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Criminal Success

Hit domestic crime series have raised China’s web dramas to a new level

By Wei Yanzhang Updated Feb.4

With the Chinese online drama industry becoming increasingly vibrant, millions of drama fans are turning to the Internet to satisfy their entertainment needs. Fed up with time travel, Taoist gods and demons, or romances between humans and immortals in fantasy shows, this year, audiences have shifted their focus to ill-fated detectives and intelligent serial killers.  

Two crime shows, Day and Night and Burning Ice, have become Chinese web users’ latest drama obsessions. Acclaimed as the best crime show of the year, Day and Night, produced by leading video streaming website Youku, has racked up huge audiences with more than 2.4 billion views online by the season finale on October 12.  

Comparatively overshadowed, Burning Ice, produced by iQiyi, another video website giant, received 390 million hits. Carefully plotted, stylishly designed and subtly performed, both shows saw wide acclaim from critics and audiences alike. Day and Night scored 9.1/10 on China’s most influential media review website Douban, an incredibly high score that almost catches up with HBO’s True Detective Season 1 (9.1) and BBC mini-series Sherlock Season 1 (9.3). The 12-episode Burning Ice, featuring art-house star Qin Hao, has reached a score of 8.4/10 on Douban.  

The success of the two crime shows gives a boost to the already-booming industry. Critics, industry players and media alike have applauded the fact that the two shows, as well as several other popular online dramas that have aired this year, have changed the public’s former negative impression toward Chinese online dramas as they are usually seen as poorly made and acted. A new era of high-quality online dramas with high esthetic appeal is now anticipated.  

Crime Show Craze 
Day and Night revolves around a series of case-solving adventures of twin brothers, with the elder, Guan Hongfeng, heading up an investigation team and the younger, Guan Hongwei, a gangster who is involved in a multiple murder case. To prove their innocence, the twin brothers, who have distinct personalities, start to pass for each other to get closer to the truth of the case.  

The twin brothers are both performed by veteran actor Pan Yueming. Pan’s nuanced and multi-layered performance has been widely acclaimed by online viewers. One challenge for the actor is that he actually needs to play four characters at the same time: the reserved, keen-witted elder brother, the outspoken, vivacious younger brother, the elder brother disguised as the younger brother and the younger one who passes for the elder. Audiences are amazed by Pan’s mastery in his handling of the twin duo’s role-playing game.  

The show also received much public praise for its sophisticated, realistic and professional depiction of case investigation. One dissatisfying aspect of previous domestic detective and crime shows, the show’s director Wang Ping argued, was that the producers tended to look down upon audiences’ ability to understand issues. “We want to present a sophisticated story that gives true respect to the audience’s intelligence,” Wang told NewsChina.  

The show’s realism and professionalism is mostly due to its scriptwriter, Fingerprints (pen name), a former litigator with more than a decade of law practice experience. Fingerprints interwove his story with real cases he was involved with or had read about in news reports.  

“Two genres that scriptwriters find most tough are the crime drama and dramas concerning a particular profession. Writers have to be equipped with a great deal of professional knowledge to make the story convincing,” said Yuan Yumei, producer of Day and Night.   

Burning Ice presents the audience with an extremely malicious but intelligent serial killer named “Snowman” who always deliberately leaves the message “Catch me please” every time he commits a murder. The police spend years trying to solve the crime but have no leads.  

The show weighs more on critically reflecting on society and humanity rather than solving cases. Every character in the show is involved with the Snowman case to a greater or lesser extent, and their humanity is being tested by the deepening investigation. The show challenges viewers with a question, “whether we should defeat violence with justice or beat it with violence,” a serious question troubling the judiciary and society.  

“As a TV show creator, I see it as my duty to bring my thoughts and feelings towards our social reality to audiences,” the show’s director Lü Xing told our reporter.  

Burning Ice is also highly praised for its sophisticated characterization, especially the portrayal of the serial killer Li Fengtian, the Snowman, deemed “the most successfully portrayed TV character in recent years” by many critics and commentators.  

The character is performed in a very subtle and reserved way. As an exceedingly ferocious murderer, Li appears to be an ordinary, featureless, middle-aged man who never sticks out from the crowd, making one shudder to think that such a man can appear anywhere without being noticed, with death’s scythe in his hands. The serial killer seldom shows any facial expression – except the ghost of a smile – when he kills, and his maliciousness is fully expressed in his eye movements, which the actor Ning Li performs very well.  

A distinctive feature that Day and Night shares with Burning Ice is that the two shows follow the style of fast-paced US crime dramas.  

Wang Ping said that “the pace of US crime drama” is a dominant benchmark in the entire process of making Day and Night. He adopts a fast-paced narrative when dealing with side stories, lowers the speed when interlacing main and sideline threads, and uses the lowest speed to narrate the dominant storyline as he claimed, “every detail, every eye movement counts so much.”  

“We always wanted to create a work that pays homage to American dramas. We learned a lot from their features. The fast-paced narrative and carefully designed visual language attracted fans who are into US crime series,” the senior director of the Youku Drama Production Center and the show’s producer Yuan told NewsChina.��� 

Burning Ice also follows the narrative pace and visual quality of American crime shows, and in quantity it also daringly adopts the US-miniseries format. It only consists of 12 episodes, an exceptionally small size compared with most Chinese dramas. TV shows in China usually contain upwards of 50 episodes, and sometimes even over 100. Unlike audiences in the US or Europe who usually watch one episode every week, Chinese viewers like to watch several episodes every day. These large-volume shows are deemed to be more valuable in enhancing audiences’ loyalty and in attracting more advertising revenue.  

“Due to its limited volume, the show [Burning Ice] might not bring huge profits, but it would be well received for its high quality,” Dai Ying, deputy CEO of iQiyi and producer of the show told NewsChina.  

Most members of the production teams of these two shows are young. “Veteran film directors and producers might not have enough time to get familiar with the trendiest things or latest ideas, but young directors are more sensitive to our young viewers’ taste,” Dai said. 

According to the “2016 Chinese Original Web Drama Report,” jointly published by the research company CC-Smart and the video streaming giant LeTV, the post- 90s generation – young people born in the 1990s, are the dominant consumers of online dramas.  

Educated youths, especially college students and postgraduates account for 50 percent. For web drama producers, it is a challenge to entertain this group of Internet-savvy, picky young consumers, whose tastes have been highly refined by long-term consumption of high-quality dramas made in the US, UK, Japan and South Korea.  

The popularity of web crime shows reflects the growing productivity of China’s leading video-streaming sites in providing high-quality original content.  

The philosophy that “content is king” attracts plenty of ardent supporters in China’s video streaming industry. Producing quality content is a strategic focus of the country’s top video sites.  

Dai Ying explained that back in 2011, iQiyi’s production capabilities were quite limited – it had only produced several short-length sitcoms. The company established its own drama production center in 2013, and saw a huge market for original online dramas after its two original drama series, Soul Ferryman and Loser Brothers, became hits in 2014.  

iQiyi’s 2015 production, The Lost Tomb, proved to be a huge success. It received 3 billion views, smashing the online video viewing record in China. The show was adapted from the bestselling novels of the same title written by popular novelist Xu Lei, also known in English as the Grave Robbers Chronicles. Starring Li Yifeng and Yang Yang, who are extremely popular among teens and young adults, the show centers on a group of tomb raiders’ adventures treasure hunting and killing zombies in ancient tombs.  

To serialize the show in 2015, iQiyi became the first in the industry to adopt a subscription model and it gained 2.5 million paid subscribers the day the first episode of The Lost Tomb was broadcast. By the end of 2016, the total number of subscribers to iQiyi and other video streaming sites was estimated to have reached 75 million.  

The Mystic Nine, the spin-off of The Lost Tomb, produced by iQiyi in 2016, gained even wider popularity and was the first original online drama to receive over 10 billion hits and was rated the most popular online series of the year.  

iQiyi not only produces its own content but also strives to promote its hit dramas to overseas markets. The Mystic Nine, Ghost Blows Out the Light  and Tientsin Mystic have been sold to overseas markets. Burning Ice has been acquired by streaming video platforms in Japan, South Korea, North America and Europe.  

Other big players in China’s video-streaming market are also gearing up their investments and resources in the online entertainment industry. Youku Tudou, in partnership with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has poured 2 billion yuan (US$300 million) into its original content production, which includes reality shows, web dramas, animation and short films.  

At the Chinese Web Film and Drama Summit held in Hangzhou on December 19, 2016, the senior director of the Youku Tudou Drama Production Center, Yuan Yumei, put forward the “Super Web Drama” concept, claiming that online series have undergone an upgrade from grassroots to large-scale production, evolving from plotless, low-budget mini-series to coarsely made, poorly acted sitcoms, and now to high-budget, exquisitely produced “super web dramas.”  

As many industry players point out, today the quality of web dramas is on par with regular TV dramas, in terms of production, casting and visual effects.  

Yuan shows confidence in the future of web dramas. “The status of online drama is rising across the entire industry. I have witnessed its development and transformation from a grassroots level.”  

Yuan told NewsChina that the recent craze for Day and Night reflects viewers’ acute desire for good quality shows: “No one can foresee if a show can be popular or not. But quality talks. In our nature there’s an endless want for good stories.”