Critics’ choice

Chinese drama taps ‘Scandinavian noir’ to earn stellar rating on Douban

Zhao Yuanyuan-w

Zhao Yuanyuan stars in gritty new drama The Long Night

Set a crime against a bleak or snowy backdrop. Introduce police detectives with miserable family lives, who look like they never get a good night’s sleep. Mix in a backstory about a government cover-up. And there can only be one possibility: you are watching a Scandinavian noir drama.

Nordic thrillers have become a global phenomenon – and a drama in China that takes a similar approach has become a major favourite with the critics.

Video streaming platform iQiyi’s The Long Night, adapted from a novel by popular crime fiction writer Chen Zijin, follows a man who lugs a large suitcase into a subway station. When the security officers ask him to put it through X-ray screening, he tells them there is a bomb in the suitcase. But once the police arrive, what they find in his luggage is a corpse.

The story goes back and forth between present and past, eventually revealing that the body was planted in the suitcase in a bid to bring attention to a cover-up of another murder a decade earlier.

The Long Night is tense and dark (literally, because most of the scenes are filmed at night). Like many Scandinavian thrillers, the lead investigator – played by actor Liao Fan – is an oddball: he is terrifyingly smart but difficult to work with (and he has no life outside of his job, regularly sleeping at the police station). Actress Zhao Yuanyuan also has a supporting role in the series.

On Douban, the TV and film review site, The Long Night has an extremely strong rating of 9.1 out of 10, rendering it the best-rated show in the country this year, surpassing The Bad Kids, another iQiyi original drama also adapted from a Chen Zijin novel (see WiC502).

The two dramas are both part of iQiyi’s Mist Theatre, a series dedicated to shorter crime thrillers (12 instalments, compared to typical Chinese TV dramas that often stretch to 50 episodes a season).

Fans of The Long Night applaud everything from the “outstanding” screenplay to the quality of the directing. “The acting is superb. The story is tightly written while also remaining loyal to the original novel. That is no easy feat,” an admirer wrote on Douban.

“The series has all the elements that are critical to making an outstanding show: a great screenplay, an excellent director and explosive acting. All three are indispensable,” praised Blue Whale Media, a news site.

Despite the critical acclaim, The Long Night hasn’t generated the same levels of interest on social media as The Bad Kids. On Douban, only 100,000 viewers marked themselves as having watched the show, while 770,000 did so for the earlier series. Weibo posts about The Long Night have been viewed one billion times, but the The Bad Kids generated 5.5 billion views.

“The first few episodes of The Bad Kids were so explosive that they quickly generated a lot of buzz for the show on social media,” one commentator on Douban wrote. “However, The Long Night started off a lot slower. The backstory doesn’t even emerge until the third and fourth episode. Audiences are impatient; a lot of them don’t make it to the end. Those that did say that it is a great series, but regular audiences don’t go to Douban or Zhihu [a knowledge sharing platform]. If there’s no buzz on social media, people stop tuning in.”

Short-video apps like Douyin and Kuaishou are grabbing higher proportions of screentime – and increasingly they are credited with being able to make or break a new show. The most eyecatching scenes tend to get widespread attention on the platforms, for instance. However, as The Long Night has learned, not all content is suitable for the short-video sites.

“I know after watching the first episode that the series is not going to be hot. Compared with In the Name of the People [another crime series in 2017, see WiC362], The Long Night isn’t topical. And the plot is too complicated. Nobody can explain the background in two sentences. If it is that hard to explain, then how can people talk about it online?” a critic on Nvren.com wrote. “The Bad Kids, on the other hand, is a story about children so a lot of parents will tune in. Actor Qin Hao’s one-liners, too, make it easier to go viral on social media.”

The need to make a splash on social media is clearly changing the way that some TV series are produced as well. “Content makers now have to think about how to market their material on short-video sites when they are still conceptualising the series. They need to create plots that do well on short-video by triggering discussion or empathy more easily. After all, you need controversy to generate traffic and you need traffic for a show to go viral. That is China’s unwritten law of internet content,” Blue Whale Media explained.

Despite the positive reception from most of the TV critics, The Long Night hasn’t been able to make the transition into the wider world of social media, it seems.

In fact, the only time that the crime drama became a trending topic on weibo was when netizens started to complain about the frequency of product promotion on the show. Here, the series was rather groundbreaking too. Lu Dan, a producer for the series, told the media: “We do have a lot of product placements. In the past, advertisers were reluctant to advertise in crime thrillers. But we found that they are getting more receptive to the genre and we were happy that many of them came knocking. However, we were still very critical with our choices. We made sure that the rhythm of the show is not interrupted as a result.”

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