So, this one is about this girl (Ye Yuan’an) who buys a slave boy in the market to keep him from being beaten to death (Mu Le) while she’s helping this cute but uptight police captain (Lanzhi) investigate a case of opium smuggling. Mu Le turns out to have: amnesia, super strength, martial arts skills, and (soon) insane levels of loyalty to Yuan’an. And, seriously, she’s a really excellent heroine whom anyone would fall in love with. But anyhow, the plot progresses, slowly introducing more supernatural elements as it goes on. The trio next have to solve the case of the murderous skinwalker, with help from Yuan’an’s wacky mentor/inventor who lives in the basement.
Meanwhile, there’s Princess (Infanta?!) Minghui, the apprentice of the Grand Vizier, a monk who twenty years before was the sole survivor of a massacre at the temple. You see, when the Old Master died, one other monk (Tianshu) went mad and stole the Divine Beads. The Grand Vizier wants them back. And there are some rather interesting narrative choices here, because the camera flat-out lies when it’s showing flashbacks about this for the first twenty-odd episodes. Anyhow, Minghui is an interesting character, because the man she’s closest to loving is killed by Lanzhi (who happens to be his old friend for extra emotional torque) around episode 4ish, her mentor is evil and cruel to her, and she has no support team (unlike the heroes)….and yet over the first twenty episodes she flawlessly retrieves the Divine Beads. Mind, the heroes are only one step behind her at any point, but she does get them back.
Mu Le’s character also develops over this period and his relationship with Yuan’an, as well as her relationships with the other characters, and own character development, occur. The first twenty episodes are really excellent, as Minghui is focused on recovering the Divine Pearls and the plot moves briskly. After they do recover the Beads, the next ten or so episodes are a bit slower in pace, but still character-focused. Basically, Minghui’s decided that she’s in love with Lanzhi–….so she blackmails him into marrying her (wait, what?) In direct response to this, Yuan’an marries Mu Le.
But then Yuan’an freaks out, bites him on the arm, and when he runs off to blow off some very understandable steam in the woods, his former bodyguard pops up and restores his original memories…at the cost of his recent ones. Turns out, he’s a prince of Suoluo (Some Thailand-ish place where they wear even sillier hats than they do in Tang China), and his mission was to get (back) the Divine Beads to heal his father. He gets them and goes home….while the Empress flips the everliving hell out and decrees that she’s going to kill Ye Yuan’an, Zhao Lanzhi, Infanta Minghui, Wacky Mentor Tianshu and, oh yes, everyone in their families and anyone related to them, if she doesn’t get the Beads back.
Episodes thirty-ish to forty-ish follow Yuan’an as she tries to get the Beads back. But she’s in unfamiliar territory and the man she (can’t admit) she loves, doesn’t remember her. And her so-called ally…isn’t. Long story short, although she makes a good start (I was honestly impressed by how well she was doing, keeping her temper while serving as a palace maid and foiling two assassination attempts), Yuan’an still ends up having to be rescued by the team and they have to start over. (Because they can teleport, now.)
So! They can time travel now! (Wait, what?) Yuan’an comes up with the brilliant idea of traveling back in time and assassinating Mu Le (Ah Ying). The fact that it won’t work (aside from the fact that Yuan’an really obviously can’t bring herself to kill him) is finally sussed out by the team….meaning that Wacky Mentor Tianshu knew it and is allowing it to happen on purpose. Also, he’s dead. Ish. The plot doesn’t actually grind to a halt, because we get to see what happened to Prince Ah Ying’s brother, Ah Heng, who is imprisoned in the Pagoda Until He’s Sorry….but the plot basically grinds to a halt, because this section of the story is handled incredibly poorly and the pacing is terrible.
But! We get to see a little of the old Yuan’an–a generous, brave, and loyal girl who anybody would fall in love with easily–which is nice, I missed her. But mostly: Ah Heng was interested in sorcery, which is BAD and ILLEGAL. While he escapes punishment the first time, his bestest friend (Just friend. Friend! What part of friend don’t you understand?!), gets his eyes put out. Ah Heng’s next actions are to infect Ah Ying with Red Dragon Monster Blood, and then to attempt assassination of their father the King….necessitating Prince Ah Ying to go to Tang China to retrieve the Beads.
The writing during this arc is really weak.
Anyhow, by the time Yuan’an realizes that changing the past isn’t possible, time is running out back at home, so the team makes another raid attempt on the palace. This is episode forty-five or so, and it’s the weakest one yet, just because everyone is so freaking illogical, dumb, and inconsistent during it. But, anyhow, one weak arc and a bad episode in a good show doesn’t ruin everything about it, right?
So! The heroine gets turned into a blue bat. (Wait, WHAT?!) OK, I’m willing to say that the plot genuinely went went off the rails here. Long story short: using the Divine Beads to cure a king, good. Using Divine Beads to cure your country’s wounded soldiers and incidentally your girlfriend? Bad. Ah Heng makes his comeback and our hero and heroine end up tortured and in prison. The benefit of this is that Mama Suoluo is finally impressed by their devotion and decides not to kill them. The downside is: Ah Ying’s been tortured and lost his kung fu, exiled, and Yuan’an’s also kind of a wimp now, which sucks. Also, they’ve been framed for murder and treason, again.
However, at this extremity, they turn out to have an ally: bodyguard Zhenzhen, who has until now been working (reluctantly) for the bad guys. Push come to shove, she’s actually loyal to Ah Ying. She’s able to heal Ah Ying’s IMPALED SHOULDERBLADES and give him back his kung fu…and promptly dies. Welp. She was…ok, I guess. Actually, she was a rather cool character even on limited screentime, so it’s a pity she didn’t get more development.
So. Although the populace is actually very receptive to Prince Ah Ying’s side of the story, Ah Heng has soldiers and Divine Beads. Our heroes are about to be executed (AGAIN), when WAIT WHAT, Minghui and Lanzhi show up to the rescue. A flashback reveals how they survived the last raid and confirms my opinion that Minghui is the most competent antiheroine in this show.
Our heroes prepare for another, and since it’s now episode 49, you’d THINK final, raid. They have two objectives: kill Evil Sorcerer, and restore the true monarchy. So naturally they fail and then they get trapped in a magic maze. But! After they take ten minutes out of the last freaking episode to get out of the maze, they get down to business. (After another fiveish minutes of arguing about things. GUYS…)
So to wrap up the story, there is a confrontation, and a creepy reveal that would have worked better if the people who directed the earlier episodes had also been directing now, and then an epic (but unfortunately horribly CGI’d) fight scene and the good guys win….at the cost of the hero’s life.
(He comes back from the spirit world thirty seconds before the episode ends, so there’s that.)
So overall: I loved this one for the first twenty-odd episodes, liked it a lot for the next ten; but while the last tennish episodes of the series had their good points, the writing was much, much weaker–too weak to support what ought to have been a pretty damn good story, with time travel and magic and split personalities and vengeful royal twins.
The acting is a standout in this one. I’d never heard of Janice Wu, but apparently she’s got a following. And it’s well-deserved. She takes a pretty standard character–Spunky Heroine Girl–and plays it in a naturalistic way never overdoes the cutesiness, which is what tends to be the bane of most CDrama heroines. So even when Yuan’an’s character was an indecisive, incoherent mess, she was watchable.
Zhang Ye Cheng, as the main hero, was great as Mu Le and slightly less great as Ah Ying; as the naive horseboy, he was excellent with having fewer lines and using body language and facial expressions. As the prince…he lacked gravitas. And that’s fine, because our other male lead, Zhang Yu Jian, has got gravitas up the wazoo and is kind of, well, wooden. Handsome, sure, but wooden. Kiki Dong, as Minghui, has a conflicted and interesting character and does fine with it; she doesn’t seem to have anything spectacular going on.
The other standout is Micky Yuan as Wacky Mentor Tianshu, and my gosh I loved him.
Speaking of characters: while it’s sometimes hair-tearingly frustrating to see people embroiled in desperate romances and willing to die for their True Love; or when the heroes are getting praised and rewarded when you, the audience, know They Ain’t All That…Yuan’an is a heroine who men would fall in love with and whose friends would die for her…because she loves her friends, she is loyal to them, and she would die for them, too–and we are shown this, not told it. We are repeatedly shown how Yuan’an is randomly kind to people, how she helps people who need it, and how she just won’t stop if she’s doing what she thinks is the right thing–even under threat of disgrace or death. Also, she’s good at martial arts. I really, really liked her for that. Unfortunately, by episode 40 she’s reduced to a shadow of herself, but…well…
Mu Le is a good character, too. Until around episode thirty…five? Somewhere around there.
Lanzhi stops being relevant after Minghui blackmails him into marrying her…because then he gets infected with the male version of chickified….slowly falling for his, well, wife, after witnessing the depths of her devotion for him. Before that, he was only sporadically interesting when he gave the official gravitas a rest and also stopped lecturing Yuan’an about the sanctity of The Law. You’re in jiang hu China, boy; there is no freaking justice in the law.
Again, Minghui had what should have been the meatiest part–an highly competent antagonist who has nevertheless been forced into that role by an evil mentor, who is lonely, resents the heroes for their victories against her, and at the same time envies them for their comraderie, and then falls for one of them….but doesn’t at all know how to go about this whole “being good” business. Let’s just say she was doing really pretty well until she poisoned the heroine to blackmail the the second lead into marrying her. That’s the sort of thing that usually takes death to redeem, but, y’know…I like Minghui and I’ll give her a pass because she did try hard in the best way she knew how, poor girl.
Let me take a minute to say how much I freaking LOVED Wacky Mentor Monk Tianshu. He is seriously one of the best mentor characters in all fiction. A good mentor can make a hero. A GREAT mentor can make a hero gadgets, come up with cunning plans, teach them to kill enemies, console them in romantic troubles, rescue them in dire straits, and laugh at them when they get into trouble. Tianshu ROCKS. He’s the best character in the show and, well, I can’t really even be mad about how he dies because unlike everybody else in the last ten episodes, he stays largely consistent and he goes out like a (unrecognized and unremembered, sob) hero. But, man, Tianshu ROCKS.
Lets see, anything else? The fight scenes were pretty darned good and not at all infrequent for the first half, sparser in the second half, and while they did get more CGI’d and less convincing, at least they were still there near the end. So there’s that.
So overall…If they’d left the first thirty-two episodes (until Mu Le regains his memories) as is and condensed the rest of it down into, say, eight episodes, it would have been a serious contender for my newest favorite Cdrama. As is…the last ten episodes drag down the overal series…and the last five really drag. And, I literally bingewatched it for about eighteen hours. (In my defense, quarantine.)
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