Commuters jam together in a subway carriage, tightly packed, like sardines in a can; anxiety overwhelms employees when rumors of job losses circulate in the workplace; and a young couple have a ferocious argument on the street. ...Everyday scenes, sure, but on this occasion, they have been filmed in an unorthodox manner in the TV series Remembrance of Things Past.
Hand-held cameras provide an immersive experience for the viewers, making them feel as if they are eavesdropping. The protagonists are beipiao, or migrants to Beijing, and are seeking a new life. They are also, of course, chasing the dream of success.
The series, with its realistic approach depicting the lives of urban workers in their 20s or 30s, all of whom have migrated from their hometowns to Beijing to find their calling in the big city, premiered last month on the videosharing platform Mango TV as well as Hunan Satellite TV.
It has received 8.3 points out of 10 on the review site Douban with many comments running along the lines of: "It portrays the daily life of migrants to big cities so honestly"; "I burst into tears several times when watching the drama as many of its scenarios struck a sympathetic chord in my heart";or "I feel deeply connected with every character".
Real situations are endured, as the often cruel hand of fate plays a leading role.
For instance, Qiao Xichen, one of the protagonists, goes back to her rented apartment－only to find the landlord has gained access and is trying to remove Qiao's meager belongings from the room. The apartment owner wants her evicted because he hasn't received rent in months.
But Qiao is not to blame. It turns out that she has already paid half a year's rent in advance to a broker that has since absconded without paying the landlord.
Qiao in her 20s has to move out and is forced to rent a two-bedroom apartment with another woman, a stranger, to share expenses.
But this too has challenges. The roommate never cleans the communal living room and constantly takes her belongings and uses her things without permission.
So, she decides to rent an apartment independently. However, with a limited budget, she can only rent a decent apartment in the suburbs, which results in a two-hour commute each way.
She is not alone in facing such difficulties. Many young urban workers are also battling against a similar fate and their plight creates a bond with the audience.
In the drama, actresses Zhou Yutong, Ren Suxi, Jin Jing and Sun Qian capture both the desperation and hope of such an existence with consummate ease.
Zhou plays the role of Qiao, a first-class university graduate who has been working in the marketing department of a coffee company for four years, while Ren portrays Ji Nanjia, a 36-year-old woman who has started her own business from scratch. Jin acts as Hu Jingjing, a saleswoman who has always been kind and helpful, and Xu Yan, played by Sun, is a customer service worker who has a vain streak.
The characters know each other and come from the same background, a small northeastern city. Hu is the cousin of Ji as well as the schoolmate of Qiao and Xu. The drama shows how these women support one another through hardship.
Director Li Mo says that they encourage one another and never lose hope, even when confronted with the difficulties the city throws at them. His wish is that their spirit will also encourage viewers to be optimistic about their future.
Zhou, 27, says the experience of portraying Qiao has reminded her of the days when she was a fledgling actress seeking opportunities in Beijing.
"During that period, when there were no work offers, I could not afford the rent on my own and always had the mobile phone near me hoping it would ring with an offer for work," Zhou recalls. "I feel a close connection with Qiao."
She has her own understanding of how Qiao evolves over the course of the 12-episode drama.
"Qiao starts out vulnerable, anxious and psychologically dependent on the support and company of her parents, friends and colleagues," Zhou says. "However, as the story unfolds, she learns to be more independent and starts to let nature take its course."
The drama has touched upon hot topics, such as appearance anxiety, workplace gender equality, employee rights and intergenerational communication.
That last subject was particularly pertinent to Zhou.
"I only shared good news with my parents and seldom had in-depth conversations with them before. Now, I am more sincere," she says.
Zhou, who has appeared in several soap operas, believes that the drama is a turning point in her career, enabling TV and film industry executives to see her range as an actress.