Under the Skin (2022) A Review
It is almost tragic that this drama (apart from the odd exception) hasn’t had the same kind of buzz and hype as Reset because if I may say so, it is a much better paced show with equally compelling storytelling covering similar territory. Under the Skin is undoubtedly a police procedural but with a difference and that difference is Shen Yi, played by Tan Jianci, the show’s gifted forensic artist who has an uncanny ability to produce accurate portraits of suspects from the scantiest of information. As a portrait artist par excellence he has a bent towards psychoanalysis and often acts as the team’s unofficial criminal profiler.
Seven years earlier, celebrated portrait artist, Shen Yi, is commissioned by a mysterious woman to draw a portrait of an adult male based on a childhood photo. Unbeknownst to him, this leads to the assassination of a decorated police officer who has recently cracked a narcotics case of widespread significance. Later when ordered by the police to identify the mysterious woman who solicited his services, Shen Yi suffers a mental block and is unable to draw her portrait or recall her features. The consequences are devastating to him personally so he sets his prized artworks on fire, abandoning a promising artistic career for a life combating crime.
Fastfoward to the present day. At his own request Shen Yi is posted to Beijiang Public Security Bureau where he ends up partnering with Team Leader Du Cheng (Jin Shijia), a somewhat resentful but competent protege of the murdered police officer who has a beef with Shen Yi for his role in his mentor's death. Du Cheng doesn't take Shen Yi seriously at first but when he witnesses firsthand what the forensic artist is capable of, he develops grudging respect for the latter. Unlike many fictional detectives of this calibre, Shen Yi isn’t a prickly know-it-all. Instead he has a good natured personality, taking everything in his stride. Soon everybody in and out of the department including the irascible Du Cheng falls for his charms as the team investigates a variety of cases that prove that Shen Yi is a handy fellow to have around.
Neither of the leads can be considered big names in industry although both are familiar to me from previous projects. What puts this production a cut above the rest is the script. That is where the magic begins. It also serves as a reminder why I keep trawling through the ever expanding C drama haystack in the hope that these sorts of shiny gems find their way to the surface.
While this is a thoughtful police procedural in the vein of Through the Darkness, it is rather more whimsical because of its focus on art as a means to solving crimes — the artistic process and the artist as the psychologist. Many of the perpetrators are artists in their own right. Rather than forensic profiling, the featured tool in the tool box here is portraiture and composite sketching. Shen Yi might seem rather too good to be true but apparently such people do exist while probably not in one complete package. The resident forensic artist is not only able to recreate faces from witness testimonies but he can use even blurry images from video footage and memory fragments to reconstruct an entire face. On his days off, he is seen at the police university lecturing about art and crime. From the moment he performs a detailed analysis of "The Death of Jean-Paul Marat" to a highly engaged group of students, it is clear that this series would be something special.
Each case with varying degrees of complexity features a crime that probes into some malaise afflicting contemporary mainland Chinese society. Whether it be the pervasive obsession with physical appearance, social alienation or family dysfunction, the show is not content with just solving puzzles. It highlights multifaceted motivations behind the actions of human beings, taking a much more complex view of why ordinary people commit crimes. Most of the stories had me tearing up at some point. Women get a nice slice of the pie and my sources tell me that while not listed officially on MDL, female script writers were also involved in the process. If there is a weak link, it would have to be the resolution of the final case — tying up loose ends to the seven-year-old case that has haunted both men while bringing the show’s James Bond puppetmaster to justice. Not only does the resolution feels rushed but it doesn’t pack quite the same emotional punch as earlier cases.
While Tan Jianci doesn't have the usual towering stature of a male lead, his Shen Yi is warm, sympathetic and commands a presence among his colleagues. He is excellent in the role and very convincing as the criminal investigator as well as the teacher. Jin Shijia who is strikingly taller, is a good fit as the seasoned detective who is still trying to solve the murder of his beloved mentor. I remember him from the immensely likeable My Amazing Bride. The two don't start off on the right foot but soon Du Cheng realises where Shen Yi fits in the overall scheme of things. They don't banter as much as you'd expect in a buddy cop scenario like this but when the two start to collaborate without all the baggage of the past getting in the way, the teamwork transforms into a well-oiled machine.
Personally speaking, this is likely the year's best C drama for me so far. Whether it gets knocked off that pedestal depends on how Who Rules the World plays out. As a whole I certainly like it more than Reset and that was no slouch. Moreover, this entire excursion has made me sit up and take more notice of Tan Jianci who really makes this potentially challenging role all his. He is just so good that I can’t imagine anyone else in it.