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Lost in the Northeast

The highest-rated Chinese TV show in the last five years, suspense drama The Long Season strikes a provocative balance between realism and aesthetic through its portrayals of ordinary people struggling through tremendous social change

By Yi Ziyi Updated Aug.1

A poster for The Long Season

The Long Seasonbegins with a dismembered body.  

The gruesome discovery in 1998 sends shockwaves through the steel mill community of Hualin, a fictional industrial town in Northeast China.  

But there is more than one victim: In the murder’s aftermath, Wang Xiang (Fan Wei) watches helplessly as his world is torn apart. After many years as the steel mill’s chief train conductor, Wang suddenly loses his son, wife and job.  

Nearly two decades later, a chance encounter sets Wang on solving the murder and piecing together the remains of his life.  

The TV suspense drama is winning over Chinese audiences for its realistic portrayal of how the enormous layoffs amid reforms of State-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the late 1990s affected the fates of blue-collar families in China’s industrial Northeast.  

Released on April 22, 2023, the 12-episode series on Tencent Video is the highest-rated Chinese show in the last five years, earning 9.4/10 on Douban, China’s leading media review website.  

Social media buzzed with rave reviews over all the aspects of the show, from plot and characters to editing and even lighting. Many attributed these successes to the show’s director, Xin Shuang. 

A law school graduate, the 42-year-old played punk rock in Beijing and directed commercials before making his directorial debut in 2020 with acclaimed TV crime drama The Bad Kids – his diverse background inspiring what has quickly become his signature art-house aesthetic. 

A Different Season 
The Long Season opens to a bright autumn morning in 1998. A dark-green cargo train driven by 46-year-old Wang Xiang thunders across expansive corn fields. Proud of his devotion to the steel plant where he has worked for decades, Wang is unaware that a bag of body parts found near his dormitory that morning would change his fate.  

Skipping ahead to 2016, Wang drives a taxi, long laid off from his factory job. After crossing paths with someone from his past, Wang enlists the help of his cousin-in-law Gong Biao (Qin Hao) and former police officer Ma Desheng (Chen Minghao) to take on the unsolved mystery.  

Situated on the Siberian steppe, China’s frozen Northeast is a favorite setting for crime and suspense dramas like Burning Ice (2017), and the acclaimed novel The Blade of Winter by Yu Xiaoqian, which inspired The Long Season. For the adaptation, the series’ creators, which included Yu, chose to portray a softer side of the region.  

Presented in warm hues, most scenes are gilded with autumn’s glow. “I’m a native Northeastener. Born and raised there, I am very familiar with the place,” Xin Shuang told People’s JoyWorks. “I plan to present the much warmer and brighter Northeast China of my memories.”  

Because northeastern autumns only last around seven weeks, the show was shot in Kunming, capital of Southwest China’s Yunnan Province, which boasts an average 300 days of sunshine a year.  

“We wanted to make audiences understand that [northeastern] people are very positive and have a natural-born optimism and sense of humor,” Xin said.  

Unlike conventional crime shows, The Long Season balances realism with an aesthetic that fans laud as having “the texture of an art-house movie.”  

Lending credence is the show’s music supervision. As the former guitarist for seminal Beijing punk band Joyside, Xin draws heavily from Chinese indie music to end each episode with a different track, like “You Turn My Face to Another Day,” a collaboration with rock acts Hiperson and Fazi, electronic outfit Supermarket’s “Entelechy,” and “If There is A Tomorrow,” a 2020 song from Xin’s former band Joyside (Xin left the band in 2006). He sometimes contrasts these edgier picks with easily recognizable classical pieces, such as Claude Debussy’s piano work “Clair de lune” and Johann Strauss’ waltz “The Blue Danube.”  

Xin said he wanted to make the story believable but not too grounded in reality, describing it as feeling “half a meter from the ground.”  

“We still attempted to make some changes and adjustments to romanticize the story, so as to highlight moving details of life,” Xin said. 

Shattered Rice Bowls 
Unlike Xin’s The Bad Kids, which was told from the perspective of three teenagers over one month, The Long Season focuses on the life stories of three elderly men over two decades. The show jumps back and forth between 1997, 1998 and 2016.  

“We hoped to explore the individual’s relationship with the times and their fate through a story spanning two decades,” Xin said during a seminar held by the China Television Arts Committee in Beijing on May 17.  

Xin said he aimed to transcend the crime genre to appeal to a larger audience. “So, we shifted focus a bit from the case itself and concentrated on depicting ordinary people’s lives to show how the times and existential problems affected each character,” the director said.  

A primary theme is how SOE reforms of the late 1990s and their resulting massive layoffs affected the fates of families in the Northeast.  

The region was among the first to industrialize after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. Northeastern workers were proud of their relatively privileged positions at State-owned factories and their “iron rice bowls” – secure jobs for life. With its developed heavy industry, plentiful coal and agricultural output, the region earned the moniker “the eldest son of the PRC,” referring to its great contribution and leading position in the country.  

However, SOE reforms shattered that sense of privilege and security as thousands of factories shut down and millions lost their jobs across the country. This disillusionment was pronounced in the Northeast, which in a matter of years went from a thriving industrial center to China’s “rust belt.”  

The Hualin Steel Plant in The Long Season epitomizes the unprofitable, smaller State-owned factories at the brink of closure in the 1990s. Like many real industrial towns, the fictional Hualin was planned around its plant.  

Workers persisted in constant anxiety over the state of their jobs, and staged protests against the factory’s mismanagement. In the end, none was spared. Middle-aged model workers like Wang Xiang and highly educated new hires such as Gong Biao were forced to search for odd jobs in an already gutted town. Another example is Li Qiaoyun, who in her late 30s had to work as a bar girl to support her disabled husband and son with leukemia.  

For many viewers, these gritty portrayals hit close to home. Liu Yufei, 34, was born and raised in Changchun, Northeast China’s Jilin Province, where his parents worked at the State-owned Changchun-based First Automobile Works – the first auto plant to open after 1949.  

“I relate with everything portrayed in this show – the characters, the factory and people’s values and mindsets. I almost feel like the show is about my family. I can see the traces of my mother in Wang Xiang’s wife and my uncle in both Wang Yang and Gong Biao,” Liu, who works at a Shenzhen-based consulting firm, told NewsChina.  

“Many of my relatives were laid off. As a teenager, I could feel their intense anxiety when they talked about it. Once they left the State-backed factories, they realized there weren’t many job opportunities in a place without a well-established market. Many of them were filled with self-doubt and desperation,” Liu said.  

Zhang Rong, 33 from Benxi in Liaoning Province, marveled at the show’s attention to detail. “The table clock, kettle, tea mugs, TV set – all these daily necessities, interiors and furniture are the things I remember while living in the factory dorms with my family,” said Zhang, a lawyer working in Beijing.  

“At the time, people’s jobs, life choices, fates and even the things they used were highly homogenous. Therefore, when the reforms came at the turn of the century, the pain, confusion and dilemmas they faced were almost the same,” Zhang told NewsChina. 

Northern Renaissance 
The Long Season is the most recent hit in a decade-long string of Chinese works set in the Northeast, a trend media has dubbed “the Northeastern Renaissance.” Notable films include The Piano in a Factory (2011) and Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014), and TV shows Burning Ice (2017), Nobody Knows (2022) and Why Try to Change Me Now (2023).  

Many of these works are adaptations of novels by three authors – Shuang Xuetao, Zheng Zhi and Ban Yu, who was also a screenwriter on The Long Season. All born in the 1980s in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning Province, they have won acclaim from critics as “the three pioneers of the Northeastern Renaissance.”  

“The sense of loss and deprivation were deeply etched into the minds of these Northeastern creators born in the 1980s, who witnessed their parents’ generation suffer through layoffs that drove them from security into an uncertain market,” respected film critic Mei Xuefeng wrote for People magazine.  

Mei points out that Northeastern artists who experienced this era share a nostalgia “rooted in a disillusionment of utopic idealism.”  

“We have to accept the complexity of the world,” Mei wrote. “The crisis of some groups was an opportunity for others, an inevitable part of social progress. After all, SOE reforms triggered the private enterprise boom and the rapid development of China’s economy over the following two decades.”  

This is why some critics, particularly economists, warn that the lingering fondness for life under the planned economy still hampers the region’s economy. Facing slow growth and persistent brain drain, China’s northeast remains unattractive to investors. Its stagnation is contrasted by China’s prosperous east coast, which suffered similar waves of layoffs in the early years of reform.  

For Huang Ping, a professor of Chinese literature at East China Normal University in Shanghai, the show’s popularity reflects the struggles of young people in today’s China, who are similarly facing mass unemployment, a fast-changing market and uncertainty about their futures.  

“[Young people] are beginning to truly understand and recognize the fate and dignity of the underdog, such as the lost workers in the Northeast in the late 1990s,” Huang, who has studied the Northeastern Renaissance for six years, told the Yangtse Evening Post.  

“The Northeastern Renaissance, essentially speaking, is a renaissance of ordinary people,” he added.

A still from The Long Season. Workers at Hualin Steel Plant attend a meeting informing them about their layoffs