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Review: Falling into Your Smile

Netflix, 2021

(31 episodes/39-54 min ea)

Sorry, my poor blog; it’s been too long.

Every now and then, I need a break from K-dramas and return to C-dramas. Whereas K-drama episodes are usually 60-90 minutes long, the average C-drama episode is 40-50 minutes long. This makes for long seasons (The Rise of Phoenixes clocked in at a whopping 70 episodes), but arguably the run time is about the same.

Falling Into Your Smile is a very respectable 31 episodes, making it comparatively short and sweet. And for all those who wished The King’s Avatar contained a romance, this series is for you, combining an e-sports/sports plot/journey to the top with romantic comedy set in an alternate 2020 where COVID doesn’t seem to exist.

Tong Yao (played by Cheng Xiao of South Korean-Chinese girl group WJSN) is a young woman in her early 20s who has finished university and is at a crossroads in her life. She also happens to be very good at playing Onmyoji Arena.

Onmyoji Arena (which is a real game, by the way—unlike Glory in The King’s Avatar) is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game in which two teams of five players compete against one another to take out the opposing team’s castle. The setting and many of the characters/Shikigami (of which there are over 100) have been plucked straight out of Heian-era Japan. (The game’s publisher is Chinese though.)

Tong Yao’s speciality is a Shikigami named Tamamonomae, and she currently ranks #1 on the Chinese server playing that character using the online handle “Smiling”. (I think that is referenced in the title of the show, but I have no idea if that’s an accurate translation of the original title. From what I can gather from some very cursory online research, the show is based on a novel, but I’m not sure if the novel and the show share the same name.)

Because of Tong Yao’s gaming abilities, she receives an invitation to join the Onmyoji Arena e-sports team ZGDX. (I have no idea what those letters stand for, if anything.) At first, she is unsure the offer is real. But then the team bring her to Shanghai to watch the team at the Spring Playoffs, and she ends up accepting their offer and becomes a professional e-sports player, much to the dismay of her more conservative parents.

This means moving in with the rest of the team into the ZGDX home base, which is located in Shenzhen. (Fun fact: this is the area my ancestors are from.) Initially, not everyone is welcoming of her, particularly as she is the only female pro player in a league dominated by guys. This is so for some of her fellow team members as well as for the fans, who like to gossip about all things league-related on the E-sports Farm forum. But over time, and as she proves she has what it takes to be in the league and to be a professional, their opinions about her begin to change.

In addition, now that she’s a public figure, Tong Yao’s romantic history is put under the spotlight: her ex just happens to be Jian Yang, captain of CK, a rival team, and he seems to be still carrying a torch for her. But her eye has been caught by Lu Sicheng, the brilliant, handsome and so-rich-he-drives-an-Aston-Martin captain of ZGDX. (Cue hijinks.)

Of course, being an Asian drama, the series involves much more than just the romance plot; the cast is still an ensemble, after all. Tong Yao needs to learn to work with the rest of her teammates as much as they need to learn to work with her so that they can actually function as a team and progress through the tournament. In various episodes, teammates have little subplots that complement the main romance/e-sports plotlines—for example, K (my favourite character, played by the way-too-pretty Gao Han) has a fraught relationship with his parents, which provides a direct contrast to the normal parental disapproval surrounding young people entering e-sports as a profession.

In addition, various episodes explore the relationship between ZGDX and other professional teams in the league. Tong Yao’s best friend Chen Jinyang (not to be confused with her ex-boyfriend Jian Yang; I’m sure the distinction is clearer in Mandarin) is in an on-again-off-again relationship with Ai Jia, a member of rival team YQCB, leading some to question whether their relationship affects Ai Jia’s performance, and whether pro players should be allowed to have romantic relationships at all.

Also, YQCB has just hired a South Korean player named Lee Kun Hyeok (online handle: Hierophant) who used to be Lu Sicheng’s teammate back when they were both part of the South Korean team TAT. (Lee Kun Hyeok is played by Wang Yi Jun, who is Chinese but who is represented by South Korean entertainment company YG. I think all the Korean characters are actually played by Chinese actors, but it seems like some of them do speak Korean during the Korean bits, whereas Lu Sicheng’s Korean sounds dubbed.) The rivalry between Lu Sicheng and Lee Kun Hyeok makes for some interesting gameplay as ZGDX and YQCB progress through the tournament.

The presence of Korean players in the Chinese league also brings up all sorts of issues regarding privilege and game strategy, as well as the relationship between pro players and their fans. One subplot involves a South Korean pro player named Kun of the team FNC who was also a fellow teammate of Lu Sicheng’s during their time in TAT; who is known for being a bit of a flirt and having numerous girlfriends; and who develops a romantic interest in Tong Yao. Another subplot involves a South Korean DQ Five player named Xu Tailan who is cheating on his long-time girlfriend with a fan and who becomes enraged at Tong Yao for refusing to cover for him.

Surrounding all this is e-sports media and the online gossip mill, with various fans expressing their opinions about various things through forums or even during the livestreams that pro players must engage in as part of their contracts. It doesn’t take much for public opinion to turn against a player, and when it does, it can affect a player’s performance quite significantly.

Things I liked about the show:

  • The character of Tong Yao. I like how she develops resilience and grit as the series goes on, learning to keep a check on her temper and not to be swayed by what people say about her online. I like that she is actually good at what she does and she makes a number of meaningful contributions towards the team’s game play, solidifying her place as a key member of ZGDX and proving to others that girls can be good at e-sports.
  • The way the male characters support and even champion Tong Yao. Although at times she is sidelined for her gender, once she proves her worth and even makes a difference in the lives of other pro players outside the game, they become her strongest advocates. This goes for her fellow teammates, but also for other players in the league whose lives are touched by her in some way.
  • The Complementarianism on display throughout the series as Tong Yao and her teammates learn to work together to dominate in Onmyoji Arena. I feel like that’s not something we see very often on television.
  • The romance: it is seriously cute! Lu Sicheng in love is stupidly adorable and also really funny; his attempts to kiss Tong Yao had me in stitches. There are some scenes that are a little ridiculous, but overall, I like the way the romance plays out. I understand what he sees in her and how she makes his life better. I also like that the romance doesn’t dominate the show to the exclusion of everything else but is kept in its proper place without sacrificing the rest of the show’s elements.
  • The character of Lu Sicheng: in some respects, he is a lot like other romantic male leads in C-dramas—for example, Xiao Naihe in Love O2O, Xu Feng in Ashes of Love and even Ye Hua in Eternal Love). They’re all brilliant, handsome, clever, wealthy, a little cold at first, and ever so slightly authoritarian in almost a fatherly way. If there’s a problem, they go and take care of it, and they don’t seem to need anyone or anything. Lu Sicheng starts off that way but doesn’t continue, and it was refreshing to me to see a character like that admit that he isn’t perfect, that he was in the wrong and that he needs others.
  • The CG animation and action during some of the Onmyoji Arena fight scenes: it is glorious and beautiful, and it makes the game battles so much more interesting than what‘s actually on the players’ computer screens.
  • The recurrence of some of the minor characters. For example, in episode 1, Tong Yao and Chen Jinyang meet a female ZGDX fan while waiting in line outside the stadium when they are heckled by some male fans who poke fun at them and accuse them of being idol fangirls who know nothing about the game. Tong Yao puts them in their place, and once she joins ZGDX, that female fan is spotted at all their games, cheering her on.
  • The humour: oh my goodness, this series made me laugh so much! I loved the interactions between the characters—particularly Lu Sicheng and Tong Yao (who Lu Sicheng calls “Dwarf” or “Shorty” because she is smaller than him. I find that a little disturbing as she is actually a little taller than I am and I have never ever been called “short”), as well as between fellow team members K and Cat. (Cat never seems to understand what’s going on, whereas K understands perfectly but knows to leave well enough alone.) There is a joyfulness to the script that is similar to Love in the Moonlight.
  • The representation of different kinds of Asianness, which I realise might sound a little strange, but you must remember that China is predominantly a monoculture and (as least in my foreigner eyes) doesn’t do well with multiculturalism. Merxat, who plays Ming, coach and former player of ZGDX, stands out because of his Uighur heritage. There are scenes in which characters speak Korean to each other—sometimes in front of characters who don’t understand it, sometimes in Korea, sometimes in China. The game the characters play is thoroughly Japanese, and during fight scenes, the music is too, featuring the distinctive sound of the shamisen. It’s really refreshing to have different kinds of Asianness portrayed in juxtaposition with one another.
  • The soundtrack: I don’t listen to much Mandarin pop, but I liked most of the songs.

Things I thought could have been improved:

  • The body shaming: Cheng Xiao is super cute and pretty, but Tong Yao is only considered “average” in looks, and she is slammed for her appearance by online trolls, and is further shamed for buying a beauty camera for livestreaming. One member of ZGDX is named “Chubby” or “Fatty” and is usually shown eating. In contrast, K refuses food because he is worried about putting on weight. (Of course, all the talk of appearance and weight does not stymie the number of food-related scenes in the show; this is an Asian drama, after all.)
  • The costumes: I don’t know if 80s fashion is currently trendy in China, but I got a bit sick of the oversized brand name T-shirts and distressed denim the majority of the characters seemed to wear. Also, I don’t see why Tong Yao had to wear a short skirt as part of her team uniform when the others got to wear pants.
  • The realism: Tong Yao lives with six guys, and yet the ZGDX base is always as neat as a pin and no one complains about BO. There is, however, a scene when Tong Yao is flattened by period pain and the others are very understanding.
  • Xu Tailan’s treatment of Tong Yao: perhaps I am oversensitive to it, but when a female character is forcibly restrained by a male character in a C-drama (like Bai Qian by Ye Hua in Eternal Love and Jinmi by Runyu in Ashes of Love), sirens go off in my head. There is a scene where Xu Tailan confronts Tong Yao in a corridor, threatens her, and refuses to let her leave by grabbing her by the wrist and pinning her to the wall. I thought it might just be me, but I showed it to Ben and he was also disturbed by how menacing Xu Tailan was. Tong Yao gets out of that situation using her own wits, but she is punished by Lu Sicheng for how she does it later. Even though, in his own way, Lu Sicheng gets back at Xu Tailan for his treatment of Tong Yao later, I feel like had Lu Sicheng known what Tong Yao was facing in that scene, he would have been less judgemental of her and more vindictive towards Xu Tailan. Also, given the situation, the whole team should have rallied around Tong Yao to make sure she was never left alone.
  • Some of the subplots could have been developed more. I would have liked to have gotten to know some of the minor characters a little better—particularly the other team members. That’s something that was done very well in The King’s Avatar, but that series had 40 episodes in which to do it, whereas this only has 31.
  • There were contradictions in the script—for example, just how old Tong Yao is and whether players are allowed to date/date their teammates.
  • The gaming battles: at least in The King’s Avatar, the game avatars resembled their live action counterparts. In this, I was often confused about who was playing which Shikigami. This is also because the players change Shikigamis every game. To be fair, I think the director(s) did what they could to help the audience along, but I think they could have done a bit more. In addition, unless you know Onmyoji Arena, it was a little difficult to follow the game play. I thought the script and the dialogue did a decent job of helping the audience understand the big picture of what was going on from battle to battle, and how certain battles were different. But often it was bewildering trying to follow exactly what was actually happening on screen.

Although there is potential for Falling Into Your Smile to have a second season (the plot thread involving South Korean team TAT remains tantalisingly unresolved), it doesn’t sound like it’s going to get one. Which is a shame as I will have to look elsewhere to have my Asian e-sports drama itch filled.

I don‘t suppose there are any e-sports K-dramas out there …?