Chinese films & dramas popular thanks to ensemble narratives
Published: Feb 23, 2023 11:57 PM
Illustration: Liu Xidan/Global Times

Illustration: Liu Xidan/Global Times

 Domestic TV works and films have made great leaps over the past few years while struggling to counteract the impact of the COVID-19 on the industry. They have broken through obstacles by presenting unique Chinese-style aesthetics and ensemble narratives, expanding into new genres, and standardizing movie production, giving more choices for Chinese audiences.

What makes Chinese TV shows and movies stand out is their unique way of presenting a story: Asian aesthetics and collective narratives that contrast with the aesthetics and storytelling involving individual heroism in the West. 

For example, the introduction of animation Yao-Chinese Folktales in the past two months brought Chinese aesthetics to a new level, which combines grotesque scenes and images from ancient legends and modern narrative techniques. An experiment of Chinese traditional aesthetics, the success of the episodes, which has gained a total of at least 230 million views on video platform Bilibili, indicates that such classic topics and television works with unique oriental aesthetics can fully capture the attention of audiences.

Ensemble narratives is also important. From the 2019 mainstream movie The Captain, adapted from a real-life disaster on a Sichuan flight in May 2018, to traditional series The Story of Minglan, love and hate stories from noble families in Song Dynasty (960-1279), and the popular realistic drama Ode to Joy focusing on the lives of four women, ensemble narrative dramas are a manifestation of Chinese collectivist values. On the one hand, they describe all living beings in a vast world with long history background; on the other hand, the ups and downs of the fate of the normal people in the torrent of the times can heavily arouse empathy from the audiences.

The 2018 drama Like a Flowing River, set during the period of the Chinese reform and opening-up since 1978, tells the epitome of millions of entrepreneurs in the process of China's economic takeoff. Another White Deer Plain, outlining the 50-year history of changes of the three generations of big families, is also the best interpretation of Chinese group portraits in TV shows.

There is another reason why shows have been performing better than ever: improving production standardization in the industry. 

There was a time when industrialized mass-entertainment from Hollywood, whose "assembly line-like" production follows strict guidelines and division of labor, sold billions of dollars worth of tickets in China.

Chinese movies are now catching up. The popularity of The Wandering Earth series is a symbol of progress when it comes to streamlining production, which has helped pave the way for the Chinese film industry to reach a new level. 

However, the aesthetic fatigue and homogeneity of Hollywood in recent years should also be a warning for the Chinese TV and film industry.

Multiple genres especially suspense and realism also inspire Chinese audiences. A new Chinese drama has sparked discussions on social media after receiving positive reviews from Chinese audiences. Under the Microscope, a well-known novel adaption set during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), tells the story of a group of residents and officials from all levels who get involved in a mysterious taxation case.

The series has what all audiences nowadays want from a Chinese drama: traditional costumes, an exquisite setting, plus a suspenseful story. 

This combination is the epitome of Chinese dramas and movies today, and the inclusive genres can be seen from a string of works in the past several years.

Similarly, realism in TV series and movies is another trend that's becoming more popular than ever before. 

"Being realistic means that you can present topics that people want to discuss in the form of a TV show or a movie. It's a vast reservoir benefiting everyone," Yan Tao, a Shanghai-based film critic, told the Global Times. 

We can also see this diversity reflected in the Spring Festival box office: The 2023 Spring Festival brought in a total of 6.75 billion yuan ($980 million) at the box office. The films released during the holiday covered suspense, comedy, sci-fi, animation and family films.

Though there is still a long way to go, Chinese producers and directors have brought diversity to the industry.