Crime may have no borders, but justice can be found by crossing them. The recent C-drama When a Snail Falls in Love illustrates this in chilling detail in its travel through the sprawling cities of China and jungles of Myanmar. This high stakes drama combines mystery, police work, and a nice little side of romance to create a picture that is compelling in its portrayal of East Asian crime rings.
Chinese Name: 如果蜗牛有爱情
Genre: crime thriller, action, romance
Channel: Dragon TV
Number of Episodes: 21 episodes
Episode Length: 30 minutes
Recommended For: fans of the crime or suspense thriller genre
NOT Recommended For: viewers looking for a fluffy love story or comedy
Wang Kai as Ji Bai
Wang Ziwen as Xu Xu
Yu Heng as Zhao Han
Xue Yue as Yao Meng
Zhao Yuanyuan as Ye Zixi
When rookie police profiler Xu Xu is placed on the Major Crimes team, the leader of the team Ji Bai is less than happy to see her there. Xu Xu is eccentric: wickedly perceptive in her ability to decipher body language and make deductions, but lacking any sort of physical strength. Ji Bai only sees her as a hindrance to his team. He warns Xu Xu that should she not pass the physical exam at the end of her three month trial period, she’s out of the team for good. However, the police team is soon tasked with a case involving one of Ji Bai’s longtime friends Ye Zixi. Her family, the Ye family, run a corporation that is falling apart beneath its shiny facade. Even further beneath the financial struggles lurk connections to a much darker industry that spans across China’s borders. While Xu Xu uses her uncanny knack for criminal profiling to help her team in this case, she starts seeing a softer side to Ji Bai. Treating him as a teacher, she starts to learn more about what being a police officer really entails, and what sacrifices they must make. Based on the novel of the same name, When a Snail Falls in Love takes a dark premise and doesn’t sugarcoat it. Yet, the little bud of romance between Xu Xu and Ji Bai is there to blossom amongst dangerous missions and elusive criminals.
I actually was keeping up with When a Snail Falls in Love while it was airing back in 2016, but ended up dropping it for a bit during the mid-to-latter half. So despite this drama actually ending its run in December of 2016, I didn’t finish it until recently. I am, however, glad I took the time to pick it back up because this show ended up reminding me why I loved it so much to begin with.
This drama is rather misleadingly advertised as something much more “romance-centric” then it really is. The first trailer, which I will include below, is a good example of this. It’s all cute music and even cuter give-and-take flirting between our main leads. But while these scenes did occur in the drama, they aren’t the driving force of the story and overall give the show an image that is significantly more light-hearted than it really is. Someone checking out When a Snail Falls in Love expecting it to be a fluffy romance with some police badassery thrown into the mix would be sorely mistaken. Because the actual story is a lot more grim.
The second trailer is a much darker, but the first is undeniably more feel-good than the drama as whole. Even the title “When a Snail Falls in Love” seems to imply love is the driving force of the drama. Which, I will say right now, is completely untrue. But personally, I didn’t have an issue with this. I love a good slow build to a romance, and feel that it makes for a much more realistic relationship anyways. Additionally, because the romance was on the back-burner more often than not, other conflicts in the drama were allowed to take a center stage. And this allowed for a more dynamic, thrilling story of hard-fought justice.
I appreciated that the stakes of this drama were a significantly higher than the typical corporate shadiness that sometimes drives crime-related stories. Instead, the audience was given a frightening look into the industry of human trafficking in China, Thailand, and Myanmar. The director didn’t try to sugarcoat or glamorize how terrible these events are. And while that isn’t something that is particularly enjoyable to see, it is something I appreciated as a viewer. When a Snail Falls in Love begins as if it is a story about a family feud, but transforms into something far more complicated than corporate bigwigs scheming behind each others backs. And each success in the story is a reminder that while one criminal may have been caught, bigger issues lurk on the horizon. It’s a fairly realistic approach to the portrayal of police work and how their responsibilities, unfortunately, will never end.
And now to take a look at the actual progression of the story itself. If the screenwriters’ goal was to convince me to not trust anyone, it sure worked. There were points in time where I considered almost everyone a suspect except for our four leads. And while some guilty parties were more obvious than others, the inevitable reveal was still enjoyable. Additionally, the connection between the final conflict of the drama and infinitesimal details in the first episode was such a delight to watch. It really showed the forethought that had gone into the script. I love seeing a story come full circle and finally answer questions I forgot I even had to begin with. This drama really shined in its nuance and I would highly recommend anyone having a first watch to pay special addition to the details, even the seemingly insignificant ones. I myself have half a mind to go back and watch the whole thing over again to catch it all.
However, I think my biggest issue with When a Snail Falls in Love would have to be the pacing. Perhaps because the episodes were so short, I felt that some were basically filler with very little critically important, or altogether interesting, happening in them. A little too much time was spent on shots of the actors and actresses looking serious and concerned. I do understand the tactic of trying to build suspense and create a sense of doom and gloom. But I think the screenwriters passed this point a little too often. And yet on the opposite side of the spectrum were the episodes that were jam-packed with action and big reveals. It made sense that not all episodes could maintain this action and energy, but the balance was just a little off to me.
In a way, this series feels like a very long movie cut into 21 episodes. That is to say, the character and plot development as a whole wasn’t flawed, but the structure of the story left some episodes quite sparse in the amount of significant events occurring in them while others were the exact opposite. Some episodes definitely ended on a cliffhanger, à la your typical drama ending scene. But other episodes seemed to cut off at a point that neither struck me with finality nor left me guessing. It just seemed like some episodes were cut at the 30 minute mark, rather than paced to be a 30 minute facet of the overarching plot line. And while that isn’t uncommon for C-dramas, it certainly isn’t satisfying.
I will say straight out: I liked both main leads. I can’t say I loved them, and Xu Xu definitely took some getting used to, but overall they were solid, distinctive characters. Xu Xu seems like a less prickly version of the BBC Sherlock at first glance, but I think her character is more complex than a “socially awkward genius” caricature. Her growth in the story was a testament to that. Be it the result of character development or just good writing, I ended up leaving the drama with a much greater appreciation for her than what I went in with.
Similarly, my opinion of Ji Bai changed over time as well. I initially felt that Ji Bai was borderline “gruff male lead that is rude to female lead to hide his softer side.” But this isn’t really the case. Ji Bai’s character seems to be one that genuinely values… well, valuable people on a team that can pull their weight. There was no underlying repressed sexual attraction or needless angst behind his initial wish to remove her from the team. He was just thinking of what was best for everyone, and I can respect that. Should he have been a little more accommodating to Xu Xu and actually allowed her to show her skills before making judgements? Well, yes. But I don’t think this made him into the “selfless jerk” type that many male drama leads seem to fall into.
The lack of contrived love triangles present between our four main leads was also quite refreshing to see. Each of these characters had distinctive relationships with each other – be it role model, mentor, crush, or friend – and none overlapped for needless drama. I also appreciated that the second leads had their own personal struggles on the side, independent of the main love story. Yao Meng’s issues towards the latter half of the drama in particular are just one aspect of this drama that really made me appreciate it for being something bigger than a thriller. She is introduced as a kick-ass police officer in a sort of foil to Xu Xu’s character. But one bad decision will throw this all into question and we as the audience must watch as Yao Meng relearn to build her confidence. It’s important that this occurs as Xu Xu is reaching her peak physical strength and pushing boundaries in her police work as well. There’s an interesting role dynamic swap there that I think was quite intentional.
In comparison, Zhao Han seemed almost to be a supporting character for a supporting character. Because while he certainly had his own personal problems, his actions came back to Yao Meng more often than not. And his awkward attempts to woo her provided most of the comic relief in the very dark landscape of the drama. I don’t think this made his character development flawed in any way though. It just seemed that Yao Meng, as the second female lead, ultimately had more issues to face. However, Zhao Han’s biggest conflict unconnected to Yao Meng got a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, in my opinion. This is because we as the audience see that it is resolved, yet don’t see the “how” of it. Without revealing any major spoilers, let’s just say that time skips are not a very good way to fix a problem off-screen. They are perhaps any easy way, but it leaves more questions than answers in the end.
On a bit of a tangent: one thing to prepare for when watching When a Snail Falls in Love is the constant influx of new characters. This is a dilemma that’s fairly typical of crime dramas, but it didn’t stop me from getting a little confused with the amount of new names and faces being sent my way. It was fairly easy to distinguish the expandable from more significant characters, so that at least narrowed the lens of whom to keep track of. But it didn’t make it any easier to remember why I should dislike Baddie #3 or which face to place to a name I heard seven episodes ago.
I have absolutely nothing to nitpick about either of the main leads’ performances in When a Snail Falls in Love. Wang Kai and Wang Ziwen were both fantastic in their roles, and carefully portrayed their characters without overacting or being wooden. There was a naturalness to each of their performances and I felt like I was watching two people interact on screen, rather than two characters.
It’s strange in that I almost felt Wang Ziwen’s performance was a little too blank as Xu Xu in the earlier episodes. I realized later on that it wasn’t her acting that was the problem, but just how emotionally detached her character initially was. Wang Ziwen did do an excellent job of capturing the no-nonsense attitude of Xu Xu, but also showing how she softens over time. And when her emotion came out, and the tears get aflowing, boy does she deliver. In fact, Wang Ziwen may have shown some of the most realistic crying I’ve seen in an Asian drama. Ever. And I have to commend her for that.
Wang Kai performed similarly well in his role. I do feel that he didn’t have to emote as much as Xu Xu, and his acting didn’t pack as much as an emotional punch for me. But that was unrelated to the way he actually performs. He manages to not turn Ji Bai into a Gary Stue likeable-yet-unlikeable kind of character and instead showcased emotions that were believable and nuanced for such a serious man like Ji Bai. His character could have easily been played as boring or one-dimensional, but Wang Kai brought to life a person that was both charming and absolutely lethal when he needed to be. And while this wasn’t really a factor in either of the leads control, seeing tiny little Wang Ziwen next to Wang Kai was the perfect juxtaposition of their two roles. I don’t know if it was just good casting or a happy accident, but it really added a fun element to their dynamic. Visually, they couldn’t be more different. And this suited the little snail and lion depictions Xu Xu drew to represent herself and Ji Bai respectively.
Even the side characters showcased believable acting in a variety of different scenarios. When a Snail Falls in Love looks professional, from the performances to the cinematography, and this is definitely aided by the ensemble cast. Everyone pulled their weight and even characters that would only appear briefly fit in seamlessly to the piece. Just about everything felt simply natural. If I had to be ornery about one person, it would only be Xue Yue as Yao Meng. I sensed an awkwardness to her that didn’t quite fit with the confident, beautiful character of Yao Meng. But I will say she played Yao Meng’s attitude of forced cheerfulness well, particularly near the end of the show. So I shan’t complain too much.
The soundtrack of When a Snail Falls in Love was not one of the most noticeable aspects of the drama. That isn’t to say that it was bad however. It just didn’t leave a huge impact on me personally. I think this is largely due to the fact that most of the music used was instrumentals tailored to suit the scene they were in, be it a melancholy tune for a sad moment or quick-moving piece for an action sequence. There was one instrumental in particular I found to be quite haunting. But overall I would just call them good for what they were there for: setting the scene. The only OST I remember with actual lyrics is the ending theme song, which popped up here and there throughout the run time of the drama as well. It was a slow, mellow track that seemed to fit the most heartbreaking moments of the story.
Interestingly enough, the opening theme is much more peppy and upbeat than this show’s ending song. It’s a bit like the opening theme preps you for the action and intrigue to come, while the closing theme reminds you have the hardships these characters have endured. It also highlights their resilience to move forward, so don’t let me convince you it’s dreary. There’s something hopeful about it, even with its somber sound. So overall, this OST gets a thumbs up from me. It’s not a round of applause, but I have nothing bad to say about the chosen music, even if I’m not singing its praises.
The cinematography was hands down one of the best things about this drama. When a Snail Falls in Love was shot like a high budget film. Nothing felt forced or staged, transitions were smooth and seamless, and the attention to detail was striking. Particularly, the establishing shots of scenery and setting were some of the most impressive aspects of the drama as a whole. The cast really traveled to visit these different locations and the camera crew wanted to let the audience know this. It made the drama seem hyper-realistic in this aspect because more than a set, the scenery looked like something you’d see in a documentary of East Asia. And that was because the director set the actors and actresses smack down in the middle of these towns and filmed.
And I just want to say how much I appreciated the action scenes in this drama. They felt realistic, were shot in a way that was dynamic yet not just a blur of motion, and lacked the cheesy Matrix-style fighting that is so prevalent in Chinese dramas. I think I only counted one moment in When a Snail Falls in Love where I thought “Hmm, no way can a human being fly through the air like that.” One moment in a drama jam-packed with action sequences is quite an impressive track record for a C-drama to me. I am not a fan of seeing people hover in the air dramatically for 20 seconds as they do a spinning kick to all their foes for the sake of a “wow” factor. It just comes off a cheesy and dated, which this drama fortunately avoided in their hyper-realistic fistfights. When weapons were involved, things moved equally as fast. Guns don’t take long to fire, and lives can be lost just as immediately. And When a Snail Falls in Love was quick to remind the audience of this.
The thematic material incorporated into this drama is another noteworthy aspect. The story has romance, I suppose, at the root of it. But it really felt more like a tale of loss, guilt, courage, and acceptance. When a Snail Falls in Love is separate from some of the more lighted-hearted detective dramas out there. The psychological trauma police officers go through while failing to save the citizens they’ve sworn to protect is something I don’t think Asian crime-related dramas always address. Perhaps because of just how violent this drama really got, the losses felt realistic and jarring. It made the whole drama a little uncertain on who would live or die, because the writers showed early on that an easy out to save everyone was simply not possible.
The animal representations Xu Xu draws for her coworkers and herself were good uses of symbolism throughout the drama, but it did feel a bit heavy-handed sometimes. I am vaguely aware that this was part of the original story but it seemed like the writers struggled somewhat to include these pictorial representations in a purposeful and engaging way. They were drawn beautifully, for sure, but even their use in final conflict of the story left me scratching my head a bit. All in all, they were a good way to give a new type of visual presentation for some of the characters. But they weren’t particularly useful otherwise. The most I can say they did was propel the love story a bit, but even the circumstances of that were slightly iffy to me.
As I said before, romance did feature in this drama though it did not take a forefront. More than illustrating a heart pounding love story, I think Jia Bai and Xu Xu’s relationship was a classic testament of the age-old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s a fairly universal sentiment. And while we as the audience can’t place ourselves exactly in the genius mind of Xu Xu, her struggle to prove herself and dissuade preconceived notions about her worth is something I think will speak to most people. I wasn’t swept off my feet by the chemistry between the two, but I still enjoyed them as a couple. Overall, I think the development of their relationship showed how love can blossom from mutual respect over more superficial traits.
Finally, family featured as a major theme throughout the drama. Primarily, it was the internal conflicts and secrets of the Ye family that took center stage. This is a family full of people you immediately want to typecast as simply “bad,” or maybe in Ye Zixi’s case “good.” But as the story progresses you see that things are lot more complicated than that. Some “bad” people are motivated by very good intentions, while other “good” people are more cruel than thought possible. At the root of this conflict is the sacrifices people will make – either for their family as individuals or to keep the family name. The Ye family’s struggle isn’t something immediately relatable, given their wealth and prestige. But the personal conflicts the family members face are just more twisted versions of the friction many families may feel.
Overall, this drama was a beautifully shot, wonderfully acted work. When a Snail Falls in Love manages to convey a very dark tale in an interesting way with just a little romance thrown in. While it lacked a certain something that made me want to stick with it through its entire run while airing, as a whole it is an impressive work. So if anyone is looking for a slightly romantic crime-thriller series that won’t take too long to watch through, this drama gets a definite recommendation from me.