This is the second article in a series on recent Chinese movies and television shows. The first can be found here.
Around the turn of the century, many Chinese movies and TV shows started depicting young, white-collar workers in their struggle for social mobility. But this trend lost steam by around 2008, as storylines turned from channeling the lifestyles of the wealthy middle class to focusing on characters who are self-deprecating “losers” — new college graduates who fail to climb the social ladder mainly due to high cost of living in cities, even though they are well-educated.
While the struggles of white-collar staff in the workplace are still popular themes, they have taken on a much darker edge. In the popular drama “Beijing Love Story,” a young man from a rural family tries to make a living in Beijing after graduating from university. But he soon comes to the sobering realization that no matter how hard he works, he will never compete with his tall, handsome, and wealthy schoolmates and friends. He ends up a poor, low-level company employee — his dreams of success unfulfilled. Later, he gives up competing for the affection of his girlfriend against his boss’ son in exchange for a higher income and position within the company. As you might expect, this doesn’t make him any happier.
In another popular plotline of TV dramas set in China’s urban centers, the “losers” completely abandon their ambitions to wallow in self-hate and self-pity. Many Chinese coming-of-age movies — like 2013’s “So Young” and the “Tiny Times” series — portray high school as a time of purity and innocence, full of promises of everlasting friendship and the sweetness of young love. But once youngsters enter the adult world, they find it brimming with mutual deceit and selfishness.
Another example is the 2014 comedy “Breakup Buddies,” which shows how a “loser” comes to accept his fate as a failure rather than fight against it. The protagonist, Geng Hao, is an unsuccessful street performer whose beloved wife leaves him for a wealthier and more conventionally attractive man. In an effort to cheer him up, his friend Hao Yi takes him on a trip around the country in search of rebound relationships to heal his broken heart. But his encounters with women during their travels only lead to further embarrassment and heartbreak. In the end, Geng and Hao come to the realization that the purpose of the trip was to help the former accept his failed marriage, rather than save it.
There’s also a third type of “loser”: one who rides their way to the top on the coattails of rich and powerful acquaintances. For example, the 2009 TV drama “Dwelling Narrowness” tells the story of two sisters, the older of whom works hard to save up for an apartment in Shanghai but fails as housing prices spiral out of control. Her younger sister, meanwhile, becomes a mistress to an influential government official, who simply buys her an apartment.
The “losers” portrayed on screen represent the challenges that young urban professionals face in China’s increasingly capitalist and commercialized big cities. Many find themselves caught between two paths: On one hand, it’s becoming harder and harder for young people to move up the social ladder — no matter how hard they work — that in desperation, some will do anything to attain wealth and power. On the other hand, there are some whose admiration for the rich and powerful knows no bounds, and they aspire to befriend the nouveau riche and dream of becoming their lapdogs.
This mentality connects to two historical patterns that persist today. First, globalization has led to the concentration of power and capital in the hands of a few people, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, all over the world, the middle class is shrinking. Secondly, China is a socialist country and should be an adversary of capitalism. Yet the reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s have gradually accepted capitalist ideas. In addition, today, left-wing politics are often seen in a negative light; therefore, young people are no longer choosing the revolutionary discourse to express their anger toward society.
Though some youngsters vent their frustrations through livestreaming and social media platforms, they have no way of creating real change to their circumstances. Instead, they end up feeling defeated and, in an emotional paradox, come to “adore” the powerful.
In an effort to counter the communist ideologies of class struggle during the Mao era in the 1980s, young Chinese people highly praised individualism and believed that the dream of becoming part of the middle class could be realized through hard work; they used individual freedom to criticize the repressions of collectivism. But after 30 years, while most have found success and achieved their middle-class dream by abandoning the revolutionary culture and embracing individualism, it is a different story for their children.
The young people of today are under much greater pressure. Although China is becoming more powerful in the world, the gap between rich and poor has widened. Individuals can no longer move up the rungs of the social ladder by pure hard work. Thus, as it is depicted in movies, the label of “loser” will continue to haunt them, along with a sense of incapability and hopelessness.
Translator: Clemens Ruben; editors: Wu Haiyun, Matthew Walsh, and Doris Wang.
(Header image: A still from the popular drama ‘Beijing Love Story’ shows a young man from a rural family who tries to make a living in Beijing after graduating from university.)