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Hit Thriller “The Bad Kids” is Stirring Conversations About Childhood Trauma – and Chinese TV

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A series of mysterious murders, children in starring roles and broken families —  one of the standout TV hits of 2020 in China is a nail-biting suspense drama that revolves around the story of three kids who unintentionally witness a ruthless killing. 

Breaking with the recent tradition of idealistic Chinese TV shows, The Bad Kids (or 隐秘的角落 as it is called in Chinese) has become a heated point of discussion nationwide, in part because its production values and narrative suggest to some that a new milestone in Chinese television has been reached. More significantly, the show’s examination of parents’ influence on childhood development has sparked widespread debate about modern parenting on Chinese social media.

A Family Affair

Acclaimed by critics as one of the most important reasons for its success, the show’s focus on humanity and an intimate portrayal of how families can shape the behavior, personality and values of children has stirred intense online discussions. The hashtag #原生家庭的影响有多大# (“how big is the influence of the main family members”) has attracted 230 million views on microblogging site Weibo since the show first aired in mid-June.

The three children at the forefront of the show are all from “broken families” with absent parents. They have grown up in an environment without the attention, care, guidance and security that others may enjoy, prompting them to seek acceptance and love in other ways. The implications can sometimes be simplistic, but the show generally deals with the impact of adults’ decisions and behavior on the children around them in nuanced ways, raising the question about who really are “the bad kids” of the show’s English title — and who is ultimately responsible for their actions.

As such, many have taken to online platforms to reflect on their own upbringings, including Yi Nengjing, the popular 52-year-old female singer who recently drew national attention for her bold performances on reality show Sisters Who Make Waves. The star has previously spoken of having a difficult relationship with her long-divorced parents growing up.

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“The influence of the primary family on somebody’s life is not up for careless judgements,” she wrote on Weibo. “Some people would say don’t blame your parents for everything, but teenagers are just like blank paper that adults can plant countless seeds onto. [After growing up], some people get lucky and can redeem themselves, while others can’t […] I have been looking to redeem myself for my whole life.” 

The Dark Side

While the familial storyline has stirred plenty of conversation, the show is also trending for other reasons.

With tight plots and storytelling, moody camerawork and a soundtrack featuring the likes of P.K.14 and Joyside (the latter band’s former drummer directed the series), the show has garnered a significant amount of popularity thanks to being considerably darker than the average Chinese TV fare.

The Bad Kids Cover Radii China

Two of the main characters – Yan Liang and Old Chen – in iQIYI’s The Bad Kids

In just 12 days since the release of the first episode of the show, the hashtag for its Chinese name #隐秘的角落# has attracted 3.93 billion views. And after the last episode of the show screened on Thursday June 25, folks have been flocking to online forums to give their opinions on the show, including one of China’s best-known actresses Zhang Ziyi, who played the lead in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

“After watching American and British dramas for so many years, finally [I found] a Chinese drama that could compete with them on a level playing field. The overall quality of The Bad Kids is very high! The whole cast – from the child actors to professional actors, has showcased great acting skills.”

Zhang’s comment garnered more than 114,000 likes on the microblogging platform and reflects the feeling among many viewers, even if some others are clear that there is still a way to go before Chinese TV thrillers can really be held up against their overseas counterparts. For those used to Nordic Noir or the darker fringes of Netflix series, The Bad Kids may still feel a little tame, but the show follows in the vein of last year’s bullying movie Better Days in providing a break from the “positive energy” programming that often makes up China’s entertainment mainstream. 

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On Douban, China’s hub for cultural and social discussion, The Bad Kids earned a stellar 8.9 rating from more than 415,000 users, surpassing the rating for all other TV shows produced in mainland China over the past 18 months. 

“Do you have any idea how long it has taken for me to be able to find this kind of domestically produced TV show?” one of the most upvoted comments reads.

Interestingly, The Bad Kids has a surprisingly young audience. The average age of viewers is 26.83 years old, according to popular entertainment website Yunhe Data (云和数据), which serves as an indication of how the show has successfully embraced young viewers — the driving force of TV markets.

Take a Hike

Similarly, memes featuring the line “Shall we go hiking together” are booming nationwide. Creative netizens have been applying this term absolutely everywhere, from actual hiking trips to random comments under unrelated posts. The popular line comes from the memorable opening episode, when an invitation for a casual hiking trip ends up taking a dark turn. 

The Bad Kids meme Radii China

Following on from The Kidnapping Game (十日游戏), The Bad Kids is the second release in a series of suspense dramas from streaming network iQIYI, also known as “China’s Netflix.” That series, entitled Mist Theater (迷雾剧场) is part of an attempt to boost viewership by providing genre-oriented shows with Hollywood-like quality content.

Four more shows within the series are set to release sequentially this year, including The Long Night (沉默的真相) and Sisyphus (在劫难逃). The Long Night is believed to be the next in sequence and is adapted from another novel by the author who wrote the story used in The Bad Kids — Zi Jinchen. Sisyphus will also be a suspense thriller, but reportedly with sci-fi elements.

Interestingly, one day before the release of The Kidnapping Game, Youku — a rival of iQIYI’s — announced a similar series that will consist of 14 suspense shows.

Competition is fierce and it is just getting started.

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Chinese Noir?

This trend of realistic, suspense-filled TV shows has been growing in recent years. While the Chinese drama market is usually characterized by a predominance of tween hits, costume dramas and romantic melodramas, a spate of grittier, more realistic shows have hit top-watched lists in the past year.

According to statistics, costume dramas were the unanimous number one choice for the four years between 2015-2018. However, in 2019 realistic teen drama Go Go Squid (亲爱的, 热爱的) broke away from the norm and topped the charts compiled by pan-entertainment big data provider Endata, based on factors such as critical reviews and online audience ratings. Percentage-wise, the study also shows that 2019 was a breakout year for the return of more realistic TV series as they accounted for 31.05% of all shows. 

Navigating China’s complicated censorship apparatus while also appealing to broad audience groups remains a challenge for both small screen and big screen productions. But The Bad Kids has certainly raised the bar for suspense dramas on China’s streaming services, with hopes that it could help spark a whole new wave of such shows. 

Siyuan Meng
    Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. If she is not at work, she is probably at an art museum, a gym, a Mom-and-Pop restaurant or a park. She likes reading books or playing the piano on rainy days. She thinks she takes great photos.