On Children is a Netflix Original Series that explores familial dysfunction, societal pressure and parental obsession through the lens of genre fiction.
It has been a good week for Netflix’s international programming. Wednesday saw the release of Switched, a live-action Original Series adapted from the manga by Shiki Kawabata. I liked it, and most people who have binged it since then seem to like it too. Yesterday, the Indian dark-comedy Brij Mohan Amar Rahe hit the platform on the heels of Indian Original Series Sacred Games. I wasn’t a fan, but it was a Hindi film that felt, in a lot of ways, quite unlike a Hindi film, devoid of ostentatious Bollywood clichés. In a sense, that’s the appeal, and it’ll likely be the appeal of Taiwanese anthology series On Children, which dropped today, and has a willingness to descend into darkness that most Chinese-language TV dramas simply lack.
On Children arrives as something of a counterpoint to Meteor Garden, another, more traditional Chinese drama which premiered last month and has continued to belch out six episodes at a time every week since. (The first season ordered 48 episodes.) On Children is, thankfully, shorter – the five-episode first season began airing on Netflix in Asian territories last month. But the individual episodes are feature-length, some topping out at around two hours, so the show isn’t easily consumed.
But On Children, adapted from the novel of the same name written by Taiwanese author Xiaole Wu, and directed by Golden Bell Award Winner and Director of Year of the Rain, Chen Hui Ling, isn’t intended to be easily consumed at any level, least of all in terms of convenience. It uses elements of sci-fi and horror to examine Asian familial relationships, highlighting the severe stress of both responsibility and expectation, and painting a not entirely favourable portrait of the sacred bond between parent and child.
The first episode, “Mother’s Remote”, is a cautionary tale of technology in which a mother (Ko Su-yun) buys a remote that can turn back time in her teenage son’s life. The son, played by Liu Tzu-chuan, is typical in that he is less interested in passing his exams than he is in lusting after a girl. Seems familiar. But I dread to think what might have happened if my mother could have me repeat the same tutoring class again and again, or wipe my crush from my memory. Needless to say, and as might be familiar from the speculative episodes of something like Black Mirror, to which On Children owes a debt, this kind of thing never, ever turns out well.
“Child of the Cat” is almost flat-out horror, concerning another student (Liu Hsiu-fu) terrorised by overbearing parents who rebels by butchering kittens. “The Last Day of Molly” is a parent’s-eye-view of teen suicide (featuring more nascent technology), “Peacock” does indeed feature a peacock, and “ADHD Is Necessary” explores how the social standing of parents is affected by the accomplishments – or lack thereof – of their children.
These are premises that just read aloud are faintly horrifying, which is entirely the point of On Children. It’s filtering universal anxieties through outlandish ideas and technologies, but the effect is that they become more understandable, more real. Almost all of us have, at one point, fretted about being able to live up to our parents’ ideals. This is a show that offers advice not just on children, as the title implies, but on parents; what it means to be one, and what it means to help a child find their place in the world.