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Best Chinese Dramas of 2016

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

With two weeks left in 2016, we start off the year-end lists with our picks for the ten best Chinese dramas of 2016!

Dr. Qin Medical Examiner
Based on the third installment of an online mystery novel series written by medical examiner Qin Ming, crime suspense Dr. Qin Medical Examiner has been labeled "extreme taste" by Chinese netizens because of its preponderance of headless corpses and severed limbs. Gruesomely realistic props aside, the web drama highlights the use of forensic analysis to crack murder mysteries, and the professional terminology is presumably sound (enough) considering its source material. Zhang Ruoyun solidifies his breakout year as Dr. Qin, the classic cool, smart and stoic hero with a tragic backstory that serves as the series' final case. He's joined by Jiao Junyan as his assistant and Li Xian as the detective buddy. When they're not examining crime scenes and dead bodies, the three mains inject humor with dry banter and immature bickering. Pitched as China's first forensic drama, Dr. Qin leaves many loose ends but nonetheless sets a strong precedent as an engaging police procedural with great cast chemistry and an earnest desire to make you squirm.

A Fist Within Four Walls
TVB uses old tricks to cook up a surprisingly fresh period kung fu drama set in the lawless quarters of Hong Kong's notorious Kowloon Walled City in the 1960s. The studio's usual corny script, obvious acting and modest production values still apply, but the limitations actually feel appropriate for the old school genre. Much like he did with Line Walker, producer/director Jazz Boon knowingly calls upon genre tropes, loading the story with martial artists with hearts of gold, nefarious feuding triad bosses, leather-clad femme fatales, hidden kung fu masters and a secret order of ninja-looking assassins. Thanks to its unique setting as a world where legal repercussions don't apply, A Fist Within Four Walls progresses like a wuxia adventure in which the heroes must hone their skills and avenge their fathers' deaths the old-fashioned way. Justice is settled with brutal fisticuffs and body counts pile up at casually alarming rates. Ruco Chan and Benjamin Yuen acquit themselves fine as Bajiquan practitioners, and Philip Ng and Yuen Qiu were wisely brought in for convincing action reinforcement.

The Imperial Doctress
Much as she did with Female Prime Minister, screenwriter Zhang Wei takes interesting creative liberties in combining two different historical figures – Tan Yunxian, a renowned doctor of the Ming Dynasty, and Empress Hang, the consort of Emperor Jingtai – into one strong female character. Cecilia Liu faces double the conflicts as a physician challenging the patriarchal social norms of the time, and the woman loved by both Emperor Yingzong (Wallace Huo) and Emperor Jingtai (Huang Xuan). Though there's a slight feeling of Startling By Each Step déjà vu seeing an ahead-of-her-time Cecilia Liu caught between royal brothers, The Imperial Doctress sets itself apart both with its ancient medical drama curiosities and its reinterpretation of history, humanizing both emperors as they eventually traverse the known timeline of power struggle and Jingtai's ascension to the throne after Yingzong falls into Mongol captivity.

Legend of Mi Yue
Based on Jiang Shengnan's novel about the turbulent life of Mi Yue, the first empress dowager of China, Legend of Mi Yue marks the second collaboration of Betty Sun and director Zheng Xiaolong after the phenomenal hit Legend of Concubine Zhen Huan. It's not easy to follow up Legend of Concubine Zhen Huan, which has achieved a very high standard in Chinese television history. Some may criticize the similarities in the two dramas' plots and characters, but Betty Sun successfully distinguishes Mi Yue from Zhen Huan with her delicate gestures and emotions. Though both dramas involve romance and fierce competition among concubines, Legend of Mi Yue concentrates on how Mi Yue changes her fate despite the social restraints imposed on women in the chaotic Warring States period, and her power struggle with male political figures of the time.

Love of Sandstorm
Part of TTV's 2016 special mini-drama series, Love of Sandstorm takes the sitcom genre out for a fresh spin through the misadventures and miscommunication of the amusing Lin family. Characteristic of director Kitamura Toyoharu's works, the delightful seven-episode drama often carries a whimsical tone and offbeat details in its depiction of the romantic headaches of the stubborn Lin offspring. Chris Wu, in particular, is hilariously shameless as the crafty, gutless oldest son who submits to all the unreasonable requests of his cutesy, abusive girlfriend (Esther Yeh) from hell, including babysitting and baby-talking to her precious stuffed animal collection. At the same time, the script, co-written by the reliable Wen Yu Fang, empathetically addresses the threat of marital crisis and the importance of honest, open dialogue between family members and couples.

Margaret and David - Green Bean
Trivial things can lead to serious conflicts when two people live together. Adapted from Nan Fang Wu Ting's novel, Viu TV's first self-produced drama is a very ordinary love story about Hong Kong taxi driver David (Bowie Lam) and his cohabiting girlfriend Margaret (Catherine Chau) whose relationship is challenged after the appearance of David's friend G Dragon (Poon Chan Leung). Despite lacking a dramatic plot, Green Bean successfully strikes a chord with audiences thanks to its realistic style. Most dramas depict characters through dialogue but Green Bean focuses more on the characters' actions and emotions. Moreover, the drama is filled with codes that keep audiences guessing at the hidden meanings in the story. The characters are more vividly sketched in the additional episodes that delve into their inner worlds by retelling the story from different points of view.

The Mystic Nine
China's love affair with "fresh meat" actors and "IP" source material keeps growing and The Mystic Nine pretty much has all the hit elements one could ask for in such a market: trending stars William Chan and Zanilia Zhao, K-pop idol Lay of EXO, a tomb-raiding fantasy story based on Nan Pai San Shu's popular novel series, and anti-Japanese patriotism courtesy of its 1930s Republican-era setting. This prequel to The Lost Tomb entertainingly meanders through a wealth of characters, mysteries, side conflicts and backstories that bring the heroes into a cavernous, booby-trapped underground tomb that holds dangerous secrets coveted by foreign baddies. William Chan, who has absolutely mastered the art of cinematic posing and handsome brow furrowing, delivers the necessary charismatic star performance as an army commander and the danger-seeking leader of the coalition of Changsha's most powerful families. Every time the BGM flares up for a fight scene or the editing takes another ridiculous turn, The Mystic Nine unabashedly reminds you of what an addictive guilty pleasure it is.

Ode to Joy
Based on Ane's novel about five women who live in the same Shanghai apartment building, Ode to Joy seems like an unlikely offering from producer Hou Hongliang and Daylight Entertainment which are known for serious period and wartime dramas like Nirvana in Fire and The Disguiser. Hou and team, however, effectively carry over last year's audience goodwill and strong storytelling to the chick flick genre. Nirvana in Fire director Kong Xue reunites with Liu Tao who plays a smart, strong, emotionally stunted businesswoman and the big sister figure to the proud and pragmatic Jiang Xin, cute and naïve Yang Zi, reserved, hardworking Qiao Xin and wild rich girl Olivia Wang. Wang Kai and Jin Dong also dabble in and out in supporting roles, but the focus is on the women, the challenges faced by singles of their age and financial brackets, and how they grow and support each other through conflicts in work, love and self. A sequel is already in production and we'd be more than happy to return to the 22nd floor of Ode to Joy next year.

A Touch of Green
Crystal Boys and Love's Lone Flower director Tsao Jui Yan dips back into the Kenneth Pai well for his third adaptation of the author's works, this time turning a short story into a luminous 31-episode series that rightfully swept six prizes at the Golden Bell Awards. A Touch of Green follows the turbulent lives, determined love and profound losses of a group of Nationalist air force pilots and their wives over two decades' time. Spanning from the end of the Sino-Japanese War to the Chinese Civil War to the White Terror period in Taiwan, the series acutely unfolds the great love stories of the protagonists against the unforgiving cruelty and helplessness of wartime turmoil and postwar trauma. With strong directing, script, production values and performances across the board and a powerful, historically rooted story reflecting the struggles and resilience of a generation of displaced people, A Touch of Green isn't just the best Taiwan drama of the year, it may well be the best Taiwan drama of the decade.

When a Snail Falls in Love
Following last year's intriguing but inconsistent Love Me If You Dare, director Zhang Kaizhou adapts another novel by Ding Mo, and second time's the charm. Ode to Joy's Wang Kai and Olivia Wang pair up again under the very different circumstances of a consummate detective and a rookie profiler awkwardly falling in love while working together on a grueling series of related cases involving murder, the drug cartel and human trafficking. Wang Kai finally gets a proper representative leading role, and it's basically the character he's born to play – an upright, level-headed and resolute police officer – while Olivia Wang is fetching as his perceptive, headstrong protege. With its tight direction, quick pacing and sweeping camerawork, When a Snail Falls in Love strikes an appealing blend of budding romance and thrilling crime suspense.

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Published December 16, 2016

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