Jiang Xue Ning's unrelenting desire to become empress eventually strains her bond with her childhood friend Yan Lin and leads to the arrest of the noble Official Zhang Zhe. Guilt and remorse begin to seep in when her short-lived reign as the empress comes to an end. With the help of Yan Lin as the general, rebels seize the capital and ruthlessly exterminate the entire royal family. In her last desperate act, Jiang Xue Ning pleads to exchange her life for the freedom of Zhang Zhe, a man who has always shown her kindness. As fate takes an unexpected turn, Jiang Xue Ning awakens in the body of her 18-year-old self, who has yet to enter the palace. Given another chance at life, she vows to live differently beyond the palace walls. Yet fate would not let her escape. She becomes entangled in the palace intrigues once again as Princess Le Yang’s study companion and disciple of Xie Wei, the well-respected imperial teacher and emperor’s advisor, who also happens to be the mastermind behind the heinous rebellion that leads to her demise. (Source: neoleonite at MyDramaList) ~~ Adapted from the web novel "Kun Ning" (坤宁) by Shi Jing (时镜). Edit Translation
Cast & Credits
May the baddest man win.This is the drama adaptation of a popular female harem web novel "Kun Ning" (坤宁) by Shi Jing (时镜) with an interesting approach; readers voted on who the female protagonist ends up with. It is a dark and gripping tale of intrigue, conceit, betrayal, revenge and redemption. Jiang Xuening is the alluring but resentful, selfish and ambitious daughter of a court official who ruthlessly parleys her charm and cunning into becoming empress. Her schemes lead to the downfall of the royal family and the ruin of both her childhood sweetheart Yan Lin and the erstwhile incorruptible Zhang Zhe. Desperate and full of regret, she barters her life with the blackbellied Xie Wei to save Zhang Zhe. She finds herself reborn as her 18-year old self with a chance for a do-over. She vows to do better this time, to steer clear of the bastions of power and the malevolent Xie Wei. She tries to use her preternatural knowledge to save Yan Lin and Zhang Zhe from their sad fortune. As she embarks on a journey of atonement, she discovers there is an element of destiny that pulls her towards the center of power. This time, with greater wisdom and insight, she uncovers hidden secrets and unexpected allies that help her better grasp the intrigue unfolding around her. Is that enough to change their destinies or are they doomed to the same tragic fate?
This story explores the causal links between the past, the present and the future.; the idea that if only knowing what we know now, we can go back and do what we should have, could have but did not do. It begins with a Ning'er who is already a fully realised character that is not yet revealed; a charming beauty who had the world at her feet and lived a wicked and self-indulgent life. Even though Ning'er's goals change, her innate nature stays the same. The past is told in flashbacks just before the moment plays out again in the present. This works in terms of the more detailed plot points but dilutes the character and relationship stories. Thus while Bai Lu pulls off her role well overall, the piecemeal telling of the backstory doesn't capture the depth of Ning'er's regret or the layers in her relationships with some of the main characters.
Where the storytelling falls short is in Zhang Zhe's arc. To me, it is the most pivotal love story in the drama. He was the best of men, a morally upright official who betrayed his principles for her. And she was a selfish person who was so moved she became selfless for him. Their emotions were so powerful it pushed them both outside of themselves towards a mutually destructive outcome. Sadly unlike the novel, their do-over relationship is shallow and barely scratches the surface of the unfinished affinity between them. It's a pity that instead sticking to the novel which better fleshes out this arc they wasted a bunch of time on the nasty Consort Shu's boring and tropey petty antics. Wang Xingyue delivers such an empathetic portrayal of Zhang Zhe that I was disappointed his character was short changed by the narrative.
As for Xie Wei, I have a weakness for unapologetic, unspeakably damaged, vengeful and morally ambiguous characters like this. Zhang Linghe delivers an intense portrayal of this dark and complex role. Although he overdoes some of the snarls and sneers, his performance overall deserves praise and is his strongest to date. Every time the full fury of Xie Wei's fiery death glare flashes across the screen, I go weak at the knees and my brain turns to mush. Yups, I am definitely a "may the baddest man win" kind of girl. Xie Wei is far from the best man but they are well matched, morally flexible ends justify means kind of people. Their romance arc only takes off later on but it is worth the wait. A mutual understanding develops gradually between them before things get really hot and steamy. When it does, their audacious chemistry explodes in a way that sets a new bar for passionate kiss scenes going forward.
Even though the political conspiracy is not that complicated, it is well told and riveting. Xie Wei's origins are a bit too obvious early on but I enjoyed how Ning'er and Xie Wei work together to uncover the conspiracy. They are both diabolical in how they manipulate the different factions around like chess pieces. The villains are no pushovers but they are overshadowed by the force of nature that is Xie Wei and Ningér's combined dark ruthlessness. This is not an action heavy drama but all of the fight scenes were well shot. I particularly enjoyed the vicious ferocity and absolute glee with which Yan Lin cuts through a melee. I hope this fight maniac Zhou Junwei's small indiscretion does not stand in the way of future roles in action intensive wuxias. Outside of one unnecessary and infuriatingly gratuitous death, the drama ends on a strong note after a bloody, intense and thrilling showdown.
While I enjoyed this drama immensely, the storytelling left me vaguely dissatisfied; as if I only watched the cliff note version of a story that had a lot more depth, nuance and substance than the drama managed to convey. This director is not great at knowing which plot arcs to give more weight to and has an unfortunate predilection for over-bright spot lights and spinning cameras. The production values are mediocre at best. This is a story that had so much potential it deserved to be in the hands of a better director and a better budget. I still rate this a highly reccomended 8.5/10.0.
Favorite cdrama in yearsI've been watching chinese dramas for YEARS (probably over a decade), and this is the only cdrama I've watched on repeat ever. The characters are well written, the romance is believable, and there's also an endgame/political setup that is emotional and worth cheering for. The female lead's setup is already intriguing, since it involves a female lead that has to (re)navigate her life decisions in a a thought-provoking way, and generally a male lead that is supportive of her throughout this navigating of the court intrigue/personal relationships. For me, the elements that make a truly wonderful and rewatchable drama are as follows:
1) Strong female lead - the female lead has to be written in a way that I want to cheer for her. There are a lot of characters out there, but the female lead has a strong drive/ambition and has a reason for wanting to accomplish her mission that to me reads as noble and worthwhile, while also being spunky and fun (and I absolutely love Bai Lu's acting, she is perfectly cast for this role). It's just super fun to watch a female character acting in her own agency and trying to navigate life
2) Excellent chemistry between both (all?) leads - really good believable chemistry always gets me. enough said here, their scenes speak for themselves :) this also links to that I want both leads to be believable in their chemistry. Good acting to me is where I forget they're an actor, but truly believe they are the character they're portraying, which is definitely done by both here!
3) Good pacing & political intrigue - love me some plotting for the dramatic tension in the storyline, and I think dramas really shine when both leads have a brain and work together, and get to know each other over a shared interest/smarts rather than just a love at first sight. the dramatic tension of first life vs. fixing things in second life also drives the plot and kept me on the hook; when I watch a drama, having it be interesting and an easy watch is v important
4) good quality costuming & scenery - I hate when other historical dramas look cheap or over the top, but I've aesthetically loved the costuming here :) one of the things I appreciate is seeing Chinese-style costuming and scenery, love that aspect of cultural exchange.
The whole support cast is excellent too, hope all the cast members get lots of awards for this show!!
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