Everything starts with a push. A man hikes up a mountain with his elderly in-laws, then stops to take their picture against a scenic backdrop. "Lean in closer together,” says the man, a stoic math teacher. He positions the camera and moves closer, gently positioning the couple. Suddenly, without warning, he shoves his wife's parents off the mountaintop. "Mom! Dad!” he feigns in horror as they fall off the cliff to their deaths.
Thus begins The Bad Kids, a 12-part drama series that hooked all of China in a matter of weeks. After its premiere in June, the show was instantly trending on Weibo, China's Twitter. It generated everything from intense online discussion of character motivations and Chinese societal issues to viral hashtags, memes and even a top-selling phone case.
The Bad Kids has become the first Chinese television show to win the "Best Creative" prize at Busan's Asia Contents Awards. The amazing cinematography, superb acting and lyrical storytelling have fans and critics calling this series a landmark in Chinese television. The milestones achieved by The Bad Kids embody a wider shift within international entertainment. iQIYI, the streaming company behind the series, continues to break away from more traditional and idealistic Asian media with several unique and cinematic crime dramas.
An installment in the Lights On franchise (aka Mist Theater) — iQIYI's initiative to develop premium thrillers — The Bad Kids and other crime dramas The Long Night, Kidnapping Game and Crimson River represent the next big push (pun intended) in bringing gritty Asian narratives to eager audiences locally and overseas. There is an undeniable growing global interest in Chinese film and television, and iQIYI is open for business, serving up the best in modern Asian noir.
The Lights On franchise is but one of several niche Chinese genres in which iQIYI specializes. There's also the period romance Story of Yanxi Palace, and Next Gen variety shows like Youth With You and the VR idol competition Dimension Nova, all aiming to be ahead of the latest trends in each of their respective categories. "These iQIYI originals have shown that the future of Chinese entertainment is a very bright one, especially outside of China," iQIYI president of overseas business Yang Xianghua said at the recent Asia TV Forum & Market. "It is clear that our content is starting to gain mainstream appeal because of its universal themes and storylines. We believe that as long as we keep telling these beloved Asian stories, there will be audiences around the world who will want to watch them."
While Chinese TV shows are characteristically pigeonholed as costume dramas, martial arts epics or rain-soaked tween soaps, iQIYI has followed more of a Hollywood series format for the shows within Lights On. The result is a genre-based catalogue, meticulously vetted, developed and subtitled, for improved accessibility to international audiences, all available via the iQIYI app and website.
"We reinforced our content growth with investments in more markets and will continue expanding our presence locally by bringing on more content and production teams. Over the coming years, we remain committed to bringing high-quality, beloved Asian stories to our iQIYI service," Yang said. Putting this into practice has resulted in high critical praise for the Lights On collection of genre-specific series. By focusing on increased production value and thoughtful storytelling while also encouraging the progression of other high-quality Chinese franchises, iQIYI advances the landscape of Asian media as a whole.
The same production team behind iQIYI's flagship 2018 crime drama Burning Ice spent two years polishing the script for The Bad Kids. By contrast, all 12 episodes were shot in a mere 77 days. Teaming debut director and former punk rock drummer Xin Shuang with veteran executive producer Han Sanping created a cinematic experience that has left audiences glued to their screens, stuck on the show's cliffhangers.
The series follows three children who inadvertently capture video footage of the aforementioned in-law hiking murder. With a lyrical, often postliterate visual rhythm, the pacing of The Bad Kids deftly moves from one character arc to another. Xin Shuang and his former band P.K.14 heighten the cinematic mood with melodic and ambient contributions to the show's score. Each episode keeps the storytelling concise, perhaps even sneaking darker messages within the storylines, fueling continuous audience debate on social media.
Fast-paced series like these culminate in 10- to 12-episode seasons more akin to Hulu, Netflix and HBO Max. However, those platforms mainly draw revenue from membership fees, while iQIYI has adopted a more flexible "freemium" business model. iQIYI is able to monetize through a combination of ad-supported content, premium subscriptions and foreign distribution. For instance, The Long Night and Sisyphus, two multicharacter, multitimeline murder investigation stories in the Lights On franchise, have already been licensed to channel-based platforms in Singapore (Singtel TV) and Malaysia (Astro), all while The Bad Kids continues to make waves in a historic distribution deal with Wowow, a subscription-based Japanese television platform.
Partnerships like these also help iQIYI facilitate further exploration of different genres and the wider exchange of cultural values."[iQIYI's] growing library of pan-Asian content and our strong partnerships with regional content providers and creators are just some of the ways iQIYI International has been continuing to grow our roots in Asia, with an aim to appeal to our international audiences,” iQIYI VP of International business Kuek Yu-Chuang said at ATF 2020.
Although it's not clear which operating model is the best fit for Asia when it comes to video streaming, what is obvious is an audience desire for precise and innovative storytelling. iQIYI realizes that as content creators and industry gatekeepers, it must yield to a more local and mindful approach in the stories depicted on its influential platform. More importantly, international audiences are stoking interest in cinematic hard-boiled narratives that prove Asia doesn't need Hollywood to tell its own stories.
If you're interested in a wealth of premium shows on par with any existing British or American crime drama series you've seen, look no further than iQIYI. Consider this a nudge in the right direction (again, pun intended).
This feature was created in partnership with iQIYI, learn more HERE.