2021 seemed to be a year where the drama in C-ent was more gripping than the fictional stories playing out onscreen, but I still went through a fair share of interesting television shows. Which ones did you love the most or love to hate the most?
My Best Friend’s Story
The supportive relationship between Jiang Nansun (Liu Shishi) and Zhu Suosuo (Ni Ni) was the heart of the show. Jiang Nansun had an obvious character growth arc, especially when she had to balance her relationship with her boyfriend with her duties as an employee. On the other hand, Zhu Suosuo’s workplace arc felt like a dreamy modern-day version of Princess Pearl – she’s the brave, cheeky and equally naïve girl who always gets out of trouble because everyone likes her. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with Zhu Suosuo’s goal of “becoming a careerwoman.” Nevertheless, I loved the interactions between Zhu Suosuo and her charismatic mentor (a standout performance by Wang Xiao) and secretary Fan Jin’gang (Tian Yu). The simmering emotions from Chen Daoming‘s restrained performance really amped up the intensity in Zhu Suosuo x Ye Jinyan’s relationship, which injected some much needed energy into the second half of the show.
Word of Honor
I’m definitely part of the minority here when I say I only watched this drama for the story and organic wuxia vibe alone. It’s the typical adventure story plus xianxia drama-exclusive zombies, complete with smart heroes with tragic pasts and a powerful object that all sects are fighting for. Wen Kexing with his revenge story stood out the most, although Gong Jun really struggled in scenes that required more emotional nuance (I’m sorry to say I ended up laughing for all the wrong reasons). As for Zhou Zishu (Zhang Zhehan) – in the end, all I wished was for the character to be smarter and live up to his name as the head of a spy/assassin organisation. Scorpion King (Li Daikun) turned out to be one of the more well-written characters, and I really liked the ambitious character setup and the conflicted relationship he had with his adopted father. He was the real hunter, and everyone was his prey.
Chinese dramas rarely put the heroines in a position of actual power, so it was very satisfying to see Siteng (Jing Tian) call the shots and save the hero in distress. I also really like the earnest sidekick Yan Furui – Zhang Yichi knows exactly how to give exaggerated reactions that suit the character’s personality without stepping into overacting territory. I do wish the drama cut down the romance and ended at Episode 28 though, because the self-sacrificing scenes were completely unnecessary and out of character for Siteng.
The Long Ballad
I was pretty skeptical when the producers cast Wu Lei as Ashile Sun, however he did try really hard to make the role work, and the overall result turned out better than expected with the help of dubber Zhang Fuzheng. The Shuozhou defence subplot was pretty engaging, but that’s pretty much where the good stuff ends. Despite the limited screen time, I feel like the princess was given a more organic growth arc, and it’s great to see Zhao Lusi playing a character other than the usual cheerful rom-com heroine. Some of her scenes with the bodyguard-assassin (Liu Yuning) were also pretty cute.
Production-wise, I think using animation to replace key scenes was pure laziness. The producers did say it was a creative decision, but I’m more inclined to believe they just wanted to take the easy way out and save time and budget. If the producers really wanted to reference the original manhua, they could’ve taken a page out of Strange Hero Yizhimei and used animation solely for scene transitions.
Rating: 6.5/10 (I’m an OST addict, so extra points for the lovely soundtrack)
Lover or Stranger
Melodramatic soap operas are my guilty pleasure, and I really took a liking to the first half of this drama. We join heroine Song Xiaodong (Song Qian) as she plays detective to unravel the mysteries surrounding her identity and work out who she can or cannot trust. Once we passed the halfway mark, I began hoping for a more fleshed out revenge plot from Luo Qianyi (Song Qian), yet that subplot ended up going nowhere. The clingy and whingey ex Qi Fan took the top spot for the character that got the most eye rolls from me, followed closely by the possessive fiancé Huo Youze (Ou Hao). The latter was accidentally caught up in the swap up between the two women yet the way he handled things afterwards did not sit well with me at all.
Heavier crime dramas are definitely my thing, and the drama slowly but surely uproots the protective umbrella of China’s Gotham City by delving into four different cases that all seem to point to the same organised crime group. I would often be reminded of Sun Honglei‘s variety persona while watching To Be A Better Man, but his outing in this show as the police turned gangland lawyer is a fine return to form. Crime Crackdown is one of the better offerings in drama land this year despite some two-dimensional characters, overflow of propaganda and villains who sabotaged their own plans.
The Burning River
I only watched the first murder case, and the show really got my attention when they started focusing on Wu Niansheng (Tian Xiaojie), the father with a terminal illness who walks down a path of vengeance in order to reveal the truth behind his daughter’s suicide. Unfortunately, the drama never really delves deep enough, so I’m not even sure if the director purposely ended the story in such an ironic way, or if it was just a lucky consequence of the censorship process a la The Bad Kids. Production-wise, I thought the entire show was too dark (the “I can’t see what’s going on” type). However, I was intrigued enough by the story to ignore the flaws and the occasional awkward line reading from the leads.
Legend of Fei
My biggest complaint about this show is the writing – it’s as if the screenwriters of this drama just took the well-written sections from the novel, dropped them randomly into the drama and hoped everything would just fall in place (it didn’t). Overall, I just found the drama to be extremely dull – even the much-anticipated Li Zheng (Hu Bing) x Duan Jiuniang (Dong Xuan) arc didn’t live up to my already low expectations. When you also take the shoddy costuming, average directing and lazy martial arts combat into account, it’s hard not to wonder how they spent their budget.
I enjoyed the first half of Dear Missy, even if it was just focusing on the characters dating a new love interest every 5th episode. Though the drama marketed Shen Siyi (Jin Chen) x Lu Ke (Li Yitong) as a borderline lesbian couple, their dynamic felt too much like the protective CEO who is always misunderstood by his naïve love interest from traditional rom-coms. To be fair, I would’ve been okay with this if the producers hadn’t tried to wedge the exasperating Guan Yue into every single story arc.
Ke Ying (Cai Wenjing), Feng Xiaosheng (Peng Guanying) and even Xiaowu (Liu Kai) are all well-cast and well-acted, but my main gripe with the show is the watering down of Fu Shenxing’s crimes and the casting of He Yan’s fiancé. I really liked Liang Yuanze in the original because he was always on He Yan’s side no matter what she went through. Unfortunately the actor really struggled to show this, which affected my attachment to the pairing and thus the drama itself.
The Rebel Princess
Zhang Ziyi is a perfect fit for strong-willed heroines, and Wang Xuan is no exception. Her acting was enough for me to overlook the age factor that everyone had been complaining about – personally I thought she was much better than most of the other cast who were also playing characters younger than their real age (fun fact: only Yu Hewei was playing a character in the same age bracket as himself). The story is the typical period romance with straightforward political and inner palace maneuvering, just with much better lighting and camerawork. With such a predictable story and passive main characters, I didn’t have the patience to stick with it just for the actors.
My Heroic Husband
The good thing about having a time-traveler as the lead is the ability to incorporate popular internet slang into the conversations – I love how their business is a wordplay on real-life e-commerce platform Suning.com. Most of the comedy comes from reversing the traditional gender roles – the hero (Guo Qilin) has to take the bridal carriage on his wedding day, and attend a virtue school that teaches them to be obedient to their wives. However, most of the problems are still solved by the hero, and I would’ve preferred a stronger and more proactive heroine (Song Yi).
The Imperial Coroner
Imperial Coroner is like an ancient version of Zhang Ruoyun’s Medical Examiner Dr.Qin, in that it features characters that actually have priorities other than romance. There’s a no nonsense coroner (Su Xiaotong) who is more interested in examining corpses, a responsible public officer / prince (Wang Ziqi) who actually decides to dig into the heroine’s background first and a cheeky sidekick (Yang Tingdong) who also has his own atypical sleuthing skills. Unfortunately this cult TV show falls into the same category as Joy of Life for me – I tried really hard to get attached to the characters, but ultimately couldn’t.
The Day of Becoming You
Zhang Xincheng is an absolute delight when he’s playing heroine Yu Shengsheng. The various sound effects and all the fish-out-of-water scenarios were hilarious, but that’s pretty much all I enjoyed about the show.
Ancient Love Poetry and Miss the Dragon
I’ve decided to put Tencent’s two xianxia romances together because my reason for dropping the shows are identical:
1. Dubbers Zhang Fuzheng (as Bai Jue) and Chen Zhang Taikang (as the Dragon King) emote better than the actors they’re voicing
2. The CGI is way better than the story
Tears in Heaven
I absolutely loved the Du Xiaosu (Li Qin) x Shao Zhenrong (Zhang Yunlong) subplot – yes it’s cliché and full of dog blood (dramatic, over-the-top tropes), but that’s exactly how I wanted their storyline to turn out, and I’m glad the drama has lived up to expectations on that front (ugly cry warning for Episodes 5 and 6, especially when Lost Lover starts playing).
I enjoyed the childhood portion of this show – all the younger actors, especially Huang Yi (he also starred in The Advisor’s Alliance and The Great Craftsman), really stood out, and veteran actors Liu Jun (as the infuriating Qiao patriarch) and Liu Lin (as the aunt) really helped to anchor the show. Although The Bond still suffered from haphazard editing and abrupt transitions at climaxes, the drama is much better than Zhang Kaizhou’s previous shows thanks to the tighter storyline. Plus, the music cues finally come in at all the right places (highly recommend Wild Bird by Jin Runji). Unfortunately my interest in this show waned pretty quickly once the drama started focusing on the siblings’ romances.
Jun Jiuling is adapted from the typical reverse harem web novel that features at least three suitors and an intelligent and independent female lead. There’s plenty of flaws, but what I liked most about this drama (at least what I watched of it) is how the screenwriter made sure the heroine (Peng Xiaoran) wasn’t a damsel in distress, and was able to bring down foes and solve her problems without overly relying on the male characters. Her relationship with all four love interests are quite intriguing, and there’s definitely a character to suit every taste if you can ignore the awkward acting from some of the leads.
Dear Diary stars Bu Guanjin as the socially awkward heroine whose life is turned upside down when the fictional hero of her childhood scribbles (who was given the name Murong Jielun after her childhood idol Jay Chou) crosses dimensions into the real world. This drama is absolutely hilarious from the get go, and I actually felt second-hand embarrassment for the heroine when the fictional characters still maintained the personalities she wrote for them in the real world. Underneath the absurd comedy, the story is also about coming to terms with yourself, so kudos to the screenwriters for coming up with such thoughtful and clever dialogue.
Star of Ocean
With the writer of Nothing Gold Can Stay at the helm, I was expecting a fast-paced and dramatic story with a heroine we would all want to root for. Star Of Ocean didn’t disappoint on that front – Jian Ai (Liu Tao) grows up like a princess, yet her life turns upside down once her parents pass away in a murder-suicide. However, Jian Ai doesn’t let her past get in the way, and slowly works her way up the corporate ladder through sheer hard work and luck. She doesn’t back down when faced with setbacks, knows how to protect herself and has a healthy level of self-respect. Unfortunately the dramatic love pentagon was too much for me to handle, but the first half is definitely worth a watch for those that need their melodrama fix.