February 10, 2023
BEIJING – Suspense-filled TV series grips domestic and overseas audiences with its creative writing and complex, multifaceted characters, Xu Fan reports.
In the autumn of 2020, scriptwriter Zhu Junyi received a request from veteran director Xu Jizhou at short notice, asking him to write a three-episode demo of The Knockout within a month.
At the time, he was wrapping up work on a TV drama themed around elderly care, and Zhu recalls he didn’t take a break, getting straight to work on the new project — which has unexpectedly become a phenomenal hit.
It has dominated trending topics on China’s major social platforms from Sina Weibo to WeChat since it was released in mid-January.
With an all-veteran cast and twisting plotline, the series has set rating records to top a total of 11 viewership rankings on the streaming site iQiyi and has reached a television audience of nearly 320 million with its broadcast on China Central Television’s channel 8.
Simultaneously streamed overseas, the drama has been translated to more than eight subtitled languages, including English, Spanish and Korean, to reach viewers in North America, Southeast Asia and Europe.
The show’s overwhelming popularity has also sparked a frenzy in various related fields, ranging from boosting tourism in Guangdong province’s Jiangmen, its filming location, to a surge in sales of sixth-century strategist Sun Tzu’s treatise The Art of War, the favorite book of the drama’s top villain Gao Qiqiang.
A video showing Thai rickshaw drivers streaming The Knockout to attract Chinese tourists has also gone viral online and been reported by some domestic media.
“We are so happy that the drama has also gained attention overseas. Its success has exceeded all our expectations,” Zhu tells China Daily during a telephone interview.
Graduating with an arts management major from the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, Zhu shifted his interest to script writing after earning an opportunity to pen the novel adaptation of director Xu Jizhou’s acclaimed military-themed TV series Designation Forever in the early 2010s.
For the first several years, Zhu recalls that he resided in a small bungalow nestled in a hutong in downtown Beijing’s Dongsishitiao area, where it was easy to observe people from different walks of life.
Consisting of 39 episodes, the drama stars actors Zhang Songwen and Zhang Yi, who respectively play a fishmonger-turned-gang boss and a devoted police officer, recounting how they turn from friends to foes over a period of two decades.
Interweaving overlapped timelines through flashbacks, the tale is structured to mainly take place in 2000, 2006 and 2021, with the first two skillfully in line with years when China launched national campaigns to crack down on organized and gang-related crime. The country’s latest national campaign to fight against gang crime, and corrupt officials related to such cases, was launched in 2018 and lasted until 2021.
The Knockout marks Zhu’s first major work, although he has worked as a scriptwriter for eight years. It is also his first opportunity to get access to the offices of Chinese law enforcement and read confidential files about some of history’s most notorious cases.
“I was only allowed to read the archives inside the rooms. Making copies or taking photos was forbidden. The sums of money involved in these cases are stunningly huge figures, which makes it seem surreal,” says Zhu.
A native of East China’s Shandong province, Zhu, despite depicting himself as an easily satisfied person who mainly eats noodles, recalls he wasn’t hesitant to add another dish to his supper at a restaurant after he read those figures.
“The dish was a plate of mixed vegetables, costing around 15 yuan ($2.2). The price tag helped bring me back to reality,” he says, with a laugh.
Zhu says the creators reached a consensus to produce the drama with fictional characters in a fictional city located in South China, as a necessary way to avoid traumatizing the families and relatives of real-life victims.
“I have employed a ‘piece-together’ method to write the major characters, taking inspiration from many true events,” he explains.
Set against the backdrop of two decades of major societal development in China and progress in its law-enforcement methods and capabilities, the critically acclaimed tale earned 8.6 points out of 10 on review aggregator Douban and has won the market, largely, for its in-depth examination of the complexity of humanity.
Zhang Songwen’s character Gao appears as a humble fishmonger who relies on his small business to take care of two younger siblings. However, he is bullied for purchasing a comparatively cheap TV set, which fails to satisfy a villain’s appetite for blackmail and bribery. After tasting the benefits brought by guanxi, or “a special relationship”, Gao is seduced by the lure of the criminal underworld, a dark network that he once hated and fought against.
“In contrast, the police officer An Xin (played by Zhang Yi) is a lonely hero and idealist, who will make you believe that even the darkest corner can be illuminated by a glimmer of light,” says Zhu.
With the show’s popularity index reaching 11,800 — normally, 8,000 marks the threshold for a hit — on iQiyi, which produces the drama, Dai Ying, the streaming giant’s senior vice-president, says that the company believes the drama’s success can be attributed to creative writing and the multifaceted characters.
With many viewers spending their Spring Festival holiday following the suspense-filled drama, the finale of the TV series, which was released on Feb 1, sparked heated debate online.
Despite describing the drama as “a shrimplike delicacy”, referring to its mediocre beginning and end, but with an excellent middle section, many viewers suggest the show signals the rise in quality of domestic TV offerings and express their hope that more, equally compelling, homegrown series will be forthcoming.