So, the official English title of this drama is Bump Off Lover, but I dislike it so much that I am just going to use the Mandarin title Ài Shā 17 (Love Murder 17) instead.
Many people comment that Taiwanese idol dramas are always cheery, always romantic, always upbeat, and are overall a light-hearted, bubbly, pop (junk) culture genre. First of all, I’m very wary of make distinctions between “junk” culture and “high” culture. And it also turns out that there are quite a few rather dark idol drams out there. I’ve even discussed one previously—The Outsiders. But the darkest, most disturbing idol drama I’ve ever seen is, without question, Ài Shā 17.
TRIGGER WARNING: This TV drama presents stalking, sexual bullying (including a male victim), under-age prostitution, rape with drugs, child-kidnapping, victim-blaming, people defending the perpetrators, suicide, and other disturbing topics. Consequently, these topics are also come up in this post.
Now, in order to set the mood for this post, I suggest watching the opening song before continuing.
The story starts with two 17-year old twin sisters, Yizhen and Yijing.
Yizhen’s high school teacher, Yang Renyou, had tried to rape her, which is why the school fired him. However, Yang Renyou is apparently now stalking Yizhen.
Meanwhile Zou Kejie, another student at their school, is being bullied. Because of this pressure, Zou Kejie joins a mysterious BBS called “Heart of Darkness” for social support. He also becomes good friends with Yijing (actually, he has a crush on her).
One evening after school, Yizhen spots Yang Renyou running around the school grounds. Later that evening, she hears her sister Yijing cry out for help. While running towards her sister’s voice, somebody pushes Yizhen into a swimming pool—and she can’t swim. She is rescued by her boyfriend, Jiawei, but it’s too late; by the time they find Yijing, she’s already dead.
In the trial by media, Zou Kejie is presented as being Yijing’s murderer. While he professes his innocence, he refuses to cooperate with the police. Even his own brother, Zou Kejiang, begins to suspect that he is the culprit. Eventually Zou Kejie cannot handle the pressure of everybody and the media accusing him of being Yijing’s murderer, and commits suicide.
After the suicide, Zou Kejiang regrets not believing his brother, and is determined to find the true murderer in order to clear his brother’s name. Meanwhile, Yizhen suspects that Yang Renyou did it. Yizhen, Kejiang, and Jiawei work together to solve the mystery … and what Yizhen learns is more disturbing than anything she imagined.
Taiwanese Online Culture
Last week, I discussed Taiwanese online culture a bit. This idol drama depicts it too. In 2007, it would not be very credible if a bunch of ordinary (as in non-geeky) people in the United States decided to casually join a BBS, but in Taiwan BBS are still a dominant way to socialize online. They’ve even survived the popularity of Facebook.
Angela Chang and Shen Shihua
Idol dramas are called “idol dramas” because they present “idols” (usually music idols) in “dramas.” The “idol” of this drama is clearly Angela Chang, the popular Taiwanese singer who plays both Yizhen and Yijing.
First of all, I must give some credit to the hair-and-makeup people, who did a really good job of distinguishing Yizhen and Yijing.
Of course the bulk of the credit goes to Angela Chang and the scriptwriters. This was an excellent way to demonstrate Angela Chang’s acting skills—there is nothing which proves that somebody can act better than casting them as two different characters in the same story. I ought to watch another Angela Chang drama.
Angela Chang, in addition to playing both of the main characters, also sings the opening and ending songs for the drama.
For an example of an Angela Chang song not directly related to Ài Shā 17, check out Bu Tong (No Pain). The pinyin lyrics with an English gloss can be found at Chinese Tools.
Yet I think the very best acting performance in this drama was given by Shen Shihua, who played Liang Yajuan, the mother of Yizhen and Yijing. She even won the 2006 Golden Bell Best Supporting Actress award for this performance. In some ways, Liang Yajuan is a more difficult character to play than Yizhen or Yijing. Liang Yajuan actually grows more as a character than either of her daughters, and has to convey more subtlety. She just doesn’t get as much screentime.
The Whodunit Murder Mystery
The whodunit murder mystery is one of my least favorite genres of fiction. I only watched this drama because I received multiple recommendations. So how does it hold up as a murder mystery from a non-fan’s perspective?
I generally was less interested in the story when it was more purely a whodunit, and more interested when it was focusing on something else (like the relationship between Yizhen and Yijing). This probably says more about me than the drama itself. And of course, much of the story seems contrived. I find that is almost always the case with whodunits (then again, a fan of whodunits could probably point out the many ways the fiction I love seems contrived too).
However, even I can recognize that this is a very well-crafted whodunit. There are several likely suspects, it’s very well set up, and plenty of surprises for the viewers. I had predicted one of the “shocking” plot twists pretty early, which made me cocky. The denouement, however, caught me completely off-guard. At first I was so shocked that I thought I had misheard something … yet looking back on the drama, it made so much sense, and even explained some things about the story which had seemed a bit odd. That is good writing.
If you don’t know what “rape culture” is, this is a good introduction.
Unfortunately, this drama is a reflection of reality in Taiwan. Older men really do prey on teenage girls and child prostitution really does happen online in Taiwan. Of course, these atrocities also happen in the United States. It’s hard to tell whether this is really more prevalent in Taiwan, or whether Taiwanese people (or more specifically, the Taiwanese people I encounter, which is not a random sample of the population) are just more willing to talk about it. It is worth noting that there was a drastic reduction in child prostitution in Taiwan in the 1990s when the government started to actually enforce the anti-child-prostitution laws … and it was not a coincidence that the government cracked down on child prostitution at the same time that Taiwan transitioned to democracy.
I, luckily, have yet to be directly threatened, and I think I am actually at much less risk of being sexually assaulted here than when I was living in San Francisco. Nonetheless, the local rape culture does affect my life in Taiwan too, just as it affects everybody else’s lives. I don’t think this is the place to discuss that, though that might be a good topic for my personal blog.
In some ways, this drama gets things very right. Most rapes are not committed by strangers, and none of the crimes in this drama are committed by strangers (the only crime which seems to have been committed by a stranger turns out to have been perpetrated by someone who is not). The drama also clearly shows how many people are ready to defend rapists, which unfortunately is very realistic. The drama also makes clear that in a society where saving face is more important than stopping abuse, abuse will flourish.
Now, I am uncomfortable with the way the drama depicts some things [SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS PARAGRAPH]. For example, I think the drama shows just a little too much sympathy for Yang Renyou. Sure, he was tricked, and he was lied to … but you know what? He also tried to have sex with one of his teenage students—multiple times—and when she was obviously not-consenting, he still continued. That is 100% Yang Renyou’s fault, and nobody else’s. The drama doesn’t exactly try to defend Yang Renyou—it presents the “facts” pretty clearly and he does die a horrible death—but I think the drama should have made it clearer that, regardless of the circumstances, Yang Renyou’s acts were utterly despicable and totally his responsibility. Also, I don’t like that Yijing, the victim of the most abuse (kidnapped as a child, drugged and raped, and finally, murdered) is also the main villain. In the context of a society without rape culture, this wouldn’t bother me … but victim blaming is so virulent in both Taiwan and the United States that it makes me very uneasy when the kidnapping/rape/murder victim just happens to be the Big Bad.
Availability in English
This drama is not legally available in English. That’s too bad. This would make a great addition to Dramafever’s line-up *hint hint*. That said, the first episode is crafted in such a way that I would have been able to follow the story even if the dialogue had been exclusively in Old Church Slavonic.
As I said before, this isn’t really my kind of thing. Therefore, it is not a personal favorite. But, in spite of all of the contrived stuff, I can’t deny that this is one of the best-written idol dramas I have ever seen. The mere fact that I watched the whole thing is a testament to its quality.
And while many people dismiss idol dramas as “junk culture,” I have found that the better idol dramas discuss some very important issues—in this case, rape culture. While I have my reservations about the way it’s handled in this drama, I still think it is a worthwhile addition to the conversation. The very fact that these dramas can make these important conversations accessible to a wide audience, in my opinion, makes them more valuable than works of high-falutin’ culture which are only accessible to an elite group.
Next Time: Princess Pearl (novel)
Sara K’s life is returning to “normal.” Of course, her “normal” life is not necessarily very normal at all and, much as she appreciates the opportunity to rest, she looks forward to the next time that her life will stop being “normal.”