enjoy these Chinese dramas as much as I did!