Feng Zhi Wei is the unfavored illegitimate daughter of the Qiu Family, who is then banished from the clan after being falsely accused of a crime. Zhi Wei cross-dresses as a man to attend the prestigious Qingming Academy and stuns the world with her talent and knowledge. She remains loyal and honest to the reigning Emperor during the princes’ fight for the throne, yet soon finds out she is the only surviving royalty of a fallen kingdom. Manipulated into thinking that the current dynasty was built upon the corpses of her loved ones, Zhi Wei ultimately decides to take revenge against her enemies, including her lover Ning Yi. Will they be able to put their vengeance behind them and live a life without hatred?
~~ Adapted from the novel Huang Quan by Tianxia Guiyuan.
Cast & Credits
The plot is actually about princes' power struggle with sprinkles of romance, the focus is on Ning Yi, Feng Zhiwei plays second fiddle to him, do not come in looking for romance, you will probably be disappointed. Their interactions were actually pretty jarring compared to the rest of drama due to its different tone. It's super restrained, there's no real kiss here, I'm serious! There's just scenes hotter and cuter than kisses. I do like what's shown of their romance, it's nice to have an OTP who understand each other on a fundamental level and have similar ambitions, even if they disagree when it comes to methods. It means they don't really go through misunderstandings, until the drama crashed and burned in the last 10 episodes, but I digress. It's lovely to have a drama that care so much details and trust the audience enough to interpret things that's half said, the schemes are fun since everyone, including multiple antagonists are smart, so it's always multiple parties trying to further their own agenda and screw up leading to unexpected circumstances. The protagonists aren't infallible either, they disagree and sometimes they end up doing things that would seem unwise to the audience. This drama doesn't really play by the books.
The thing is, the first half of the show, up to ep 45 is fairly steady, packed with lots of information in each episodes. Then Minhai arc got shaved off probably 75% because of SARFT, which ugh but can't be helped, we can make out important things that happened (it's all in the dialogues) but that's a pretty bad viewing experience. It returns to normal with some explosive acting, Jinshi arc is relatively simple because scriptwriters can't really touch it but I think it's mostly fine, Dayue arc got probably 30% cut, it's mostly still there. Then comes the last arc which, I'll just say feature a lot of sudden appearance, sudden deaths, sudden misunderstandings (which will get cleared up, no worries! but it sure as hell shouldn't have happened) I suspect that the ending was a very rushed rewrite (which would explain all the plot holes) and the pacing was 3x of the earlier episodes, making everyone who stuck around for 60 episodes fairly confused. The events and character motivations do make sense, but they needed more lead up, foreshadowing and detailing that it was so good at before. Never have I, after watching 70 episodes, wanted to have more episodes so the story wouldn't feel so jarring. I honestly think when they edited it, they should have repaced the drama, if latter arcs were cut due to main plot not popping out, this is NOT how you pop it out.
Ning Yi, as a protagonist is one of most layered character I've seen. He is a gifted manipulator, but also someone who care deeply for people close to him because of his childhood. He can be ruthless to his brothers. childish and awkward with Zhiwei, utterly broken when it comes to his mum. He deeply wants a father-son relationship with the emperor but they sort of can't, as being an emperor means being on guard even against your son. He's pretty morally grey, but some of his lines were dubbed over due to SARFT (most notably, end of crown prince arc and the ending). Chen Kun did an astounding job playing Ning Yi, I was quite bemused by his overacting in the first episode. which I know can put off people, it's just Ning Yi likes be on the edge and taunt people. I was also not a huge fan of his long hair look, but it did signify Ning Yi's carefree attitude. Chen Kun can definitely overact at times, rather like stage acting, but he's also very good at microexpressions and small gestures.
Feng Zhiwei is the female lead that I love through and through, even if I'm somewhat disappointed with how they wrote her. To make her more realistic (compared to how OP she was in novel), she was made into a smart but bit naive and impulsive girl who gets dragged into power struggle for the throne and had to grow. That's fine, except Minhai arc was basically her time to show her abilities is equal to Ning Yi got cut (because the main plot doesn't pop? political reasons? idk). Jinshi and Dayue both had limited time and significant changes that while she wasn't helpless, she was still partially damseled to prop up Ning Yi more, who honestly doesn't need more focus. I know the romance is linked with plot but it's just badly plotted. I do appreciate that FZW is more straightforward, so she tends to lead the romance. I have to say though, I LOVED Ni ni who portrayed her, she's gorgeous as a man AND a woman, and neither look jarring. She had some of the best crying scenes I've seen and had wonderful chemistry with her co-actors.
My other favourite character is probably the emperor, who is the smartest I've seen in recent years. Emperors in these kind of dramas are usually overly suspicious or useless, and he's neither. He's not a good father or even a good husband, and I'm pretty sure he's sort of an antagonist but that doesn't stop him from being a complicated person. Thanks Ni Do Hong, I'd watch all your scenes all day long. Headmaster Xin had great chemistry with Ning Yi, they shared the same goal but had very different methods and priorities making their scenes a blast to watch. The various princes all had their shining moments too!
It's such a shame most of the people around FZW's characterisations weren't as layered. Her mum was rather conflicted between reviving the kingdom and having her live peacefully, but she was one of the big reason the OTP didn't proceed as well so it's somewhat hard to like her. Her brother is kind of an idiot but had a few nice scenes that I really liked. Gu Nanyi had awesome lines and decent char development, but we aren't show how that happened. I'm actively mad about how they cut out Hua Qiong, who was originally promoted as a main character, and reduced to essentially cameos. Her scenes were largely in Minhai arc, she appeared later and played pivotal role as a best friend and in a scheme then was promptly written out of the story, excuse me?! There wasn't even mourning for her? Helian Zheng actively seem like he's in a different drama just because of his behaviour and he literally can't follow along what Zhiwei is thinking, good as comic relief I guess. I suppose he can also be used as a contrast against Ning Yi, but they also hastily wrote him out of the plot.
Honestly, I think they were too ambitious when they wanted to fuse power struggle + romance, where the OTP can go head to head, they lost their balance. The romance and anything involving the female lead have noticeably more plot holes and is weaker. They also tried to make it more realistic but still fuse in book characters, I love them a lot and would have liked to see a realistic version of them, but I'm in the minority. They should have cut their loses and fused more characters or plot lines. Jinshi is honestly not really needed as an arc, FZW could have gone elsewhere. If it was for uniting the kingdoms, the drama didn't really accomplish that either (whereas the novel managed to establish an alliance there). Da Yue had very nice characterisation moments, but it wasn't plotted that well, they could have written other scenes to get the idea across.
I must emphasis this is recorded live while filming, which is super rare in recent years in historical cdramas due to noise pollution, accents and actors' acting. The drama usually have ambience sounds as bgm, and only play its insert songs during important moments. The sets and costumes are exquisite, I did spent fair amount of time just staring at them. I loved the use of go/weiqi, the tea pouring, the small differences in manners in different countries. I'm a little mixed about the dialogue, I have been taken out of the drama by some rather modern words, but it also quote a lot of classical Chinese, some rather cleverly (like when FZW became imperial adviser) , some I had to look up but got its meanings through context, some is just plain wrong. I appreciate the attempt but they could definitely flow better, rather than it feeling like they just spring it into the drama to look well studied.
Despite all of its issues, I still loved this a lot and will probably rewatch it just for acting and characterisation, which is something I basically never do, as someone who largely care about plot. I deeply wish the female characters played bigger roles as they had likely intended before, but even as is, I still love them because they are different and varied, and they are allowed to be flawed, to make mistakes, just as male characters are. I would love to see more effort in fusing more serious elements with romance because that's much closer to life than just fluffy fun times or only serious business time.
P.S: SARFT is the government agency that all cdramas have to go through, this drama went through it at least twice and they also had people come in half way through filming to check on their progress, and part of the script were rewritten on set. Historical dramas, especially ones that go on prime time slot (this one is, the only other one this year is Ashes of Love) are subjected to stricter scrutinisation, this year have gotten even tighter. Main characters can't be overly dark which is why some of Ning Yi (and maybe Zhiwei?)'s lines were dubbed over.
Beautiful Production, Puzzling PlotThe Rise of Phoenixes kept me hooked from start to finish, and for me this is a serious act of binge watching, but... I tend to disagree with fans on the internet comparing this show to Nirvana in Fire, or even Game of Thrones. This show wasn't up to par compared to those two. I think what mesmerized me were the stunningly filmed scenes and actors. I just love to look at beautiful faces and places. The leading couple took my breath away sometimes. Although Ni Ni was forced to play a Mary Sue, completely different from her character in the original novel, I easily forgot all this by just looking at her. The same can be said about Chen Kun. He sometimes fell into the trap of emotional, hammy playing, with eyeball rolling and all, but compensated this with good scenes that made him a true anti-hero. I loved their flirting scenes and their love scene beneath a water surface. Also the supporting cast did a good job, especially the old emperor.
So why do I feel unsatisfied after 70 episodes? I think it was the script. With historical drama there’s usually the choice between (a) the “man meets woman/they fall in love/they have difficulties/their love survives or not”- storyline or (b) the “man meets woman/they support each other/one of them choose to break up for the common good”- storyline. I guess this production didn’t make this choice. It started as a love story, and abruptly hopped off to version (b). I wonder why, because we didn’t see the suffering of the common people at all, they were absent during all scenes.
There was also an inconsistency in characters. Normally there are outright heroes, villains, and anti-heroes in a show. Ning Yi is the anti-hero type, who should have become more defined as the story fleshed out. It didn’t happen. In the original novel his life experiences made him another man. In the end he dares to choose for his personal happines. In this production however, although he’s portrayed as a highly intelligent man, Ning Yi only wants to win the throne above all other things, turning him into a Macbeth type. This makes his character difficult to portray. How can this prince be a romantic anti-hero, a highly treacherous schemer, and an intelligent person at the same time? The same goes for Feng Zhiwei. She’s the protagonist/heroine of the story. She’s young, intelligent and she becomes an imperial adviser, she doesn’t know her origins and is highly naive, although she can be plucky and daring at the same time. The moment she knew about the fate of several people who gave their life for the sake of her heritage and dynasty, she should have thought about her purpose, her goal in life. It would have been a call to action for her type of character. This happened in the novel. In this production however, after a few revengeful thoughts, she became like many heroines in other c-drama: a brokenhearted, passive love interest.
This production could have been a complicated love story. In stead it became the story of many people whose lives became intertwined. They just happened to meet at the same place, at the same time under difficult circumstances, namely the struggle for power at the imperial palace. All actors did their very best, this makes it worth your time. There are many questions left about certain events, and characters, so it feels that even 70 episodes is not enough. Perhaps a remake will meet the challenge.