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Review: 100 Days My Prince

Netflix, 2018

(16 episodes. 67-85 min each.)

Life has been super crazy lately, but I haven’t forgotten my desire to review the third Joseon-era K-drama I’ve been watching lately (the first two being Moon Embracing the Sun and Love in the Moonlight, though perhaps I should also be counting The King’s Affection).

Like the dramas I’ve mentioned above, 100 Days My Prince (also known as Hundred-Day Husband) has a lot of the same roles. There is a King, but he is a shady character who stole the throne from his brother and whose first wife died as a result of the usurpation. There is a Queen—the King’s second wife—who has a son by the King and who is keen for that son to become Crown Prince, so she schemes behind the scenes. There is a Crown Prince (Lee Yul), but he is cold and resents his father for what he did, blaming him for the deaths of both his mother (the King’s first wife) and his first true love (more about her later). There is also a Crown Princess who is married to the Crown Prince (though he disdains her and refuses to consummate the marriage) and who also happens to be the daughter of the Prime Minister. And there is a Prime Minister (Prime Minister Kim again), who orchestrated the King’s path to the throne and who holds the entire court in his iron grip.

(Oh, there’s also a bodyguard, childhood friend of the Crown Prince, but he doesn’t have a very significant role and isn’t on screen for that long.)

100 Days My Prince begins when the Crown Prince was a child and was not the Crown Prince: instead, he was just Lee Yul, nephew to the previous king, who preferred to play than study, and who liked to bully the peasant kids around him. But a girl named Yoon Yi Seo intervenes, sticking up for his victims and rebuking him for his behaviour. Struck by her wisdom and compassion, Lee Yul turns over a new leaf and applies himself to his studies, vowing to one day marry Yi Seo.

Unfortunately for the childhood sweethearts, tragedy strikes: in the upheaval that results from Lee Yul’s father seizing the throne, Yi Seo’s father, the general and right-hand man of the previous king, is killed at the hands of Kim Cha Eon (who becomes Prime Minister Kim). Yi Seo and her older brother, Seok Ha, flee and are pursued. Lee Yul’s father ascends as King, his mother is killed (presumably also at the hands of Kim Cha Eon), and Lee Yul himself becomes Crown Prince against his will.

Fast forward 16 years. Lee Yul is now married to Prime Minister Kim’s daughter, Kim So Hye, the Crown Princess. But he has never forgotten Yi Seo, even though he believes her to be dead. Furthermore, he resents Prime Minister Kim so much for what the Prime Minister did that he refuses to consummate his marriage with the Crown Princess. He also keeps getting sick, and his discreet investigations into the cause of his illness point to the Prime Minister for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

For her part, Yi Seo is now living as a peasant girl named Hong Shim in Songjoo village. She has been adopted by a kind commoner man named Yeon who is a widower, his wife and child having died a while ago. (If you’ve seen Love in the Moonlight, you’ll recognise him as Hong Ra On/Sam Nom’s father.) The night of the coup, Yi Seo was separated from her brother, but because they had promised to wait for each other at this particular bridge at the full moon, every month she makes the trek to the capital to search for him.

It is during one of these pilgrimages that she is spotted by the Crown Prince, who thinks he might be seeing a grown-up Yi Seo. She also comes to the attention of a lowly official and son of a concubine named Jung Jae Yoon, who, despite suffering from prosopagnosia or “face blindness” (which basically means he can’t recognise faces), seems to remember hers and therefore begins to fall for her. (Cue love triangle. You know there has to be one! Also, the prosopagnosia is an important plot point.)

Meanwhile, the Crown Prince is facing pressure from the royal court to consummate his marriage, with many officials suggesting that him doing so will break the terrible drought the country is facing. The Crown Prince is rightly sceptical and decrees that if that’s what it will take to bring rain, all the single people in the kingdom must get married within the month or face the consequences.

Unfortunately this has consequences for Yi Seo/Hong Shim, who is the oldest spinster in her village. The local lecherous nobleman makes her an offer to become his fifth wife, but she turns him down, hoping for another solution.

The King sends the Crown Prince to officiate a ritual for rain, but on the way, he is attacked by assassins and flees, accompanied only by his bodyguard. To keep the Crown Prince safe, the bodyguard switches clothes with him and leads their pursuers away. But the Crown Prince has an accident and ends up wounded and unconscious near Songjoo village.

He is found by Yeon, Yi Seo/Hong Shim’s adoptive father, and nursed back to consciousness. But as he is now suffering from amnesia, Yeon takes the advantage of the situation and tells him that he is actually a young man named Na Won Deuk, who is betrothed to marry Yi Seo/Hong Shim. Thus the two of them save Yi Seo/Hong Shim from getting flogged. Yi Seo/Hong Shim and the Crown Prince/Lee Yul/Na Won Deuk actually get married. But their relationship is far from harmonious, with the Crown Prince proving himself to be a rather useless peasant, landing himself in enormous debt (thanks to his upper class tastes!) with the local money lender not long after the wedding.

Meanwhile, the palace is in an uproar, trying to locate the missing Crown Prince, even though some factions within wish him dead. Jung Jae Yoon is pining for Yi Seo, even as he secretly investigates the Crown Prince’s disappearance and is unexpectedly made governor of Soongjoo Village. And Yi Seo’s older brother, Seok Ha, comes back on the scene—only now he seems to be at the beck and call of Prime Minister Kim …

There’s a lot of things I enjoyed about this drama. I liked the way the plot combines a number of Joseon drama/romance tropes into one coherent storyline: there’s the Prime Minister controlling the court, trying to undermine the king; there’s a romantic lead with amnesia; there are hidden identities; long-lost/childhood lovers are reunited without them realising (also a feature of Moon Embracing the Sun); there’s a marriage of convenience; and there are enemies who become lovers (watching Lee Yul and Yi Seo bicker is very entertaining, as well as instructive about how marriages were supposed to work under Confucianism). I liked that this drama focused on the lives of the peasants and how hard things were for them under the heel of the nobility. (I really felt for Yi Seo, anxious over the financial stress the Crown Prince’s bad decisions cause her family.) The minor characters are delightful and humourous, and do well to portray village and community life where everyone is so reliant on one another. And I liked watching Lee Yul and Yi Seo gradually fall for one another and discover the truth about each other, even as they try to deny their feelings. (There’s also a sly dig at romance novels, with the Crown Prince taking a job copying out works of popular fiction—including a volume titled Fifty Shades of Mr Gray.) Although there are aspects of the main story and the subplots involving some of the minor characters that are grim and tragic, these are balanced by the lighter fare in both the romance storyline and the villagers. Furthermore, justice comes to those who deserve it, the love triangle does not end badly, and the ruse the King pulls that finally brings about the Happily Ever After was, I thought, rather satisfying as it brought aspects of the story full circle.

The one quibble I had with the drama was the final scene: although it hints at the Happily Ever After and tries to tie up everything in a neat bow, I still wanted a little bit more. Unlike Moon Embracing the Sun where we’re given a glimpse of life several years later, 100 Days My Prince just ends. There were a couple of plot arcs and character threads that I felt were unresolved—such that the final episode left me unsatisfied and full of questions. It reminded me a bit of how Eternal Love ends: the lovers are reunited and get their Happily Ever After, but their union is not quite established in community the way it should be—which wouldn’t matter if Lee Yul and Yi Seo were just commoners, but he is the Crown Prince, for goodness’ sake.

I realise this sort of thing might only bother me. But if you happen to watch this one, let me know what you think and whether this annoys you too.

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Review: Love in the Moonlight

Netflix, 2016

(18 episodes; 59 min each)

So following on from my review of Moon Embracing the Sun, I wanted to talk about Love in the Moonlight, which is a much lighter, happier show. I’m not a big fan of the title and don’t see why the translators couldn’t have just stuck to the original title of the book from which the series is derived: Moonlight Drawn by Clouds (by Yoon Yi Soo and Kim Hee Kyung). The image is a metaphor: in this case, the moon is the King and the clouds are the people, and the idea is that of a King “drawn with the will of the people”.

This is important to remember, because at first glance, Love in the Moonlight seems like another Joseon-era romance. Oh, it certainly has the trappings of a palace drama much like Moon Embracing the Sun. But it’s not just that. There is a King on the throne, but he’s a bit unstable, having been very affected by the peasant uprising 10 years ago that left thousands dead. There’s a Queen, but she’s a second wife, daughter of the Prime Minister; the first Queen, mother of the Crown Prince, passed away under suspicious circumstances. There’s the villain of the piece—the Prime Minister (Prime Minister Kim, this time), who pretty much controls the court and prevents the King from doing any good. There’s a Princess, sister to the Crown Prince—Princess Myeong Eun, who is portrayed by one of the few plus-size actresses to appear in a K-Drama (though—spoiler: she undergoes a makeover). And of course, there’s the male lead: the Crown Prince—Lee Yeong—who is based on a real person: Crown Prince Hyomyeong, who lived 1809-1830, who was famous for being a very talented writer, composer and choreographer, and who died very tragically at the age of 20. (His death is not part of this drama though. I wonder why the authors decided to use a real historical figure instead of just making one up.)

In addition, the Crown Prince has a handsome bodyguard, Kim Byung Yeon, who grew up with the prince, as well as with Kim Yoon Sung, the only male heir of Prime Minister Kim’s family (the third side of the love triangle). When they were children, Yoon Sung was once the Crown Prince’s best friend. But now that they are older, they are estranged because of Prime Minister Kim and the Prime Minister’s suspected involvement in the death of the former Queen.

“But what of our female lead?” I hear you ask. Good question! In this drama, she’s a young lady named Hong Ra On who has spent most of her life disguised as a boy named Hong Sam Nom. It’s for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, but her mother said it had to do with her safety. Now at 18 years old, she has lost her mother and is living with a travelling performer who found her just after the peasant uprising 10 years ago and took her in. But he’s sick and feels guilty for being such a burden on her. She makes money by writing novels, giving out relationship advice (for which she has a particular talent) and even writing love letters for people. However, she’s also in debt with some very bad people.

The series opens on the Crown Prince, who isn’t really taking his role as the monarch’s heir seriously. But when he finds out that his sister, Princess Myeong Eun, has been receiving love letters from a stranger, he resolves to put an end to what he sees as an unsuitable relationship. The thing is, Hong Sam Nom has been writing those letters, and her patron begs her to go meet with the Princess (who she doesn’t know is the object of his affection) to call it off and to apologise for falling for her in the first place. Even though Hong Sam Nom is a commoner, she dresses up as an aristocrat to attend the meeting and runs into the Crown Prince, who is in disguise. This confuses her initially as she thought she was going to meet a woman. For his part, the Crown Prince is suspicious of Hong Sam Nom and wants to find out what noble house she belongs to. To extricate herself from the situation, Hong Sam Nom causes them both to fall into a deep hole, and the only way out is for the Crown Prince to hoist her up on his shoulders so she can climb out and go for help. She doesn’t, though: she leaves him in the pit, promising that if they should ever meet again (and you can tell she doesn’t think they will), she will do whatever he says.

Unfortunately Hong Sam Nom’s matchmaking activities have gotten her in trouble and there are people after her. While on the run, she encounters Kim Yoon Sung, grandson of Prime Minister Kim, who works out pretty quickly that Hong Sam Nom is a girl and not a boy, and who helps her. (He also falls for her later, though he pretends not to know her secret.) This respite is short-lived; her debt collectors catch up with her and she is sold to the palace as a eunuch. (The scene where she manages to avoid castration is both hilarious and mildly horrifying in that this is what they used to do to people.) And then when she is forced to enter the palace, she runs into the Crown Prince again (not knowing he is the Crown Prince). He, remembering her promise to him, makes it his mission to help her pass all the eunuch examinations so that she has to stay. And then over time, she and the Crown Prince begin to fall for one another …

Of course, no love story is easy, and there is plenty of drama and heartbreak as their relationship unfolds against the backdrop of palace intrigue/Prime Minister Kim’s machinations, the return of the peasant uprising from 10 years ago, and the truth about Hong Sam Nom’s/Ra On’s identity, which threatens to split the two lovers apart.

There is a lot I love about this show. The leads are absolutely adorable: Kim Yoo Jung (who plays the younger version of Heo Yeon Woo, the female lead in Moon Embracing the Sun) is gorgeously expressive, regardless of whether she’s doing a comedic scene or a dramatic one. She doesn’t quite pass for a boy (everyone keeps going on about how she’s too pretty), but she does a decent job at playing one, and clearly seems to relish some of the freedoms that passing as a male gives her.

Park Bo Gum, who I had never seen before in a K-Drama, makes a wonderfully handsome Crown Prince, and the way he brings out the prince’s emotions throughout the course of their turbulent love affair makes him very deserving of the awards he won for that role.

The chemistry between those two are part of what make the series so very addictive, and I could watch the scenes where they come to know the truth about each other over and over again, and not get sick of them. (The scene when Hong Sam Nom learns that Lee Yeong is the Crown Prince is absolutely hilarious!) Also, unlike Jung Ji Woon, the male lead in The King’s Affection, the Crown Prince, in the midst of falling for Hong Sam Nom/Ra On does actually seem conflicted about the idea that he might be gay, instead of glossing over the issue (though that doesn’t last very long).

The leads aside, my favourite cast member is Kwak Dong Yeon (who makes a brief appearance in very memorable episode of It’s Okay Not to Be Okay as the son of an assemblyman who has been diagnosed with mania). Dong Yeon plays the bodyguard, Kim Byung Yeon, who is trusted and valued by the Crown Prince but who is also secretly working for the resistance. Although he doesn’t say much, he does a lot of acting with his eyes and his body, and you can really see how conflicted he is, torn between his loyalty to the cause, and his friendship with both the Crown Prince and Hong Sam Nom/Ra On. (There’s a lovely scene at the end of the second episode when the three of them are enjoying a chicken dinner outside, sitting on a pyung sang—that is, one of those square wooden benches found in the yards of Korean houses—and Hong Sam Nom/Ra On is waxing lyrical about how unpopular the Crown Prince is among the palace staff while Byung Yeon is trying not to laugh and failing, much to the Crown Prince’s disgust.) Also, the way Byung Yeon puts out candlelight—and the way Hong Sam Nom/Ra On complains about it—had me in stitches.

The other minor characters are also terrific and well-rounded. I particularly liked Cho Ha Yeon, daughter of Minister Cho, who becomes Hong Sam Nom’s/Ra On’s rival, but not in a way that reduced her to a two-dimensional stereotype like the Queen in Moon Embracing the Sun. In addition, if you’ve seen Moon Embracing the Sun, you’ll notice some of those actors popping up in this—for example, the actor who played the King and the actress who played the Chief Shaman.

Secondly, I appreciated seeing palace life from the perspective of the eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting—something that was not really present in Moon Embracing the Sun. These are the people who work closely with the royal family, tending to their needs and carrying out their wishes. But I’d be willing to bet very little is known about them and their inner lives. I liked learning small historical details about them—for example, I did not know that women who serve in the palace are considered property of the King and are not allowed to have relationships with other men. There were little shots of what the palace kitchens were like (I find it interesting that the food is usually cooked outdoors). Also, there’s a couple of attempted poisonings, and you can see why Korean royalty were paranoid and ate off metal tableware using metal chopsticks in the hopes of detecting dangerous substances.

Thirdly, I liked how the romance plot tied in so well with the larger story about the kingdom and the different factions wrestling for control of it. The lovers’ suffering always feels organic instead of forced, and at times, I did wonder how on earth things were going to result in a Happily Ever After.

That said, there were two things that made me unhappy. Firstly, as usual, the love triangle doesn’t end well. I don’t know if that’s a spoiler, but it never seems to end well for the extraneous side—which is a shame, because I really liked Kim Yoon Sung, and he could have had a happy ending. Secondly—and this is my main critique of the series—I liked the way the whole thing unfolded up until the very last 20 minutes when everything felt really rushed. Apparently the network wanted the creators to make 20 episodes, but the actors had only been booked for 18, so they only made 18. I think they could have used at least one more to tie up all the loose ends. This is why the ending feels less like a Happily Ever After and more like a Happily For Now, and I found it less satisfying than Moon Embracing the Sun. That said, perhaps my expectations were wrong: this is not solely about the core romantic relationship, but also about the King being drawn by the will of the people. In that respect, at least, I guess it sort of lived up to its title, and perhaps I am just being greedy in wanting a little more.

Final thing: apparently this drama is leaving Netflix on 15 May, which is sad. You can also find it on Viki Rakuten, but not if you’re in Australia (or at least not yet. Perhaps that will change once it leaves Netflix). If you do check it out, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Review: Moon Embracing the Sun

Netflix, 2012

(20 episodes; 63-72 min each)

I’ve been escaping reality lately by watching a whole slew of Korean Joseon-era dramas. Sometimes I think watching period dramas is a lot like watching fantasy: everything is different enough to seem like a completely different world—from the clothing to the social structures to the food to the customs and so on. (Certainly Bridgerton is pure fantasy that seems to completely ignore Britain’s colonial history.)

There are three that I’ve completed recently and I thought I’d review them over subsequent blog posts. (Sorry Facebook friends: I’m posting these reviews to my blog because my blog is way easier to search than my Facebook page.) I did consider putting all three reviews into one post, but that would make it waaaay too long. Nevertheless, I’m hoping I can still compare and contrast them, because I find the commonalities between them quite interesting. I don’t know if the Joseon K-Drama is an actual genre the way that wuxia and xanxia novels/films/TV shows are in Chinese culture—it probably is and I’m just ignorant—but it’s interesting identifying some of the tropes and how each series uses them.

The Joseon era of Korean history (from my very meagre knowledge of the subject) lasted for about five hundred years—1392 to 1897. From what I can gather, it was a pretty turbulent time, with Korea existing as a vassal state to China, on the one hand, and being invaded by Japan on the other.

Moon Embracing the Sun was adapted from the novel by Jung Eun Gwol and contains many of the trappings of a Joseon K-Drama: a King is on the throne, but his rule is unstable due to various factions within his court—the largest one led by one particular court official with a lust for power, who often is/becomes the Prime Minister; the King’s successor, the Crown Prince, is usually the romantic male lead in the A plot, who often clashes with his father because their desires and goals do not align; there is a Queen, who may or may not be the Crown Prince’s mother (though in this particular drama she is); there’s a Crown Princess, who is not necessarily the romantic female lead (more about her later; it’s complicated); there’s a Princess, the Crown Prince’s sister, who carries the B plot; and there’s the third side of the love triangle involving the romantic leads (though depending on the drama, there can be multiple triangles involving various characters).

Moon Embracing the Sun begins with a bit of a prologue: the Queen, concerned about her son’s succession to the throne, orders the assassination of her stepson, the King’s son by a concubine, and enlists Lord Yoon Dae Hyung to help bring it about. Unfortunately the hit is witnessed by A-ri, a shaman of the Royal Astrology House who grew up with the stepson and knew that the bastard prince had no interest in becoming King.

A-ri is discovered and pursued, and in her flight, she runs into the pregnant wife of the Chief Scholar, who helps her and hides her. In return, A-ri vows to protect the unborn child and prophesies about the child, who she claims will have a noble, but tragic fate. Here’s where the imagery of the series title comes into play: the “sun” is the King; the “moon” is the Queen. But there can only be one sun and one moon. Two suns spells instability for the kingdom; two moons spell instability for the King. She predicts a bloodbath in the palace, and the rest of the series plays out in the shadow of this prophecy.

Unfortunately A-ri is captured, tortured and sentenced to be executed. Before her death by dismemberment (definitely not a nice way to go!), A-ri enlists her best friend and fellow trainee at the Royal Astrology House Jang Nok Yeong to look after the Chief Scholar’s child in her stead.

Fast forward 13 years. The Chief Scholar’s child is born: Heo Yeon Woo, a girl of great beauty and singular intelligence and wisdom. (As a 13-year-old, she’s played by the absolutely adorable Kim Yoo Jung, who goes on to do Love in the Moonlight, which I will review next.) Jang Nok Yeong ascends to become the Chief Shaman of the Royal Astrology House and therefore at the beck and call of the former Queen, who is now the Queen Dowager. In the absence of any competition, the Queen Dowager’s son has become King and has sired three children: a son by a concubine (Prince Yang Myung), the Crown Prince (Prince Lee Hwon) who is two years younger than Prince Yang Myung, and Princess Min Hwa. In addition, the Queen Dowager’s murderous accomplice, Lord Yoon Dae Hyung, has become Prime Minister (Prime Minister Yoon).

(Hopefully you’re still with me after all those names! For the purposes of the A plot, the most important ones you need to remember are Heo Yeon Woo, the Chief Scholar’s Daughter, and the Crown Prince.)

One fine day, Heo Yeon Woo goes to visit the palace with her mother because her older brother, Heo Yeom, who came first in the academic exam, is being honoured, along with the other graduates of the civil service examination. (This includes Kim Jae Woon, who came first in martial arts and who was childhood friends with Heo Yeom and Prince Yang Myung. I only mention him because he eventually fills the role of the Crown Prince’s bodyguard. Strangely enough in these dramas, the bodyguard is the only male at court who doesn’t wear a manggeon/circular headband, and his wild hair usually makes him appear more attractive. See Kim Ga On, the bodyguard in The King’s Affection.)

During the ceremony, Heo Yeon Woo becomes distracted by a butterfly and decides to chase it, which takes her into another part of the palace grounds. There she runs in the 15-year-old Crown Prince, Lee Hwon. (The younger version of him is played by Yeo Jin Goo, who was the hotel manager in Hotel Del Luna.)

At first, Heo Yeon Woo thinks that Crown Prince is a thief, because he’s carrying a bag full of stuff and is trying to escape the palace by climbing over its walls. He seeks to defend himself, saying that he just wants to go visit his brother, Prince Yang Myung, who has been sent to live outside of the palace—perhaps by the Queen Dowager, who is concerned, again, about the line of succession. But the Crown Prince does not reveal his identity to Heo Yeon Woo—at least, not at first, fearing that if he does, she would change the way she is treating him. Instead, he begins to fall for her, thanks to her intelligence and wisdom, and very strong sense of what is right and wrong. Nevertheless, before she leaves the palace grounds that day, he finds a way to send her a note with a riddle that causes her to work out who he is.

Now for the love triangles—of which there are two: not only does the Crown Prince fall for Heo Yeon Woo, but his older brother Prince Yang Myung is also in love with her, having been acquainted with her through his friendship with her older brother, Heo Yeom. For her part, Heo Yeon Woo has no interest in Prince Yang Myung, but instead develops an affection for the Crown Prince—so much so that when the time comes for the Crown Prince’s marriage to be arranged, she willingly becomes a candidate, even though she knows that if she fails to become the Crown Princess, she can never marry.

Of course, Heo Yeon Woo isn’t the only candidate, and there are forces at work behind the scenes, trying to make sure that the future Queen is someone who can be controlled—who can influence the future King in the “right” direction. The Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon put forward Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, Yoon Bo Kyung, who takes one look at the palace and decides she wants to live there. She and Heo Yeon Woo are placed in the company of Princess Min Hwa to befriend there, but there’s a rivalry between them from the start—particularly as Princess Min Hwa favours Heo Yeon Woo because she is in love with Yeon Woo’s older brother, Heo Yeom. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong sees immediately that the two girls are the two moons who will bring instability to the King.

The Crown Prince is desperate to marry Heo Yeon Woo, but unfortunately he has no say in the matter as royal marriages are usually decided by the Queen Dowager. The way he gets around this is quite inventive, though, and fortunately for the two young lovers, Heo Yeon Woo passes all the tests and becomes the Crown Princess.

This does not please the Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon, though, and they enlist Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to curse her with magic. The Royal Astrology House is dependent on the patronage of the Queen Dowager for its survival in an age of Confucianism, you see, and so this places Shaman Jang Nok Yeong in a very difficult position. On the one hand, she needs to appease the Queen Dowager or risk the destruction of her order; on the other hand, she made a promise to A-ri to watch over and protect Heo Yeon Woo. Her solution is to pull something of a Romeo and Juliet: she casts evil spells on Heo Yeon Woo that make her seriously ill—so ill that she is forced to leave the palace, much to the Crown Prince’s distress—and then she gives her a potion that makes her seem dead. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong hopes to give her a fresh start, and at first, things certainly seem that way—particularly as, after Heo Yeon Woo is revived, she loses all memory of her former life and is taken away by Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to become her apprentice.

Fast forward eight years to episode 7 (and I promise I’ll stop recounting the plot in a moment). The entire cast changes and that’s quite disconcerting as you then have to get used to who the new actors are playing. The Crown Prince has now ascended to the throne as King. He has been married against his will to Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, but he disdains his Queen and refuses to sleep with her, despite of the pressure his court places on him, because he still mourns for Heo Yeon Woo. Prime Minister Yoon controls his court and works against him, on the one hand; the Queen Dowager, who is still alive, also tries to manipulate things behind the scenes from her end. Prince Yang Myung still isn’t that welcome in the palace, and the relationship between him and the King is strained. (The Prince also still mourns Heo Yeon Woo and has also not moved on.) The King’s only friends are his chief body guard, Kim Jae Woon, and his chief eunuch. (His interactions with his chief eunuch are one of the few moments where the series feels more lighthearted; otherwise, it’s all very serious and tense, much like The King’s Affection.) Princess Min Hwa, however, has been given her wish and has married Heo Yeom.

The Prime Minister, sensing the Queen Dowager’s influence is waning, is seeking more power for himself. The Queen Dowager, for her part, is keen to establish her dominance, and summons Shaman Jang Nok Yeong back to court. This brings Heo Yeon Woo (now known as Shaman Weol) back into the palace—and back into the orbit of the King, who has never forgotten her. But it’s been eight years and she still has amnesia …

Moon Embracing the Sun, much like The King’s Affection is a very tense drama. There’s not a lot of lightheartedness to it, aside from a few of the interactions between the characters. (The King, for example, likes to tease his chief eunuch by implying that he and his chief bodyguard are romantically involved.) That said, I thought the cast was excellent: the younger actors in the lead roles were particularly charming, and I could see why both the Crown Prince and Prince Yang Myung fell for Heo Yeon Woo in the first place, and why they mourned her for so long. Their older counterparts do a good job, and I did like Kim Soo Hyun who plays the older Crown Prince/King, even if he does get a bit shouty and impatient at times. (Kim Soo Hyun was the male lead in It’s Okay Not to be Okay, which, unfortunately, I have never reviewed on this blog, but it is excellent. Also, not a Joseon K-drama. I think Moon Embracing the Sun was his breakout role.) Ha Ga In is lovely as Heo Yeon Woo/Shaman Weol (though, in my opinion, overshadowed by her younger counterpart), and while the amnesia plot is somewhat frustrating, it’s also very satisfying in the third act when the truth finally comes to light and the suffering of the leads is vindicated. The more minor characters I have not mentioned here are also terrific because they are fully fleshed out with their own smaller arcs, and at times, they are even given more to do than just aid the leads.

The court politics were not that interesting to me, though they did spur a lot of the tension that plays out in the backdrop of the A plot love story. I did like that much was made of the morality of characters’ decisions, with those decisions determining whether they will walk the path of righteousness or no, and therefore whether justice will be eventually be served (even K-dramas can’t escape fate!) Princess Min Hwa’s arc in particular was very well done, though devastating.

The part that disappointed me was what happened with the extraneous sides of the two love triangles: the Prime Minister’s daughter/Queen Yoon Bo Kyung never really stands a chance, and Prince Yang Myung never finds happiness (though his actions are very heroic).

But I did like that the series tied things up well at the very end, particularly as not all K-Dramas do that: after all that tragedy, you do actually find out what happens to all the characters. There is a reckoning, there is forgiveness and there is even redemption. But there is also peace and the re-establishment of order. Things are made right in the end, and while not everyone gets a happy ending, there is still a happily ever after.

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Review: Hotel Del Luna

Netflix

(16 episodes; 70-94 min each)

I’m distracting myself from the current COVID mess and the associated anxiety it’s causing me by writing another review of a recently completed K-drama.

Hotel Del Luna kept coming up in my Netflix recommendations, but it wasn’t until a friend recommended it that I decided to start watching. One thing that continues to impress me about K-dramas is the way they’re able to mix genres almost seamlessly, and this one somehow manages to have a bit of everything. The main story arc revolves around a girl named Jang Man Wol who, I think (with my very poor knowledge of Korean history) was born during the North-South states/later Three Kingdoms period when China’s influence on the country was a lot stronger. In the opening scenes, we see her leading a horse and cart bearing a coffin-like box through the wilderness, fending off bandits that dare to attack her. She says she’s looking for the “Guest House of the Moon”—an inn for ghosts before they pass on to the afterlife—and it’s hinted that she’s done some things in her past that she’s not proud of. She meets an old woman called Mago who isn’t quite who she seems, and when Mago points her in the direction of the guest house, she finds herself bound to an ancient tree and in the role of  the new proprieter of the Guest House of the Moon.

Fast forward almost 1300 years. The Guest House of the Moon is now called Hotel Del Luna, and it can’t be seen by ordinary mortals. A little boy named Goo Chan Seong lives with his father, a single dad who’s down on his luck and who strives to make ends meet by engaging in shady activities. It’s Chan Seong’s birthday and his dad wants to get him something nice. But Chan Seong, knowing his father’s situation, just tells him to get him flowers because he likes flowers. “You can even pick flowers for free,” he says. The father bears that in mind. But later that evening, he tries to steal something and ends up on the run, and then somehow ends up at Hotel Del Luna, where he decides to hide out until the coast is clear. While exploring the amazing hotel (which has its own private beach plus a fancy rooftop bar with a spectacular view of Seoul), he stumbles into the garden, finds Man Wol’s tree and plucks some of its flowers. In a Beauty and the Beast-type occurrence, Man Wol appears at that moment and says she will have to kill him. Falling to his knees, the father begs her to spare his life because of his son, Chan Seong. Man Wol agrees—on the condition that he give her Chan Seong. But not now; later, when he’s older. Faced with little choice, the father agrees, and Man Wol, wanting to make sure her investment turns out well, transfers money into the father’s bank account to pay for Chan Seong’s needs.

Fast forward another 20 years. Chan Seong, who has been studying and living in America, returns to Korea with a degree in hospitality and an MBA from Harvard. He was warned by his father to stay out of Korea for 20 years, and now that that period is over, he’s back and keen to work for one of Seoul’s most prestigious hotel chains. But on his birthday, as with previous birthdays, he receives flowers from Man Wol—this time, with a card congratulating him on his employment with Hotel Del Luna. Chan Seong isn’t happy about this as he’s already obtained a job elsewhere. But Man Wol shows up to persuade him. When he continues to refuse her, she gives him the gift of being able to see ghosts—a gift which, unlike flowers, he is unable to give back. And then over time, Chan Seong finds himself starting to care very much for the prickly Man Wol.

Unlike most of the K-dramas I’ve watched in the past, this one operates more like procedural drama: there’s the overarching series arc (Man Wol’s story: gradually we learn more and more about what happened to her); there are smaller stories contained within each episode that involve various ghosts—some of whom become guests at the hotel; and there are slightly longer storylines that span multiple episodes that involve secondary members of the cast—like the three primary employees of Hotel Del Luna, a teenage girl named Yu Na (who has her own complicated story), and Chan Seong’s housemates and college friends. The series contains elements of mystery/crime, horror (because, you know, dead people. Also, I think The Ring is referenced at one point), fairy tale, fantasy and, of course, romance.

Ji Eun Lee (also known, in the K-pop industry, as IU) is fantastic as Man Wol, bringing out the various nuances of her character—particularly in the flash back scenes where she’s playing a much younger and more vulnerable version of Man Wol. I’m not sure if the spiky, difficult female lead is a trope in K-dramas (I haven’t watched enough of them), but aspects of her character reminded me very strongly of Go Moon Young in It’s Okay Not to be Okay. (Her wardrobe is also just as fantastic.) In contrast, Yeo Jin Gu is super sweet as the soft-hearted Goo Chan Seong, and I will never tire of watching leading men being nice to their leading ladies, even when said leading lady is being a total bitch. I also liked that Chan Seong’s character is not afraid to be vulnerable (from my limited viewing, it seems more normal for the male characters Asian dramas to cry on screen; I can’t recall that many scenes in western dramas where that happens)—and he even embraces situations that have the potential to hurt him simply because it’s the right thing to do. Together, they are arguably among the best-looking couples on screen.

The minor characters were also delightful. Their role was often to provide comic relief, but I liked that each of them had very weighty character arcs that caused them grapple with the big themes of the drama. (I just wish the bartender’s—Kim Seon Bi—had been foreshadowed and drawn out a little better; it pretty much gets crammed in at the end and it didn’t make as much sense as some of the others.) Indeed, one of the things I really liked about Hotel Del Luna was watching characters having to confront the anger, resentment and grudges they’d been holding onto for so long (for centuries, for some) and learning to let them go—and then in letting go, finding peace. That’s not a topic I’ve seen tackled very often on television.

All of this was made all the more poignant because of the shadow of death, which stretches long over the entire series. The worldview of Hotel Del Luna is one of reincarnation—to something better if you have lived a worthy life, or something worse if you have not—and reincarnation is something of a plot point involving some of the secondary characters. But even though reincarnation is this world’s reality and death is not really the end, the characters still struggle with the awfulness and finality of death, and have trouble letting go of life, even if they have not truly lived in hundreds of years. There were points where I empathised so strongly with them, I found myself in tears.

Even though the ending hints at a second series (and there’s a definite link to It’s Okay Not to be Okay that I won’t spoil), nothing has been confirmed. If there was a second season, it would be interesting to see the writers take the stories in new directions. But so much terrain has been covered in this one, it’s hard for me to see where they would go with it. Still, I think I’d still watch it—if only for the lead actor.

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Review: The King’s Affection

Netflix

(20 eps/60-70 min ea).

The thing with K-dramas is you have to count the cost before you start: episodes are usually around 60 minutes long, but can also extend to 70 or even (as in the case of the finale of Crash Landing on You) 84 minutes. A 10 or even a 12-episode K-drama is pretty manageable—if there aren’t too many sentimental flashback montages; a 16-episode K-drama can really drag.

The King’s Affection is a whopping TWENTY episodes. Which had me worried. But I am pleased to report that, apart from a few overly sentimental flashback montages set to verrrrry slow K-pop ballads by Lyn and Baek Z Young (ballads being my least favourite musical genre in K-pop), The King’s Affection does not disappoint.

The story is set during the Joseon era: boy/girl twins are born into the royal family, and because it’s considered shameful for a king to have shared a womb with a girl, the royal order is given for the girl to be executed, with Jung Seok-jo, Royal Chief Investigator and right-hand man of the twins’ scheming grandfather on standby, ready to do the deed.

But somehow the twins’ mother saves the girl (Dam-i) and sends her far far away. Then the royal college of midwives is slaughtered to cover up the fact that twins were born at all.

12 years later, Dam-i comes to the capital to serve as a maid in the palace. Because she looks just like the Crown Prince (her brother), she is brought to his attention. The Crown Prince’s beloved tutor has been arrested for treason, and desperate to find out what has happened to him, the prince makes Dam-i swap clothes with him so he can sneak out of the palace and investigate.

Around this time, Dam-i also meets Jung Ji-woon, son of Jung Seok-jo, the Royal Chief Investigator. After she saves Ji-woon from drowning in a pond in the palace grounds, the two become close and start spending time together, and a shy romance begins to blossom between them.

Unfortunately Jung Seok-jo gets wind of the news that the girl twin did not die that night 12 years ago and starts to suspect Dam-i. During one of the instances when the Crown Prince swaps clothes with her, Jung Seok-jo pursues who he thinks is Dam-i and ends up killing the wrong twin. (Trigger warning for those who can’t watch violence against kids: there are a couple of instances of this in the first episode.)

Because of the fact that everyone who had a part in sparing Dam-i’s life when she was a baby would be executed if the truth were ever to come out, Dam-i is forced to step into her brother’s shoes and live her brother’s life as a man, even though she is a woman—and even though she still has feelings for Jung Ji-woon, who ends up coming back into her life years later.

I liked Park Eun-bin (who plays Dam-i) a lot: she does an amazing job in that role, bringing out all the nuances of what it would have been like to be a woman in that era pretending to be a man—and a prince at that. Sometimes I get annoyed with the girls-cross-dressing-as-men trope in Asian dramas, because not all girls can pull it off. (See, for example, Handsome Siblings, where the twin who calls himself “the smartest man in the world” utterly fails to recognise that Tie Xinlan is obviously a woman.) Ni Ni in Rise of the Phoenixes is the most successful, in my humble opinion. Park Eun-bin is still a little too pretty to pass (or maybe the make-up artist gives her a little too much lipstick). But she does well in both her body language and her speech, and I like that the role gives her a lot of freedom not afforded to the other female characters, even as her character is still something of a prisoner. Also, she does a good job of balancing the dramatic moments with the more comedic ones.

I also really liked Rowoon (Jung Ji-woon): he’s given far more to do here than in Extraordinary You, where he functions more as eye candy. (That was a 16-episode K-drama which I also enjoyed, but which really suffered under the weight of far too many sentimental flashback montages, and also could have done with some trimming to make it 12 episodes, not 16.) Also, Rowoon is adorably funny.

I know nothing about attitudes to homosexuality in the Joseon era, but in the world of this K-drama, it seems to have been frowned upon in broader society. So it seemed a little weird to me that Jung Ji-woon experiences little to no conflict within himself about his feelings for the Crown Prince/Dam-i. Indeed, there were elements of the story that made me wonder if the scriptwriters were playing with BL (Boy Love) tropes.

But if they were, that was overshadowed by the main plot concerning Dam-i, the throne, palace politics and her identity as a woman. I liked that, aside from the sentimental flashback montages, the scripts sustained the dramatic tension right up until the very end, making it hard to see how everything could ever come out right in the end. There isn’t a lot of room for the minor characters to have arcs, but the ones who did had some very satisfying ones. (I really liked Kim Ga-on’s, who becomes Dam-i’s body guard.)

You might think that almost 1,400 minutes on one K-drama is not worth it, and I can understand where you’re coming from. But this one I do highly recommend.

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Review: Nightbooks

Netflix, 2021. 1hr 43 min

The creep factor is present from the very beginning of this movie: it is, of course, a dark and stormy night, and 10? 12?-year-old Alex is upset and raging, tearing down posters of shlocky horror films from the 1980s and screaming about how he wants to burn it all. His parents are having an argument about him and some trauma that he’s recently endured. Clearly, they’re worried about him. He runs out of their apartment and into the lift, intending to set his books alight in the building’s boiler room. But instead, with a slice of pumpkin pie and an unattended television screening The Lost Boys, he is ensnared by a beautiful witch named Natacha (played by Krysten Ritter, who looks like she’s having way too much fun) and forced to prove his usefulness to her by reading her a new scary story every night.

Alex is not the only child that Natacha has ensnared: her creepy granny kitsch apartment also houses Yasmin, a girl about Alex’s age who cooks and cleans for Natacha, and a hairless spiteful cat named Lenore, who acts like a spy for the witch and who likes to turn invisible. At first, both Yasmin and Lenore are hostile to Alex. But shared adversity forges powerful bonds, and soon Alex and Yasmin are plotting together to find ways to escape.

I haven’t watched or read that much middle grade horror (Stranger Things and Monster House is about the extent of it), and horror really isn’t my genre. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed this one—perhaps because it was consciously steeped in fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel references abound) and 80s horror tropes. It was fun seeing Alex read his stories (which were dramatised in a heavily stylised way that I thought befit the tale-within-a-tale thing they were going for) and having to endure the world’s worst writing critique group in the form of an impatient, nitpicky and exacting Natacha. (“Writers. Always so insecure.” *Cue snarky giggles from me.*) The way his writers block was depicted made me laugh while, at the same time, I kept yelling at the screen for him to go take a walk or read some of the many tomes that comprised the library he was forced to work in. (Indeed, give it’s Week #15 of lockdown, I rather envied the fact that he had TIME and SPACE to write—time and space UNINTERRUPTED, at that!) It was also very emotionally satisfying seeing him and Yasmin slowly begin to connect, and I enjoyed the spark of cleverness Alex displayed in trying to trick the witch into revealing some key piece of information. The jump scares were a little cheesy, bordering on predictable. But this is a kids movie, and perhaps some leniency is in order.

Indeed, I wondered how much my viewing the film as an adult was colouring my perceptions of the film. There were points at which I felt that the kids were being a bit slow or a bit stupid—that they should have acted and done certain things to help themselves, or done certain things sooner. I wondered how a kid would have found it and whether they would have empathised with the main characters’ paralysis and indecision. In particular, I wonder how they would have responded to the big reveal, when Alex finally answers Natacha’s question about why he was so keen to burn his writing (which he has scribbled in journals he calls his “Nightbooks”). For me, I felt like this could have been seeded better and earlier so that the emotional weight of Alex’s trauma could have hit harder.

Indeed, in spite of some pretty decent pacing, some of the plot twists and character arcs felt a bit predictable (even though I liked some of them), and if you think too hard about the story and its world building, you’ll come across some curious holes. (That said, and given that the movie is based on a book of the same name by JA White [which I have not read], I wondered if the movie would have worked better as a miniseries, with more time and space to allow the stories—and back stories—to breathe a little more.)

Final thing: the production design on this movie is gorgeously nightmarish—from the William Morris wallpaper to the antique porcelain dolls to the cobwebbed spiral staircased library, and even a gingerbread house that looks both mouthwatering, yet sweetly and sickly gross. Natacha’s wardrobe is also fabulously retro and over-the-top, with iridescent fabrics, sequins for days and eye-wateringly high platforms galore. The score was comprised of some rather over-used high strings. But I really like the CHVRCHES cover of “Cry Little Sister” (which comes from The Lost Boys): not only are they one of my most favourite bands, I felt that fit really well with CHVRCHES’ aesthetic.

If you and/or your kids like creepy stories, this one’s for you—and just in time for Halloween.

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Review: Unrest

Netflix, 2017. 1 hr 37 min.

This wasn’t the thing I thought I’d be blogging about today, but nevertheless, the thing I started writing isn’t quite working, so let’s go with another review.

Unrest is a 2017 documentary about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) by Harvard PhD candidate Jennifer Brea, who also gave a TED talk about her condition in 2016 from her wheelchair (16:32 min).

She made the documentary for several reasons: it records her story and her struggle with the disease—the medical appointments; the good days when she is able to walk—when she appears “normal”; the bad days when she can’t do anything except lie there; the days when she has to drag herself along the floor, crying in pain, in order to get herself into bed; the things that she grieves, because the disease has robbed her of so much; the impact of her condition on her relationships (particular her relationship with her husband, Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton); and her own journey in trying to understand the disease.

But it’s also partly a chronicle of the stories and the range of experience of other CFS-sufferers and their carers around the world, whom Brea connects with via video chat. There’s Jessica in England who has been severely unwell for eight years; Leeray, a middle age mother, whose husband did not believe there was anything wrong with her and who left her because of it; Casie, Leeray’s daughter, who was diagnosed with the same condition; Ketty and Per in Denmark, parents of CFS patient Karina, who was taken from them because Denmark does not acknowledge CFS as a medical disease; and Ron Davis, Professor of Biochemistry and Genetics, Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Centre at Stanford University, and father of CFS-sufferer Whitney, who has not talked in over a year and who lives in almost complete darkness in his room. Their stories amplify and highlight Brea’s, giving voice to the many who suffer from this disease, who have all but disappeared from view in everyday society.

In addition, through their stories, the documentary touches on different issues affecting CFS sufferers, such as not being believed; the social stigma of people thinking you’re just making up your symptoms; the blindness of the medical community, most of whom have little idea of what the disease is, let alone how to treat it; historical misconceptions of CFS/ME, and how it is often dismissed because the majority of those affected are women; different treatments that patients try in order to try to alleviate their symptoms (with varying results); and the struggle of those in the field of medical research to attract support and funding for their work. As Ron Davis explains,

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is the lowest funded of any major disease by a lot. Many of the people that are at the NIH [National Institute of Health] and have in the past not believed it’s real. So why would you fund something that’s not real?

This sort of gaslighting highlights the need for Brea’s documentary—as an engine of activism, raising awareness among the general public (see also the Millions Missing global campaign). CFS/ME is bad enough on its own, but compounded with the judgement and prejudice of an ableist society, it can be devastating for those affected. You can see Brea herself struggling with the hopes and expectations that society has placed on her: in one heartbreaking scene, she confesses,

It was like I had died, but was forced to watch as the world moved on … If I completely disappear and I’m in this bed, then it’s like I don’t even exist or that I never existed. And then what was the point of it all—of being born in the first place? You know and honestly there are a lot of days when I just feel like I’m doing a good job by just holding it together and not killing myself. And it’s not—I really don’t want to die—like, I really don’t want to die—but at a certain point, it’s hard to call this living, and I think the grief of all those things I might not do or see or have … yeah, so it’s sad.

I couldn’t help thinking that if the world was less focused on markers of life success and achievement and more understanding and compassionate about the circumstances of those who don’t fit a certain mould, Brea and others like her would be having a slightly easier time of things. It is tragic—and also, I think, a damning judgement on a society that has failed to listen to them—that so many CFS patients end their suffering by taking their own lives. There is so much more that we ought to be doing to relieve their burdens.

If you, like me, know someone or multiple someones with CFS/ME-type symptoms (and there are so many more now in the wake of COVID, which leads me to hope that the disease will receiving proper funding and attention soon), please watch this documentary. If you don’t know anyone with this disease and understand nothing about it, then you should definitely watch it. It’s upsetting and distressing at places, and it contains no easy answers, which many will find frustrating. But it is very much worth it if only to help you understand the suffering of many and the miracle of their resilience in the face of such crushing odds.

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The Rurouni Kenshin live action films: An appreciation

Almost three weeks have gone by since I last wrote a blog post. I keep composing them in my head, but actually committing them to digital ink is another story. One of the things I have been struggling with about this lockdown is the inelasticity of time: my days at the moment have to operate to a strict schedule, otherwise everything falls off the rails—home learning, paid work and that pesky of all duties, housework. This means that things like blogging get relegated to the bottom of my priority list.

But I wanted to write something about the Rurouni Kenshin films because I watched them all recently after the two most recent films premiered on Netflix. (Unfortunately all five are not available on that platform at the moment—at least in Australia; I think they are in the Philippines.) I watched the first one (Origins) a couple of years ago and quite liked it, then went away and watched the anime as that was on Netflix (though it is no longer). With the release of The Beginning and The Final, I thought it was high time I watched all five films together. Plus it gave me something to look forward to during lockdown.

(NB: Perhaps because of the release of the last two films, the first two were going cheap on Apple TV, so I bought them. But I had to rent The Legend Ends as that was $19 to buy. I am hoping that one day, Apple might sell all five as a bundle.)

My interest had mostly to do with the novel, of course, though Rurouni Kenshin is set mostly at the beginning of the Meiji period, not the Edo. Still, I thought it would be interesting to watch it as a counterpoint to Samurai Champloo, plus I kept reading that the live action films were one of the best—if not the best—anime adaptations of all time. (It will be interesting to see how the upcoming live action Cowboy Bebop TV show does.) Aside from samurai films (both eastern and western), there isn’t that much on Netflix that is set during the Edo period, even though Japan produces a prestige period drama every year (I’ve read that it’s due to copyright issues?!), and much of Netflix’s original Japanese content is contemporary or sci-fi/spec fic. And while dramas are no substitute for history, the thing that interests is me is how people lived and moved in those spaces—in that architecture—with those furnishings and those everyday household objects. As I said in my post about my novel, there are things I just haven’t been able to discover in my research. But there are also things that research wouldn’t unearth—for example, how people thought about inside and outside spaces (and therefore when to remove their shoes), and how the removing shoes thing works in, say, a restaurant. (I have no idea how it works with their ox-drawn carts; did you know the inside of those don’t have seats, but are covered in tatami mat flooring? I realise those carts were for the rich, but did their servants carry their shoes for them??) These are things that people wouldn’t write about because they’d just do them without thinking. Which then makes it very hard for me to figure out just through Googling.

But back to Rurouni Kenshin. I should say up front: I have not read the manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki. I have not seen the prequel anime series Trust and Betrayal, nor the widely panned Reflection or New Kyoto Arc. I won’t be commenting much about how they are as adaptations as I feel quite unqualified to do so. Also, when I rewatched them, I did so in the order that they were made, not in the order of their chronology. (It would be interesting to do that sometime. Maybe one day when I have another 12 or 13 hours to spare!)

Furthermore, this isn’t going to be a thorough review. I just don’t have the time, nor the inclination, for that. I mostly want to share my love for the films as I think most people have never heard of them, and while most of the people I know probably won’t like them (they’re samurai films, after all, so they’re pretty violent), some of my friends might. They do have the most amazing action/sword fighting sequences I have ever seen on film, so from my perspective, it’s worth the extended runtime. (Each film goes for about 2 hours and 15-20 minutes, and if you’re not an action fan, you’ll probably think them too bloated.) That said, there will be probably be a few spoilers in this post, so consider yourself warned.

Right. One more thing before we get started: it helps to know something of Japanese history, because some of the characters are real people, or are based on real people. If you know nothing about Japan, I do recommend this episode on “Samurai, Daimyo, Matthew Perry, and Nationalism” on John Green’s Crash Course: World History YouTube channel (11:52 min). (This animated history of Japan on Suibhne’s channel is also helpful, but it goes for 25 minutes.)

I will attempt to give you the short version: during the Edo period, the Shogun (or war lord) ruled Japan while the emperor was more of a figurehead and didn’t have any real power. Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world, maintaining a policy of national seclusion. No foreigners were allowed into the country, except those from the Dutch East India Company, and even they were only permitted to go certain places.

Then Matthew C Perry arrived in 1853 with his black ships from America and fired his cannons over Edo Bay to showcase America’s technological might and to force Japan to open up to trading with the west. From what I’ve read, the Americans were interested in whaling as whale oil powered their ships at the time, but I think Japan’s location was also important to them for strategic reasons.

At the time, the shogun was ill and those in power could not come to a consensus on how to deal with the foreign threat. Furthermore, the treaties that Japan entered into with America were seen as bad and humiliating. The country fractured, with some urging for modernisation and others wanting to return to the old ways. The Boshin War was fought between those who supported the shogun and those who wanted to restore power to the emperor.

The Beginning (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Beginning kicks off in 1864, 11 years after Perry’s arrival, just before the Boshin War. Himura Kenshin (played by the ridiculously photogenic Takeru Satoh) is already serving as an assassin (Hitokiri Battōsai—literally “manslayer”) in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, taking down those who support the shogun. He is nothing short of gifted with a sword: there is a fight scene right at the beginning of this movie where he’s basically holding his blade with his teeth and he still manages to take down an entire room full of samurai.

But even so, he is uneasy with killing: in the next scene, while up against some of the members of the city watch, he strikes down a young guard who is not so easily killed and who keeps crying out that he can’t die because he has someone he loves. He gives Kenshin the first slash in the facial scar that distinguishes him in later instalments.

Kenshin still does his duty and murders the guard, but the act does not sit easy with him, and that shows when he goes to meet up with his handler, Kogoro Katsura, who relates to his mistress the story of how Kenshin was recruited in the first place.

Kenshin goes to drink alone at a local tavern. A young woman named Yukishiro Tomoe enters and sits at the table next to his, intending to drink alone too. But because some other patrons start bothering her, Kenshin intervenes, then leaves.

In the street, he is attacked and quickly puts the other guy down. But his actions are witnessed by Tomoe, who came out to thank him. She faints, and faced with the prospect of being reported as a murderer, Kenshin takes her back to the inn where he is staying with a bunch of other loyalists from Chushu. As Tomoe has nowhere else to go, she earns her keep by helping out at the inn, and she takes care of Kenshin, who is often out doing his work at night, watching over him during the day as he sleeps. Kenshin clashes with the Shogunate’s police force, the Shinsengumi, resulting in a brief encounter with Saito Hajime, a character who becomes more relevant in later films. The conflict reaches a fever pitch, making the city unsafe for the loyalists. Yet in spite of the turmoil of the era and the turbulence of what is happening around them, an odd and unexpected sort of kinship begins to form between Tomoe and Kenshin.

Of the five, I think this was my favourite movie. It’s a shot like an indie arthouse film, not a big budget action movie, and while the action scenes are outstanding—particularly the opening one I mentioned before—everything is muted and subdued, as if trying to keep the rising tension in check. Even though the action scenes are dynamic and amazing, I suspect many might find the plot a little boring: in a sense, not a lot happens. But it’s all about the characters and the subtleties in the way they interact. Takeru Satoh does a lot of acting with his eyes, which are often hidden by his hair in some of the scenes anime-style. (It amuses me how little eye contact the characters make when speaking to one another sometimes.) It’s not always clear what he’s thinking or feeling, but I rather liked that: as the lead figure of the franchise, there was a lot about him that made me think of characters like James Bond or Jason Bourne—characters who are less about personality or charisma, but more about what’s happening around them and how they respond to it.

The way the final act of the story plays out is devastating—like Shakespearean tragedy—and I loved how the various plot threads are brought together in such a way that it brings things full circle. The movie ends in 1868 with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi towards end of the Boshin War. I rather liked this as it set things up to the next movie, which is …

Origins (2012)

Apple TV (2 hours 15 minutes)

Origins begins with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, where Kenshin puts down his killing sword. Here he encounters Hajime once more, but refuses to engage with him. He turns heel and walks off the battlefield. But unfortunately for him, someone else takes up his sword—a man named Udō Jin-e.

Fast forward 10 years: it’s 1878 and Kenshin has just arrived in Tokyo. He’s now a “rurouni” (i.e. a wandering samurai) and while swords are banned, the sword he now carries is not, because it’s a reverse blade sword—i.e. the sharp edge is on the top, not the bottom. Even though his work as an assassin has given his position as Battōsai notoriety, he is able to enjoy anonymity as virtually no one actually knew what he looks like. That said, the x-shaped scar on his cheek gives him away to those in the know.

Saito Hajime now works for the police, investigating a series of murders of undercover officers by someone styling himself as the Battōsai. While some believe the Kenshin is back, Hajime is not so sure and suspects that someone is impersonating Kenshin.

Kenshin has a run-in with a young woman named Kamiya Kaoru who has inherited her late father’s Kendo school. The school’s reputation is in ruins because of the Battōsai’s crimes and, desperate to clear her father’s name, Kaoru attacks Kenshin, believing him to be the Battōsai because he carries a sword. When he shows her that it is a reverse blade, she lets him go, but later she has a run-in with Jin-e and is rescued by Kenshin.

Meanwhile, an unscrupulous and wealthy businessman named Takeda Kanryū is plotting to take over the city and enrich his own coffers by making a woman named Takani Megumi invent a kind of opium far more addictive than the regular sort. Megumi is aghast when the others involved in the drug’s creation are killed before her eyes, and tries to escape.

The plot of Origins, as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve read this much, is far more complicated than The Beginning and involves so many more characters, it starts to get a little confusing. (I haven’t even mentioned Sanosuke, who becomes Kenshin’s right-hand man, and Yahiko, the orphan and Kaoru takes in.) If you’re familiar with the anime, you can see how the film is setting up the principal characters and their relationship to one another. Kenshin is ostensibly retired and has vowed never to kill again, but because of what happens to Kaoru and Megumi, he gets drawn into the conflict and is almost thrust into his old role again. But unlike Jin-e, he’s not a bloodthirsty killer who enjoys killing for the sake of it; he’s always doing things for the sake of the greater good—in a way, seeking to atone for the lives he’s already taken. He’s attracted to Kaoru’s way of thinking—that the sword, rather than being an agent of death, is, instead, a tool that brings life—and the rest of the movie bears this out.

If you can handle the large cast and the intricate plot, this one is worth a watch—if only the for the fight scenes alone, which are astonishing. Consider this one at Kaoru’s dojo where Kenshin engages his foes mostly with his hands, not even bothering to draw his sword until halfway through:

I love how the fight isn’t just confined to one plane: you see Kenshin rolling and sliding along the floor, doing backflips off the walls, spinning and attacking, taking down an entire gang of thugs. He’s entirely in control of the situation, and he doesn’t need a weapon to establish his superiority over them. It’s all the more impressive when you know that Takeru Satoh is doing it all himself (and in waraji—straw sandals—no less!): he did not have a stunt double, and trained relentlessly to get the fight scenes right.

Emi Takei’s Kaoru is also an improvement on the anime character, who is often played for laughs because of her vanity and strong will. Even though I wondered why Kaoru wasn’t better in combat, given her martial arts training, I admired the way she sticks to her principles and encourages Kenshin towards virtue.

The other thing that really struck me about this film was the visual contrast between the old and the new—the Edo and the Meija eras: while most of the locals dress in kimono and hakama, the police and even Kanryū and his cronies are clothed in Western garb. Kenshin and many of the police carried swords, but some also had guns (which the Portuguese introduced to Japan in 1543), and Kanryū himself is armed with a Gatling gun.

I also liked the ending and seeing how Kenshin struggles with how to resolve his old life as the Battōsai with his new life as a rurouni, who has vowed never to kill, in the face of those who would do harm.

Indeed, the filmmakers could have left it there and I would have been satisfied. But instead, the story continues with …

Kyoto Inferno (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

Kyoto Inferno opens with Kenshin’s world at peace: Kenshin is still living with Kaoru, whose Kendo school is now thriving. Hajime is still working for the police, Megumi is working as a doctor, and Sanosuke is just being Sanosuke. But all is not well: the police are tracking the activities of a man named Shishio Makoto, who, like Kenshin, worked as an assassin during the Boshin War and was even Kenshin’s successor. (He’s mentioned briefly in The Beginning.) Because Makoto’s methods were so brutal, the new regime sought to have him quietly killed as they could not defend his actions. Unfortunately for them, he survived and now seeks to bring down the Meiji government in an act of revenge.

Once again, Kenshin is drawn into the conflict. Although he initially refuses, when a top official and friend is assassinated, Kenshin feels as though he has no choice but to go to Kyoto where Shishio is amassing followers and holding court.

On the way, he meets a young lady named Makimachi Misao, who attempts to steal his weapon, and has a run-in with some of Shishio’s followers—notably, Seta Soujiro, who breaks his reverse blade sword. Kenshin’s actions impress Misao, who takes him to stay with her people—former ninjas who worked for the shogunate—when he reaches Kyoto. However, one of their number—a former lieutenant of the shogunate named Shinomori Aoshi—is after Kenshin, having made it his personal mission to kill him and become known as the strongest man in Japan.

If the size of the cast of Origins confounded you, you’ll find Kyoto Inferno worse as the number of significant characters pretty much triples. It can be hard to keep the relevant people and factions straight, particularly as most of the cast don’t get the same airtime as in the anime series, which had the time and leisure to explore some of their back stories. Even so, I think the script made the stakes and the emotional highs and lows clear, and while some of the characterisations and action scenes border on mawkish in the way of superhero comic book adaptations, they don’t obscure Kenshin’s loyalties and inner conflicts.

Be warned, however: after two hours and 18 minutes, this movie ends on a cliffhanger. Which means you then need to watch …

The Legend Ends (2014)

Apple TV (2 hours 18 minutes)

The Legend Ends picks up almost immediately where Kyoto Inferno ends—well, it does after a flashback prologue during which we are introduced to a young Kenshin who has been saved by a man named Hiko Seijūrō. (The anime goes into more detail about that scene, which makes me wonder what newcomers think of it.) Seijūrō, impressed with Kenshin’s tenacity, decides to take him on as his student and teach him his “High Heaven” style of fighting—the style that makes Kenshin so good at killing.

Back in the present day, Kenshin wakes up in Seijūrō’s hut, worried about what happened to Kaoru and obsessed with the idea of taking down Shishio. He begs Seijūrō to teach him the ultimate technique of his fighting style. His former teacher agrees and they begin training.

Meanwhile, Shishio in his battleship drops anchor just off the coast of Tokyo and demands that officials from the government meet with him to discuss the situation, otherwise he will expose their crimes during the Boshin War and completely undermine their authority.

Provided you’ve managed to follow the events of Kyoto Inferno, in my opinion, The Legend Ends is a mostly fitting conclusion to that plot arc. I like Kenshin’s return to his roots: Hiko Seijūrō is one of my favourite characters of the series—mostly because of this scene:

I also liked the realisation Kenshin comes to about himself and how it changes him: it makes his second encounter with Seta Soujiro all the more dynamic and almost joyful. Furthermore, the action he takes to stop Shishio in putting himself in the hands of the fickle Meiji government are very much in keeping with his role as a hero, and while the government does not come off very well, I like that Kenshin very much sticks to his principles in spite of them.

That said, the Shinomori Aoshi arc isn’t quite given enough room to breathe, and I think that audiences might find his plot thread a little exasperating. The final climactic fight scene could be seen as laughable and I’m not sure that the outcome is earned, but I do really like that Kenshin is not alone—that because of his principles and the decisions he’s made as a result of those principles, he’s earned himself allies who are willing to fight alongside him for this new age. The very last scene of the film doesn’t quite land as the plot thread concerning the government isn’t resolved to my satisfaction. But fortunately we now have …

The Final (2021)

Netflix (2 hours 19 minutes)

Just as Kyoto Inferno and The Legend Ends were released and meant to be viewed back-to-back, so too are The Beginning and The Final, I think. They bookend the series, bringing the story almost full circle. As with Kyoto Inferno, The Final begins with Kenshin’s world mostly at peace: it’s 1879, he is still living with Kaoru and enjoying life with his friends. But a new enemy is making himself known—someone from Kenshin’s past: Yukishiro Enishi, brother of Yukishiro Tomoe, who Kenshin loved. In the intervening years since his sister’s death, Enishi has been living in China and working his way up the ranks of the Shanghai mafia to become their leader. Now he’s hell-bent on revenge: he wants to see Kenshin suffer and he will do it by striking Kenshin’s friends and the city where he’s made his home.

Of the five, this film has the thinnest plot: revenge takes a lot of energy to sustain, I think, and not all of us can be John Wick. But one of the wonderful things about it is seeing old characters return—Hajime Saito, of course; sword-mad Cho Sawagejo, who Kenshin fights in Kyoto Inferno; Shinomori Aoshi; Makimachi Misao, who we get to see being awesome with a blade; and even Seta Soujiro, whose previous encounter with Kenshin left him a changed man. The other wonderful thing that rises out of the frenetic violence is the twin themes of atonement and redemption—the putting right of old wrongs and the breaking of the cycle of revenge. Even though Tomoe only appears on screen in flashback, with footage lifted directly from The Beginning, her character permeates the story, bringing healing and closure to both Kenshin and Enishi.

Oh dear, somehow I’ve managed to write another long one! I’m not sure I’ve done the Rurouni Kenshin series justice, but if you do decide to watch them, let me know what you think.

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Review: The King’s Avatar

(I’m reposting a review I put on my personal FB profile because this show deserves more eyes, and if you’re looking for something fun and engrossing to watch while you’re in lockdown, I highly recommend this one.)

The King’s Avatar (2019)
Screening on Netflix
40 episodes. 45 minutes each.

I’ve been meaning to write about this one for months. Once again, this was a Netflix recommendation: I don’t think I would have started watching it by myself. I mean, it’s about esports. I don’t even like sport sport; why would I want to watch something about esports?!!

Well, I was wrong about that!

The King’s Avatar (based on the web novel by Hu Dielan) is about esport athletes who play a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called Glory. Think World of Warcraft but sort of more medieval, with lots of armour and swords, but also gatling guns, ninjas and magic. (Yeah, that combination doesn’t make sense to me either.) (Also, it’s not a real game. Yet.) Ye Qiu (Yang Yang who was also the male lead in Love O2O), who plays with the avatar One Autumn Leaf, is the number #1 player in the league and captain of the team Excellent Era. Despite a successful season in which Excellent Era placed first in the league, Ye Qiu is forcibly retired by the team’s manager who wants to bring on new blood. However, instead of staying on as a consultant (the manager’s preference), Ye Qiu chooses to break his contract and walk away, handing over One Autumn Leaf to the new captain (Sun Xiang) and starting again.

As no one other than his team members and a few others in the league actually know what Ye Qiu looks like, because he always wears a mask in public, Ye Qiu is able to go wherever he pleases. In need of a new job, Ye Qiu goes to the internet café across the street from Excellent Era’s headquarters where he meets the café’s owner, Chen Guo, another Glory player and massive One Autumn Leaf fan. She is in need of a network manager and hires Ye Qiu as soon as she discovers how good he is at playing Glory (but not realising that he is actually her idol). She also provides him with room and board, and computer/internet access that allows Ye Qiu to start again in Glory—this time, on a brand new server and using a new avatar who he names “Lord Grim” (and his relative anonymity does result in some very amusing scenes with those who don’t know any better). However, instead of choosing a particular role (in Glory, you can be a Launcher or a Battlemage or a Cleric or a Warlock, etc.), he plays as an unspecialised, which means that he can deploy a number of different skills across all the categories.

He is also developing a new weapon that was designed by a childhood friend and fellow Glory player Su Muqiu (who died, though we never really learn the circumstances behind his death). I’m not sure if the translation really does it justice: the weapo is called the “Myriad Manifestation Umbrella” and it can be wielded as a spear, a sword, a gun, a shield, and so on and so forth.

Lord Grim starts breaking records and making waves, drawing the attention of other players—both amateur and professional. And slowly over time, Ye Qiu starts to build himself a new team …

I liked this series far more than I was expecting to. The script really leaned into many of the tropes of sports movies (a genre that I sometimes enjoy despite the sports. I like Pitch Perfect, which is essentially a sports movie): there’s the rules of the game, training sessions, assembling the team, conflict between the members, different team members learning to work together, progress, advancing through levels, setbacks, stakes … I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

Most significantly (for an Asian drama), there is NO ROMANCE. None. Zilch. You might expect there to be something going on between Ye Qiu and Chen Guo, or even Ye Qiu and Su Muqiu’s sister, Su Mucheng (Launcher for Excellent Era). But no: the script steers well clear of that. Everyone is just friends and that’s just so refreshing.

Act 1 mostly focuses on Ye Qiu re-establishing himself again, and one of the delights of the series is seeing how good he is at Glory compared to how hopeless he is in real life. I really liked seeing Yang Yang in this role, rather than as Xiao Nai in Love O2O: he gets to do a lot more and his character is a lot more likeable. His motives are never in doubt: he’s not playing Glory for fame or money or accolades; he’s just a mad gamer head who loves the game and loves playing with other people. Furthermore, he’s quite other-person-centred: because he loves playing with other people, he’s a natural at identifying and nurturing talent. As he draws out other potential team members—such as Chen Guo’s best friend Tang Rou, warehouse manager Bao Rongxing (who plays under the moniker “Steamed Bun Invasion” [“Bao” means “bread” in Chinese]) and even the insecure Qiao Yifan, rookie over at Team Tiny Herb, he acts as a mentor figure, encouraging and instilling his protegés with confidence even as he trains them to play better and play better with others. This is a big contrast to other characters—like Sun Xiang, Excellent Era’s new captain, who is young, arrogant and not much of a team player or mentor figure, and even Xiao Shiqin, captain of Team Thunderbolt, who demonstrates his considerable talent for strategy.

The second act could have been the soggy middle where the momentum lags. Instead, the episodes focus on arcs for the minor characters—not just the above team members, but new ones that Ye Qiu brings on board to round things out. I enjoyed these a lot, along with the themes their stories brought to the fore—like ageing players who still love the game, but who can’t quite perform at the level of the pros anymore; young players who are over-eager to prove themselves; hot-headed players who can talk smack and yet who can’t quite deliver.

Indeed, the recurring ideas of perfectionism, how to deal with failure and loss of face was a powerful one: this drama takes place in an Asian culture, after all, and I wondered in particular how these ideas would have been received. I found it refreshing to see characters fail, and then recover and build resilience. I also found it heart-warming watching team members band together and support one another, instead of tearing each other down. Sure, there was an element of cliché in all these sports movie tropes, but the writers certainly executed them well, in my opinion; I loved them all.

Act 3 see Ye Qiu and his motley crew enter the Glory Challengers League. They’re the underdogs (and who doesn’t like to root for an underdog?!), and in some ways, you’d expect the ending to be a foregone conclusion. But (and I hope this isn’t a spoiler) The King’s Avatar leaves you hanging right up until the very end. Indeed, its ending was one of the things I admired about it, because it felt earned. But I won’t say much more about it.

Final thing: the game play for Glory is not like Love O2O, where characters played themselves in a live action bad CGI version of the game; instead, it’s all computer animated with the quality of something like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within—i.e. not great, but also, perhaps, what you’d expect of a MMORPG. (I wouldn’t know, though; I don’t play them.) That said, the character design of the avatars matches their real-life counterparts rather well, in my humble opinion. And thankfully, the game scenes aren’t shot like a MMORPG: they’re shot like movies, with camera angles and shots that take in the game’s gorgeous landscape and production design as much as they capture the frenzy and excitement of the battle scenes. (This being an Asian drama, martial arts is still a big thing, even in computer game form.) I normally watch Asian dramas at 1.5x speed, but for The King’s Avatar, I slowed it down to normal just so I could take in every move of the fight choreography. Furthermore, the action was never gratuitous: each in-game scene was there for a reason, furthering the story or our understanding of a particular character.

Right. I think I’ve raved enough. If you enjoy esports, sports movies, MMORPGs or even fun character writing, give this one a try.

(Also, according to this Wikipedia entry, there’s a second series of this live action drama in the works. Yay!)

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Netflix binge-watching Xianxia Chinese dramas

My mental health hasn’t been great lately and I’m finding it hard to write things. So rather than run around in mental circles, I thought I’d do something semi-productive and blog about some things I’ve been binge-watching.

But I’m hesitant to do it. We are living in an increasingly judgemental society—a world where it’s common for people to lunge for your throat simply for voicing an opinion. Spend a day on social media and you see such things in abundance. It makes me very reluctant to say anything, let alone what I think and feel about media. I don’t want to get into some pointless argument about whether the thing I like is actually “good”. I don’t want people to go tsk tsk and shake their heads because I’m appreciating something they think I shouldn’t be. (Christians do this a lot.) I’d rather not have other people laugh at me because I’ve gotten into this thing that’s an easy target for mockery.

And yet I do believe in consuming media outside of my usual diet. I believe in learning from other forms of art produced in cultures very different from my own. I will always be a student of story—paying close attention to why something works or doesn’t work.

Which is why, lately, I’ve been binge-watching a bunch of Chinese xianxia fantasy dramas on Netflix. It feels weird even to write that; I have a complicated relationship with the Chinese part of my background, and to date, I don’t think I’ve ever watched an entire television show in Mandarin. But I do remember spending some of my summers with my grandmother in Hong Kong winters, and occasionally she’d be watching dramas like these. (Of course I couldn’t understand what was going on or who the characters were because they were all speaking in Cantonese.) So when Netflix started recommending them to me, they looked and felt somewhat familiar.

Now, it’s important to note that I’m a newbie when it comes to all of this. I’m not that familiar with the xanxia genre at all. (For those who aren’t either, it’s a genre of Chinese fantasy that contains elements of Chinese mythology, Taoism, Buddhism, martial arts, traditional medicine and so on.) One of the things that make it distinctive is that the characters often practice a form of cultivation derived from qigong involving meditation and breathing in order to achieve immortality. Another is the world in which these tales are set: it looks very much like ancient China, with very similar styles of dress, architecture and interior decor. You could almost say that, in a way, all xanxia stories are part of a shared universe because they look so similar. This also means that the cast are pretty homogeneous—which, of course, is what you’d expect, given that the three shows I’m going to talk about are products of the Chinese entertainment industry. But I feel like it’s worth pointing out, because we in the West have gotten quite used to multiculturalism, and while representations of race in our media are nowhere near perfect, they are still waaaaaaay more diverse, and while it’s been refreshing to me to see so many Asian faces onscreen and holding major roles, I’m also very aware of how homogeneous they are within their own culture.

Another thing to note: I found the pace of these shows a little too slow for my tastes. Perhaps I’ve become too used to western media where things happen a lot quicker. Anyway, because of that, I tended to watch these shows on 1.5x speed using Video Speed Controller for Chrome. I know, I know: I’m one of those people directors hate. But I feel like if I hadn’t, I would have lost interest a lot sooner simply because at times, the shows could really drag; in one of them, three of the main characters spend the entire episode crying. THE ENTIRE EPISODE! Yes, they were going through something extremely sad and they were in mourning because of it. But non-stop crying for 45 minutes … perhaps the intended audiences have a higher tolerance for melodrama than I do. (I suspect the overdose of melodrama is what will turn a lot of people off these shows.)

All right; caveats and intros over. Let’s get into it.

The Untamed

The Untamed

The Untamed was the show that set all this off: Netflix can be quite aggressive in their recommendations, and this one just kept coming up. I wasn’t sure about it first, but I watched a couple of review videos on YouTube that were quite enthusiastic about the series, so I thought I would give it a try. And I was glad I did.

The Untamed is based on the yaoi novel Mo Dao Zu Shi by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (which I have not read). (If you know nothing about yaoi [I didn’t], I found this 2006 Village Voice article a helpful introduction. But be warned: it does go into some of the more disturbing parts of the genre. Basically yaoi are stories about homoerotic love between male characters, but the peculiar thing about it is that the stories are all written by women. The big question is why, and for that, you’ll have to read the Village Voice article.) Given Chinese censorship, however, that aspect of the story has been completely toned down, and if you weren’t looking for them, you could be forgiven for missing them altogether.

The series is also quite hefty: it clocks in at 50 episodes of about 45 minutes each. But given that it’s based on a novel (and most of of these shows seem to be), I felt like you needed that many episodes to get through the plot.

The plot: oh boy. I sympathise with this Tweep who wrote:

From episode 1, the writers throw their audience in the deep end of the world and the characters. The series opens with a climactic battle during which you hear a lot of people badmouthing a young man in black named Wei Wuxian (also known as Wei Ying/Young Master Wei/the Yiling Patriarch, etc.; that’s the other maddening thing about the series—the number of names the many many characters have), who looks like this:

The Untamed: Wei Wuxian

In despair, he hurls himself off a cliff and is narrowly caught by another young man in white called Lan Wangji (also known as Lan Zhan/Hanguang Jun [which means “Lord of light”]/Second young master Lan, etc.):

The Untamed: Lan Wangji

But then another young man with a sword (Jiang Cheng, who also happens to be Wei Wuxian’s sworn brother) comes along and appears to stab him:

The Untamed: Jiang Cheng

Wei Wuxian falls to his death.

Fast forward 16 years. A bunch of students in white—disciples of the Lan clan—are sitting in a lecture hall, drinking tea and hearing stories about Wei Wuxian/the Yiling Patriarch and how awful he was. (One of them is this young man, who keeps popping up throughout the series, but you don’t find out why he’s significant until pretty much the end of the series:

The Untamed: Lan Sizhui

That’s one of the things I admired about the series: all the characters are essential to the plot in some way. ALL of them. This of course only adds to viewer confusion because there are A LOT of characters.)

While this is happening, Wei Wuxian is resurrected in the body of a man named Mo Xuanyu, a member of the Jin clan. Mo sacrifices himself to give Wei Wuxian life again so that Wei Wuxian will carry out his revenge on all of Mo’s enemies.

Coincidentally the disciples of the Lan clan are summoned to the manor where Mo/Wei Wuxian is staying to deal with a malevolent spirit—a spirit that turns some members of the household (and Mo’s enemies) into “puppets”. (Think zombies.) With Wei Wuxian’s help, the disciples of the Lan clan try to get things under control, but in the end, they need the help of Lan Wangji, who appears at the very end to bring order to the chaos, revealing the malevolent spirit to be that of a sword ghost. (Yeah, I didn’t know swords could have ghosts either …)

I mention all this because the business of the sword ghost and the murder mystery behind it become the framing device for the series. But before the story gets to that, we need to meet the people who have a history with Wei Wuxian. In the first three episodes you meet some of the key players—Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng again, of course, but also Jin Ling, who is nephew to both Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng—the son of Jiang Yanli (their sister) and Jin Zixuan:

The Untamed: Jin Ling

The Untamed: Jiang Yanli

The Untamed: Jin Zuxian

(See: I’ve only introduced five characters from the cast and I’m sure you’re already confused! This is something that editors and writing groups tell writers not to do: don’t overwhelm your readers with too many characters! Take time to introduce them! Introduce them in a memorable way! Unfortunately The Untamed doesn’t do that. [Or the script sort of does, but it moves fast.])

But if you can bear with the overwhelm, confusion and disorientation for the first three episodes, what follows is a THIRTY-EPISODE flashback/recap/dream sequence that starts from the beginning 16 years ago, telling the story of how Wei Wuxian and his adopted brother (Jiang Cheng) and sister (Jiang Yanli)—all members of the Jiang clan (because, of course, there’s a Jiang clan AND a Jin clan; surely an editor would have told the author to change that)—*ahem*—how these members of the Jiang clan visit the Lan clan at their ancestral home of Cloud Recess to attend school with the children of the heads of the other four clans. This brings them into contact with Lan Wangji and his elder brother Lan Xichen from the Lan clan—

The Untamed: Lan Wangji

The Untamed: Lan Xichen

—these people from the Jin clan—

The Untamed: Jin Zuxian

The Untamed: Jin Guangyao

(though it should be noted that the fellow just above also spends time in both the Nie and the Wen clans)

—these people from the Nie clan—

The Untamed: Nie Huaisang

The Untamed: Nie Mingjue

—and these people from the Wen clan:

The Untamed: Wen Qing

The Untamed: Wen Ning

So, um, yeah, there are major five clans: Jin, Jiang, Nie, Lan and Wen. (Still with me?) Much of those early episodes are devoted to setting up the relationships between the characters (and Wei Wuxian’s rebuffed attempts at friendship with Lan Wangji). But then gradually the story takes a darker turn when the Wen clan tries to take over with the help of a magical object called the Yin Iron. There’s a war, the aftermath of that war, the unrighteous oppression of one clan as a result of that war, and a truckload of tragedy that culminates in the battle that takes place at the beginning of episode 1. During the course of things, you learn Wei Wuxian’s history, his relationship to all the other characters, why he does the things he does and how he ended up becoming the universally despised Yiling Patriarch.

And then at episode 33, following Wei Wuxian’s suicide, the story jumps back to the “present” (16 years later): Wei Wuxian wakes up in the house of Lan Wangji and the two of them set out to solve the mystery of the sword ghost—a mystery that involves a murder—a mystery that draws in all the key players from the story so far and reveals the truth of what happened 16 years ago.

Across all 50 episodes, the story actually holds together remarkably well: it’s a story about heroism, justice, right and wrong, magic and power, but it’s also a story about family, loyalty, brotherhood and love (and I don’t just mean the boy love kind). The characters (once you get them all sorted out in your head) are dynamic, compelling and interesting, and they all have their own arcs. (Even the minor ones!) It can be a little violent in places (because, you know, martial arts—though most of it is quite balletic:)

There is also a bit of supernatural horror involving not just the zombie puppets and sword ghost, but also an entire town devoted to funerals.

The other thing to note about it and a large part of what attracted me to the series is that it is visually GORGEOUS: I’ve included a lot of promotional images and stills so you can see how beautiful the production design and costumes are:

The Untamed: Cloud Recess
The Untamed: Lan Zhan plays the guqing
The Untamed: Bedroom
The Untamed: Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji seated
The Untamed: Nie stronghold
The Untamed: Wen Qing and Wen Ning
The Untamed: Props
The Untamed: Street at night

You can see how much thought went into everything—from the colours that each clan wears to the spaces they inhabit and even the objects they use. Who wouldn’t want to live in such elegant spaces?!

Of course, there were things that bugged me: not all the sets and props looked as “authentic” as they could be. (The throne room of the Wen clan seemed a bit tacky, in my opinion.) Some of the clothes the characters wear very much looked like they were made from manmade fabrics that couldn’t possibly have existed in this alternate Ancient China. Some of the special effects are on par with early Doctor Who and they will probably make you laugh.

But overall, the series gets major points from me in terms of the level of storytelling it achieves—costumes, props, production design, music (which I quite liked, though more the tracks featuring traditional Chinese instruments, not so much the synth-laden tracks), direction and acting all working together to tell a compelling tale. Xiao Zhan is charismatic and joyful as Wei Wuxian, switching effortlessly between the comic and lighthearted moments of the script to the more serious and emotionally intense moments. Wang Yibo’s Lan Wangji is the perfect straight man for him, often garnering the best lines—particularly in those early episodes where he’s on his guard against Wei Wuxian and their friendship is only just beginning to bud. The rest of the cast also do well in bringing their characters to life, and if there were occasional moments of over-the-top melodrama, I suppose they can be forgiven because how pretty everyone looks. (It should be noted that a number of the cast are members of Chinese boy bands.)

One final thing: I binge-watched The Untamed during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, and it was really really nice to have somewhere to wonderful escape to when all the madness was going on in the world. For that, I will always be grateful.

Handsome Siblings

Handsome Siblings

Handsome Siblings (44 episodes) is the second xianxia series I tried on Netflix and possibly one of the ones the algorithm recommended to me. (Ben would laugh at the name every time I mentioned it.) I chose it because much as I liked the characters in The Untamed, I wanted to watch a series that had more female characters in it.

It’s based on a wuxia (i.e. adventures of martial artists) novel called Juedai Shuangjiao by Gu Long that has been adapted multiple times in different formats, and it’s the story of twins separated at birth after the death/suicide of their parents because of a feud between two significant and powerful martial artists. One (Hua Wu Que) is raised in Yihua Palace—the only male in a world of women. The other (Xiao Yu’er/Jiang Xiao Yu) is raised in Wicked Canyon, a sort of hell on earth where some of the most famous villains in the world have gone to retire. When they turn 18, each are sent out into the world—Xiao Yu’er to see the world; Hua Wu Que to kill him because he’s been told that Xiao Yu’er is an enemy of Yihua Palace.

Handsome Siblings: Hua Wu Que

Handsome Siblings: Xiao Yu'er

The truth eventually comes out, of course (and it does in a most satisfying way). But along the way, the two land themselves in all sorts of adventures involving various people—commonfolk, a number of girls/love interests (both noblewomen and peasants), the Ten Great Villains, the Twelve Zodiac and, of course, the man behind the deaths of their parents.

Things I liked about it: the little stories that occur along the way as the characters get caught up in other people’s lives. (There’s a lovely subplot involving Murong Jiu and the Black Spider, who is one of the Ten Villains but who is also a really lovely young man:)

Handsome Siblings: Murong Jiu

Handsome Siblings: Black Spider

Seeing the friendship develop between Hua Wu Que and Xiao Yu’er, even in spite of Hua Wu Que’s vow to kill Xiao Yu’er. Watching Xiao Yu’er talk his way out of situations. (He boasts that he’s “the smartest man in the world” and sometimes that’s true, but other times you know it’s just because he’s awfully good at misdirection. After all, he was raised by half of the Ten Villains.) Exploring the countryside around them—not just the villages and towns, but also the cliffs and the caves, and the prairie fields that looked like they were on the border with Mongolia (or whatever Mongolia is in this alternate Ancient China). The way the story explores what a true villain is (as opposed to a hero), and how revenge is always bitter and unsatisfying, no matter how it is served.

Things that annoyed me: the villains get a bit cartoonish and ridiculous at times. Some of the sets looked very very fake—particularly the Rat King’s underground palace. Overall, I felt the production design lacked coherence: it had a certain aesthetic, but that aesthetic felt chaotic and clashing (I couldn’t find very good stills of what I mean though):

Handsome Siblings: Five of the Ten Great Villains
Handsome Siblings: Xiao Yu'er on a bed

(I do like that the costumers chose to dress Xiao Yu’er very differently from most of the people around him.)

Handsome Siblings: Birthday night
Handsome Siblings: Rat King palace

(It could just be me, but I found the look of the whole thing rather unsatisfying.) Also, the hairstyles on some of the female characters are just ridiculous: nobody needs hair that tall!

Handsome Siblings: Yao Yue

Handsome Siblings: Lian Xing

Finally, although I was pleased about there being more female characters, the women in this series seriously annoyed me, because pretty much all their focus revolved around the male characters. I don’t think this series would pass the Bechdel test. The two pictured above—the Masters of Yihua Palace—were bitter and vengeful. The main love interests had a bit more going for them in that Tie Xin Lan starts off disguised as a boy (something the smartest man in the world fails to realise!) and then her backstory is revealed, and Su Ying is gifted with medicine and is clever enough to outwit Xiao Yu’er at various points. But even so, both become obsessed with the male characters and all their actions revolve around them. I wanted them to do more than exist to serve the main plot.

Handsome Siblings: Tie Xin Lan
Handsome Siblings: Su Ying

Ashes of Love

Ashes of Love: Jinmi and Xufeng

Final show! Hope you’re still with me.

Ashes of Love is a 60-episode fantasy epic based on the novel Heavy Sweetness, Ash-like Frost by Dian Xian about immortals and their lives across the six realms—heavenly, demon, mortal, floral, and I’m not sure what the other two are. The story follows Jinmi, daughter of the Great Floral Goddess, who died of grief after giving birth to her. (The implication of the opening episode is that her lover married another and she was too heartbroken to live.) Jinmi was fed the Yun Elixir from birth, which prevents her from ever falling in love. She’s raised in ignorance of her heritage and only thinks of herself as being a lowly grape fairy.

After losing her best friend Rourou, who was killed by a terrible monster, Jinmi encounters the Phoenix/Xufeng, the God of Fire and God of War, who falls unexpectedly into the Floral Realm after his rebirth goes wrong. Since he arrives in bird form, at first, Jinmi doesn’t know what he is. But somehow she is able to nurse him back to health, and to repay her, he takes her out of the Floral Realm (which she was forbidden to leave) to the Heavenly Realm, where she seeks to increase her magical prowess by any means necessary so that she might resurrect Rourou. But then when both the Phoenix and his half-brother, the God of Night, fall for her, she becomes entangled in the politics of the Heavenly Realm and the struggle for power, and her true identity and heritage is revealed. Also, the Yun Elixir begins to crack …

Ashes of Love: Xufeng and Runyu

I really enjoyed this one. I enjoyed watching Jinmi transform from a completely clueless person incapable of romantic love (which lands her in some very amusing situations) to someone who becomes filled to the brim with it and who engages in certain actions because of it. You see how much pain and suffering love causes her—not just in the sacrifices she makes out of love for the sake of her beloved (and to atone for certain awful things she does), but also the grief he causes her in what he does. It’s a massive contrast to the love of some of the other characters—namely, Suihe, the Bird Princess and Runyu, the Night Immortal and the Phoenix’s brother: both Suihe and Runyu claim to love and act out of love, but their love, at its root, is selfish and self-serving, instead of other-person-centred.

The romance between her and the Phoenix is well-developed (in two realms, even; you watch it twice over in a sort of play-within-a-play/show-within-a-show narrative device): I believed their characters were truly in love and really wanted them to overcome the obstacles that prevented them from being together. Those obstacles included not one, but two love triangles—something that was frustrating as I don’t generally like love triangles, but which certainly served to keep the lovers apart for many many episodes.

Ashes of Love: Xufeng and Suihe

Ashes of Love: Runyu and Jinmi

The other thing I liked about it was that it showed the consequences of the characters’ actions—particularly that of the older generation—the Heavenly Emperor, his Empress (another vengeful bitter lady), the Water Immortal and the Great Floral Goddess. I couldn’t help thinking that had they made better choices, the younger generation wouldn’t have had to suffer so much.

Finally, a word about the female characters: I liked that the cast was almost evenly split between the men and the women, and while much of what preoccupied the female characters involved the men, there were things that helped the series to pass the Bechdel test—for example, the friendship between Jinmi and Rourou. I also really really liked the friendship between the Phoenix and Liuying, Princess of Bian City in the Demon Realm: they had a wonderful brother-sister thing going on there that, at one point, hinted at some future romantic pairing, but fortunately never went there:

Ashes of Love: Muci and Liuying

Plot things that made me sad: the Night Immortal’s character arc. The script does well to make you empathise with him, and then he goes and does some truly awful things. I wished that he ended up happy. (Suihe the Bird Princess totally gets what she deserves, though, and her commuppance is immensely satisfying.) Characters (and there were many) who didn’t respect other people’s boundaries. Characters who didn’t listen to other characters and constantly went against their wishes. I know all this is good fodder for conflict and drama, but it was very frustrating to watch.

Other things I wasn’t that into: the production design on this one was all right, but I felt like it could be better. The costumes, generally speaking, were very beautiful (synthetic fibres and all), but the sets, while impressive, sometimes looked a bit tacky. The special effects are definitely not great. The scenes spent in the Mortal Realm were probably the best on that front as I think the designers were trying to make the Heavenly Realm, Floral Realm and Demon Realm more otherworldly and didn’t really succeed (in my opinion). The music, while enjoyable overall, is used in a very clumsy manner in certain scenes—particularly in the third act. Some of the more soap opera-ish aspects of the plot greatly annoyed me, but I suspect that sort of thing goes with the territory. Also, the ending: I felt like it could have been more satisfying—particularly given what had gone before. But that’s just quibbling.

A final thing to note: even though in all these productions, the makers are very careful not to depict any sexual content given China’s censorship laws, there was one scene where it’s implied that it’s happening, and it kind of shocked me because it happens somewhat unexpectedly. And then afterwards, not much is made of it. It made me wonder why it was necessary, but perhaps it’s one of those things that was inserted just to please fans.

I was going to end this post with some reflections on Chinese culture and my growing appreciation for it, and how all three series have taught me interesting things about charater, narrative and storytelling, and how to sustain interest over many many episodes. But I think it’s long enough!

Well done if you got this far. I hope I’ve convinced you to give one of these shows a try!