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Best Chinese Dramas of 2018

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the top ten Chinese dramas of 2018!



Ashes of Love
In recent years, the prolific period fantasy genre has consistently produced China's biggest hits, even if the quality of said offerings is wildly inconsistent. Among the many contenders, this year’s most addictive blend of magic, mythology and heart-fluttering romance belongs to Ashes of Love. Based on Dian Xian's novel, the drama is about the tempestuous romance between the powerful and devoted Fire God, son of the Heavenly Emperor, and a bumbling grape sprite who is actually a flower fairy whose ability to love has been sealed away. Naturally, the twist-filled story includes battles with the demon world, reincarnations into the mortal realm, and brushes with darkness. Ashes holds the distinction of all three main characters going to the dark side in one epic scene. The aesthetically pleasing sets and art direction do a decent job of creating different fantasy realms, and the drama is widely praised as an example of casting done right. Proving early doubters wrong, Deng Lun and Yang Zi's sweet chemistry and affecting performances affirm the trending actor's rise to stardom and reaffirm the former child actress's underrated acting talents. And though the drama received backlash over supporting actors getting too much screentime, Luo Yunxi sure as heck earned all those second-lead shippers as the soulful elder prince of heaven.



Eagles and Youngster
A new generation rises to the forefront in Eagles and Youngster based on Tianxia Bachang's novel Tian Keng Ying Lie. Unlike the writer's Ghost Blows Out the Light series, this less-well-known work doesn't carry as much pre-existing fanfare and baggage so its adaptation also escapes the pressure of harsh comparisons. At the same time, the atmospheric drama still has all the strange mysteries, spooky legends, jeepers-creepers creatures and booby-trapped caves you could ask for. The makers of Eagles bet on a young cast and handily come out ahead with a fun, hardy and engaging mystery adventure. Showing significant improvement as an actor, TFBoys member Karry Wang plays a sharp and intrepid city boy who goes on a dangerous search for an antidote and mythical treasure in the mountains of northeastern China. Golden Horse winner Vicky Chen proves to be just as arresting on the small screen as a lionhearted village girl who can more than hold her own in a fight. Along with Zheng Hao, Jiang Yiyi and Ye Xiaowei (the oldest of the bunch at only 21), the bright, youthful cast perfectly counters the oft dark and eerie world of Eagles and subtly signals the modern values transforming China in the late eighties. Crisp cinematography and location shooting in Changbaishan complement the CGI and modest sets to conjure a suitably fantastical dimension amid the natural landscape.



Guardian
From the beginning, Priest's Zhen Hun was an odd choice for adaptation considering the novel's gay relationships and supernatural battles won't pass Chinese censors unscathed. However, in a market where no popular IP is safe from remake, the writers of Guardian took mighty creative liberties to turn supernatural into sci-fi fantasy. The Youku series transforms and transplants the original story involving spirits, reincarnation and mythological deities to an alternative planet with two realms, one populated by regular humans and the other by superpowered beings. The protagonists' romantic relationship becomes a "bromance" that involves a lot of deep stares. Unsurprisingly, writing is the series' biggest problem. Surprisingly, Guardian is China's viral web drama of the year. This guilty pleasure is the poster child of how smart casting can save a dumb story. Zhu Yilong and Bai Yu deliver breakout performances as the dark lord of the lower realm and the head of the upper realm's special investigative unit, respectively. Sharing a mysterious bond that goes back centuries, the two work together to catch rogues from the lower realm. Their spot-on chemistry and strong acting satisfied even novel purists and basically lifted Guardian from dismissible camp to compulsively watchable camp. This show gave us quality memes.



Meet Me @ 1006
Every night from 10:06pm to 10:52pm, time and space curiously cross over in an apartment. In that time period, the living space of the apartment's newest tenant, arrogant disgraced attorney Ke Zhen Yu (Lego Lee), merges with that of the previous tenant, idealistic rookie reporter Cheng Jia Le (Nikki Hsieh) who lived in the apartment four months ago. Through this fateful time slip, Zhen Yu and Jia Le become bickering acquaintances, change for the better, and gradually fall in love. Along the way, a tense and urgent mystery emerges when they realize that the murder case that torpedoed Zhen Yu's career is related to Jia Le's good friend who will soon die. Meet Me @ 1006 brings something new and fresh to Taiwan's idol drama genre, which has been mostly stagnant in recent years. The involving fantasy suspense series offers a refreshingly different and intriguing setup that's full of twists and surprises. At the same time, the series from the director of Bromance lives up to the genre's calling card of cute romance. Production design is also on-point with the merged apartment offering a visually fun setting for the protagonists' comedic and romantic encounters.



Nirvana in Fire II
The sequel to the acclaimed 2015 hit Nirvana in Fire may have dropped off in ratings but the production quality certainly did not. Spearheaded by the same creative team of Daylight Entertainment producer Hou Hongliang, directors Kong Sheng and Li Xue, and writer Hai Yan, Nirvana in Fire II is just as beautifully lensed and intricately written, delivering a brand new story set two generations after the first series. The sequel goes in a different direction thematically and narratively by focusing on the Changlin Army and the loyal family of warriors who selflessly serve and protect the Emperor and the Liang Dynasty. Though the drama is filled with war, power struggle and political intrigue, its emotional core lies in the unbreakable bonds and integrity of the Changlin family. Veteran Sun Chun embodies wisdom and gravitas through thick and thin as the patriarch general, and Huang Xiaoming delivers his best performance of recent years as the steady elder son. Young star Liu Haoran comes into his own as the drama's hero, the free-spirited second son who grows, fights, errs and rises to the occasion to carry on the spirit of the storied army built by his father. Visually arresting and emotionally stirring from the first episode to the last, Nirvana in Fire II lives up to the high standards set by the first series.



On Children
When did your child's grades become more important than your child? Likened to Black Mirror, PTS's disturbing anthology series On Children incisively examines the family and educational pressures faced by children in modern society. The five cautionary tales use dystopian sci-fi and fantasy elements to manifest and magnify problems concerning tiger parenting, high-stakes testing, elitism, domestic abuse and mental health. The story devices are clearly imaginary – a remote control that allows a mother to repeatedly reset her son's day, a parallel world where violence begets good grades, a machine to relive a dead teenage girl's memories, a talking peacock that grants vain wishes at great cost, a child qualification test that determines housing and social status – and yet the anxieties and helplessness felt by the children don’t feel too far off from reality. The unsettling series opens and closes with its two strongest entries, "Mother's Remote" and "ADHD is Necessary," both of which gradually numb and horrify with how the mothers dehumanize their children.



Peace Hotel
Peace Hotel is anything but peaceful in this espionage suspense drama set in 1935 during the Japanese occupation of northeastern China. Patriotic anti-Japanese spy dramas may be a dime a dozen in China, but few are as packed with adrenaline-rushing twists and turns of strategy and rhetoric as this extended cat-and-mouse game. Chen Shu is all icy, commanding elegance as a Communist double agent in the Manchukuo government who must hide her identity and mission from the police and the Japanese military. Lei Jiayin is the impish X factor as the crafty bandit whom the police chief (Li Guangjie) has been hunting. Meeting by chance in the lobby of Peace Hotel, the two pose as a married couple on the spot to deflect suspicion, and form an unexpected camaraderie as they constantly coordinate and change stories for self-preservation. Most of the series plays out in the quarantined hotel whose international clientele includes operatives of different countries, affiliations and motives, all making moves of their own in the background. The clever contained setup creates a tense and complicated battle of wits involving many different duplicitous players and alliances.



The Rise of Phoenixes
Chen Kun returned to television this year for the complex and captivating The Rise of Phoenixes. The actor gives one of the most interestingly layered performances of his career as the calculating Prince Ning Yi, who returns from banishment and gradually exposes and deposes the other princes to avenge his beloved late brother. Fearless yet fragile, cutthroat yet compassionate, the tormented soul meets his destiny in Ni Ni's Feng Zhiwei, a headstrong cross-dressing princess of the fallen kingdom defeated by Ning Yi's father. Beside the leads, there's Ni Dahong as the Emperor who schemes against his sons to maintain power balance, Zhao Lixin as Ning Yi's cunning strategist, and Bai Jingting as Zhiwei's simple-hearted bodyguard. Technical specs are also top-drawer with costume design by William Chang, art direction by Shen Xiaoyong and cinematography by Li Xi. Though there are some editing issues, the strong cast, production values and story form one of the best Chinese dramas of the year. Unfortunately, the very things that are great about The Rise of Phoenixes – measured pacing, patient storytelling, Machiavellian political intrigue and Chen Kun's brilliantly nuanced interpretation of his unpredictable character – lost TV audiences from the beginning, as the drama suffered record-low ratings in Hunan TV's maligned primetime slot. This drama deserves better.



Story of Yanxi Palace
Set in 18th century Beijing,Yu Zheng's megahit historical drama breaks from typical palace dramas with its vengeful heroine Wei Yingluo (Wu Jinyan). Wei enters the palace as a seamstress to investigate her sister's death. Rather than playing innocent, she tells you right from the start that she's not to be trifled with. She takes an eye for an eye and makes her every move count. Her quick-witted nature, bravery and loyalty to her master (Empress Fucha) earn her the affection of the most important men in the palace, from the Qianlong Emperor to the Empress's brother down to a eunuch whose true identity is unknown. Of course, this also puts her at the center of the concubines' backstabbing games as she climbs up the social ladder. Apart from the unconventional protagonist, the drama takes a bold step forward in terms of aesthetics. Unlike other Chinese palace dramas that tend to use a lot of bright colors, Story of Yanxi Palace takes reference from real Qing Dynasty artifacts in Beijing's Palace Museum to recreate tasteful costumes and decor in muted colors. There's also a good dose of Chinese culture in the drama via art, rituals and food captured in Wes Anderson-ish cinematography.



Trading Floor
The Trading Floor isn't explicitly set in Hong Kong, but everything about it is so very Hong Kong. Produced by Andy Lau, the five-episode mini-series jumps into the fast-moving, free-wheeling world of finance, starting with the fallout of the Asian Financial Crisis. In one of his meatiest roles of recent years, Francis Ng plays an econ professor who forms a group to counter predatory investors, but when things go south, he alone survives the fall and suspiciously emerges in a senior government position. Years later, he calls back his protege (Joseph Chang) to help manipulate the markets, but his former student has tricks of his own for revenge. Filled with quick editing and dense writing, Trading Floor demands engaged viewership. The screenplay gets into the nitty gritty of finance, government, politics and collusion, like lobbying legislators and strategic trading to manipulate prices. So. Much. Stock. Talk. Half of the story circles around an investment fund, and an allegorical game of Monopoly provides one of the series' most climatic moments. Though not without its weaknesses – the editing is too choppy at times – The Trading Floor is Hong Kong's closest thing to a movie-quality mini-series.


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Published December 18, 2018


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