It’s that time of year again, when I collect all my thoughts on the dramas I watched over the past year. I vowed to watch many of the shows in the discarded list because they starred my favourites, conveniently forgetting that good actors cannot always elevate the quality of a drama.
On the other hand, dramas that weren’t initially on my radar ended up becoming the shows I was most invested in, probably because I had zero expectations going in. What are your thoughts on this year’s drama offerings?
Collection of Cfensi’s past reviews can be found here.
**Spoilers ahead, do proceed with caution.
A refresher: I use the term dog-blood 狗血 pretty often, and it’s basically a reference to over-used plot devices and outrageous story lines, including but not limited to amnesia, terminal illness, noble idiocy and contrived plot lines.
Moonshine and Valentine 结爱 · 千岁大人的初恋
(Image cred: 不辞冰雪为茜热)
Moonshine and Valentine is a great example of a well-produced idol drama that was equal parts funny and moving for the first half.
Helan Jingting seemed like the typical stone-faced genius CEO at first glance, but he’s actually a somewhat clueless 900 year old fox from another planet who waits for his true love’s reincarnation in every lifetime. Huang Jingyu’s acting is very stiff, but he benefited from playing a character with a likeable personality. I’m usually not a fan of naïve and meek heroines, but Guan Pipi was so realistically flawed it was hard to condemn her actions for the most part. Song Qian deserves to be complimented for toning down on her exaggerated expressions, and I’ve gone from purposely ignoring her upcoming projects to actively looking forward to some of them.
Both actors still have room for improvement though, as their acting tends to falls flat when there’s a major turning point in the story. Something that would usually make sense in the context of the story, such as Guan Pipi’s acceptance of the sudden wedding proposal, just failed to resonate with me. Their younger counterparts, played by adorable teen actors Liu Qi and He Landou, were much more natural.
The barista best friend and Helan’s two sidekicks Kuanyong and Xiu Xian are the most lovable characters from the entire show. They’re not the typical love triangle, and props to the screenwriter for coming up with such a creative ending. I also really liked Qianhua, and her pairing with Zhao Song could’ve been so much better had the writer given Zhao Song a better reason for turning to the dark side. You can’t expect me to believe that Zhao Song, who had waited several hundred years for Qianhua, would harm her just because she agreed to their fake marriage. Reasons such as the truth behind Qianhua’s engagement to Helan Jingting, or even Helan Jingting’s true parentage would’ve made Zhao Song’s transition more believable.
Despite the narrative weakness, the drama was beautiful to look at thanks to Leste Chen and Xu Zhaoren’s excellent camerawork. Several film directors have signed contracts to develop web dramas, so hopefully we’ll be seeing more quality shows like this one in the near future.
S.C.I. Mystery S.C.I. 谜案集
Now this is what I call a BL drama adaption done right. Instead of overloading on the boy love, the producers prioritised the story and successfully positioned the show as an engaging and fast-paced TVB-style psychological crime drama.
With only 24 episodes, the suspenseful show hurtles through five fascinating cases at breakneck speed without sacrificing too much common sense. Each story is masterfully linked to the dangerous Zhao Jue (played wonderfully by Zhang Fan), who commits crimes by hyptonising his victims and lackeys. His sinister plans are disrupted by the S.C.I team led by the intuitive and short-tempered Bai Yutong (Gao Hanyu) and the meticulous psychologist Zhan Yao (Ji Xiaobing), who perfectly complement each other in terms of personality and physical ability. There were several red herrings around to trip up the characters during investigations – enough to keep me on the edge of my seat, but without being so excessive that I felt the writers had written themselves into a corner.
The only complaint I have is the development of Bai Qintang and Gongsun Zhi’s absurd on-again off-again relationship. The drama completely dropped the ball when it came to their romantic arc, and their scenes didn’t contribute anything to the main storyline.
SCI isn’t a big-budget web drama, but the director and writers sound so sincere about wanting to create a good story in the interviews
that I’m hoping Youku/Alibaba renews it for a second season (a second season has been confirmed). Zhan Yao’s similarity with the genius Zhao Jue has been alluded to so many times, and now I really need a follow-up season that taps into Zhan Yao’s dark side.
The Story Of Yanxi Palace 延禧攻略
The Story of Yanxi Palace doesn’t feel like the typical palace drama because it features a crafty and intelligent heroine who lives by the motto ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’. It’s refreshing to see a protagonist who isn’t kind and naïve from beginning to end, yet the things that the near-invincible Wei Yingluo (Wu Jinyan) is capable of doing required some heavy suspension of disbelief. I accepted the double kills she made every few episodes, but her behaviour in front of the emperor as a palace maid and knowledge of electrical conductivity was too much for me to handle.
My favourite character of the series is definitely the kind and soft spoken Empress Fucha (Qin Lan). Qianlong’s (Nie Yuan) principal wife from the days when he was still a prince, she is the epitome of a virtuous and gracious empress, a rarity in palace dramas. However, the shackles that came with being in such a position meant the current Fucha Rongyin was merely a shadow of her former self, and the death of her children as well as Qianlong’s lack of compassion completely crushed her. By episode 30, I only wanted Yingluo and the empress to hold hands and skip off into the sunset together.
My lady, manners please.
As for the antagonists, I skipped most of Noble Consort Gao’s (Tan Zhuo) scenes because the simple and amateurish plots she came up with often backfired onto herself, and was just another chance for Wei Yingluo to save the day. I was most disappointed with the character trajectory of Consort Chun (Wang Yuanke), because she went from a smart and mysterious concubine who knew how to spin a story to her benefit to a crazy and naïve woman who didn’t even hold a candle to Consort Xian (Charmaine Sheh).
The colour palette and costuming is a definite improvement from Yu Zheng’s previous shows, but it’s pretty obvious that the content hasn’t actually changed. The problem with Yu Zheng is that he wanted to create a palace drama that was more grounded and less fantastical than the Gong series, but also wanted to reap the benefits that came with an addictive and fast-paced story line that cannot withstand the slightest scrutiny. After this show, I can only say that Yu Mama will always be Yu Mama.
Heavy Sweetness, Ash-like Frost / Ashes of Love 香蜜沉沉烬如霜
I had no expectations going in, thinking it was going to be another run-of-the-mill adaption of a popular xianxia novel, and was pleasantly surprised by the first 20 episodes. I can confidently say the CGI is the best yet out of all the fantasy dramas that have aired in the past few years – the final battle between the two worlds actually looked like a high-stakes war (though the light sabre / Fruit Ninja effect cracked me up), and the dream-catching deer is adorable. I once mentioned in an earlier post that the CGI reminded me of Once Upon A Time, and it turns out TimeAxis worked on that movie as well. The VFX breakdown for the drama can be found here.
Yang Zi delivers a solid performance as the innocent grape fairy who doesn’t understand the concept of romantic love. Jinmi was a walking live commentary system, and her inner monologues were hilarious. I enjoyed her camaraderie with the Fire Deity (Deng Lun) in the first quarter, but totally lost interest in their romance towards the end of their trials in the mortal realm.
Ashes of Love turned into a full-blown dog-blood melodrama after Jinmi coughed up the Unfeeling Pill, but Yang Zi never dropped the ball during her scenes, and is definitely the best young actor in the entire series. It’s unfortunate that the show had a paper-thin and extremely naive male lead in Xufeng, whose only purpose in this show was to romance Jinmi. All his scenes revolved around pining for the heroine, and he wasn’t given any scenes in the later episodes to prove his prowess as the God of War or the Demon Lord.
Night Deity didn’t make an impression on me when I read the original novel, but Luo Yunxi, who has improved significantly since his My Sunshine days, seamlessly fits into the character. Runyu is my favourite out of the entire series because everyone involved, from the screenwriter to the director to the actor himself, spent so much effort crafting the character, and gave us a believable antagonist whose motives made sense. He’s introduced as a lonely deity who is unloved and often treated unjustly by his parents, yet shows great forbearance in the presence of the worst insults, and doesn’t let it affect his relationship with Xufeng.
Runyu isn’t completely guileless, but I do believe that he had no intention of usurping the throne at the start of the show. However, his father’s hypocrisy and the Heavenly Empress’s actions fuelled Runyu’s desire for justice and the right to control his own destiny, forcing him to walk down the lone path of revenge. Runyu’s conversation with the Empress after he informed her of Xufeng’s ‘death’ packed a real emotional punch, and was one of my favourite scenes in the overly-dramatic second half of the drama.
As the story progressed Runyu became extremely possessive of Jinmi, unwilling to let go of the first person whom he thought could truly be his. He took advantage of Jinmi’s naivety on many occasions, and we all know relationships that begin with deception never end well. It’s obvious from his conversations with the Heavenly Emperor that he has the makings of a ruler, and I’d also have preferred Runyu to continue being a ruthless monarch and focus on his career ambitions – but then again, what’s a good romantic melo without a crazy love triangle filled with misunderstandings?
The Rise of Phoenixes 天盛长歌 (DVD Version)
The Rise of Phoenixes is a beautiful show with brilliant directing, lighting and acting (plus on-site recording). It was well placed to become the next historical epic, yet was completely let down by the editing and the haphazard writing.
Though slow-paced, I thought the crown prince’s subplot was pretty well thought out, and all the separate plot lines converged nicely in Episode 13 with the fifth prince’s death. I liked that the main leads were not invincible, and that there were times when the antagonists temporarily gained the upper hand because they’re actually smart.
Even though the promos focused solely on the leads, The Rise of Phoenixes actually features a superb ensemble cast, and really excelled at crafting all the supporting characters (in the first half), no matter how much screen time they had. My favourite character from the entire show is Xin Ziyan (Zhao Lixin), the seemingly idealistic scholar who is also a capable strategist. He would constantly feel irritated with Ning Yi (Chen Kun) because he wouldn’t ‘play by the rules’ of the typical scheming prince, yet still does his best to clean up the mess left behind.
Ning Yi constantly said that he didn’t want the blood of innocents on his hands, but whether he actually followed that was another matter. Ning Yi is a very conflicted person, and he’s had to come to terms with the fact that to build a just new world, he must fight tooth and nail for the throne, and make sure absolute power rested in his hands. I don’t doubt for a moment that Ning Yi wanted to leave everything behind and live a peaceful life after his mother (Mei Ting) was released, but that was never going to happen given the circumstances, and it just didn’t make sense for him to suddenly lose his assertiveness and drop his defences.
Feng Zhiwei (Ni Ni) wasn’t as ruthless as she was in the novel, and had lived a relatively carefree and sheltered life away from revenge and hatred. Ignorant of her true identity, Feng Zhiwei was given a chance to shine thanks to the emperor, and it made sense that she would take it upon herself to act in the ruler’s best interests. Unfortunately her stint in the political arena didn’t actually make her smarter, and some of the things Feng Zhiwei did just made me want to whack her across the head (I find it hard to believe that such a sensible character would commit suicide). Ni Ni does well with what she is given though, and I’m glad this drama has allowed viewers to see just how good of an actress she can be when given the chance.
The drama managed to crash-land spectacularly once the Minhai-Jinshi subplot came around, and key characters such as Huaqiong (Wang Ou) and Jin Siyu (Yuan Hong) were killed off almost as soon as they came onscreen. The behind-the-scenes clips introduced Jin Siyu as the only opponent who was an equal match to Ning Yi, so you can imagine my disappointment when he ended up drowning in his own backyard.
None of the build-ups towards the climaxes were engaged with the climactic moment itself, and after the unexciting aftermath played out, I felt like the story continued to wander off into nowhere while waiting for the next antagonist to arrive. Apparently the crew filmed 100 episodes worth of content, so it’s really the editors and directors’ fault for not picking and choosing the most appropriate scenes to include (the censors are no excuse for bad storytelling).
The Rise of Phoenixes was my most anticipated drama of the year, and it’s a disappointment the story didn’t live up to expectations when everything else was pretty much perfect.
The Story of Minglan 知否知否应是绿肥红瘦 – EPS 1-4
Even for an ensemble family drama, I felt there was a bit too much going on at the same time. However, I do like all the actors playing the older generation, especially Liu Jun (Sheng Hong), Liu Lin (his wife) and Liu Xiyuan (Concubine Wei), who either provided a good dose of humour or propelled the story forward. Out of all the child actors, Little Minglan (also little Mi Yue) and Little Peach (Minglan’s maid) are my favourites.
Mystery of Antiques 古董局中局 – EPS 1-4
Fast-paced and suspenseful, this 36 episode mystery drama is right up my alley. With such a solid cast and Wu Bai at the helm (producer of Day & Night), I’m hoping the rest of the show is equally as good.
Mr. Right 恋爱先生
The female lead’s boyfriend’s wife is the male lead’s first love (a great performance by Xin Zhilei though). Yup, I’m out.
Old Boy 老男孩
It took the heroine (Ariel Lin) twenty episodes to fly to Australia and kiss her cheating ex-boyfriend goodbye (literally). I think that says enough about the quality of the show.
Only Side By Side With You 南方有乔木
Qin Hailu rocks as the possessive gangster boss. That is all.
(Image cr: 节操桥上炮龙烹凤的魔女总裁)
Great Expectations 远大前程
The drama boasted a solid story with references to classic wuxia plots for the first 25 episodes, and assembled an excellent supporting cast in Ni Dahong, Liu Yijun and Zhao Lixin as the three gang lords (aka The Sofa Brothers), as well as Li Nian (Lu Lingchun) and Zhang Li (Little Charmer 小阿俏) among others. Unfortunately the second half was all about the Communist vs. Kuomintang vs. Imperial Japan feud, and it just wasn’t interesting enough for me.
Lost in Love (1949) 脱身
The screenwriter either didn’t spend 9 years writing this show, or did spend 9 years and just isn’t a skilled writer. Not even Chen Kun and Wan Qian can save a lazy story propped up by various coincidences and misunderstandings.
The romantic undertones and chemistry between Zhu Yilong and Bai Yu wasn’t enough to cover up for the terrible execution of the story and the poor CGI.
Legend of Fuyao 扶摇
Ethan Ruan as Zhangsun Wuji didn’t work for me visually, while Yang Mi’s acting was pretty unstable. Liu Yijun excels at playing villains, but good acting cannot always save a badly written character. Another thing that irked me were the excessive long shots and the slow-motions during the fight scenes, which just deflated the tension. (Image cr: 闻汤识面泡剧)
Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace 如懿传
Directing is gorgeous, and Zhou Xun can do no wrong in my eyes. However, I was not a huge fan of Ruyi in general – before being considerate of her enemies, she really should’ve learnt how to protect herself and her team first. Hailan (Janine Chang) is clearly the MVP of the show, and would totally have come out as the victor if Ruyi wasn’t the main character. Wallace Huo’s performance here is one of his worst to date – I desperately need him back in dramas like The Great Protector 镖门 and Battle of Changsha 战长沙.
Entrepreneurial Age 创业时代
I knew from the synopsis that the drama was set around 2010, and that Guo Xinnian (Huang Xuan) was trying to develop a beta version of WeChat, but when you have shiny new laptops and smart gadgets everywhere, it’s hard to take the story seriously. I chuckled when Guo Xinnian was miraculously rescued from a pack of wild wolves, and totally lost it when Guo Xinnian mistakes Wendy (Song Yi) for his internet friend Na Lan (Angelababy) in real life.
He forces himself onto Wendy, and after he wraps his head around the identity switch, he tells her: “I’m in love with your body, and another woman’s voice.”…. I can’t believe the show was asking me to believe that Guo Xinnian couldn’t recognise his true love’s voice when he had been listening to her voicemails for months on end.
Loved Guardian despite its flaws lol. Gonna watch Mystery of Antiques bc I love the genre and bc Qiao Zhen Yu is one of my fav under appreciated actors. (Zhu Yi Long being my top new fav lol). Was anticipating Minglan for over a year but now that it’s out I’m totally not in the mood.
This year Eagles and Youngsters was an unexpected fav of mine. Nirvana in Fire 2 at the start of the year was, IMO freaking phenomenal and possibly one of my all time favs, even tho I know quite a few ppl who don’t agree. Other than that I was mildly entertained by a few webdeamas and dropped a lot of dramas but nothing really caught my attention.
Oh shit I lied; Bloody Romance was also a huge underdog for me. The story was too angsty (sometime unnecessarily so) Andrew the plot wasn’t too tight, so I actually did skip a few eps towards the end-ish-middle. But the chemistry was there for me and O.M.G I was pretty blown away by LiYiTong’s acting overall. The music and production style was also pretty awesome. Overall it was pretty original and brought back a bit of (not really all but eh) that old time wuxia feel.
I was also pleasantly addicted to The Dark Lord. It was very campy and fun, without dumb plot lines while still very adventurous. It really brought back the hero’s journey success of the early 2000’s dramas where the hero and his friends go on adventure after adventure. Kind of reminiscent of the old Chinese Paladin dramas without being so dumb as to fall apart (like the recent Chinese Paladin, ZhuXian, GuLong(?) wuxia dramas).
I am curious about why do you say that Wallace Huo’s performance in Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace is his worst to date.
It probably isn’t, but when he acts opposite Zhou Xun for at least 70 of the 80+ episodes, the difference in acting skill is painfully obvious. I don’t think he’s a bad actor, but I feel he’s more comfortable (and more suited to) playing scholars / wuxia heroes rather than kings and emperors.
Oh, I see. I liked him in The Imperial Doctress where he was an Emperor too. But, of course, Zhou Xun is amazing! The emotions she exuded without saying a word is just breathtaking. When she realized that she was being trapped by false accusations & then, her own maid dealt the last blow, I was blown away. Just by looking at her face, one can see disbelief, shock & even a tinge of regret at trusting her maid & perhaps, the Emperor himself. By the way, I find it interesting that you dropped Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace, but finished Story of Yanxi Palace.
Thank you for writing this drama review, which I really enjoyed reading. Happy holidays & Happy New Year!
I included reviews of shows that I watched at least half of, otherwise my year end review would be pretty short XD. In Yanxi’s case, I stopped at around ep40, but was able to follow the rest of the story through Weibo’s hot searches.
Happy Holidays to you too!