We’re used to TV series that begin with murder, but rarely does one come along with as shocking an opening two minutes as The Bad Kids. It’s a great day for a walk, and that’s exactly what Zhang Dongsheng (Qin Hao) is out doing with his in-laws. They climb to a lookout high atop a rocky outcrop; Zhang takes out a camera to get a shot of the older couple as they sit on a large rock. He moves in close, seemingly to position them better for the camera – then suddenly someone pushes them to their deaths. Roll opening credits.
A massive hit on China’s version of Netflix, The Bad Kids single-handedly turned the innocent question Yiqi pashan ma? – “Wanna go for a hike?” – into a threat (and a popular meme). If that wasn’t unsettling enough, a phone cover with the question printed under a photo of Qin Hao has since become a best-seller online.
A slightly more reliable guide to the show’s popularity is the review platform Douban. There it topped the popularity rankings for weeks at a time, pulling in an average rating of 9.2 out of 10 from nearly 800,000 viewers. Hailed as one of the first local Chinese dramas capable of direct comparisons to overseas series when it comes to storytelling, cinematography and performances, even other stars have been praising it; a post on Chinese social media site Weibo from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Zhang Ziyi last year talking up the series received over a million likes.
A shocking opening scene won’t make a series an automatic hit, but it definitely doesn’t hurt. The real twist with The Bad Kids is how it plays out; rather than following Zhang back to his daily life, the next few scenes show us high school loser Zhu Chaoyang (Zishan Rong) as he awkwardly makes his way through his day. Next we meet Yan Liang (Pengyuan Shi) and Pu Pu (Shengdi Wang), who are hiding in the back of a truck heading for a coastal city. Clearly all three kids are on the margins of society; could they be the killer’s next victims?
A big part of the series’ appeal in China is the way it examines what happens to children in a world where everyone is focused on getting ahead. It’s more nuanced than simply “they get left behind” – this is a crime series after all – but it’s definitely a topic at the forefront of the minds of many people across China as the nation’s economic development powers forward. Increasingly those who can’t keep up are seen either as victims… or as threats.
The two runaways end up staying at Chaoyang’s house. Liang is an old friend, and as the only child of a single mother (who drives him hard academically and doesn’t seem to care much about anything else) and a gambling dad more interested in his new family, sneaking them in isn’t a problem for Chaoyang. The duo are in town trying to raise 300,000 yuan to cure Pu Pu’s younger brother’s leukaemia… which seems unlikely, to say the least.
Meanwhile, it’s clear the opening murder was a flash-forward; the more we see of replacement teacher Dongsheng’s life, the clearer it becomes that it’s all falling apart. His career is going nowhere, his wife wants a divorce, and when he turns to her parents for help while on a hike (uh oh), they refuse to help him win her back. So where are the kids in all this?
On the other side of the hiking trail messing around taking photos and filming themselves singing a song. It’s all innocent fun and games, until Pu Pu plays the video they shot back later that night and discovers something very interesting taking place in the background. Looks like they just might have found a way to make that 300,000 yuan they were needing.
As is often the case when it comes to blackmail, the bodies soon start piling up, though who’s doing the killing and why is part of the series’ many surprises. While there’s a level of social commentary baked into the show’s premise – exactly whose fault is it when kids without parents start to go off the rails? – it’s first and foremost a gritty thriller, and across the 12 episodes the twists (and some of the characters) come and go at a rapid pace. It kept Chinese fans glued to the series to the very end and with it rapidly racking up international sales, the rest of the world won’t be far behind.
Stick around through the end credits too: the soundtrack’s been praised for showcasing a range of China’s top indie bands, focusing on atmosphere rather than the more typical bubble-gum pop.
The Bad Kids is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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