Rise of the Phoenixes (2018) seamlessly combines palace politics, humor, friendship, family, betrayal and triumph around Ning Yi (Chen Kun) and Zhi Wei (Ni Ni), creating one of the most compelling couples to appear in historical Chinese drama. I don’t add couples to my All-Time Favorite Asian Drama Couple List easily, but they are on it, despite that fact that for most of this drama, they are actually not even together.
This is a gorgeous drama, but gorgeous in ways that are different from the very opulent Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace. The various robes worn by the male characters, with large sleeves and various textures, are only rivaled by Zhi Wei’s outfits. When she isn’t going undercover as a male scholar, Zhi Wei sports flowing dresses with long trains, accessorized by dainty earrings. Her hair is always on point, usually arranged in a high but not elaborate do. Speaking of hair, can we talk about when Ning Yi is just chilling in his palace and has all of his hair down? Can we?!!!!
The dynamic between Ning Yi and Zhi Wei isn’t your typical romance, in the sense that they do not spend extended periods of time in each other’s company developing their relationship. Ning Yi is focused on clearing his dead brother’s name and acting the literal fool in front of his father in the palace. I mean really, how many times does he overact and roll all over the floor? I love it! Meanwhile, Zhi Wei has her own dysfunctional home life to deal with. Let’s face it: I woulda stabbed her brother in the neck before he became a teenager. He is a brat, and responsible for some of the worst tragedy she experiences.
What I really like, though, is the way they have each other’s back. During this long-simmering romance, despite her protests to the contrary, she is down for Ning Yi, and even though he denies it to his closest confidantes, he’s going to protect his raccoon to the end. One of my favorite saves is when, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, Ning Yi gets caught by Ning Sheng (Shi An), who does the equivalent of a paternity test to suggest that Ning Yi isn’t even part of the royal family (a bold move, my friend!). Even though she’s not clear on what’s going on, she does know that Ning Yi is trouble, and comes through in the end! My girl! Then they both laugh about it afterwards.
It’s this kind of seamless transition from, “Oh my goodness we’re gonna die” to “wasn’t that funny” that makes Rise of the Phoenixes so compelling. Of all the obstacles they have to overcome, easily the most frustrating is Bloody Pagoda and the remnants of the previous dynasty. What I never understand is why Zhi Wei so readily believes any and everything they tell her. Ok, I get it, her mom is a member, but she should see that she’s a little too ride-or-die for them. Once Zhi Wei understands the full story, she still goes along with their plans. Worse, she is constantly manipulated by them. She’s not dumb; she should be able to see how their plan is futile and just a series of acts of revenge on the Emperor rather than a quest for justice. Plus, these people are unnecessarily violent! Zhi Wei talks about all the blood on Ning Yi’s hands, but what about Bloody Pagoda? They aren’t called bloody for nothing! It’s also a bit annoying how Ning Yi is keeping hope alive, even when his emperor father tries to kill Zhi Wei, but she’s always, “Ok, this is it!” I’ma need her to commit!
In addition to the relationship between Ning Yi and Zhi Wei are a slew of supporting characters that are equally compelling. Xin Ziyan (Zhao Lixin) is Ning Yi’s right hand man, with his crazy, extra, always-doing-surveillance wife, and penchant for meeting in the brothel. I love their relationship, because both are committed (at the beginning) to serving the country and getting justice for Ning Yi’s brother, but as the drama continues, Ning Yi begins to question their quest, and Ziyan pays such a high price for it. I love a good brotherhood subplot, and theirs is great! And we can’t forget about Head Eunuch (Hou Yansong). He’s always rooting for Ning Yi, yet he can’t do anything when new fake consort comes sidling up next to the Emperor after the death of Ning Yi’s mom. But my favorite has to be Ning Cheng (He Lei), Ning Yi’s bodyguard. I love how he’s always with the low-key backtalk and questioning of Ning Yi. But Ning Yi trusts him implicitly.
Despite all things I like about this drama, there are some things that I don’t, and number one on my list is the ENDING! It doesn’t make any sense. Would the over-emotional Ning Yi we’ve all come to know and love be like “whatevs” when Zhi Wei doesn’t show up? PLEASE! I know I was not alone in my dislike for the ending, which contradicts the book. I wouldn’t mind a second season, especially since we have loose ends to tie up, not the least of which is I DIDN’T SEE ZHI WEI’S BODY! You know that’s the first rule of drama. What’s going to happen to Ziyan? How long will it take Ning Qi to regain his senses and hatch a revenge plan? Do we really think that the King of Jinshi can die under your watch and his people aren’t going to come and ask some questions? I GOT QUESTIONS!
Rise of the Phoenixes: Moving Forward and Giving Up Are Two Different Things by CeeFu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.