LIFE / CULTURE
Chinese drama depicts reality of spies hiding in ordinary life
Among us
Published: Jan 04, 2022 06:05 PM
Promotional material for <em>Enemy</em> 
Photos: Courtesy of iQiyi

Promotional material for Enemy Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi

Promotional material for <em>Enemy</em> 
Photos: Courtesy of iQiyi

Promotional material for Enemy Photo: Courtesy of iQiyi

A Chinese couple like any other - one a taxi driver and the other a middle-school teacher who have lived in a seaside city for many years and always get along with their neighbors - are actually two spies, working to steal valuable and secret information by any means possible.

During the day they help their neighbors with their groceries or quarrel over trifles, but by night they violate the law to accomplish their mission. This atypical image of spies in the 37-episode Chinese TV series Enemy is in distinct contrast with the spies depicted in some classic Western movies like the James Bond series of films, allowing it to come across as a breath of fresh air for audiences. 

Depicting a spy story during an age of peace, the series starring Chinese actor Guo Jingfei as the husband Li Tang and actress Tan Zhuo as his wife Ding Meixi and directed by Lou Lenseng from Hong Kong just debuted its last episode on China Central Television and streaming platform iQIYI on Monday.

"I do not think spies should be depicted as characters like James Bond, who can achieve anything and possesses money and good looks. Spies are among us and could be the delivery guy, a chef or your colleagues programing together in the same office," scriptwriter Wang Xiaoqiang told the Global Times.

Currently boasting an 8.0/10 on Chinese media review platform Douban, the show that debuted on December 16 depicts the life of spy couple Li and Ding, nicknamed the "poor Mr and Mrs Smith" on Chinese social media, where the show began trending during its run. 

Only a few episodes in, Enemy was quickly dubbed by netizens "the best homemade TV drama of  the year" as it rose to No.2 among domestic TV dramas in the audience viewership ratings. 

Middle-aged villains

In the series, the spy couple has lived in Xiazhou, a fictional Chinese city, for nearly two decades. Ding is a teacher and her husband a taxi driver. They have a teenage daughter who is not aware of her parents' real identities.

The family seems to live a normal life, but in the dark, they collect and steal information and then send it overseas. Once, they tried to kidnap a missile expert, who is also a general of the People's Liberation Army.   

The wife also tries to lure male targets to threaten them with sex videos and obtain information.

They have financial problems because their organization has not paid them in a long while and the income from their daily jobs cannot cover the costs of finishing their missions.

Li has become a big-bellied middle-aged man who is losing the power and speed he had when he was younger. When he does not need to carry out "tasks," he is also trapped in a mid-life crisis as he tries to deal with pressure from work, his wife's relentless criticism and his daughter's rebellious phase.

Some audiences described the series as rhythmical, with the narrative weaving between family, marriage, children's education and social observations that often make people laugh or tremble.

"I chose to act in the series because I was attracted by the tragedy of the role," Guo told the Global Times. 

"Li Tang is one of the most interesting roles I have played. He is having a mid-life crisis, just like others who are at a similar age and he is paying with his life for his wrong choice to become a spy."

To better play the role, Guo did not wear makeup while filming scenes and discussed things with the costume department so they would make nondescript clothing to make Li "invisible" in a crowd.

Cat and mouse

Different from other crime dramas that rely on big reveals, the show starts off by showing who the two sides are in this game of cat and mouse. 

Wang said that he deliberately aimed for creating a type of symmetry in the story instead of relying on suspense to bring in audiences. 

The two sides in the series, the spies and the national security team, have the same number of men and women and each role in one team has a corresponding member in the other. 

However, Wang said that the national security police's team is like a sunrise, as they boast a youthful spirit because of the continuous introduction of young blood, while the spy team, which includes Li and Ding, is like the setting sun, lacking in energy.

Duan Yingjiu, played by actress Yan Bingyan, is head of the national security team that is responsible for tracing Li and Ding. To make the role feel more realistic, her character was given a husband and a son.

Many details show Duan's longing for family life. For example, when her husband invites her to a restaurant to ask for a divorce, she refuses and shows a bit of weakness by promising to go home as soon as she can to get free time off of work.

The secret agents that guard national security in the end are depicted as vivid ordinary people.