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!
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!