Fresh, young look for spy dramas
TV spy thriller The Disguiser (《伪装者》) has become one of the most discussed Chinese series lately, thanks in part to its popularity among young people. With a star-studded cast including teen idols, the show has mustered a tremendous fan base.
Lead actor Hu Ge is a heartthrob best known for his appearances in TV series like Chinese Paladin (《仙剑奇侠传》). The Disguiser marks Hu’s first time starring in a show of this genre.
He plays Ming Tai, the youngest brother in a well-heeled family during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, who is trained to be a spy after being kidnapped. His two brothers Ming Lou (Jin Dong) and Ming Cheng (Wang Kai) are double agents pretending to work for the puppet government of Wang Jingwei.
Critics hail the main storyline as suspenseful and stimulating, as it delves into the splintered lives of the three brothers. But they complain that the brothers’ drama gets sidelined when the series starts to focus on Ming Tai’s love triangle. The shift seems designed to rope in more young viewers, especially fans of Hu.
The Disguiser is one series in a wave of spy dramas being produced for Chinese media. Attractive young stars like Li Yifeng and Chen Xuedong are currently shooting their own spy series – moves poised to bring the genre up to speed with the millennial generation.
For many years, spy thrillers seemed mired in Cold War politics, even as the Cold War itself faded into memory. Hollywood films like Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and, most recently, Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) all continue to use the Cold War as a backdrop.
But a new generation demands new motifs. Shows like The Disguiser are using different moments in history as inspiration for their spy-versus-spy dramas. And just as China is turning to young pop stars to revamp the genre, producers overseas are likewise hoping to find new faces for their spy dramas.
Take the James Bond series for example. Bond has traditionally been played as suave and debonair, an icon of old-world aristocracy – that is, until UK actor Daniel Craig took over the role. He brought an earthiness and grit to Bond that audiences had never seen before.
Now Idris Elba, a black English actor, has been rumored to replace Craig as Bond. It would be yet another step toward creating a younger, sleeker and more culturally relevant spy drama – a feat China is undertaking right now.