The Burning River: Chinese Cop Drama Shares Western Series Tropes

Every now and then, we like to check in on what other countries are up to with what other countries are doing with their cop dramas. The Burning River is a buzzed-about 2020 cop drama from China that looks heavily influenced by grim and gritty British cop shows and Scandinoir dramas. For some reason, all Chinese TV dramas have an abstract-sounding title that doesn't always tell you what the story is. There is no river that catches fire on this show. That would have been extremely expensive on a TV drama budget. No, The Burning River is a cop show about a grizzled female detective and a hotshot young detective hunting for a serial killer, based partly on a true story in China about a killer who picks his victims by posing as a rideshare driver.

The Burning River: Chinese Cop Drama Shares Tropes with Western Shows
Still from "The Burning River" courtesy of YouKu and Viki

The pilot episode is remarkably slick and brisk in its economy of storytelling. The female detective shows up soaking wet to a lawyer's office with blood on her clothes for a custody hearing with her ex-husband over her young son. "Don't worry," she says. "It's not my blood." When the lawyer offers her a towel, she waves it off and says, "Can we get this over with? I have to get back to the crime scene." The precision in the way the main character is introduced is admirable. It could be a British or European drama. It follows the common crime drama trope that the detective hero(ine) has to be dysfunctional or broken in some way and obsessed with work. You can actually watch the pilot episode right here:

Then she and her squad catch a case where they track a serial killer who's kidnapped a woman by posing as a rideshare driver, only to be too late to save her. They track down the alleged driver to an apartment building only to find that the killer stole the real driver's identity and left him for dead. The young hotshot detective arrives on time to be introduced to everyone and discover that the killer is still in the building, and a chase ensues. The pilot ends on a cliffhanger where they lose him, so the rest of the series is about the hunt.

It's interesting to see how universal the tropes established by British and Scandinavian cop dramas have become across the world. The Burning River could be made in virtually any country with the same plot and characters, only minimally changed to suit the local culture. The grim, grey setting is emphasized by noirish cinematography. The grizzled veteran cop partnered with a green hotshot younger cop. The sexist trope of female victims of serial killers. The more recent trope of the determined and dysfunctional female cop obsessed with her work, here presented as a kind of ambivalence China has about women who put their career above marriage and family, but that ambivalence is equally present in the West and similarly expressed in their TV shows as well. In our globalized culture, we seem to have achieved the Universal Cop Show, fit for any country.

The Burning River now streams on YouTube, Viki, Youku, and various platforms, many for free.

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About Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist. He wrote radio plays for the BBC Radio, “JLA: Age of Wonder” for DC Comics, “Blackshirt” for Moonstone Books, and “La Muse” for Big Head Press. Most recently, he wrote “Her Nightly Embrace”, “Her Beautiful Monster” and “Her Fugitive Heart”, a trilogy of novels featuring a British-Indian private eye published by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
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