2017 was a much better year for dramas in general (I’m actually more excited for 2018-2019, as all the movie actors are returning to the small screen), with several shows hitting it out of the park in terms of ratings and/or online popularity.
Web dramas really started to gain traction this year – in fact, I’m marathoning two right now, and each one stands out for various reasons, whether it be high production values or tight storytelling. These online shows have become an outlet for creativity due to the strict censorship rules applied to television dramas, though SARPPFT has decided to nip it in the bud by making web dramas undergo the same rigorous process before premiering online. Hopefully the streaming sites continue to come up with quality fare in the future despite the roadblocks that are being put in place.
WARNING: Long post ahead.
Pretty Li Huizhen 漂亮的李慧珍
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from this remake, and the longer running time (40 X 40min episodes compared to 16 x 1hr episodes) meant the story moved at a snail’s pace. I also overestimated Bai Haoyu’s (Sheng Yilun) intelligence – this remake dropped so many clues, yet he was completely oblivious to the fact that he had reunited with the wrong girl for over two thirds of the drama.
The haphazard writing transformed Li Huizhen (Dilraba) into an exasperating and ignorant child who was constantly drowning in a pool of self-pity, though she does grow up after the first stretch. Sheng Yilun has trouble emoting (he reminds me of a younger Nicolas Tse with how wooden he is), yet is serviceable as eye candy.
The Glory of Tang Dynasty 大唐荣耀
H&R Century Pictures (Huanrui) + mediocre original + terrible scriptwriters = long-winded idol historical drama filled with Mary Sues and cartoon villains. This drama falls into the same category, though I must say the first 20 or so episodes were pretty decent. S.E.N.S’ beautiful instrumental tracks were an added bonus.
Jing Tian wasn’t as bad as I expected – it does seem like the months she spent with Zhang Yimou while filming The Great Wall paid off. New actor Ren Jialun looks much better in motion, and delivered some impressive acting – of course, credits must also go to voice actor Zhang Jie, who really elevated the performance. Talented actress Wan Qian was a long time coming, and she didn’t disappoint as the savvy female general. Unfortunately, after skimming through Part 2, it appears Dugu Jingyao just ends up as mere foil to the OTP, which is a complete waste of her acting talent.
The political maneuvering was often laughably simple, but veteran actors Du Yuan (as Yang Guozhong), Wang Jinsong (Crown Prince) and Liu Weiwei (Empress Zhang) helped ground the show, making some of the sillier plots more bearable to watch.
Undercover is not a perfectly produced cop drama, but it is well-acted, and has an addictive storyline that allowed me to overlook some gaping plot holes. Zhang Jiayi is dependable as always, but it was Liu Yijun that stole the spotlight as the anti-narcotics team leader with blurred moral boundaries. Special mentions go to Yang Yuting, Zhang Chenguang and Zhai Tianlin for their brilliant performances as a crazy villainess, sly drug dealer and bitter ex-cop respectively.
I vaguely remember male lead Lin Shen from Hai Qing’s Beautiful Era of the Daughter-in-Law, and he’s managed to hold his own quite well against the veterans in this drama. Lin Shen also brings much of the slapstick comedy, what with code name “young woman” and the tattoo on his backside that spells “I’m not a policeman”. I don’t even know how he fell in love with Fu Jing’s character, but the moments between them were pretty cute and did no harm to the pacing of the story. On the other hand, Li Qin’s Tian Tangguo is an absolute nuisance – she is naïve, loves to dictate how other people should live their lives, and takes the cake for being the most exasperating character in the entire show.
The drama has left us hanging with an ending chyron that simply tells us to wait for the second installment – but with Rosat’s weak record of selling dramas, I doubt Season 2 will happen anytime soon.
The Advisors Alliance 军师联盟
This was the drama that brought me to Cfensi, and I’m glad it lived up to expectations…in the first half. The writing is smart, and the dialogue doesn’t sound like it is transplanted straight from a modern idol drama. Sima Yi’s transformation from a scholar to an ambitious politician forms the core of the drama, and talented uncle actor Wu Xiubo doesn’t disappoint.
However, it’s Yu Hewei’s Cao Cao that tops the list as my favourite character from the show. Cao Cao is known to be ruthless and cunning, yet his successes are often overlooked due to his image as a villain in opera and popular literature. Thankfully, the writer doesn’t turn Cao Cao into a two-dimensional villain, and Yu Hewei’s excellent portrayal of the genius warlord really won me over. A wonderful MV starring Cao Cao can be found here.
Wang Jinsong did an amazing job with Xun Yu, and his final conversation with Cao Cao regarding his loyalty to the Han Dynasty and Cao Wei was one of the many highlights of the show. Li Chen’s Cao Pi wasn’t too bad either, and his romance with Tang Yixin’s Guo Zhao was adorable. I’d almost forgotten how good of an actor Li Chen can be once he sheds the variety star image, and his portrayal of Cao Pi in the later episodes is a fine return to form.
Out of the all the younger actors, Zhai Tianlin’s portrayal of the talented and proud scholar Yang Xiu stood out the most. Writer Chang Jiang is excellent at dissecting human nature and displaying character growth, and it’s obvious from Zhai Tianlin’s performance that he really understood the character. The scene where he thought he had killed Sima Yi is classic, as the agonising screams reflected Yang Xiu’s utter helplessness at having to sacrifice his conscience in the face of power. The character is summed up perfectly in his final conversations with Sima Yi:
I thought I was faster than everyone else by 30 miles. But it’s precisely those 30 miles that will kill me.
Do you know the difference between us? You can restrain yourself, while I cannot. I will be waiting for you down there. If you can restrain yourself until the very end, come and tell me the difference between leaving then and now.
The cinematography is brilliant, and the close-ups gave all the talented veterans a chance to shine (lesser actors would have crumbled under the pressure). The soundtrack suits the drama really well, though the epic themes would sometimes come in at all the wrong times. However, it’s already an improvement from the modern-sounding pop songs usually heard in period pieces, and S.E.N.S and Dong Dongdong deserve extra brownie points for creating such beautiful tracks.
Part 1 lost its momentum once Cao Cao and Yang Xiu left the stage, and the latter half was bogged down by Sima Yi’s family drama. Part 2 promises more political intrigue and warfare, so fingers crossed it doesn’t disappoint.
Screenshots credit to 凤殿下
Nothing Gold Can Stay 那年花开月正圆
Described as the story of a young woman who broke the social norm to become a legendary female merchant, Nothing Gold Can Stay ended up focusing more on the heartbreaking romance between the two leads, with a bit of social and political commentary sprinkled on top. What separates this pair from the rest is that Zhou Ying and Shen Xingyi don’t fall into the usual opposites attract category – they are very much alike in personality, which is probably why I’m been so invested in this pairing since the very beginning (did anyone notice their relationship took a turn for the worse every time Zhou Ying changed dresses?)
Initially I found Sun Li to be slightly over-the-top as a witty street performer, but after Wu Pin’s (Peter Ho) death, she settles into the character of a young widow beautifully. The relationship between a young girl who likes to take matters into her own hands and the perfect gentleman was pretty sweet, but it didn’t get me the same way the angsty OTP pairing did.
If Wu Pin was the perfect husband who respected Zhou Ying for who she was, then Shen Xingyi (played by Chen Xiao in a career-defining performance) is the disrespectful and bratty man child that treats her like a lost toy. He matures after being mocked by the girl he likes and dunked into a garden pond by his father, and everything just kept on getting better from there. Despite being a female-centric drama, Shen Xingyi isn’t just a love interest whose one job is to guide and support the heroine. He gets his own growth arc, and though I like how they tied the character into history by transforming him into a forward-thinking intellectual, the lack of detail regarding his new identity as a revolutionary and the terribly rushed ending just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Other than the OTP, the rest of the ensemble cast each got their own moment to shine, which prevented the lengthy drama from having too many dull moments. Characters that come to mind include treacherous businessman Du Mingli (Yu Haoming), the adorably awkward county magistrate Zhao Baishi (Ren Zhong) who received a rude awakening from his respected teacher, the upright patriarch of the Wu household (Zhang Chenguang) and Zhou Ying’s father (Liu Peiqi), a carefree trickster who ended up giving the best quotes about life.
Aside from the wonderful actors, the drama also benefits from the deft directing by Ding Hei. His attention to detail (such as filming character flashbacks in first person) and ability to bring out the best in his actors did wonders for the show. I’ve never really noticed Chen Xiao before this, and I was pretty skeptical when he was cast. Yet after watching all 74 episodes with minimal fast-forwarding, I’m happy to report that he is one of the most expressive post-1985 actors around, and could really benefit from choosing better projects. The one weak link lies with the script – from shoddy writing and Qiong Yao-esque dialogue to inconsistent characterisation, in the end I was really just watching for the acting. However, given the quality of C-dramas these days, I’m just glad this drama ended up tying most of its loose ends into a neat, nice bow.
Screenshots credit to 节操桥上炮龙烹凤的魔女总裁
Let’s Shake It 颤抖吧，阿部！
Let’s Shake It is absolutely adorable. The show doesn’t take itself very seriously, which makes all the cheese and ridiculous plots easier to swallow. An Yuexi is absolutely delightful as Abu Chacha, and Wang Yanyang’s ship captain Duo Miaomiao is hilarious. What makes it even better is that the three leads dubbed the characters themselves (even the CG cat!). Looking forward to seeing more from the talented and hardworking newbies.
Day & Night 白夜追凶
I last saw Pan Yueming as the dorky Xu Xian in Madam White Snake 2006, so it was a complete surprise to see him playing twins in this crime thriller. Other actors are aided by different costumes and hairstyles when playing multiple characters , but Pan Yueming doesn’t need that. He is such a great actor that I can differentiate older bro, little bro, older bro acting as younger bro and younger bro acting as older bro immediately. This web drama also has an engaging story line, with nary a scene or sentence wasted.
Tribes and Empires: Storm of Prophecy 九州·海上牧云记
A drama where I can skip entire episodes, but not the opening theme.
What I liked about the first six episodes is that Tribes and Empires actually takes its own sweet time explaining the rules and culture (the extensive use of real landscapes is a bonus) of Novoland, and therefore gives viewers a chance to really immerse into a fantasy world where everything and everyone is guided by divine Fate.
I don’t recall a Chinese drama ever devoting so much time to the childhood portion, but I do think it was necessary, especially when conflicts such as Muyun Sheng’s identity, Muru Hanjiang’s feelings about his family and Shuofeng Heye’s desire to avenge his clan are present throughout the entire show. The characters’ respective teen actors Zheng Hao, Shi Yunpeng (An Di’s brother in Ode to Joy) and Zheng Wei match their adult counterparts pretty well, and their acting puts many of drama land’s popular leading actors to shame.
My excitement over the drama has died down now that I’m 35 episodes in, and I’m pretty conflicted about the show. The acting is solid, and the dysfunctional relationships between Empress Nanku (Jiang Qinqin) and her husband (Lu Fangsheng) and Muyun Luan (Wang Qianyuan) and his son (Zhang Xiaochen) are so compelling. However, the cheesy dialogue, excessive flashbacks and horrible editing is really testing my patience – we’ll see how long I can hold on.
General and I 孤芳不自赏
Angelababy’s Photoshop controversy and downright terrible acting generated the most buzz, though the story had its fair share of problems as well.
Eternal Love / TLTWTMPB 三生三世十里桃花
Zhang Bichen and Aska Yang’s ending theme is the best thing about this show, and Yang Mi and Mark Chao’s improved acting comes in at a close second. Dubbers Ji Guanlin and Bian Jiang deserve awards for helping to bring the characters to life.
In the Name of the People 人民的名义
I never thought Lu Yi was a bad actor, but the veterans definitely outshine him in this one. The Chinese government deserves a pat on the back for producing a solid propaganda drama (after a decade long ban no less) that explores its own murky waters.
White Deer Plain 白鹿原
The show boasts a crew of wonderful actors, though the story seemed to be going nowhere. I may pick it up again once I’m in the mood for some serious drama.
Ode to Joy Season 2 欢乐颂2
Andi’s story descended into dog-blood territory, Fan Shengmei’s family issues are recycled from Season 1, and Qiu Yingying never learnt from her mistakes. I did enjoy watching cuts of Qu Xiaoxiao + Dr. Zhao and Guanguan + Xie Tong though – the latter couple was especially adorable when they first started dating.
Princess Agents 楚乔传
The scriptwriter should have devoted more effort to explaining why an amnesiac assassin-turned-slave would be so intent on changing the social order. And with an impulsive Chu Qiao constantly being saved by an x amount of romantics interests, they really shouldn’t have promoted her as a fiercely independent and kickass heroine.
A Life Time Love 上古情歌
The First Half of My Life 我的前半生
I dislike how they changed the female lead’s personality and the direction of the story, though at least the drama has given us a breakout star in Lei Jiayin (I have a good impression of him from Hunan TV’s dog-blood melo Temptation of Going Home), and allowed more people to notice the gorgeous Yuan Quan.
Game of Hunting 猎场
Whoever thought starting a business drama with a love triangle featuring Ming Tai lite (The Disguiser), Qi Dian 2.0 (Ode to Joy) and a delicate female lead who thinks she’s in a melodrama was a good idea?
A Love So Beautiful 致我们单纯的小美好
Prime example of an adaption gone wrong by removing all the likeable traits from the main characters. Chen Xiaoxi was never this brainless, and Jiang Chen never leads his potential love interests on. I would’ve preferred a story that spent more time on their adulthood (as in the original), especially when it’s clear the only purpose of the schoolyard love triangles was to drag out the episode count.
Nirvana in Fire II: The Wind Blows in Changlin
Tong Liya is absolutely beautiful, and Huang Xiaoming should just keep on playing normal, upright and serious characters instead of powerful and rich CEOs. Unfortunately I have zero interest in Liu Haoran’s growth arc and his romance with the physician.