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'Cute but cruel': the crime drama hailed a Chinese TV milestone


In the hit Chinese web series, Hidden Corner, a children’s song presages the show’s most violent moments.

“Under the blue, blue skies, in the silver river is a small white boat,” three young children sing tremulously, looking into a camera propped up on the mountainside where they have just hiked on a clear summer day. In the background, a man is taking a photo of his elderly in-laws posed against bright green foliage. He adjusts their legs and hands, pauses and then pushes them off the cliff.

Since its release in June, Hidden Corner, which follows those three children in the aftermath of witnessing a murder, has quickly become one of the country’s most discussed and watched shows – a tense crime drama, unexpectedly poignant in its exploration of childhood, family ties and the harsh realities of life for China’s more vulnerable.

Critics call the show, adapted from a novel called Bad Kids by the author Zi Jinchen, a milestone in Chinese television. Made by the online streaming service iQiyi, some have compared it to original series made by Netflix. Fans have raved over its production values, the acting of its young characters and independent music score.

“Finally a Chinese drama that can compete with the US and UK shows I have been watching for so many years,” Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi wrote on Weibo.

It also signals the expansion of the medium, dominated by dynasty dramas and romantic comedies, into new formats as internet companies and streaming platforms replace traditional television as the driving force in programming.

“The serial feels more American than Chinese,” said Ying Zhu, director of the Centre for Film and Moving Image Research at Hong Kong Baptist University. She notes the show’s adherence to the crime genre, realistic performance of its actors and layered, complex characters. “The show is more cinematic and less dialogue-heavy, unlike the typical talkative Chinese TV dramas,” she said.

Scene form Hidden Corner



Hidden Corner is made by the online streaming service iQiyi and been likened to a Netflix original series. Photograph: iQiyi

The show has quickly become part of popular culture. The phrase “Let’s go for a hike” has taken on ominous meaning, while the formerly little-known seaside town where the show takes place is now a tourist destination. Discussion of the finale of the 12-episode show generated more than 5bn views on Weibo. On the review site Douban, Hidden Corner, known in English as The Bad Kids, is one of the top-rated shows with a score of 8.9 out of 10, from more than 600,000 reviews.

Fans say they are drawn in by the realism of the show in its depiction of broken family ties and neglect, and a range of social backgrounds: a middle-class couple, a high-performing student whose mother must leave him home alone so she can work double shifts at a resort, a retiring police officer and children left behind by the system.

“It’s not just an exciting suspense story. It also tells the family stories of each character, each with problems that are difficult to resolve – and reflects on aspects of social welfare,” said Jeff Ko, a film critic based in Taiwan.

Two of the main characters, a young orphaned girl named Pupu and her friend Yan Liang, have run away from a state children’s home in an attempt to find funds for Pupu’s younger brother, sick with leukaemia. His adoptive parents cannot afford the needed procedure. The two are helped by Zhu Chaoyang, a lonely top student who is bullied at school and suffers from his parent’s divorce.

“The most powerful thing about the show is the background: two minors abandoned by society who don’t bother seeking government assistance. They know there is no other way other than finding the money themselves. This desperation is probably the most ‘hidden’ part of the motherland,” one reviewer said, referring to China.

Experts also call it a new beginning for domestically made crime dramas, a genre dominated by the US that has been successfully localised in places like Korea but not China. Past crime dramas, especially in the early 2000s, focused on government efforts to root out corruption of officials – a way to promote the state’s anti-graft efforts.

“In the past, criminal investigation dramas like CSI, if viewed by other audiences, would feel like it is far from their real lives and lacks connection. The Chinese-speaking world wants to have its own criminal investigation drama,” said Ko. “Hidden Corner has opened a door and allowed the Chinese-speaking world to welcome a new genre.”

Many fans have hailed the show for simpler reasons, such as its setting. The atmosphere of the dilapidated coastal town at the height of summer in China’s southern Guangdong province is made complete with the drone of cicadas, bright hot sunlight and a constant sheen of sweat on the characters.

“All of it it really feels like summer. You are completely immersed,” one fan wrote. Another reviewer said: “Its suspense lies in the psychology of its characters. It is simple and pure yet terrifying, cute but cruel. It does not over complicate but shows human nature, step by step.”



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