Link Click Is A Nail-Biting And Emotionally Complex Time-Travel Thriller From China

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

The question of what constitutes an "anime" is as old as it is complicated, involving culture, technology, business, and more. Is an animated show with fight scenes made by a Japanese studio anime? What about a show with English scripts written by an American, but directed, animated, and produced by Japanese animators? How about a fully-Japanese production, but one based on an American franchise?

With globalization and streaming, Western audiences have never been this exposed to animation from other countries, not just Japan, but even Korea and China. Donghua (Chinese animation) in particular has exploded in popularity in the past few years with blockbuster movies like "White Snake" and "Ne Zha." On the TV front, one of the most underseen shows of the 2021 season came from China: the fantastic time travel thriller "Link Click."

The show follows Cheng Xiaoshi and Lu Guang. For reasons unknown, Cheng can enter any photo he can see and possess someone in the photo to experience what they did, while Lu can retrace everything that happened within 12 hours of when the photo was taken. Together, they use their abilities to run a bit of a detective business out of a photography shop, offering their services to a variety of clients wanting to discover missing details about the past. When a case goes wrong, the two get involved in a murder case that gets closer and closer to home.

From there, the story evolves into a complex time-traveling thriller that is also an emotional story about regret. It also shows how donghua offers plenty of fresh new ideas for newcomers, and even weary anime fans tired of the same formulas. With season 2 officially on the way, there's never been a better time to catch up on this fantastic show.

What makes it great

A big problem with time travel stories is the question of how to best tackle the rules of time travel. Do you try to explain it enough that it feels realistic, or go for vague guidelines and ask the audience not to think about it? "Link Click" finds a good balance right away, establishing a clear set of rules from its opening scene, but without getting the show bogged down in too many details that take away from the fun of the story.

Indeed, from the very beginning, we learn that Cheng can only live inside the photo for 12 hours, he has to listen to everything Lu Guang says, and he absolutely cannot change the past. Like the "Gremlins" rules, they are clear enough and encompassing enough that we know how things work and what is at stake if they go wrong, yet vague enough to leave things open to future developments and to allow for suspension of disbelief.

Though most of the season deals with a case-of-the-week, it builds up to a nail-biting mystery involving a serial killer. "Link Click" is adept at building tension and slowly revealing the pieces of the puzzle, mostly because it does so through the eyes and reactions of the main characters, the way they feel about the revelations becoming more important than the actual reveal. An episode dedicated to a child abduction years prior becomes a ticking time bomb once Lu and Cheng's one chance to see the kidnapper's face is ruined by a distraction of their own making, and the ramifications are gripping.

Likewise, every episode is bookended with spectacular cliffhangers that feel straight out of "The Killing," with the musical score taking a page out of Hans Zimmer's "Dunkirk" score and making time itself an instrument, all before playing straight into the fantastic ending song — both the opening and the ending are certified bangers.

What it adds to the conversation

While anime like "Erased" and live-action shows like "Legends of Tomorrow" have already explored the idea of regret in time travel stories, "Link Click" manages to feel fresh in its familiarity. The struggle with wanting to change the past is still here, but the show focuses more on the idea of learning from the past in order to change the future. Since Lu and Cheng's clients don't know about their powers, the cases they take on tend to be more emotional than anything else — saying one last goodbye to a loved one before an accident, or finding a reason to mend a friendship, or discovering if your secret crush said something to you when you were drunk.

What makes these cases even more impactful is the fact that Cheng Xiaoshi completely takes over the person in the photo he's investigating, and shares their feelings, hopes, dreams, and memories. He knows he can't change the past for them, but maybe he can find something in the past that gives their present a new and better meaning. The result is a life-affirming show about letting go of past mistakes, and appreciating what you have.

Why non-anime fans should check it out

"Link Click" is a great time travel story that feels fresh and new. With a fantastic soundtrack and dazzling animation, it offers an alternative to Japanese anime, while still being recognizably different than the kind of animated shows we get in the West.

Watch This If You Like: "Erased," "Steins;Gate," "The Butterfly Effect."

"Link Click" is streaming on Crunchyroll, Funimation.