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.
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?
The best romances are with people who are well-matched and help each other out. In General and I, somebody’s not pulling their weight, and everybody’s losing out.
A good couple in an Asian drama is when individuals are well-matched. In General and I, Chu Bei Jie (Wallace Chung) and Bai Ping Ting (Angelababy) are both clever and observant. Bei Jie is treasured general of the Jin state, valued by his emperor and beloved by his people. He also has a bit of an attitude due to his success on the battlefield, but in time you just let that slide. Bai Ping Ting was originally a maid in the Prince of Jing An’s household in the Yan state, but as one character observes, they never treated her that way. She’s often compared to the famed military strategist Zhuge Liang. Both Bei Jie and Ping Ting are loyal to their respective people.
So when these two get together, you expect them to take the world by storm. But wait! It wouldn’t be a Chinese drama if it were that easy. They face obstacles. Everybody in Jin is giving Ping Ting the side-eye because she’s from Yan. They don’t trust her and wonder how she’s got Bei Jie wrapped around her finger. Bei Jie can never be friends with the Prince of Jing An’s household. The young prince, He Xia (Sun Yi Zhou), is holding the mother of all grudges, which is exacerbated by the fact that he was planning on marrying Ping Ting (although she never looks all that thrilled at the prospect). Bei Jie and Ping Ting are not much different from other couples in Chinese dramas.
Except…they are not contributing equally to the romance. Early on, Bei Jie throws down the gauntlet, defying even the Emperor on numerous occasions for his wife. What I like about Bei Jie is that he’s not shy about it. He tells his army, he tells the Emperor, he tells his nemesis He Xia: Ping Ting is his girl, and it’s his duty to protect her, always. It doesn’t matter what she’s done, what it looks like she’s done, what she might think about doing. That’s his girl. However, Ping Ting apparently did not get this memo. Her actions constantly show that she questions Bei Jie’s devotion to her. She claims that she doesn’t want to cause him trouble, but it’s actually her actions that cause the majority of trouble for Bei Jie by running away, constantly. Yet through it all, Bei Jie is constant. Dude is going above and beyond his duty in his devotion to her. Ping Ting also seems to forget that Chu Bei Jie is no dumb bunny; he can get himself out of predicaments without her help, even ones she accidentally has a hand in.
One of the biggest problems is that Ping Ting tries to change Bei Jie and deny their responsibility to the people. Ping Ting seemed content to run around the country to try to protect He Xia, but once she acknowledges her feelings for Bei Jie, she’s all ready to retire to the country. YOU CAN’T LEAVE! Bei Jie was a general for a reason: he feels a duty to his people. He was a general when Ping Ting met him: that’s who he is. But Ping Ting thinks it’s ok for them to peace out once they get married (formally). She’s no stranger to the battlefield. Heck, that’s where we first see her. Rather than avoiding the obvious, namely, that people as talented as they are should use their talents to help others, Ping Ting wants to live a quiet life and leave the people hanging. And trying to be out of the affairs of state does not work: problems will just come knocking on your door (literally).
But it’s not the actors fault, and here’s where the writing comes into play. Not a stranger to Chinese drama, high episode counts do not faze me. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the coincidences and chance meetings and implausible scenarios. But the writers of General and I tested my patience with an unnecessary and unprecedented separation of the leads that lasts nearly 20 episodes. That was ridiculous! Moreover, the actions of Ping Ting after the separation made no sense. There were lapses in logic that, quite frankly, insulted the viewer. Bei Jie is doing his job as a devoted husband, and Ping Ting is acting like a fool. She’s making unilateral decisions and not even giving Bei Jie a chance to respond to their changing circumstances. For 20 episodes, it’s all about Ping Ting. So when they reunite, it’s kind of a let-down. There’s no discussion about what caused the separation in the first place. They just kinda pick up where they left off, which makes you wonder about the whole separation in the first place.
So why did I stick with General and I? Three words: Chu. Bei. Jie. You know your character is strong to overcome my initial wariness. At first, I thought Bei Jie was arrogant and a bit hands-y. But dude is devoted, not just to Ping Ting, but to his army. He appreciates loyalty and gives it in return, especially to his right-hand man, Mo Ran. He’s truly picking up the slack in this Chinese drama.
I’m not going to lie. When I started General and I, I was not all that enthusiastic about the male lead character, Chu Bei Jie (Wallace Chung). Although I know he’s supposed to be our hero, he starts out doing some HIGHLY QUESTIONABLE things: his interaction with the Prince of Jing An’s family, the way he rolls up on Bai Ping Ting (rude!), and his overall smug attitude. And I know this is petty, but there was way to little warrior hair. He completely lacked the charm of Tuoba Jun in The Princess Weiyoung, which I just finished. However, with just one speech to his army sticking up for his girl, I like him! No matter what she does, he’s committed to her. He doesn’t care what his own king, the king of Yan or pouty Prince He Xia thinks. Plus, he’s got problems of his own in the palace in Jin. I got my eye on you, Bei Jie!
While this C-drama revolves around the titular princess (Tiffany Tang), it’s really the relationships that drive the narrative. The relationship between Weiyoung and Tuoba Jun (Luo Jin) is unbreakable, while other couples fail miserably.
One of the things that makes the Weiyoung and Tuoba Jun’s relationship so strong is that they are individuals in their own right. Weiyoung starts out as a princess, a little willful, but with a strong sense of justice and personal loyalty. She never talks down to the servants and respects her father and grandmother. She’s been educated, and this will come in handy after her family is murdered and she finds herself in The Great Wei, seeking justice for her family and her people. Even under these circumstances, Weiyoung is shrewd yet kind. She treats her servants like sisters, and stands up for others.
Most importantly, she’s not just a pretty face. Weiyoung is smart. She’s like Sherlock in her ability to unravel the complicated schemes against her. They come fast and furious; it’s like, “It’s Tuesday, someone must be trying to kill me.” She’s also brave, talking back to the Emperor on the regular, especially when wrongs have been committed. She takes all of the negative insults people hurl at her and remains her own person.
Surely it is these characteristics that make her attractive to Tuoba Jun, who isn’t too shabby himself. Although he is a member of the imperial family, he lacks their ambition and violent tendencies. The year he spends roaming the world allows him to have more connection to regular people, and he feels for them. The Emperor talks about his people, but it’s Tuoba Jun who risks his own life to help them. Tuoba Jun is a cheery guy! He has a sense of humor, messing with his servants and Weiyoung. Most of all, he is consistent and persistent.
Admittedly, it takes what seems like forever for Weiyoung to recognize and respond to Tuoba Jun’s charms, but once they are a couple, they are ride-or-die. They work together. Tuoba Jun never belittles Weiyoung because she’s a woman, and Weiyoung never thinks that Tuoba Jun is weak because of his compassion. Tuoba Jun is vocal about his support and love of Weiyoung, and Weiyoung explains over and over again her loyalty to Tuoba Jun. They believe each other, and even when it looks like their love will fail, it comes back as strong as ever. They are committed to each other.
This is something TeamEvil fails to recognize, which is why their schemes always fail. The more they try to tear them apart, the stronger they get. Who is on TeamEvil in The Princess Weiyoung? Although they often act independently, there are several members who view Weiyoung as a threat or want to possess her.
First Lady of TeamEvil is Chang Le (Li Xin Ai). From birth, she’s been groomed to believe that she’s the best in the world. She cannot tolerate others even getting a little bit of attention. She is actively beating others down in the Li household, and her prime target is Weiyoung. It gets worse when Tuoba Jun returns from his year of living dangerously. While he’s been gone, she’s been fantasizing about marrying him and ingratiating herself with elders to look like the ideal wife for him. However, by the time Tuoba Jun returns, he’s not giving her the time of day and Chang Le blames Weiyoung. In truth, he was never interested in her. She lacks the confidence and compassion of Weiyoung, and uses her powers for evil. Chang Le goes to crazy lengths to get rid of Weiyoung and look innocent in front of Tuoba Jun, but he knows about her evil ways.
Second-in-command on TeamEvil is Chang Ru (Mao Xiao Tong). She looks like she’s just as sweet as Weiyoung, but she’s even more scheming than Chang Le! Working in the shadows, she initially manipulates others in order to be recognized by Tuoba Yu (Vanness Wu). That sometimes coincides with helping Weiyoung. But like Chang Le, Chang Ru comes to see Weiyoung as a threat, and as a result, targets her for her machinations. She blames Weiyoung, first for “bewitching” Tuoba Yu, then for rejecting him. In both scenarios, she fails to blame Tuoba Yu, who pursues Weiyoung in an extreme case of one-sided love.
In some ways, Chang Le and Chang Ru are different. Chang Le wants to marry Tuoba Jun as much for his power as for his personality. It’s about being gaining fame for herself and lording it over others. Chang Ru only wants to be recognized by Tuoba Yu. Her needs are few; she’ll settle for being a consort (maybe even side-consort?). But, both fail to recognize that they are the problem. Chang Le is an entitled wench. She doesn’t care about Tuoba Jun; she just wants him as a possession. Chang Ru blindly pursues Tuoba Yu based on an incident from their childhood. They also fail to define themselves outside of these men. This is why Tuoba Jun and Tuoba Yu don’t reciprocate their feelings, and why the schemes of Chang Le and Chang Ru often fail. Both Chang Le and Chang Ru pursue the wrong men for the wrong reasons.
A surprising member of TeamEvil is Tuoba Yu (ok, not so surprising, given that he’s evil). While the women are all in their feelings about the men, Tuoba Yu is the same way about Weiyoung. Even though Weiyoung makes it clear on multiple occasions that she has no interest in him, he continues to pursue her. While Tuoba Yu seems to care about Weiyoung on some level, he, like Chang Le and Chang Ru, only wants to possess her. He doesn’t care about her thoughts and feelings. He only continues to save her so that he can, at last, say that she is his.
Meanwhile, Tuoba Jun and Weiyoung’s relationship withstands everything TeamEvil throws at it. They continue to love each other through attempts to poison Weiyoung, implicate her in national scandal and reveal her true identity. Even when she loses her position, she rises from the ashes. And right beside her is Tuoba Jun, always. In one scheme where it really seems that Weiyoung is the culprit and done for, Tuoba Jun says, “Even if she did this, she has her reasons. I believer her.” They believe each other, through extreme circumstances, because they are two individuals in a relationship who respect and trust the opinion and intelligence of the other.
TeamEvil pursues the opposite of what Weiyoung and Tuoba Jun have: a relationship based on mutual respect.
Tuoba Jun (Luo Jin) is one of the male leads in the Chinese drama The Princess Weiyoung. He has quickly become one of my favorite characters of all time. Why? It’s not just because he’s attractive (in a C-drama, that’s a given). His character is very charming, unlike other members of the power-hungry and scheming royal family (looking at you, Tuoba Yu (Vanness Wu). It’s probably because of his disinterest in the throne that he’s able to see the positive characteristics of Weiyoung, and value her intelligence and her loyalty. What really makes his character great is his constancy. He is down for his girl Weiyoung, no matter what goes down. No matter how much evidence #TeamEvil creates to frame Weiyoung, Jun is always on her side. He was also persistent! When he pursues Weiyoung, he is not fazed by her rejection, even when she was not even trying to give him the time of day. At first he was disheartened, but then he just made up his mind that she never means what she says, and would just mess with her until she acknowledged that she liked him too! He has no problem showing her that he likes her, and doesn’t care that she’s not from the royal family. Weiyoung experiences nearly every level of society in the Great Wei, and Jun is with her no matter what. I love that man!
C-dramas are bringing us male leads that are super smart and highly attractive. Despite their socializing issues, they still manage to provide the romance that draws many of us to Asian dramas. Both Bo Jiyan (Wallace Huo) in Love Me If You Dare and Ji Bai (Wang Kai) in When A Snail Falls In Love are very good at their jobs, a little awkward with relationships and all the way adorable.
Jiyan’s interpersonal skills rank at -32 on a scale of 1 to 10. He’s a criminal psychologist who specializes in catching serial killers and even has had a run-in with one himself. He sees significance in seemingly irrelevant clues that others miss at crime scenes. He uses his powers of logic to predict the motivations of criminals and catch them, all the while making police officers look at idiots.
At the same time, he has some adorable traits that make him human. His relationships with his sidekicks are adorable. They include his particularly rambunctious pet turtle, Chen Mo (uncredited in the drama), his human friend Fu Ziyu (Andrew Lin) and his eventual girlfriend Jian Yao (Ma Sichun). While Chen Mo makes few appearances, they are always memorable. Apparently, Jiyan lets Chen Mo roam on his bed while he sleeps, but Chen Mo often ends up in other places too. In one episode, you can hear Chen Mo knocking over stuff, so Jiyan puts Chen Mo on a punishment by confining the turtle to a room (sad).
Fu Ziyu is Jiyan’s connection to people. Far more sociable, he is understands his strange friend the best. He, coincidentally, is also smart and attractive: a computer genius who also seems to be independently wealthy and has an affection for extreme sports. Jian Yao, while not a genius like the other two, brings some much-needed humanity and emotion to their world. The fact that Jiyan has close relationships with them, despite making everyone else in law enforcement feel inferior, shows that he does have a heart. Jiyan will occasionally crack a joke, but when you mess with his people, he is all business.
Ji Bai may not be a genius like Jiyan, but he has more social skills. He is respected by the members of his squad and jokes with his second-in-command. He’s also fashionable and jet-setting. He does the impossible as a cop (see the episode with the grappling hook), and knows how to solve a case using evidence and interrogate suspects. Yet, it seems that he is all cop all the time. So intense! This can put a damper on his relationships, especially with his love interest, Xu Xu (Wang Zi Wen). Initially, he takes the “I’m going to pick on you” route, which turns into romantic feelings. However, he tends to rely on their boss-not boss relationship to express his concern. This makes him s kinda socially awkward also. Like Jiyan, he shows his emotions when his people get hurt.
Both Jiyan and Ji Bai represent an increasingly popular kind of male lead, defined by their intelligence. They both have emotions, they just don’t show them, at least until they run across their respective love interests or when their people are threatened. They’ll engage in action, but the main focus of their dramas is suspense and mystery. All of this makes them super in a different kind of way.
Many people equate princess culture with Disney, but the princesses in wuxia popular culture defy those expectations. The Chinese drama Nirvana in Fire counters mainstream princess culture by drawing from the tradition of strong women in wuxia.
I decided to take it back to my Chinese drama roots and start watching Nirvana in Fire. I knew that Hu Ge would be in the lead role as Mei Changsu / Su Zhe / Lin Shu, but quickly became excited about the other characters. First, there is Lin Chen (Jin Dong), master martial artist/archivist of Langya Hall. I do love a man in white robes and a fan! Then, there is the ever-petulant Liu Fei (Wu Lei), but honestly, dude does a good job as a bodyguard. NOBODY is going to touch Mei Changsu while Liu Fei’s on watch! Imagine my surprise when I discovered Meng Zhi, who is played by Chen Long and was also the lead in one of my favorite Chinese dramas, Patriotic Knights. There is no shortage of strong women. I’ve always liked how nobody bats an eye at women generals like Nihuang (Liu Tao) or heads of investigative bureaus like Xia Dong (Zhang Lin Xin). Palace intrigue, politics and vengeance are the order of the day in Nirvana in Fire!
Sometimes when you start an Asian drama, it is love at first sight. You start marathoning it with no problem, eager to see what happens in the next episode. Then, there are other times when you start a drama, and you let those unwatched episodes languish in your queue. Here are some of mine!
Every time I see articles about young Asian actors leaving behind their “flower boy” roles for more “manly” characters, I feel some kind of way. Such articles act like attractiveness and masculinity cannot go hand it hand. They might if their authors were watching what I watch.
This week saw the release of first images and the official trailer of RZA’s long-awaited homage to kung-fu film, Man With the Iron Fists. Not only does the film represent a new chapter in the long love-affair between African Americans and Asian culture, it reminds us how long that love affair has been.
I think some people are anticipating this more than others. In one online community, reaction was distinctly muted. Some predict that this is going to be a crappy movie. We all know that if we could really determine if a film was crappy just from an image or a trailer, most of us would have fuller wallets. Bad films can have talented people attached to them; good films can get marred by the skewed vision of a few.
I’m dismayed by such a reaction, given the trajectory of the Hong Kong film industry, a film industry that owes quite a lot to kung fu films and wuxia, two genres that are routinely characterized as “low culture.” However, the elite directors over which critics fawn routinely cite their work in and the influence of those two genres. Poshek Fu notes: “As Ang Lee recently revealed, the shaping influences of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were the numerous Shaw Brothers costume dramas and musicals he watched as he was growing up in Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s” (1). Let’s not forget where those Hong Kong Bruce Lee films came from.
Not only did some of the most significant Hong Kong film directors get their start in kung fu films at the studios of Golden Harvest and the Shaw Brothers, they did so in films most of us have never seen. Let’s face it: many of these films are nowhere near Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon material. But the allowed today’s talent to hone their craft, and created significant followings around the world.
One of the most significant followings is among African Americans in the United States. Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua notes that in contrast to the American audience for action film, presumed to be “young, white, working-class males,” “the black martial arts audience. . . complicates, if not transcends, the class, gender and generational limitations of action films’ traditional spectators. A broader cross-section of the black community is attracted to this film genre” (200).
Cha-Jua refers to film scholar David Desser’s explanation for the appeal: “He advances two interconnected arguments: First, besides blaxploitation, kung fu films were the only films with nonwhite heroes and heroines; second, they concerned an ‘underdog of color, often fighting against the colonialist enemies, white culture, or the Japanese'” (200).
So we can’t be surprised at the Afro-Asian connection in kung fu films. What may be surprising is what RZA has done with Man with the Iron Fists. I remember reading when he went to China to film. Not the place you expect to see a black man. Filming a movie. A kung fu movie. If you look at the cast, you see all kinds of folk involved; Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and Quentin Tarantino. If nothing else, this is a new chapter in that it represents, to a certain degree, African Americans articulating their own response to Asian popular culture in film.
Will this film be just another example of what some see as the rampant commercialization and low quality of contemporary Hong Kong film? Maybe. Or maybe it will take all the stuff you love about Saturday afternoon kung fu and raise to a new, ridiculously crazy level. Is it going to push some buttons about race, gender, violence and appropriation? Sure will! Have you seen the trailer?
The poster and trailer invite commentary, but let’s not pretend that any of this is new and, more importantly, not part of the legacy of kung fu films. C’mon, we all know what we are here for.
Fu, Poshek. “Introduction: The Shaw Brothers Diasporic Cinema,” China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008). 1-26.
Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita. “Black Audiences, Blaxploitation and Kung Fu Films, and challenges to White Celluloid Masculinity,” China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008). 199-223.