Having covered the Xiao Chuo’s sisters in a previous post, it’s time to get to the main couple of The Legend of Xiao Chuo: Xiao Yanyan (Tiffany Tang) and Han Derang (Shawn Dou)! While these two may not spend the bulk of the drama together, they are literally a ride or die pair!
Yanyan and Derang start out like many couples in historical Chinese dramas. In their case, Yanyan is the spirited daughter of the prime minister, blissfully ignorant of the political intrigue swirling at the highest levels of government as she lives her best life. Derang is the well-spoken-of young man making a name for himself despite not being born on the grassland. Of course these two come to like each other. Then, tragedy strikes! Political shenanigans result in a coup (one of several!) and #TeamRighteous wins! It turns out, Derang plays a part in this, working with Yanyan’s father and the newly crowned emperor (oh, we’ll get to this punk in a minute).
Our intrepid couple’s future is shattered by, of all people, the new emperor. What was once a trio of heroes is destroyed when Xian Mingyi (Jing Chao), our new emperor, decides he needs to jack his best friend’s (Derang) girl, Yanyan. Out of all the women on the grassland, he needs his best friend’s girl. No one buys his justifications: empresses traditionally come from her family; she’s the smartest person; she needs to help the state. Mingyi thought she was cute used his power as emperor to “confer” a marriage on her. Full stop.
Such betrayal is central to the plot, but I have to say I was surprised at Yanyan and Derang’s reaction. First, Derang is UP-SET and lets Mingyi know about it in no uncertain terms. After laying him out, he goes straight to Yanyan, explains the situation and proposes DEFYING THE ROYAL ORDER, and her response is basically, “Say less,” AND THEY RIDE! They might be quasi-friends with the emperor, but they have no guarantee that he won’t whack them for defying the imperial edict. They don’t care. They try to bounce and I respect them for that. They know the risks and they are willing to take them together.
Of course, this plan does not work. They are caught, by Yanyan’s older sister no less, who has to literally beat down Derang to break them up. But joke’s on Mingyi, because even though Yanyan enters the palace and is the best empress ever and Derang becomes a notable official, they remain committed to each other. They are both upstanding citizens working for the good of the state, despite Mingyi’s shady behavior. He is low key(?) resentful of their relationship for the rest of his life. THEN, he has the audacity to take some chick he meets in a field as a concubine and leaves Yanyan to find out about it on these royal streets! She is literally the last to know. He embarrasses her as she’s running the country because he’s too sick, but he has enough energy to find a new concubine. He knows he’s wrong and can’t even explain himself. And let’s just say she isn’t on Yanyan’s level.
After many trials, happily, our intrepid couple eventually get their life together as Mingyi FINALLY kicks the bucket. They earned it. Even though C-drama couples often encounter troubles, for a brief, shining moment, at least this couple did not resign themselves to their fate.
The Legend of Xiao Chuo is about our feisty protagonist Yanyan (Tiffany Tang), but central to its plot is her relationship with her sisters, Wuguli (Lu Shan) and Hunian (Charmaine Sheh). How do we go from sisters are doing it for themselves to two sisters out for themselves? The disintegration of the sisterly bond is caused by putting jerky guys ahead of family.
I’m just going to say it: it’s all Wuguli’s fault! From the time she first steps into the drama, this second sister is suspect. Other characters frequently admit that she’s always been this way: spoiled, selfish and out for self. But when she decides to try to save that punk Xiyin (Ji Chen) by leaving the house with the travel token she steals from her father, she puts all of them on a path that can only end badly and puts him ahead of her family. I would have left her in jail.
And let’s talk about Xiyin for a minute. Let me get this straight: you and your father poorly plan out an attempted coup, fail, then blame the emperor who you know is going to retaliate violently, but somehow you still vow to get the throne. Okaaaaaaay, but all of Xiyin’s subsequent attempts fail too and when they do, he resorts to even more crazy and outlandish plans. Methinks that you are not smart enough to be on the throne.
It is Wuguli’s never-ending support of Xiyin that causes the breakdown of the sisterhood. I don’t know how she thinks that supporting Xiyin’s quest for the throne does not equal hurting her sister. For example, Wuguli knows that he’s trying to hurt not only her sister but the royal heir she’s carrying when they go to punish the guys who kill their father, but only at the last minute saves her from the plot. Wuguli always manages to rationalize Xiyin’s plans and stick with her man. This comes to a climax when Xiyin (and his punky son) are killed during YET ANOTHER coup attempt. So instead of admitting her bad decision-making, Wuguli doubles down and hatches a plan to get rid of her own sister. HER. OWN. SISTER. Aaaaaaand paints herself as a victim, blaming her sister for killing her husband, you know, during the coup attempt. I have no sympathy for her.
I have bit more sympathy for Hunian, Yanyan’s long-suffering oldest sister. She’s the one who takes for fall for Wuguli’s poor choices and marries Yansage (Tan Kai) to get her sister out of jail and save her family from punishment. She constantly tries to cut Wuguli slack and is routinely disappointed. She’s no-nonsense and usually does what needs to be done.
But like Wuguli, she starts to rationalize the bad behavior of her power-hungry husband. She knows that Yansage is the bad emperor’s brother who has enabled his violent behavior. When he misses his opportunity to stop the successful coup by Mingyi and Han Derang, he also starts plotting the long game to get the throne. During his coup attempt, he manages to kill Hunian’s maid, cause Hunian to lose their child and locks her up while he storms the castle. Of course, the coup does not work, and he’s mortally wounded in the process.
I’m willing to cut Hunian some slack: after all, they were married and over time she developed feelings for him even though he’s a jerk. And you would think she would be the last person to turn against Yanyan. But before she kicks the bucket, Wuguli tells Hunian that Yanyan was responsible for Yansage’s death (you know, during the coup where he was dead set on killing her on his way to seizing the throne). Hunian stops speaking to her sister for years as she guards the Northern border.
Here’s where Hunian starts to go off the rails and disregards her sisterly bond. She picks up some random stable boy and makes him a general, then lets him disrespect her empress sister! Then, she chooses said random stable boy over her sister when she breaks him out of prison for his attempted assassination of the emperor, Yanyan’s son and Hunian’s nephew. She’s totally shocked when troops show up on the northern border and deliver punishment for, you know, attempting to kill the emperor. If this was anybody else, she’d be eliminated for helping an assassin try to kill the emperor but Yanyan spares her life. And Hunian is mad for years after. C’mon girl.
Both Hunian and Wuguli blame Yanyan for disregarding the sisterly bond. But, if their judgement were not clouded by their relationships with jerky men, they would see that it was their choices that destroyed the sisterhood.
Even though Yanyan starts out as willful, she develops into a responsible empress and regent. (Oh, there will be a separate post on Yanyan and Han Derang!). She is always trying to preserve the sisterly bond. Even though Xiyin schemes on multiple occasions, she cuts him slack because of Wuguli, never punishing him to the extent he deserves. When Yanyan hears about Hunian’s shenanigans on the northern border, she tries to be understanding. But let’s be clear: when you try to usurp the throne or kill an emperor, you need to be prepared to pay the cost for failure. I really resent both Hunian and Wuguli blaming Yanyan for what their husbands did, painting her as some power-hungry empress who disregards the family bond. Yanyan has no choice but to ultimately eliminate the jerky men who happen to be husbands to her sisters.
While everybody and their sister were watching Story of Yanxi Palace, I watched Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace. Ruyi is the heroine Chinese palace drama has been waiting for. While she didn’t ask to be put in this situation, she handled it her way.
Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace is a lavish production, showing you what it means to be in the palace. I loved Ruyi’s outfits and especially her hair! But all of that does not erase the tensions of the story. Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace follows the life of our titular heroine after she enters the palace along with several other concubines. Prior to this, Ruyi (Zhou Xun) and Hongli (Wallace Huo) were childhood friends who managed to form a relationship because Hongli was not emperor material. However, that all changes with a significant royal death, and suddenly, it matters who Hongli marries. She didn’t even want to be in the running to marry Hongli. She was willing to let him go live his best royal life. But no! He coaxes her into showing up for the selection, and while she’s not chosen as first wife, she is obviously the one most favored by Hongli.
Hongli is played superbly by Huo, but that doesn’t stop him from being a punk. As usual, palace shenanigans ensue, because people do not like Ruyi for a whole host of reasons, few of which actually have to do with her. And while I was entertained by the way Ruyi and Hongli used Chinese poetry as code, I was not down for the way Hongli always thought the worst of Ruyi when the other wenchy concubines accused her of some thing or other. That’s supposed to be your girl! For a long time, Ruyi accepted it because she knew deep inside he was rooting for her but had to put on a show for the Empress Dowager and the court to keep its support. Even after she’s framed and sent to concubine prison (i.e. the cold unused palace), had an attempt on her life and saved other innocent concubines several times over, Hongli eventually had her back.
Until he didn’t. After Ruyi becomes the empress and one of his children dies, somehow he blames Ruyi. She wasn’t even around and it was clearly somebody else. Ruyi is heartbroken when Hongli suggest they “take a break” (what do you mean take a break, we’re married). Ruyi spends a lot of time in her palace thinking about it, and then she decides, she’s done. DONE! When Hongli completely loses his mind, has a mid-life crisis and starts hanging out in the equivalent of club, Ruyi doesn’t care. The other concubines then start to appreciate Ruyi and the way she kept Hongli on the straight and narrow, and they come whining to her to correct him. The last straw is when Hongli starts to neglect his emperor duties and cast shame on his position, and Ruyi goes to the house party boat to confront him. Thus begins one of the best scenes in Chinese historical drama I’ve ever seen. Hongli is whining about how Ruyi won’t let him have a good time, then he calls her out of her name. That’s it! Ruyi drops the mic: she picks up a knife, and cuts off a piece of her hair, drops it on slow motion, turns and leaves. Hongli is speechless, because this is effectively a divorce.
What makes Ruyi awesome is that she doesn’t change her mind afterwards. She doens’t regret it, and doesn’t care what other people think. She never falls for Hongli’s lame apologies, because she realized that he’s not the same. She sits in her palace and sews and gardens. She is utterly unconcerned with Hongli. Hongli does drive-by’s on her palace to peek to see her, but she pays him no mind. So he’s not around when she dies, and it’s only years later when he shows some form of repentance. Ruyi, like many women in palace dramas, are in situations where they have little control over their circumstances. But that doesn’t mean they just have to take it. Ruyi lives her life on her own terms, and in the end, she’s probably the happiest person in the palace.
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!
Nothing raises the ire of the K-pop fan like having a mainstream media outlet provide sloppy coverage of K-pop. More often than not, writers for these outlets simply don’t know what they are talking about.
Those who have been K-pop fans for a while feel ambivalent when they see a mainstream media outlet run a K-pop-related story. While some may see it as an opportunity to share K-pop with more people, others realize that such articles tend to get things wrong about K-pop. This isn’t just the hurt feelings of sensitive K-pop fans. As two recent stories show, there are reasons why such coverage is often sub par. Alexis Petridis wrote a review of BTS: Love Yourself for The Guardian, while Amanda Petrusich ventured to explain the current “success” of K-pop in the United States in The New Yorker.
While Petridis and Petrusich write for different media outlets, they do share one thing. They do not regularly cover K-pop. Petrusich has never written for K-pop during her time as a staff writer for The New Yorker. Going back as far as 2015, Petridis has never offered a review of a K-pop release, and it is likely that he too has never written about K-pop. Writers often write about things they haven’t written about before, but writers also tend to become somewhat knowledgeable about what they write. Here is the problem: most writers of mainstream media outlets who write about K-pop fail to do so.
Some of the assertions made by Petridis with no evidence include the resistance of Western audiences to K-pop. The increase in K-pop tours around the world as well as the expansion of the KCON franchise seems to suggest otherwise) Petridis seems to have picked up the more sensational coverage of K-pop and perhaps missed the deeper elements of articles that provide a more contextualized exploration of K-pop. John Seabrook’s “Factory Girls: Cultural Technology and the Making of K-pop” comes to mind. Other parts of the review drip with condescension for both the group (“their hair styled in matching bushy bowl cuts with the weirdly thrilling, millimetre-perfect synchronicity favoured by K-pop choreographers”) and their fans (“No aspect of their career is too minor for fans to vlog about”). Even for a review, little attention is given to the actual music.
Similarly, Petrusich demonstrates a lack of background knowledge. She asserts, “K-pop stars are selected, frequently as children, for their good looks, and then aggressively minded and groomed for success by teams of producers and managers.” However, even a cursory search will reveal that most trainees are teenagers and are chosen because they have talent, which is recognized during the audition. The condescending tone remains: “I found it briefly disconcerting to see studied determination applied to something like club dancing—a practice that is, at least in theory, rooted in spontaneous expression, a kind of carnality—but then I set aside my scruples and immediately started trying to learn the moves so that I, too, could look awesome.” This statement completely ignores the existence of choreographers responsible for creating such detailed dances, including a number of who come from the United States after working with high-profile acts. Of course, there is the often-repeated statement that BTS differs from their forebears by participating in the creation of their own music. (See my article, “The Creative Input of K-pop Artists,” which documents this practice going all the way back to the original “idol” group, H.O.T).
Such treatment is not reserved just for K-pop. Most mainstream media outlets will cover what they see as trendy popular culture in much the same way because they reserve research for more “important” topics. But for writers, getting it right, no matter the topic, should be important.
Alexis Petridis. “BTS: Love Yourself: Tear Review – K-pop’s Biggest Band Keep Ploughing On.” The Guardian. 18 May 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/may/18/bts-love-yourself-tear-review-k-pop (5 Jun 2018).
Amanda Petrusich. “Two Theories on How K-pop Made It To No.1 In America.” The New Yorker. 29 May 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/two-theories-on-how-k-pop-made-it-to-no-1-in-america (5 Jun 2018).
“드라마 Drama (feat. Kim Sung-Kyu)” is on Primary’s Pop EP (2017). As most people know, Primary (Choi Dong Hoon) is one of my favorite producers, working most often with musical acts on the Amoeba Culture label. With this release, however, he’s leaving his usual hip-hop environment to bring his groovy goodness to more pop-oriented fare. For “Drama,” he teams up with INFINITE‘s Sung Kyu. “Drama” blends Primary’s reliable rhythm-driven instrumentation with Sung Kyu’s melodious vocals that seem to have a bit more swing to them than with his work with INFINITE and his solo work. This is definitely working for me.
The What I’m Listening To series seeks to share deeper cuts and tracks that may be overlooked with the goal of expanding perceptions and enjoyment of K-pop music.
1theK. “[MV] Primary(프라이머리) _ Drama (Feat. Kim Sung-Kyu)(드라마 (Feat. 김성규)).” YouTube. 30 Aug 2017. https://youtu.be/Z3QKQvaCJa8 (17 Jun 2018).
J.K. “Update: INFINITE’s Sunggyu Reveals More Photos For “10 Stories” Comeback.” soompi. 13 Feb 2018. https://www.soompi.com/2018/02/13/watch-infinites-sunggyu-reveals-first-teaser-comeback/ (17 Jun 2018).
“Primary(4).” Discogs. https://www.discogs.com/artist/1681239-Primary-4 (17 Jun 2018).
Everything is at stake from the first episode of Secret of Three Kingdoms. The imperial family is on a mission and the odds are against them, meaning that all hands should be on deck. But are all hands really on deck? At any rate, I’m here for it!
This drama had me at Three Kingdoms. It could have been called Random Villager A in Province 2 and I would be on it. I love Three Kingdoms! Due to its length, complexity and sheer number of characters, it lends itself to multiple treatments. The team behind Secret of Three Kingdoms have taken some liberties, but I’m not mad. It still sets up the kind of power dynamics that drive all good dramas.
From the first episode, you can tell that times are perilous! What makes this drama a little different are secret motives and shaky alliances among a group of people who do not really have a lot of power. Back in the capital, the royal family is engaged in a polite war with Cao Cao, and many have already been sacrificed. No one is safe! Out in the countryside, villagers are having a hard time, subject to random attacks by bandits. Things are rough.
In the midst of the intrigue, the tension between Liu Xie (Ma Tiyuan) and Fu Shou (Regina Wan) draws your attention because they seem to want the same thing, but have two radically different ways of achieving it. On one hand, wide-eyed Liu Xie rolls in all high and mighty with his armchair tactics and compassion. Under normal circumstances, this works, but I don’t think he fully understands how the royal family has been living under Cao Cao. The imperial family is desperate, which is why Fu Shou is constantly giving Liu Xie the side-eye when he does not fully grasp the situation. It’s not like they haven’t tried other things. Liu Xie doesn’t fully recognize that Fu Shou, the former emperor and Tang Ying (Dong Jie), the princess consort have been dealing with this situation for a while. Where has Liu Xie been? Chillin’ with his homie Sima Yi (Elvis Han) in the country. I need him to show a little more respect! On the other hand, because they have been on the front lines of this domestic war with Cao Cao, the royal family has lost some of its compassion and humanity (some?). They do tend to go with the extreme plan and overkill. There are alternatives. I certainly hope that they will learn to trust each other and become closer.
Speaking of Sima Yi, Liu Xie needs to keep an eye on him. While Sima Yi likes to denigrate the royal family, he is just as guilty of trying to control Liu Xie. He will use all kinds of means to get what he wants as well. Hey, instead of criticizing the royal family, why don’t you come up with a plan, Sima Yi? Or better yet, why don’t you get ready for the return of Guo Jia, who never makes a mistake? Be of some use! Guo Jia deserves special mention, because Sunny Wang is doing this character justice. He seems to play the debauched, strategic expert well.
My initial foray into the drama had me binge-watch 5 episodes, so it is definitely worth your while if historical dramas are your thing.
The Fortress (2017) is a poignant look at the one place nobody wanted to be when the Qing decided to invade Joseon. Despite the fact that people make all the wrong choices, there are some people who maintain their dignity (hint: one of them is not the king).
The 2017 Korean movie depicts the final days of the Qing siege at Namhan Fortress, the mountain stronghold to which King Injo’s court retreats in an effort to maintain its (somewhat) autonomy in the face of the clash between the Ming and the Qing. A particularly brutal winter only makes matters worse, as food and supplies are running out as the Qing continue to chill and barbecue at the foot of the mountain.
On one hand, the film shows just how far the court has deteriorated as a ruling body. Rather than giving the king advice, the court officials excel at shouting each other down and calling for their colleagues to be beheaded. There is also some not-so-subtle class dynamics going on, as the officials don’t want to inconvenience the nobles but are more than willing to throw the poor soldiers defending the fort under the bus by denying them necessities. King Injo is no help, giving royal orders even through he probably knows they are wrong and unfair.
Moreover, the military is in shambles. When you gotta rely on a blacksmith (Go Soo) to save the day, things are bad. Orders have become optional. It is clear that the poor have been thrown into the army with little training or supplies. They are expendable as the court tries to preserve the “dignity” of the king. The military leaders needlessly sacrifice them in one ill-fated military strategy after another, and they are simply not even seen as part of the effort to defend the nation.
At the same time, virtue exists in the fortress. There are several impassioned exchanges between Choi Myung Kil (Lee Byung Hun) and Kim Sang Hun (Kim Yoon Seok), who represent two totally different points of view, each of which have their own merits. Quiet and kind of soft-spoken, Choi desperately wants all of them to survive, even if that means capitulating to the Qing. Ride or die, Kim would choose death over dishonor. Outside the council chamber, the two are friends, and inside the chamber they try to stem the wave of cray from the other officials. But it doesn’t seem to be enough.
The Fortress is a great film about difficult decisions and less-than-stellar options.
Nirvana in Fire 2: The Wind Blows Through Chang Lin brings all of the royal drama of its predecessor but also shows that family bonds transcend all.
I was very skeptical when word got out about the sequel to Nirvana in Fire. VERY. SKEPTICAL. Nirvana in Fire revolved around Hu Ge‘s Mei Changsu/Lin Shu, an unlikely hero trying to accomplish the impossible to redeem his family’s honor. So when I found out that its sequel would feature an entirely new cast AND and be set decades after the original, I was very “meh.” What were they going to do with this story? However, I watched the trailer and thought, “Hey, this could be good.”
It stars Huang Xiaoming, who I loved in the 2006 Return of the Condor Heroes, so I was intrigued. It also was done by the same production team as the original. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised that the series defied my low expectations with its focus on family bonds.
Ping Zhang and Ping Jing
The first relationship that shows itself is the dynamic between Ping Jing (Liu Haoran) and his older brother, Ping Zhang (Huang Xiaoming). Initially, Ping Zhang comes off as the stoic older brother loaded down with familial responsibilities, while his carefree brother is chilling in the cut at Langya Hall. Despite their different personalities, Ping Jing clearly loves his brother, even though he has zero desire to take on his position in the Chang Lin army. More importantly, Ping Jing shows his affection with his brother, eagerly embracing him when he visits Langya Hall. As the series goes on, we see that Ping Zhang also has similar affection for his brother. When Ping Jing is falsely imprisoned, Ping Zhang’s visit to his cell shows that he will stand for his brother no matter what. What is great is that they accept each other even though they have different temperaments. Because if Ping Jing was my brother, I definitely would have beat him down a couple of times.
Their brotherhood is tested when Ping Zhang tells Ping Jing (all nonchalantly, give a man time to prepare!) that they are not blood-related; Ping Zhang is adopted. Obviously, Ping Jing needs some time to process, but Ping Zhang is clearly concerned that his brother may not view him the same way. When Ping Jing returns, he clearly has not lost any love for his brother. Ping Zhang even jokes that Ping Jing feels he doesn’t have to listen to him as his older brother.
The Emperor and Prince of Chang Lin
The brotherly theme continues with the dynamic between the Emperor (Liu Jun) and the Prince of Chang Lin, Xiao Tingsheng (Sun Chun), the father of Ping Zhang and Ping Jing. While many historical dramas are built on the rivalry between brothers as they vie for the throne, it is refreshing to see how well these two get along as brothers. The Emperor is, well, the emperor, so even though he’s his brother, the Prince of Chang Lin is his subject, albeit a high-ranking one. They try not to let their relationship interfere with the Emperor’s rule, (but you know how haters are). At the same tie, the Prince of Chang Lin offers his advice and experience in military affairs to help his brother succeed in foreign affairs. This is a challenge, because everyone suspects that the Chang Lin manor has negative intentions (haters gonna hate). When the Emperor is sick, the Prince comes to visit comes to visit (awwww!). This is how the brotherhood between Ping Zhang and Ping Jing would be like in their old age.
Prince of Chang Lin and His Sons
Speaking of the Prince of Chang Lin, the bonds are equally strong between him and his sons, Ping Jing and Ping Zhang. Initially, it seems that Prince of Chang Lin favors Ping Zhang because he has taken on the mantle of leadership in the Chang Lin army and is keenly aware of the politics of the court. When Ping Zhang completes a particularly difficult task, Tingsheng takes both his hands in his to show is approval. However, nothing is more emotional than Tingsheng’s response to Ping Zhang’s death. He truly mourns his son, finding it difficult to let him go. The Emperor tells him poignantly, “The child is gone.”
You would think that Ping Jing was not Tingsheng’s son, the way he treats him. Ping Jing never seems to measure up. Tingsheng seems to have unreachable standards for his younger son. As the series continues, though, we begin to see that Tingsheng really loves his son, and is trying to prepare him for the responsibilities of the family. And when Ping Jing accomplishes what neither he nor Ping Zhang could, he takes Ping Jing’s hands into his own. Still touching!
Meng Cheng Xue and the Xiao Family
While the family dynamics often revolve around male relatives, the drama also shows that loyalty is not confined to one gender and that family bonds involve women as well. Meng Cheng Xue (Tong Liya) comes from a military family (she’s the grandneice of Meng Zhi (Chen Long) from the original) and she is fully aware of the family into which she married. She knows what it means when Ping Zhang has to go to defend the frontier. She doesn’t whine when he has to go; she just sends him off. And she is there until the bitter end. As the mistress of the Chang Lin manor, she’s not having shenanigans at the house, even if the shenanigans come from the court. When the new young emperor, acting on bad advice, attempts to give a bad royal order, Cheng Xue dares the messengers to enter the manor. One (foolishly) thinks he’s going to force her to let them in. Uh-uh!
Cheng Xue’s relationship with Ping Zhang is simultaneously cute and touching. She is always supporting her husband. They gently tease each other, but Ping Zhang clearly respects his wife. He trusts her to save his brother when he cannot. Yet, he is also greatly concerned about her health and his reaction to her medical problem makes him husband of the year.
Nirvana in Fire 2: The Wind Blows in Chang Lin clearly has plenty of punks on TeamEvil, but the Chang Lin manor shows what familial relationships are all about.
“First Impressions: “Nirvana In Fire 2” Has All The Makings Of A Major Hit Like Season 1.” Kdrama Fandom. 10 Jan 2018. http://kdramafandom.com/2018/01/10/first-impressions-nirvana-in-fire-2-has-all-the-makings-of-a-major-hit-like-season-1/ (30 Apr 2018).
C-dramas can be uneven, given their length and complicated plots, but Princess Agents has achieved a paradox. Despite its absurdity, you are compelled to watch to the very crazy end.
First, let’s start with the wonderful.
The leads. While the romantic triangle is not new, the trio of Chu Qiao (Zhao Li Ying), Yuwen Yue (Lin Geng Xin) and Yan Xun (Dou Xiao) is entertaining, especially before the Big Tragedy. Chu Qiao is a great female lead. At first, you wonder about her indifferent attitude, but then revel in the way she is totally not impressed with Yue or Yan Xun’s elite position. And I love her interaction with the Xiuli Army. Yue and Yan Xun are completely different, yet they are friends and share concern for Chu Qiao. Even though I love a stoic, I was not feeling Yue at first. But throughout the series, he actually changes, even if his facial expression rarely does. That slow personality change is what makes him endearing. Yes, I’m #TeamYue. Yan Xun plays the leisurely, “I live in a manor and hang out with the elite but I’m a captive prince” really well. His happy-go-lucky demeanor brings levity to the politics of Chang’an. Because of their different personalities, Chu Qiao interacts with Yue and Yan Xun in different ways. The low-key banter and insults between Yue and Chu Qiao belie how much they care for each other. Chu Qiao does what no one else is able to do for Yan Xun after the Big Tragedy.
The villains. Any good melodrama needs villains and the more villainous the better. Yuwen Huai (Wang Yanlin) initially takes up the villain mantle out the gate: the human hunting ground, his repeated assassination attempts on Yue, his constant attempts to beat down Chu Xiao. He’s the type of villain that almost makes you sad to see him go. But Princess Agents got you! No sooner than he is off the scene, Cheng Chi (Hu Chunyoung) takes up the villain gauntlet thrown down by Huai. His scheme-y shenanigans are unrelenting and bold. In the last acts of the drama, Yuan Chun (Li Qin) represents the ladies. Who else would steal a army to get revenge?
The sidekicks. Given the powerhouse main cast, it takes a special character to catch the audience’s attention. Yue Qi (Xin Shao Lin) is the man! At first, you think he’s just one of Yue’s many underlings, but he’s the closest to Yue and he knows him the best. This means that he’s not only trustworthy and dependable, but can also get away with throwing shade of his own and live to tell the tale. Zhong Yu (Li Ruo Jia), Yan Xun’s martial artist aide, is always serious, which means she gets the job done. She also tries to tell Yan Xun what’s-what and keep his people in line.
The dilemma. The plot hinges on Emperor Wei’s (Tian Xiaojie) response to what he thinks is a potential rebellion by Yan Xun’s father, the Yan Sicheng (Li Haohan), Duke of Yan. The Emperor’s sworn brother, Yan Sicheng has been guarding the border for years, but because the Emperor is paranoid, suspicious and drunk on power, he plots to kill Yan Sicheng and his whole family for no good reason. It is this decision that alters the lives of all the characters, plunging them into a scenario that is difficult to resolve at best. It ruins all the relationships that Yan Xun has with Wei people, particularly Yue. You could kinda see why he’d want to get revenge. At the same time, his Wei friends know that the Emperor’s actions are wrong, but they are loyal subjects, and as loyal subjects they can’t do anything about it. What to do when your leader is crazy? Then again, Yan Xun’s revenge is all out of proportion, not directed at the right people and harms a lot of innocent people. How to resolve?
The wonderful is what keeps you invested in Princess Agents. The crazy makes you want to beat your head against a wall.
The ending. What are you doing, Princess Agents?!!! You leave people who have invested 58 episodes with a cliffhanger!!! You wait until the eleventh hour to reveal that Chu Qiao has feelings for Yue! You drown Yue in the icy lake! You kill off Yue Qi! You end with Chu Qiao accepting that she is the heir to the Fengyun Order and then fade to black!! That ain’t right.
The subplots. Speaking of the Fengyun Order, this is only one of several subplots that were irregularly weaved through the drama. Audiences really didn’t care that Chu Qiao was the daughter of Luo He by the time they find out. Hey, what about those Liang spies? They cause all of the trouble, yet are not brought to account. Why are they spared Yan Xun’s wrath? We really did not need another romantic subplot that is alluded to in the early episodes but only addressed in the last one. Who are these random people in Master Wu’s explanation of Chu Qiao’s background? Why does she only literally find him in the last episodes? SHE’S BEEN IN NORTHERN YAN FOR FOREVER!!!! If Chu Qiao is supposed to take up the mantle of her mother, who was killed by her own people because she wanted to free slaves, how is Chu Qiao going to succeed? Who is the guy with the green ring? What is the significance of the guy who served Yan Xun’s father, had a hand in the fall of Yan, then serves Prince Xiang? WHO IS HE?! It’s not that you can’t figure some of this stuff out, but rather that it doesn’t make sense to the overall story. Too much stuff going on.
The (unbelievable) character development. That’s right, I’m looking at you, Chu Qiao! Even if my disbelief got an out-of-school suspension, your behavior would not make sense. Who else wanted to shake Chu Qiao? She is supposed to be righteous and helping the oppressed. But, she’s chilling in the cut with Yan Xun after he’s killed all these innocent people, left her to defend the city and let his generals talk smack about her TO HER FACE!! Why are she still giving him benefit of the doubt after what happened to Yuan Chun AND the Xiuli Army? Where is the dilemma? Yue told her that man had changed. What is even more unbelievable is that she immediately severed ties with Yue when she heard SOMEBODY ELSE saying he was using her as a death pawn. She never asked him. And while Yue did prevent Yan Xun from escaping, he never killed innocent people. But Chu Qiao drops Yue like he stole something and proceeds to spend an inordinate amount of time with Yan Xun and his doomed plan.
The pacing. While many long dramas have slow episodes, they irk you even more in Princess Agents because there is no payoff in the end (see The Ending). Nirvana in Fire had 54 episodes, but moved the plot along at a much better pace. The Incarceration Arc in Princess Agents felt like the actual three years that Yan Xun was on house arrest. We get it!
There are many more flaws, but the thing is, you kinds don’t care. The plusses outweigh the minuses. There were lots of scenes with Yue! And besides, a drama that can raise your ire like this can’t be all bad, right?
At a time when K-pop is more easily found than ever, it seems like the K-pop fan is disappearing. Increasing division driven by single-fandom obsession is becoming the norm.
It seems strange to talk about back in the day, but not so long ago (2011), K-pop was hard to come by. So when K-pop fans found one another, they were just so happy to find someone else who knew about K-pop. It didn’t matter if their favorite groups weren’t your favorite groups. At least you had heard about their favorite groups, and that was good enough. A shared camaraderie formed as you exchanged stories of waiting for English subs and trying to figure out the members’ names.
There are at least two types of K-pop fans. There are people who are fans of particular K-pop groups, and that’s cool. Then there are people who are fans of K-pop, people who move beyond their first group and look for other groups. Sometimes they might be multi-fandom, but not necessarily. They like lots of different groups and the songs they make.
These days, there seems to be more emphasis on individual group loyalty. Fans are calling themselves things like “pure EXO-Ls” or “pure Carats.” They are excluding individuals who may be multi-fandom from activities like voting campaigns. They are insisting on not mentioning other K-pop groups in fan groups. They act like you aren’t even supposed to know about other groups, even as members of their groups are friends with, collaborate with and are seen with members of other groups.
Let’s be clear. We know that fan energy is indeed finite, so you can’t like or support all groups in the same way or at the same level. But it is unrealistic to act like other groups don’t exist and groove to their music. It is unreasonable to ask people not to be aware of other groups that are out there and possibly like them. K-pop is too small for this. And in the long run, it’s bad for K-pop, because K-pop is an industry. With people. And groups and artists. These groups do not exist in a bubble. they listen to each other, know the songs and can do the dances.
Even more sad, this also is causing some people to leave their fandoms or strenuously claim not to be associated with them, even though they like the group. People leave behind something they love because others create a toxic environment and spoil the fun. Unless your brand of fan activity involves illegal activity or other harmful acts, there is no need to police how other people practice their fanship. The base requirement for being a fan is having affection for something. Everything else after that is gravy. I’ve never seen a group come out and say, “Our fans are sucky because they like other groups.”
Misaeng (2014) is a quiet K-drama that perfectly captures how a job can be soul-sucking and emotionally rewarding at the same time.
Jang Geu-rae (Im Siwan) is our intrepid protagonist, just a guy who spend a whole chunk of his life training to be a baduk player, only to find himself looking for a job after a family tragedy. Geu-rae is very introspective (Siwan does a GREAT job staring into the camera!), so we get a lot of his internal dialogue. At first, it seems like he just isn’t the type to fight back or think that things should be better for himself. He just seems resigned to his fate. So, he looks….a long time, because he didn’t go to college (BADUK!), so he has missed out on an important credential. He takes a few part-time jobs before a family friend (why didn’t this happen earlier!), he gets a job at a company.
This is great! So you think. Sadly, Geu-rae has the worst co-workers on the planet. His fellow interns are back-stabby, and they take every opportunity to make him feel left out and inferior because he does not have a degree. Initially, they do not try to help him get acclimated. Chief Jerk is Jang Baek-ji (Kang Ha-neul), who seems to measure his self-worth by Geu-rae’s failures. But slowly, Geu-rae’s strong work ethic and persistence wins them over (ok, some of them). It turns out they have problems of their own. Not an excuse for them acting jerky, but at least it explains a lot. Together, Geu-rae and his colleagues show how corporate work dehumanizes individuals and forces them to make morally questionable decisions, all for the sake of profit.
Geu-rae’s supervisors make living in a cardboard box under the bridge look like a viable option. This workplace doesn’t seem to have any rules about emotional or physical abuse on the job. Intimidation is the preferred management style. Don’t get me started on the corruption. But just as Geu-rae is the exception among his junior colleagues, Oh Sang-sik (Lee Sung-min) is the ray of sunshine. A veteran worker, he has managed to retain his humanity in this cutthroat office, even if this has meant that he has not been promoted. He is often the voice of reason among the managers. He doesn’t do things that bother his conscience. He treats the workers on Team Three well.
So you think you are just watching an office drama, but Misaeng tricks you into being all in your feelings. In the midst of the corporate shenanigans is the beautiful relationship between Sang-sik and Geu-rae. Initially, Sang-sik sees Geu-rae like others, but he is won over by Geu-rae’s persistence. He sees a chance for redemption over a mistake he thinks he made in the past. Against all odds, Sang-sik tries his best to get Geu-rae a permanent position. Geu-rae comes to see Sang-sik as a father figure, a trajectory that starts over a drunk Sang-sik defending Geu-rae (awww). Even though people are awful at the job, Geu-rae draws close to his cubicle-mates in Team Three. So when you get to the last two episodes of Misaeng, you wonder how this little drama has you reaching for the tissues (I’m not crying, you’re crying!).
Misaeng is a delightful emotional rollercoaster that has become one of my favorite dramas of all time. Special shout-out to Geu-rae’s mom (Sung Byung Sook) and Sung-sik’s wife (Oh Yoon Hong).
I have often viewed increased visibility of K-pop in mainstream American media with ambivalence. On one hand, increased visibility may mean more opportunities for concerts and access to K-pop-related media. On the other hand, it may mean significant changes to K-pop and its fandom that take away the things that drew fans in the first place.
One phenomenon that falls into the latter category is the centrality that awards and breaking records have taken in fandom activity. There is no doubt that winning an award, especially one that doesn’t cater to Korean or Asian music, can be seen as an achievement. But at what cost? I don’t know if this is happening in your fandoms, but I’m seeing a significant increase in requests that border on harassment to vote for this award or that poll or watch a video to increase views. To be sure, some people politely ask. But more often, other fans are implying or directly coming out and saying that you aren’t a ‘real fan’ unless you watch this video on repeat all day or create an account to vote on that website. I know this means a lot to some fans, but it doesn’t mean as much to others….myself included. There are too many ways to be a fan and this shouldn’t be the measure of your identity as a fan.
These awards represent popularity. And yes, it says something if you can mobilize your fandom to achieve that for your group. But it says absolutely nothing about the quality of the music or group talent or whatever got you into the group in the first place. At the end of the day, what does all this activity even mean? Because when you view a video just to increase the views on it, it ceases to be a measure of how much a video is “liked.” It only says X number of people saw it.
This laser focus on popularity also has some negative effects. There is still a large number of non-fans who believe that K-pop artists have no talent at all, so awards for popularity only serves to reinforce that idea. I feel like the time fans now spend on voting used to be spent on reaction videos and blog posts where they talk about how they got into a group, or their favorite song, or even the logic behind their bias choice. These activities show what K-pop means to fans in ways that voting do not.
Both Strong Woman Do Bong Soon and Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo place unconventional women in the center of K-drama in ways that do not diminish them for being strong.
Interestingly, both dramas have origins in the childhoods of the main characters, where the female leads disrupt the conventional narrative by being the saviors of the young versions of the male characters. In Weightlifting Fairy, Joon Hyun (Nam Joo Hyuk) falls out of a window at school, only to be caught (or land on?) Bok Joo (Lee Sung Kyung). Instead of being appalled by her chubbiness, he ends up laughing with Bok Joo. The incident stays with him, right up to the moment when he re-encounters Bok Joo, now a weightlifter, in college. And he has the same response: he is delighted. It’s a memory that he cherishes. Similarly, Min Hyuk (Park Hyung Sik) is saved by a mysterious stranger when the bus he is riding is prevented from swerving off the road. Min Hyuk also encounters his savior, Bong Soon (Park Bo Young), later in life, and also has fond memories of the encounter. It is also interesting to note that both male leads lack a mother figure. Min Hyuk’s mother died and Joon Hyun’s mother abandoned him to his aunt and uncle. The lack of a mother figure may factor into their tendency to accept the female leads in their unconventionality.
Throughout both dramas, the male leads appreciate the women because they are strong. Both develop into the lead couple. Joon Hyun likes the fact that Bok Joo is a weightlifter and that she’s good. He cheers her on at her competitions and takes an interest in her life, meeting her family and friends and understanding her struggles. While Min Hyuk likes to tease Bong Soon, he does not run away once he finds out about her powers. Instead, he is endlessly delighted at the things she can do, and also does all he can to try to teach her to control them (often to his own injury).
These responses differ from the way other men react to the strength of Bok Joo and Bong Soon. Joon Hyun’s impossibly talented cousin, Jae Yi (Lee Jae Yoon), may be a good doctor, but he’s clueless about relationships, ignoring the girl who likes him and not realizing the crush that Bok Joo has on him. More importantly, as a weight loss doctor, he embodies all of Bok Joo’s insecurities and is of absolutely no help when it comes to understanding her plight. He does not understand why she is so upset when he comes to her competition, and has no clue about how she feels about her appearance and the way society views her. He’s no help at all! Gook Doo (Ji Soo) is worse in Strong Woman. While he is equally clueless about her powers as well as her crush on him (even though they grew up together) he only sees her as helpless, and yells at her! Once he finds out about her powers, he does not respond as positively as Min Hyuk.
What I really like about the relationships in both dramas is that the women are strong, but not invincible and the men are also keenly aware of their emotions. Both Bok Joo and Bong Soon need connection to other people, despite their strength. Bok Joo undergoes the trials of being a young woman in a difficult sport for women. She also has zero experience with dating, so she struggles with her relationship with Joon Hyun. At the same time, Joon Hyun has anxiety that holds him back from succeeding in his swimming career. In Strong Woman, Bong Soon has anxiety about using her powers, thinking they will forever separate her from other people. And Min Hyuk is never more vulnerable when he pleads with Bong Soon: “Please love me.” (I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING!).
K-drama is almost always about emotional men, but these dramas show that K-dramas can also complicate the narrative of the strong woman as well.