I have only watched one donghua—a Chinese animated series—and it is, full stop, one of the best series I have ever seen. You don’t have to just take my word for it either. As of writing this, LINK CLICK sits at the #23 spot of MyAnimeList’s Top Series list, above beloved, highly praised anime series and movies such as Cowboy Bebop and Spirited Away.
There are few feelings like sitting down to watch something and, within the span of 20 minutes, knowing that what you just watched and what’s to follow is important—that it means something—even if you can’t quite verbalize why or how.
For me, LINK CLICK is all of that and more.
What is LINK CLICK about?
Nestled between newer and more imposing buildings on a quiet city street is a small photo shop called Time Photo Studio. The place is green and alive. Moss and foliage creep over its roof, and the windowed façade is a warm forest green. The storefront is exactly what it sounds like—a place for fans of film photography to get their photos developed.
However, there’s another service the owners provide. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for Cheng Xiaoshi, it’s a portal to the past. He has the unique ability to dive into photos and experience the events those photos depict through the eyes of the photographer. Fellow photograph developer Lu Guang is his partner as he dives into these photos, keeping Cheng Xiaoshi on track and predicting what his next moves should be.
Their job isn’t anything as grandiose as saving the world from a terrible future, like Vivy -Fluorite Eye’s Song-, nor are they mad scientists stumbling into more than they bargained for, like Steins;Gate. Instead, they help others with tasks that often sound mundane on the surface—find the secret recipe an old business partner has, help someone say the words he never could to the person he loves.
Time travel (and maybe a little horror)
Only, these lives have already been lived. These are people who asked for help because they needed to do one last thing in a time long past that can never be revisited. Regret and longing permeates each and every frame of LINK CLICK. The desperation, sadness and remorse are palpable.
The past is exactly that. Things cannot be changed, not according to the rules Lu Guang has set up for the duo. Changing past events may feel simple in the moment, but it’s complicated. No matter what Cheng Xiaoshi tries, things don’t always happen according to his plan. Some things are fixed; so immutable that trying to do anything at all is like struggling against the tide.
In the end, nothing will change, and you may find yourself drowning, in over your head. Even when events can be shifted, the consequences can be far reaching, having completely unforeseen events that merely cause new, different regrets and wishes that can never be fulfilled.
The horror of this seeps in at the edges. Cheng Xiaoshi is acutely aware that his actions won’t always have the effect he wishes for. In fact, they probably won’t. After all, just because you fix something in a stranger’s already-lived life doesn’t mean that they won’t make the same mistakes, or that some other tragedy won’t befall them. Yet, he (and us) can’t help but long to make a difference.
A little of every genre
It is in this mundanity that the extraordinary happens. There is an overarching story, but LINK CLICK is quite episodic, with Cheng Xiaoshi slipping into a new life and a time long-since-passed in each episode. It’s here the series begins to truly shine.
Each episode takes on the guise of a different genre, all wrapped up in a neat fantasy/time travel/mystery bow. One moment you’re watching a sports series, and the next, you’re knee-deep in romance before effortlessly sliding into an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Each of these genres is executed perfectly, and you can’t help but become invested in the lives of both the main characters and their clients.
Not only that, but the pacing is flawless. Tenser episodes filled with nail-biting suspense and mysteries that even have Lu Guang scratching his head are often followed by more mellow tales that follow slice of life or shounen genre conventions. After the heart-wrenching Episode 5 that had me ugly crying, for example, we were let down off of the emotional cliff with the surprisingly fluffy and heartwarming Episode 5.5.
The heart and soul of people
LINK CLICK understands something about the human soul and human nature, and it communicates that in a way few series ever can. Each episode is a roller coaster of emotion. Within 20 or so short minutes we are wholly invested in the new life Cheng Xiaoshi is witnessing. Even though we already know the futures of those who’ve sought the main character’s help, we experience the same highs and lows they do, hoping beyond chance that they get themselves out of sticky situations at work, win that all-important game of basketball, or finally marry their soulmate.
There isn’t any judgment on Cheng Xiaoshi or Lu Guang’s behalf. People make mistakes. People love and live. Sometimes life is messy and confusing. Sometimes we lose our way. And that’s OK. Cheng Xiaoshi cares about each and every life he enters. Each one means something to him. He wants the best for each and every soul he encounters, never mind that he’s experiencing just a tiny snippet of past events.
Cheng Xiaoshi constantly struggles to follow his own time-traveling rules, and sometimes he can’t help but break them. Staying neutral and preserving the past is easy to claim but very difficult to do when you’re living someone else’s life, even with guidance. He can’t help but want the best for them, empathizing with their situations, even those that may have been self-created.
Yet, he learns the hard way that some things can’t be changed, that people can make the same mistake twice, and the outcome of meddling isn’t always as clear as it might seem.
Life, according to Cheng Xiaoshi
Many time-travel stories focus on the toll that changing the future can bring, but LINK CLICK does the opposite. What emotional toll does not changing the past have on the future? More importantly, what sort of effect does it have on you?
After all, these are just customers, ones who’ve already lived these events. In a few hours or days, they’ll be gone, happy that their personal mysteries were solved and regrets finally put to rest. Only, life doesn’t work that way. Other people’s lives affect you whether you want them to or not. Even if you only know them for 12 hours, they have a lasting impact on your life. And, just maybe, LINK CLINK isn’t quite as blatantly episodic as earlier episodes may make it appear.
What LINK CLICK shows us is the messy parts of life: the parts we wish had been different, the things we regret with all our soul, the things we would do anything to attain. It has the ability to rip your still-beating heart right out of your chest. No matter the character’s misdeeds or misunderstandings, we empathize with them. We care.
Because, as Cheng Xiaoshi says, “Everyone has a reason to try their best to live.” And, no matter who is struggling and pleading for that one bright guiding light in the dark, you can’t help but want to reach out a hand to help them, even when it’s scary.
LINK CLICK is the story of humanity, of facing our regrets and uncertain, sometimes scary futures. It is a story about humanity in all its messy, beautiful, heartbreaking beauty, and it is one that must be experienced.