"Ripe Town" is the most exceptional Chinese period drama of this year. This drama stands out in the market without any comparable works. It is a period mystery that delves deep into social and historical analysis, offering a captivating deconstruction of complex human nature from different perspectives. In terms of the story, it intertwines a murder case with another arson case from twenty years ago, weaving together a tightly-knit web of revenge with numerous character lines that repeatedly intersect across two timelines. It explores themes of injustice, desire, and regret.
Visually, it captures the essence of ancient Eastern paintings and the aesthetics of Jiangnan gardens, constructing a lush and intoxicating small town in late Ming Dynasty. Its English title, "Ripe Town," is fitting, as the entire drama feels like a "fully ripened and almost decaying fruit." Its meticulous attention to detail and profound depth truly make it a standout dish in the autumnal lineup of cdramas.
Up to now, "Ripe Town" has received a high rating of 8.5 from over 120,000 viewers on Douban, surpassing the reputation set by "The Long Season" and "Fearless Blood." Many industry insiders believed that such a quality production must have come from an experienced creator, but upon examining the creative team, they discovered that the screenwriter and director are the same person - a non-professional with no previous representative works in feature films. This amateur is none other than Wang Zheng.
Wang Zheng's background is remarkably diverse. He graduated from Wuhan University and has worked in advertising, real estate planning, and self-media. His only previous involvement in the film and television industry was as a screenwriter, producer, and executive producer during the rise of online dramas. How did this amateur manage to write and direct "Ripe Town"? The following is Wang Zheng's own account. Acknowledgment is due to Peng Xiao Xian for their invaluable materials that have been the backbone of this article.
01 The beginning of everything
I understand that everyone is curious about me suddenly appearing like this. Indeed, I wasn't involved in this industry before. When I first met the executive producers, Wang Yuwei and Yang Peng, over a decade ago, I was still working in advertising. It is only in recent years that I have come closer to this field.
The initial idea for "Ripe Town" came to me in early 2020 when I was cooking at home, holding a knife and cutting vegetables. I felt a rare state of both concentration and relaxation. At that moment, a flash of inspiration struck, and I decided to write a series of interconnected murder cases set in an ancient small county town.
I didn't approach it as a commercial project, with a fierce determination to achieve something grand. Instead, it was more like a night run. I would wake up every morning, write for three or four hours, and then move on to other tasks. There was a brief interruption due to some personal matters, so the whole script took about three months to complete.
Interestingly, I never formally studied scriptwriting or filmmaking. I mostly learned the craft through extensive film-watching, acquiring techniques along the way. Following the three-act structure of films, I constructed the entire story backwards.
Since it is a series of connected murders, the first thing to address was the motive of the killer. I established that the killer was seeking revenge. And if there is a revenge plot, there must be a deep-rooted hatred. So, during the outline stage, I carefully developed all the characters, relationships, and stories from twenty years ago, including brief character biographies.
The core group involved in the Lujia arson case, led by Lu Zhong and Lu Zhi, along with their household servant Chen Wang, guard Liu Shiqi, cook You Er, and others who provided peripheral assistance, such as the Captain Leng, Master Wang, and Doctor Cheng. It wasn't too difficult to determine how they meticulously planned and executed the conspiracy.
The more challenging part was the cause and effect aspect. Who would die twenty years later? How would the killer arrange their methods? This also involved planting foreshadowing, considering where to provide appropriate clues, and intertwining the storytelling between two timelines while taking into account the audience's comprehension.
Regarding foreshadowing, I used a Hollywood-style outline, where I mapped out important plot points and timeframes. There would always be some blank spots to be filled in gradually, resulting in a clear structure and relationship in the end.
The formation of this project was also a matter of fate, the script passed through Tencent Video in 2021. Later, Zhang Na, the senior director at Tencent's Video and Film Production Department, provided me with significant support and assistance.
Perhaps due to the absence of comparable works, the platform's feedback mainly focused on minor adjustments and there were no significant structural changes. As long as the script maintained its integrity, I was open to negotiation on other aspects. Once the system was disrupted, the story could easily become inconsistent. Finalizing the script was not the end; from the beginning, I had intended to direct it.
02 The writer or director
I don't consider the writer and director as two distinct professions, but rather as two processes, much like cooking. First, you chop the vegetables, then you stir-fry them. As a middle-aged person transitioning between industries, do I want to pursue a career in the entertainment industry? Definitely not. My main focus is on storytelling, and I am eager to present this interesting story.
As a writer, I need to first construct this world in my mind, so that the characters and conflicts in the story have a solid foundation. For example, I wanted to empathize with the common people, so I read a lot about micro-history during the Ming Dynasty. Everything in the story, from the characters to the events and settings, stems from this perspective. Without this underlying world, themes like revenge and fighting corruption would become abstract and superficial. So when I entered the field of directing, it seemed easier to bring this world from my mind into reality. But when I actually started, I realized it was much more difficult than I had imagined.
From a visual and auditory perspective, the core of directing is to establish an aesthetic system. It's not about the accuracy of a particular scene, shot, or costume, but about enabling the art, cinematography, and styling teams to understand and create within this aesthetic system. It's not about mechanically replicating what's already been done, but rather, where does your aesthetic inclination lie? I don't usually enjoy watching period dramas, so it was very challenging to find this aesthetic. I went through many detours.
My first reaction was to learn from the predecessors. I watched my favorite period dramas and studied ancient paintings, from the Northern Song literati paintings to modern times, but the results were minimal. Ink paintings don't depict lighting, and they are all scattered and lack perspective. When translated into the language of cinematography, they become aerial shots. How do I deal with this? It was only then that I realized the true difficulty of being an amateur director - I lack the ability to translate this aesthetic system. I was quite frustrated at the time.
Later, Wu Guanzhong's paintings saved me. He painted in oils and left behind a large number of realistic landscapes of the Jiangnan region. Following this inspiration, I finally discovered that the Jiangnan classical gardens were what I had been searching for, the aesthetic system that "Ripe Town" desired. The framing of these gardens is the composition, and the beauty is achieved through the use of layers and depth. Most of these gardens are small in size, but by changing one's perspective, the scenery changes. This is akin to camera movement. The interior and exterior views in the gardens are connected through open doors and windows, creating a sense of penetration.
We extensively used the technique of penetration in our shots in the drama. Even in purely interior scenes, there were many screens, curtains, and veils, creating a hazy penetration effect. For example, the hanging of the scroll and the silhouette of Lin Siniang behind the screen. As you can see in the final result, we did not rely on conventional dark scenes, intense sound effects, or sinister appearances to convey suspense. In fact, most of the time, it was quiet. The streets were long and resembled ink paintings, but conspiracies were quietly brewing.
For example, the scene where Lu Zhong and Lu Zhi are fishing is a very beautiful and tranquil scene. It not only involves emotional communication, but also harbors more conspiracies. This contrast actually allows the audience to experience a sense of dramatic tension. The Jiangnan garden-style aesthetic is prevalent throughout "Ripe Town," achieving the best effect I wanted to achieve. This is definitely not the achievement of one person, but the collective effort of our entire creative team. Everyone wanted to work hard to create something different.
Taking the first step as an amateur director was indeed difficult, but not as difficult as I had imagined. I thought I would encounter many dilemmas, but during the actual process, producers and the entire project team all provided me with assistance. Many times, before I even thought about how to solve a problem, a heap of suggestions had already come in. This is very precious.
Another important point, and one that I was previously worried about, is the "management of audience expectations" in the "X Theater". When audiences see a title or a poster, they already have certain expectations in their minds. If they expect A and get B instead, then the situation becomes uncontrollable. The brand effect of Tencent Video's "X Theater" has been very helpful in managing audience expectations, especially since there have already been two excellent works, "The Long Season" and "Fearless Blood," which let the audience know that this will be an innovative, high-quality, and conscientious creation. This laid a solid foundation for "Ripe Town".
03 Humanity and remorse
The only regret I have is towards the character of Sangeng (played by Bai Yufan). Perhaps as the protagonist, he should have had more spotlight, but I deliberately chose not to give it to him. Because he was intentionally designed as a character of growth, I invested a great deal of affection in Sangeng. The regret that Sangeng experiences in his life is, to some extent, the underlying theme of "Ripe Town".
What is regret? It's not just about a failure or an unattainable goal. It's about having a particularly reasonable, firm, and unquestionable reason, a reason that is so firmly correct that you even feel you cannot question it, and you have to act on it. So you did, only to result in an outcome that you deeply regret. It's difficult to make amends for it, and you have to carry it with you forever, finding a way to coexist with it, and never repeating such actions again. This is the regret of life.
This can be a big or small matter. In the context of the drama, it is Sangeng's misplaced trust in his master that leads to a wrong choice and indirectly causes the death of Song Chen (played by Ning Li). He will bear this regret and atone for his master. Of course, I could have done something simpler, giving Sangeng the spotlight and allowing him to turn the tide. But I feel that would not be sincere. It wouldn't be sincere to the audience, and it wouldn't do justice to the sincerity I put into Sangeng and Song Chen in the early stages.
Why did Song Chen have to die? He endured torture and sacrificed his talent, like a person walking in hell. He is not like Xiaobao, who has someone to blame for his misfortune. He doesn't even have a chance for redemption. Look at the final scene, when the crime is over and everyone returns to their peaceful daily lives. If Song Dianshi were still alive, would he continue to extract teeth? Letting him die peacefully before the happy ending is my love and mercy for this character.
In principle, I hope that every character in "Ripe Town" is complex. It is not my interest to dig into the dark side of human nature. I prefer to shape the various facets of human nature, both for the main and supporting characters. Like Doctor Cheng, he appears righteous in front of others but has a tendency to steal behind their backs. He can't resist taking a pear when examining a patient. Niu Buyan may not seem as fierce, but he is the only one in the gang twenty years ago who voluntarily surrendered. His catchphrase is "I will never rely on luck," but he is repeatedly driven by a mentality of relying on luck.
Perhaps each character has taken a piece of my soul. I want to make an effort to give the characters complexity and conflicts, which is very interesting. Of course, credit also goes to the actors for their brilliant performances. It's not enough to have good ideas; without the portrayal, they would be nothing. Actors are like musical instruments, each with their own way of expressing themselves. When combined with the actor's own understanding, the optimal solution is achieved. It's like trying to play punk music on a guqin; it's not impossible, but it would be quite strange. "Ripe Town" is fortunate in that the actors have a high level of identification with their characters. After reading the script, everyone feels that these are characters worth portraying, and this alignment creates harmony, all pointing towards an ideal outcome.
04 Every story is a metaphor for the world
As I mentioned earlier, each character embodies a part of my soul. In Xiao Baozi's case, it is a simple yet persistent inner drive: the desire to be a creator. When I was young, I had an unfounded confidence that I could succeed in any industry.
Skill advancement and networking were not important to me. I had some success in the advertising industry after graduating with a major in advertising and joining an international 4A advertising agency. The advertising budgets of the clients I handled grew tenfold within a year or two, and my performance stood out, quickly rising to the position of creative director. But I was not satisfied, so I ventured into real estate planning and started my own advertising company. Later, I transitioned to a creative content development company while also doing self-media. It seemed like I was involved in everything.
Years later, when I looked back and asked myself why I was so restless, it became clear that I had always had a desire to create. Although the mediums were different, advertising was about creativity, and real estate was about project planning. I even collaborated with architects to change the product design of a developer and modify the architectural plan of an entire villa community. All of these were forms of creation. I realized that I had always wanted to deeply immerse myself in creating a work.
The turning point came in 2014 when I planned a series of viral activities for a brand's microfilms, which became a sensation. At that time, some film companies approached me for a remake, although it didn't materialize due to copyright issues, their recognition was a great encouragement. Of course, I am still in a constant state of learning. As an outsider entering an industry, I must respect its ecosystem.
I am also writing scripts, spending three hours a day in seclusion like Lu Zhong, and then sharing them with colleagues in my company, especially the finance department, who provide me with feedback. Overall, I want to maintain the perspective of an outsider, exploring and excavating stories, focusing on the creative process rather than expecting a specific outcome.
When we engage in creation, we should bring a zoom lens that allows us to see the overall relationships on a macro level. We can also switch perspectives to see details and textures, as well as change camera angles to see the world through different people's eyes. This is both a method and a motivation for creation. The journey of "Ripe Town" has come to an end, but I must continue running. I don't know when I will meet the audience again, but I hope it won't be too far away. For now, I will continue to write diligently, so that I am satisfied with every scene and maintain the coherence of an outsider, waiting for the next ripe fruit.