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Completed
The Imperial Coroner
105 people found this review helpful
May 21, 2021
36 of 36 episodes seen
Completed 7
Overall 9.0
Story 9.5
Acting/Cast 9.0
Music 9.0
Rewatch Value 9.0

A delightful gem worth savouring

Every year without fail, at least one C-drama historical that’s underrated and under-the-radar but utterly deserving of praise, would somehow make its appearance in dramaland. This year’s gem, undoubtedly for me, is The Imperial Coroner.

If you love the detective genre in ancient historical settings, you’d love this. This drama bears a close resemblance to Miss Truth, Maiden Holmes, Ancient Detective and Young Blood, among the recent productions of this genre. Furthermore, there are other compelling reasons I’ve enjoyed this show immensely.

Why I Love It

The Tang Dynasty in which the drama is set in. Among all the ancient dynasties, this one is my favoured time period, particularly during the early to mid-Tang, because of the vibrant and thriving era of peace and economic prosperity, along with the burgeoning appreciation for fine arts and fashion. This is reflected in the bustling cosmopolitan city of Chang’an with the integration of myriads of cultures, when international trade was at its peak. This year seems to be the season of Tang with a number of dramas set in this timeline already released, notably The Long Ballad, Court Lady and Weaving a Tale of Love.

The production values of this drama. Although reportedly being low on budget, the overall quality isn’t hampered and it shows, because the money is spent on all the right places. Sometimes a drama is big budget because of the fees involved in casting big name stars. There are no A-list superstars involved here, which is just as well because what we get in return are decent cinematography, art direction, set designs (courtesy of Hengdian World Studios), action choreography, engaging direction and brisk pacing of the storytelling, as well as the blossoming talents of a young cast.

Speaking of the cast, for fans of Young Blood we get to see Su Xiao Tong again, this time in the lead role of the titular character. This young woman is worthy of top billing for this show because we get to see her showcase her expanding range in carrying this show through her character of Chu Chu. The rest of the cast are equally promising, with Wang Zi Qi’s characterization of the male lead Xiao Jin Yu particularly convincing. The supporting cast comprising Zhao Yao Ke, Yang Ting Dong, and Wang Yan Bin provide a very respectable account of their respective portrayals as members of the band of friends and team of investigators.

One of the more pleasing aspects of this production is the projection of visual designs and art. Its opening title sequence is one of the few I’ve seen that does not spoil any scenes from the show. It uses two versions, all of which feature conceptual art with a dramatic original score (as opposed to having an opening theme song). Throughout the drama, scenes of medical examination are accompanied by visual aid in the form of diagrams and title cards that provide concise explanation of the technical terms. Additionally, numerous visual representations of crime scene reenactment are added for the benefit of viewers.

The captivating plot about a gifted female coroner who works for the Imperial court in solving crimes is quite cleverly conceived. Based on the novel The Story of the Imperial Gift (御赐小仵作) by Qingxian Ya Tou (清闲丫头), the story fuses factual history with fiction, alongside some rather serious fictional dramatization. Real-life characters such as Emperor Xuanzong and the infamously powerful Eunuch faction, in addition to the Tang administrative system of the Judicial Ministry and the Censorate all form part of the overarching conspiracy that drives the story of this drama.

In comparison with some of the previously mentioned productions that are similar in nature, I honestly do think The Imperial Coroner is slightly better in terms of the execution and the storytelling. The chemistry and interactions between the various characters are more organic and positive, as opposed to some of the toxicity present in the messy love triangle and the rather “misogynistic” traits portrayed by the ML, in Miss Truth. The story progression here is much more engaging while the plotline is considerably more elaborate, in addition to the consistent writing of the FL character, when compared to Maiden Holmes. The depiction of the camaraderie between the main characters are a joy to watch and reminiscent of the gang in Young Blood and Ancient Detective.

Overall

The Imperial Coroner truly is a delightful watch that has pleasantly surprised not only me but many viewers as well, for most of the reasons mentioned earlier and perhaps some others as well. It may not be an epic masterpiece but it certainly holds its own against some of the big budget and highly anticipated C-historical productions that have been released this year. With only 36 episodes, it won’t take too much viewing time to savour this drama.

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Completed
The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity
115 people found this review helpful
Feb 5, 2021
Completed 17
Overall 9.5
Story 9.5
Acting/Cast 9.5
Music 9.5
Rewatch Value 9.0

The Perfect Yin Yang

The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity is a much anticipated movie that went through hell and back, and literally pulled us fans into the same predicament. This production has been plagued by backlash against its director-screenwriter, Guo Jing Ming who lost a plagiarism lawsuit back in 2004 for a novel that he had published and since then, there have been those in the industry calling for a continued boycott of his works. On top of that incident, another accusation of plagiarism was made against him, this time for this movie where certain scenes resembled Marvel’s 2016 release of Doctor Strange. This fresh wave of backlash had resulted in the film being pulled from cinemas less than 2 weeks after its initial release in China on Christmas 2020. There were real fears that Netflix, which acquired the world-wide distribution rights, may pull the plug on this as well. Fortunately, it did not and the movie was released on the streaming platform as originally scheduled on 5 February 2021.

Dream of Eternity is adapted from the novel series Onmyōji by Yumemakura Baku, with a fair amount of interpretation through the screenplay (as I understand from various news sources) written and directed by Guo Jing Ming. This is the 3rd incarnation of live-action based on the novel series, the first two were Japanese adaptations in 2001 and 2003, and comes into direct comparison (and probably competition as well, due to the timing) with another movie based on the Onmyōji mobile game (which is also inspired by the original novel series), The Yin Yang Master. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t read the novel series, played the mobile game, and even seen the two Japanese adaptations. So I went into this on a huge wave of anticipation and excitement based on rave reviews by nearly everyone who had seen the movie.

The plot focuses on the adventures of the lead character, cosmologist (Onmyōdō, the traditional Japanese art of esoteric cosmology) Qing Ming as he investigates strange cases linked to an overarching mystery involving the heavenly realm and a mystical artifact. This takes place in a fantasy world where supernatural beings (demons, and others that I’m unsure of how to classify) co-exist. Along the way, he develops a friendship (and bromance with hints of BL) with the Imperial Guard (similar to the Embroidered/ Brocade Jing Yi Wei guards) Bo Ya. Together they form a formidable partnership in tackling the unsavoury otherworldly (super)villains that get in the way of solving mysteries. They also encounter other intriguing supporting characters such as Princess Zhang Ping, Master Long Ye and He Shou Ye.

If the story depicted here is anything like the original source material, I’m severely tempted to start reading the novel series. Exquisitely intricate world building of the highest degree with equally fleshed out major and supporting characters. Little wonder a running time over 2 hours is needed to bring this entirely fantastical setting to life. It certainly did not feel that long at all, as the storytelling progresses at a reasonably engaging and quick pace with perfectly-timed intensity and thrills where it mattered. Perhaps an additional 15 to 20 minutes would have provided more richness and depth to certain scenes and the development of character build-ups and relationship dynamics.

The cast is one of the major reasons for getting excited over this movie. Mark Chao headlines the eclectic ensemble that also comprises the likes of Deng Lun and Olivia Wang. The award-winning Mark Chao is globally renowned for his role of Ye Hua in Eternal Love (TMOPB) as well as numerous other starring roles since he made his debut in the critically-acclaimed Monga a decade ago. Deng Lun is another big name in the xianxia series through his major role in Ashes of Love. Olivia Wang is probably not as universally renowned as the two gentlemen, but she has been no less prolific with a portfolio of works that spans 15 years in the industry.

The characters of Qing Ming and Bo Ya were delectably portrayed by Mark and Deng respectively. Mark invokes a particularly subtle kind of charm and sophistication as the titular Yin-Yang Master that makes him appear genuinely warm and sincere but with a dash of self-assured confidence. Deng’s Bo Ya is seemingly more minimalist with a stoic disposition permanently etched on his entire being. These two make for a great couple, whether as brothers-in-arms or even beyond the usual conventions. Wang was almost unrecognizable as the Princess Zhang Ping, even without the heavy Tang-esque makeup. I felt that although she was probably way out of her comfort zone in this role because it was such a controlled and subdued character to portray, her performance was on point. Her character is arguably one of the most enigmatically intriguing.

The most talked about aspect of this production that garners the highest praise from most viewers, with which I agree wholeheartedly, is its visual representation. This is a big budget production that seamlessly blends top-tier CGI technology, beautiful cinematography, and astounding choreographed sequences with breathtaking set designs and immaculate costumes that embody the world of Onmyōji, supposedly set in the Japanese Heian period. There is absolutely no way to describe how visually stunning this film is - you just have to see it for yourself. Principal photography fully took place at Hengdian World Studios and apparently this film and a sequel were filmed back-to-back in what is a planned series. The impressive visual effects were provided by the well-known Korean animation and motion picture VFX production company, 4th Creative Party which had produced feature films in Asia, Hollywood and Europe, most notably Okja, Snowpiercer, and The Host.

The music in the film is no less exquisite, composed by celebrated Japanese composer Kenji Kawai, famed for his works in Ghost in the Shell, Death Note and Ip Man series, among many others. The BGM for this production is one of the best in the fantasy genre, where traditional sounds blend harmoniously with contemporary tones. The OST lists 2 tracks used in the film, both of which are slow-tempo ballads:

Heart Fallen 心殇人 - Huang Ling 黄龄
Infatuation Tomb (Ending Song) 痴情冢 – Deng Lun 邓伦

Overall, The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity is an exceptionally well-crafted film that is stunning to watch, refreshingly straightforward and uncomplicated (despite the premise), and effortlessly enjoyable as well as fun. It’s a no-brainer, what are you waiting for? (before Netflix actually removes the content because of plagiarism issues...).

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Completed
Who Rules the World
138 people found this review helpful
May 17, 2022
40 of 40 episodes seen
Completed 42
Overall 9.0
Story 9.0
Acting/Cast 9.0
Music 9.0
Rewatch Value 8.0

The Legend of Hei Feng-Bai Xi

Truth be told, Who Rules The World (WRTW) wasn’t on the top of my list for highly anticipated dramas for 2022. But you know what? It turned out to be one of the most entertaining dramas I’ve seen for the year. Certain characters in the show even made their way into my list of all-time favourite C-historical characters as well. I’m pleased to say that WRTW has not disappointed and in fact went beyond any initial expectation I may have had going into it.

WRTW is equal parts traditional wuxia, grandiose palace politics, epic warfare and romantic love that are interwoven seamlessly to create an immersive tapestry of a vivid jianghu that transcends the boundaries of the 7 kingdoms. It revolves around the relationship between two renowned martial artists, Hei Feng Xi and Bai Feng Xi, as they navigate the treacherous world of ancient politics and pugilistic rivalries teeming with characters who are hell bent on ruling the world.

The story is based on the bestselling 2007 novel Qie Shi Tian Xia (且试天下) aka Let’s Try the World which was written by prolific period-romance novelist, Qing Ling Yue (倾泠月). The production team comprises directors Yin Tao (Love and Redemption, Ancient Love Poetry, Under the Power), Yu Yonggang (Novoland: Pearl Eclipse) as well as action director/ choreographer Shi Zhanli (The Promise of Chang’an, Under the Power, Listening Snow Tower, Love and Redemption, The Legend of White Snake). Principal photography took place at Hengdian World Studios from February to June 2021. Interestingly this drama was released concurrently on WeTV international and Netflix for global audiences.

A total of 5 songs are listed in the soundtrack of the production. Liu Yuning sings the inspiring opening theme while Lai Meiyun and Tan Wei Wei contribute moving love ballads.

无双 Unparalleled – 刘宇宁 Liu YuNing
风息 Breath Of Wind – 胡彦斌 / 叶炫清 Hu YanBin / Ye XuanQing
一梦浮生 Dreams Come True – 汪苏泷 Silence Wang
孤注 Gu Zhu – 谭维维 Tan Wei Wei
如梦 Like A Dream – 赖美云 Lai MeiYun

This production has been plagued by some controversies in that the main director was purported to have left the project about halfway through filming for reasons that were not made known publicly. Additionally certain elements of the plot, whether the screenplay or the source material itself, had been accused of plagiarism. Likewise some scenes were cited to be reminiscent of other dramas. Having not read the source material for this drama, or most other dramas for that matter, and without seeing particular shows from which their scenes had been reputedly copied, fortunately my personal viewing enjoyment was not affected by the allegations in any way.

What I Liked

The elements of wuxia, politics and warfare are beautifully crafted into a memorable tale of chivalry, heroism and love amidst an extensively conceived worldbuilding of a fictional universe. Perhaps WRTW does not reach the quality levels of Nirvana in Fire, the gold standard in this multigenre, but it certainly comes close. How often do we come across productions that attempt to cover such an extensive scope without faltering miserably or, at the very least, evoke some form of endearing connection and entertainment value?

In terms of wuxia, this is one of the best for me. The variety of martial arts prowess on display as well as depiction of the jianghu with its associated clans, sects, dark arts and, of course, the chivalric values of brotherhood, heroism, and valour are all expertly embedded into this pugilistic premise. Absolutely no complaints from me in this department.

While initially lacking and slow-moving due to the uneven pacing and multitude of character introductions, the politics of the palace and the world began to exert more control over the narrative up until the finale. This is especially so once the main players have been established and viewers are able to focus exclusively on their schemes and machinations that eventually culminate in all-out confrontations and large scale warfare among them. In some ways, the overall concept and worldbuilding remind me somewhat of Game of Thrones with the premise based on various factions fighting for supremacy and dominion over the world.

Ultimately the one aspect of the story that impresses me the most is the romance. One of the most wholesome and charming love stories that I’ve ever come across in a C-historical. It helps immensely that both leads are extremely likeable both in real life and in the depiction of their respective characters here. No silly misunderstandings, childish petulance, toxic vibes whatsoever. Just as it should be between two heroic jianghu protagonists amidst countless adorable and lovely moments indeed.

As far as the technical execution is concerned, for me the positive takeaways would be the production design which maximises the gorgeous features of Hengdian World Studios in both the opulent indoor sets and lush greenery of the outdoor shooting scenes. Cinematography, choreography and special effects are quite decent, for the most part. I’m thankful that the fight scenes in particular are presented on point without the jittery camerawork and overreliance on slow-motion, repeat cuts or fast cut editing.

The martial arts choreography is simply stunning and showcases some of the most spectacular wire-works (wire-fu) in recent memory. It might appear a bit much to some but personally I love it. Also worth mentioning is the battle scenes between large armies towards the tail end of the show. Despite being mostly CGI, the end result is reasonably rendered and, most importantly, not substituted with animation or even skipped over but is shown in its entirety.

With regards to the cast and their respective characterizations, WRTW wouldn’t be the same without the leads, Yang Yang and Zhao Lu Si. The stellar supporting cast particularly Xuan Lu, Lai Yi, Zhang Feng Yi, Lee Wai Han, Zong Feng Yan and Wang De Shun provide a memorable account of themselves in making this production work as well.

I know that Yang Yang has drawn some flak for his performances in the past but having seen him in the recently concluded Glory of the Special Forces where he delivered possibly his best work to-date, I think he deserves more credit than he’s given. The role of Hei Feng Xi / Feng Lan Xi suits him very much indeed. He has this ability to blend intensity and seriousness with warmth and tenderness as well as a dash of charm and sophistication, which adds depth to his version of the brooding, intelligent and lonely hero of this story.

The same goes for Zhao Lu Si who, despite her expertise in rom-coms, is actually quite versatile and here she showcases some range as well as a more serious side. She still has that comedic timing but as the carefree Bai Feng Xi and the more regal Feng Xi Yun, we get to experience different facets to her characters. The biggest draw in the show is obviously their romance. Whether as royalty or jianghu pugilists, the chemistry between the two absolutely sizzles to set the screen aflame. I cannot imagine anyone else embodying the roles of “Hei Feng- Bai Xi of the rivers and lakes” as well as they have done.

Amongst the supporting characters, my personal favourite include Xuan Lu’s Feng Qi Wu who shares a strong bond with Bai Feng Xi where at one point I was actually shipping them as a lovable GL pairing. It’s refreshing to observe a healthy friendship between two female characters for a change instead of the usual destructive rivalry for affections. Lai Yi’s Huang Chao is another strong character that’s worthy of mention. His connection to the leads prove intriguing where despite no love lost between them, they continue to regard one another with mutual admiration and respect.

What Fell Short

I think the transition of directors midway through production possibly caused a discernible change in the quality of direction and editing during the second half of the show. This in turn affected the flow of the storytelling because certain scenes feel somewhat disconnected while the last 8 or so episodes are a little rushed. That said, most C-historicals tend to sprint towards the finishing line with a flurry of events and activities within the final few episodes, although this could be attributed to censorship-induced post-production editing.

For obvious reasons, most of the focus is on Yong-zhou and Qing-zhou, two of the 7 kingdoms in the story. There are some highlights of Ji-zhou and You-zhou, and the initial spotlight on Dong Empire, the ruling kingdom and the seat of power itself. I would have liked to see more backstory or development in the lesser mentioned kingdoms as well as the other mysterious sects of the jianghu. At 40 episodes, it’s near impossible to fit everything and everyone, which is unfortunate as some of the minor side stories and subplots actually appear interesting and thus worth exploring.

Because of the rushed nature of the final arc, the potential for the main villain’s origins and motivations are largely glossed over in favour of the ultimate showdown. I think this dimension of the antagonist’s profile deserves at least a couple of episodes to allow the gravity of his villainy to sink in with viewers.

The FL’s identity reveal is a bit of a letdown personally for me. It should have been more sensational and shocking to everyone involved but it turned out to be a lowkey affair after all.

I feel the need to rant on one of the martial arts clans, the Tianshuang Sect. I’m not sure how they are written in the original novel or if it is meant to be a running joke but the members of that sect, along with their leader/elder/founder, are quite laughable indeed. Without spoiling, let’s just say that these folks are better off managing a zen spa or soup kitchen rather than actively attempting to partake in conspiratorial activities.

Final Thoughts

WRTW ranks amongst the better recent releases of C-historicals and wuxia productions. It hasn’t reached the gold standard that is NiF but is somewhere slightly lower, perhaps at a similar level to The Long Ballad. Objectively it’s an 8.5 but for the sheer enjoyment factor and memorable performances of the leads, I’m bumping this up to 9. This is recommended viewing for fans of the genre.

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Completed
Under the Skin
100 people found this review helpful
Mar 16, 2022
20 of 20 episodes seen
Completed 13
Overall 9.5
Story 9.5
Acting/Cast 9.5
Music 9.0
Rewatch Value 9.0

A picture paints a thousand words

As usual every year we will get at least one underrated C-drama gem in dramaland. Under the Skin is this year’s gem for me. Along with Reset, this drama becomes 2022’s first quarter surprise package. Another astonishing aspect is that although this iQiyi production is a detective investigation thriller and whodunit mystery, it doesn’t carry the Mist Theatre’s Light On series tag. Which is just as well considering the disappointment with the recent (2021) additions to the series.

For the first time ever in a Chinese crime drama, as far as I’m aware, the concept of forensic art is featured extensively as the main premise of the story. The narrative revolves around the talented and highly perceptive mock portrait artist, Shen Yi, and his partnership with police detective Captain Du Cheng of the Beijiang Branch’s Criminal Investigation Detachment. Each of them share an interwoven backstory that provides the backdrop of the overarching main mystery and the development of their dynamic and respective character growth. The drama is presented in an episodic procedural format where the leads utilise their unique skill sets in solving extremely unusual cases, usually involving murders.

Under the Skin is based on the original screenplay co-written by Jia Dongyan, winner of the 27th Shanghai TV Festival Magnolia Award for Best Screenplay, and Wu Yao, Gold Award recipient for the Feature Film category at the 2012 New York International Film Festival. Jia Dongyan also serves as art director for the production, which is directed by the prolific Xing Jianjun. Principal photography took place in Xiamen which began in March 2021. The production team reportedly conducted considerable research into crime scenes depicted in famous art pieces as well as the application of forensic art methodology in criminal investigations.

What I Loved

There are numerous aspects of the production which I absolutely love and in comparison with many Chinese crime dramas in recent years, for me this drama ranks amongst the best in the genre. It’s innovative, refreshing, and does the basics of storytelling very well with a fantastic cast and crew. It may not appear as gritty or visceral and perhaps lack a little bit of realism at times but despite what I feel are subtle flaws, the things that exceed my expectations leave an indelible impression indeed. To briefly summarise the positive points:

1. The forensic art premise that focuses on how art is used to aid police investigations in its various forms. Whether as a composite sketch, predictive facial renderings or age-progression/ regression predictions and many others, I find the entire concept and display extremely enthralling. I’m a huge fan of crime thrillers, noir and procedurals but I’ve never encountered such an in-depth study into this subject matter before. The added bonus is seeing all the beautiful art pieces and creative artwork on display.

2. The characterization of Shen Yi, an artist of immense talent who possesses a perceptive mind and sharp deductive reasoning. I find his inherently calm demeanour and generally empathetic nature deeply endearing. This character captivates not only with his enigmatic backstory but also his multifaceted and rather charming personality. He is by no means faultless or exemplary for he constantly has to face the presence of his inner demons throughout, as well as the initial prejudice by his colleagues but he gradually overcomes all these challenges with poise and sensibility.

3. The second male lead, Du Cheng, who at times feels more like Shen Yi’s sidekick. His character progression and the subsequent evolution of his working relationship as well as personal friendship with Shen Yi is heartening to see. The “buddy cop” depiction here which incorporates elements of enemies-to-friends and bromance is one of the most rewarding strong suits of this drama.

4. The well-structured and coherent storytelling approach along with uniquely written individual cases as well as the overarching mystery. Most, if not all, of the cases depicted are highly unusual as far as either the method of execution or the motive behind the premeditated crimes. Where the investigations are concerned, I love that this drama is straightforward and no nonsense where viewers are immediately immersed into the cases and without the interference of fillers, unnecessary side stories or off putting comic relief. Even when the focus shifts to the characters’ interactions and development, it never feels redundant or superfluous to the overall tone which remains consistent throughout the show.

5. The depth of the narrative. Despite being an episodic procedural, it feels more like an anthology of short stories because each case spans more than an episode. Rather than simply focusing on solving the crime per se, it explores the background and related characters involved within each case to the fullest, complete with all the emotions of the human drama. Most of the culprits are not merely bad or evil perpetrators but are written as profoundly layered individuals who are bound by a tragic twist of fate that has led to their existing circumstances. The drama very delicately imbues subtexts on current societal concerns and even cautionary tales that enhance the storytelling. I find it surprising that the presence of certain themes actually passed censorship; for instance the subtle hints of GL, showcasing domestic violence as well as psychological abuse and gaslighting.

6. I have to pay tribute to the production team because the technical execution is quite superb. The editing renders remarkable scene transitions, clear sound mixing and audio quality even if overdubbing is utilised, and the authentic production design. The music is truly on another level with an impressive versatility to capture the different moods, in addition to the sinister “Hitchcockian” vibes of the more chilling scenes. Coupled with the impressive cinematography and beautiful colour grading, each case has a distinctive feel to the atmospherics - carefree youth, sweet romance, melancholic sadness and regret, as well as intense edge-of-the-seat suspense. Kudos as well to the styling department for the way Shen Yi is presented. I really like his fashion and overall appearance which makes him stand out from the rest of his colleagues.

7. The perfect casting choices. It’s my first time seeing Tan Jian Ci in a lead role and what an inspired selection it has been. He is perfect as Shen Yi where his portrayal exudes much intrigue, charm and likeability that draws you in deeper as the story unfolds. He possesses a strong sense of presence that encompasses a wide variety of emotions indeed. I think I finally understand why he is chosen as the lead for Winner is King so I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for him there. His co-lead, Jin Shi Jia, delivers a decent depiction of Du Cheng who balances grit with adorable goofiness at times. Both leads work very well together and are absolutely fun to watch.

Final Thoughts

Under the Skin is such a pleasant surprise and has to be considered an absolute gem for the first quarter of 2022, if not the whole year. Despite the somewhat far-fetched final arc and Shen Yi appearing exceedingly "superpowered" at times, they did not detract from the ingenuity of the writing and my overall enjoyment. I’m also tremendously pleased with the ending that provides a fitting and most satisfying closure to what truly has been a wonderful viewing experience. This comes very highly recommended indeed.

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Completed
The Moon Brightens for You
76 people found this review helpful
Oct 29, 2020
36 of 36 episodes seen
Completed 8
Overall 9.0
Story 9.0
Acting/Cast 9.0
Music 9.5
Rewatch Value 8.5
This review may contain spoilers

To the moon and back

The moon shines brightly on this drama, which I consider to be one of the better recent Wuxia productions, and certainly in the top list for 2020, alongside The Handsome Siblings, Love in Between, and Ancient Detective.

The Moon Brightens for You (TMBFY) is adapted from the novel of the same name (明月曾照江东寒) by Ding Mo (丁墨), a romance novelist whose literary works cover cross-genre or hybrid genre themes. It is directed by Allen Lan (蓝海瀚) and ably assisted by Wang Fei (王飞) who also helmed the underrated gem, Young Blood which was released last year. This is a story about how good triumphs over evil and how true love is finally attained, through much patience, perseverance and no lack of challenging obstacles along the way.

TMBFY is a fusion of classical Wuxia with contemporary romance and humour, and has been beautifully crafted for the enjoyment of not only long-time fans but also the new generation of fans of this genre. It contains distinctive elements of the vibrant Jianghu world set against the backdrop of tumultuous conflict between the Xiao and Western Yan Empires. We have the customary Wulin community comprising various affiliations to established Houses, Sects, and the directorate that presides over this community of pugilists.

Fantastic innovative martial arts styles, and names, have been creatively conceived for this show, in the form of the Zhan Family Swordplay (Cloud Attack, Bolting Sword, Calling Back the Tiger to Make the Mountain Collapse, and there’s one nameless move which I’m going to call it “The Exhaust Fan”), Reverting Yin Palm, and the ultimate skill of all, the much coveted 7-Star Swordsmanship (Phoenix Starting Prairie Fire, Crazy Wolf Hunting the Moon, Roaring Jumping Dragon, Rhinoceros Divides the Sea, Leaping Tiger, Left and Right Deputies of the 9 Dipper). If their titles don’t scare you already, their slick moves certainly will! All of this contribute towards an exceptional quality martial arts choreography that is showcased throughout and, amazingly even more so in the final showdown. So too the excellent cinematography and the thrillingly inspirational BGM (incorporating the Dizi or Chinese flute) that accompanies scenes of Wulin assemblies, confrontations and sword fights.

This drama is filled with countless intriguing martial artists and colourful characters. These include the villainous trio of evil, Ghost 3 comprising the masked arch villain King of Million Demons, the infamous burglar-thief (and his signature back-scratcher) and the master of poison. In addition, there’s the miraculous heavenly physician (with his pet ginseng), the conniving and wealthy (self-proclaimed most handsome) master of the lavish manor filled with ancient beauties, the cold blooded assassin (complete with straw hat and twin blades), exotic dark arts practitioner adept at conjuring pestilence at will, and many more.

It’s also worth mentioning the inclusion of an amusing recurring side story throughout the show involving the “Wulin Insights”. It is a form of communal storytelling at tea houses (like ancient social media) for delivering up-to-date happenings and gossips on the Wulin to the general public, while at the same time used as a means to secretly convey coded messages to relevant parties of interest. Along with this is a subsidiary service, the “Wulin Rumours” which provides personalised door-to-door delivery of information and parcels (like ancient DHL).

The plot is straightforward and uncomplicated, which enables viewers to grasp the background and motivations of the various characters and in understanding the incidents of the past that shape current events. There are certain pivotal but tragic moments that transpire as the story unfolds, thus inducing considerable emotional distress to more than a few viewers. I appreciate the fact that the show emphasises the key Wuxia themes of brotherhood, chivalry, loyalty and righteousness. This focus doesn’t suffer or waver even in the presence of romantic themes and love triangle involving the OTP and 3 other side couples. So often we see in other dramas such as Love a Lifetime, And the Winner is Love, and The Love Lasts Two Minds where the Wuxia theme is drowned out or in the first place was used merely as a plot device to accentuate the primary emphasis on romance between the leads. Here, Wuxia and romantic love blend harmoniously to create a masterful piece of storytelling.

The main cast has done exceptional work here in this drama. Xing Fei, as the FL and main character Zhan Qing Hong is the driving force that propels this show forward. She is the epitome of the Wulin hero whom most fans would be proud of and is certainly deserving of her title, the Cloud Fairy (as befits her Cloud Sword fighting style). Displaying tremendous character growth from the day she leaves the Zhan Manor to explore the outside world up to the point where she experiences much personal loss and suffering, her belief in benevolence, friendship, justice and the Jianghu spirit never falters. Xing Fei’s portrayal of carefree innocence and kindness, joy and happiness, as well as pain and sorrow are so on point that it’s hard not to completely empathize with her character. Her crying scenes are some of the best in the business and I challenge anyone who says otherwise.

Alan Yu Meng Long… is an enigma. I hesitate to use the phrase that he has improved in his acting. I’m not even sure if it was his acting that was the issue in the first place, or whether it was the role, directing or script. When you see him in BTS footage, he carries himself naturally as normal people would. Even countless viewers commented that he did well in Eternal Love (which I did not watch). And then The Love Lasts Two Minds happened (along with Legend of White Snake) and it makes you wonder how his “trademark stoic and wooden” acting came to be. He is so much better here where he has smiled and cried more often than I could recall. His micro-expressions seem more nuanced than ever before and he was even capable of being flirtatious and mischievous.

At the end of the day, because of his portrayal, the character of the ML Lin Fang became someone you could actually relate to and root for. I hope he continues on in this vein and prove to everyone who ever made fun of him (including myself, I admit) how wrong we were to have ever doubted his ability. Certainly he’s not perfect and there’s plenty of room for improvement but this is a very good step towards the right direction, and hopefully better roles are given to him rather than the usual sickly and emotionless characters.

As the OTP, the interactions between Xing Fei and Alan Yu were such a pleasure to behold. From the initial awkwardness as superior and subordinate, the short-lived love triangle arc, the seemingly fake marriage and finally to acceptance and consummation as husband and wife, the romance has been slow burn but the chemistry remained strong throughout. They may lack the steamy kisses of Love and Redemption, Maiden Holmes or even Love is Sweet, but their short kisses and pecks on the cheeks and foreheads are no less adorable and sweet. I truly enjoyed the beautiful moments of meaningful conversations and deep reflections shared by the OTP particularly during their brief sojourn at Tian Xin Pavilion (the physician’s abode), following their escape from the villains.

In many ways, this pairing makes perfect sense. Although the ML possesses no martial arts prowess, his intelligence complemented the FL’s strength and together they form a truly formidable couple indeed. Our dynamic duo demonstrates spectacular teamwork during the final showdown, the fight to the death in the last episode, where the ML acted as the FL’s “ring-side coach”. To be fair, he did do a bit more than that, by casually walking up and delivering the final blow (after his wife did all the hard work!).

Merxat, oh Merxat, how I sympathise with his predicament all over again. In Legend of Yunxi, he was friend zoned. Here, just when he almost got the girl, the cruel twist of fate took the love of his life away from him with such savage force that he was rendered utterly helpless and hopeless, becoming a docile pet of the primary instigator who is none other than the dreaded spoilt and bratty royal princess, depicted convincingly by Ma Yue. Fortunately he came good in the end and reverted to the heroic character he initially was. I hope Merxat gets the FL one day, and nail the role of the ML more often because he is such a fantastic actor and I would hate to see him playing second fiddle all the time. His natural ability in playing polar opposites is underlined here, from the swashbuckling swordsman to the submissive puppet consort.

The main antagonist is played by veteran HK actor Kent Tong Chun Yip, who portrays the dual roles of King of Million Demons and the Prime Minister (it’s really not that hard to figure out the deception, plus the mask doesn’t exactly conceal much). As far as villains go, his character is written to be the garden variety and not the venomous and vile evil (except for that thing he did in the final episode). Don’t expect too much angst and frustration from the bad guys in this show. If anything, they are rather fun to watch, especially Yan Su’s depiction of the bungling and obsessive master thief, Feng Bu Fei. It turns out he really isn’t all that evil (just a little deranged) and redeems himself in the end. Sort of. At least he is seeking “medical treatment” for his condition.

The secondary couples are equally fun to watch, with the exception of the SML and the princess (although by the end, he did fall in love with her). Zhang Kai Tai’s courageously loyal Huo Yang and Ma Xi Er’s Xiao Lan got together in the most hilarious of circumstances. They were the only couple that gave us a truly epic cinematic moment, the elaborate scene of “kissing with straw in the mouth” involving aerial, widescreen, zoom-in and 360 degree immersive shots. Xiao Lan also takes home the honours for being the only maid in a C-drama of any genre who literally tripped as comically as she often did throughout. The third couple is one of quiet and reserved romance, between the stoic General Xia Hou Ying and the elegant Lady Wen You, played by Su Jian Quan and Lan Man Yu respectively. The way that their chemistry naturally progressed from the initial resistance to eventual acceptance is truly delightful to observe.

Special mention goes to the veteran Qi Zhi whose hilarious depiction of the miracle physician Jian Ling as the comic relief of the show is simply amusing, much like Teng She was in Love and Redemption. His eccentric mannerism and favourite phrase of, “simple, simple!” is extremely endearing and heart warming. He is also the only physician ever, in addition to keeping acupuncture needles on his head/ in his hair, to have a ginseng root BFF. Really.

The entire OST is simply incredible. While the opening track is excitingly upbeat and employs the use of traditional Chinese instruments, the closing theme (performed by Alan Yu) is more subdued and emotional. Tracks 2 and 3 are the love themes of the OTP while tracks 5 and 6 accompanied the secondary couples’ romance. Track 4 captured the sombre moments in the show. Track listing as follows:

1. 片头曲: 今實 (银崎) Opening song "Jin Shi" (Yin Qi)
2. 不醉不忘 (胡夏) Never Drunk Never Forget (Hu Xia)
3. 广寒光 (徐良&郭静) Guang Hanguang (Xu Liang & Guo Jing)
4. 一念 (栗锦) One Thought (Li Jin)
5. 融化(女生版) (曾咏欣) Melting (Girl Version) (Zeng Yongxin)
6. 融化(男生版) (郑繁星) Melting (Boy version) (Zheng Fanxing)
7. 片尾曲: 月光 (于朦胧) Ending song: Moonlight (Yu Menglong)

This drama honestly had me fooled in the beginning. What started out as being very light hearted slowly evolved into something more serious and profound. The storytelling never became stagnant or monotonous and the evolution was evenly paced. While certain tragic events were used as typical plot devices, they were balanced out by the many meaningful and poignant little moments between the cast, which helped to create greater depth and appreciation for the story. TMBFY is in many ways a pleasant surprise and vastly superior to many so-called Wuxia dramas released this year. Especially with a thrilling climax and overall a happy ending (minus that final piece of tragedy at the end), this show certainly went beyond my wildest expectations!

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Completed
My Name
162 people found this review helpful
Oct 16, 2021
8 of 8 episodes seen
Completed 26
Overall 9.5
Story 9.0
Acting/Cast 10
Music 9.0
Rewatch Value 9.0

Her Name is Fury

Fight Club meets Infernal Affairs with a dash of La Femme Nikita, Anna, Atomic Blonde, Kill Bill and Villainess, among others. That’s how I would describe this drama in a sentence.

My Name is an utterly visceral tale of one woman’s odyssey of vengeance through the deepest pits of Seoul’s dark underbelly and vicious criminal underworld that is seeped in brutality and cruelty. This drama is not for the faint-hearted for its many scenes of pure, unadulterated violence and bloodshed will most certainly induce much consternation indeed.

Based on an original screenplay, this production is helmed by Kim Jin Min, whose previous works include Extracurricular and Lawless Lawyer, and headlined by Han So Hee, of The World of the Married and Nevertheless fame. The Grand Bell Award-winning composer, Hwang Sang Jun, serves as music director.

The narrative is not groundbreaking, for those acquainted with the genre. However, when the re-telling of a similar concept is executed well, it can be an absolute joy to behold and may open doors to new fans of this dark thriller and suspense genre. My Name certainly accomplishes this, in my humble opinion, through a fascinating take on the classic revenge and betrayal plot with a focus on gritty storytelling infused with incredible cast performances and which does not shy away from highly graphic and explicit visual language. For the most part I’m quite pleased with the direction and tempo of the story development which manages to sustain the momentum of the intensity, tension and suspense. I have no major complaints over the design of certain plot devices and twists as well as the final outcome. The fact that there is absolutely zero comedic absurdity and contrived humour is a major boon for me as well.

Over the course of only 8 episodes at 50 minutes each, I did not lose interest or feel a smidgen of boredom. The action is breathlessly high-octane featuring countless fight scenes ranging from mass brawls to hand-to-hand combats involving the use of a variety of weapons. Despite composing a major proportion of the entire drama, some of the quieter and more poignant moments are interspersed throughout, including an extremely brief romantic interlude in the very last episode.

Likewise, as far as the production quality is concerned, there are no discernible major issues. The high production value is reflected in the art direction while technical execution is outstanding. I love the fact that the cinematography perfectly captures the action sequences because oftentimes these scenes are ruined by shoddy camerawork or poor post-production editing and visual effects, which is not the case here. Credit goes to the relentless efforts of the action choreographer and the cast themselves in performing the rather complicated and dangerous stunts. In particular the varied fight scenes involving mixed martial arts movements and knife fights in open spaces as well as cramped indoor settings.

The biggest praise is reserved for the cast themselves, and none more so than the lead actress, Han So Hee. My Name is a character-driven story where the failure or success is fully dependent on the depiction of the main character in question. Thankfully it is the latter because Han So Hee has unreservedly dispelled the doubts surrounding her ability to tackle this lead role which she does so magnificently with aplomb. Sometimes a role does not suit the performer, which seems to be the massive feedback from her previous performance in Nevertheless, but the characterization of Yoon Ji Woo, the FL here, is such a perfect fit for she truly embodies the persona in totality. The believability in her portrayal of sheer agony and torment, single-minded determination and strong will as well as the physical exertions inflicted from the challenges and ordeals that she faces in her pursuit of retribution. It is certainly not an exaggeration to declare unequivocally that Han So Hee thoroughly slayed this role.

Park Hee Soon deserves praise for his portrayal of Choi Moo Jin. This man oozes class, charisma and screen presence as the mafia leader of Dongcheon gang. Together with the hugely experienced and recognisable Kim Sang Ho as police detective Cha Gi Ho, both these men provide excellent support to Han So Hee’s main character that elevates this production to greater heights.

An aspect worth mentioning is the music. I love the retro beats of synthwave which complements the more contemporary rock element in a captivating combo that makes up the score by Hwang Sang Jun, who additionally composed two tracks out of the 3 OSTs in the drama.

My Name featuring Swervy and JEMINN
Mediocre Life featuring Pre-Holiday
A Thought is Haunting Me by Raphael Lake & Royal Baggs

All things considered, it’s been quite a while since I was last invested in a compellingly raw and savage journey of vengeance by a ferocious female character in an Asian drama. I’ve been dying for a bona fide strong FL in every sense of the word. Not a poser or a pretender but an actual badass who literally kicks ass. This has been an incredibly worthwhile viewing experience. Bravo!

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Completed
Reset
207 people found this review helpful
Jan 25, 2022
15 of 15 episodes seen
Completed 33
Overall 10
Story 10
Acting/Cast 10
Music 10
Rewatch Value 10

Starting All Over

As dramaland resets itself with the beginning of another year, viewers get the opportunity to kickstart 2022 with an awesome C-drama right here. Reset doesn’t come with much fanfare where at the beginning of its run, the availability of (good) subs was somewhat hampered by a lack of involvement from major OTT streaming platforms for international markets. Fortunately as the weeks went by and more viewers started watching it, the fanbase for the drama gradually grew, affording it the recognition that it deserves.

Reset is a “time-loop” drama in the mould of Groundhog Day, Deja Vu, Happy Death Day and Source Code. The protagonists, a college girl and a young game designer, mysteriously find themselves reliving a bus explosion each day. Why this is happening to them and, more importantly, how they free themselves of this catastrophic cycle are central to the narrative.

This drama is produced by Dongyang Noon Sunshine Film and Television Co., or more popularly and affectionately known as Daylight Entertainment which is famed for producing top quality dramas such as Nirvana in Fire, Battle of Changsha, The Story of Minglan and The Bond, among many others. It is co-directed by Sun Mo Long (Candle in the Tomb and Mining Town), Liu Hongyuan, and Lao Suan. The screenplay is adapted from the novel "Kai Duan" (开端) by Qi Dao Jun (祈祷君) who was also involved in the screenwriting process, alongside Qiu Yujie, Lao Suan, and Huang Kaiwen.

Principal photography took place from June to August 2021 in Xiamen. Reset is considered a short format production running at only 15 episodes of 42 minutes each. To date, viewership on Tencent Video platform for mainland China has exceeded 400 million views (at the time of writing), making it the most watched domestic production for the beginning of 2022.

What I Loved

The innovative concept of time loop in a contemporary C-drama setting. I don’t think this has been done before in a Chinese production, which usually focuses on time travels or alternate world fantasies as far as speculative fiction is concerned. The way this premise is established and conveyed via a rather absorbing and engaging approach to the storytelling is a major boon as well because my initial fears of confusion arising from inconsistent or illogical plot holes proved to be unfounded, for the most part. The parameters of when and how the time loop occurs are clearly defined for the viewers’ understanding as the story unfolds.

Along with the suspense and mystery of the overarching plot, the entire story has much depth to it with a balance of youth themes, slice-of-life human drama and even hints of a budding romance imbued into the development of the characterization and side stories. All of these elements are carefully laid out over the course of an eventful 15 episodes, where the second half in particular is filled with many surprising twists and turns.

The two leads may be central to the plot but the drama also carefully takes its time to explore the various side characters, namely the other passengers onboard the ill-fated bus ride and the police detectives assigned to the investigation. Most of these characters are realistically depicted as being extremely layered and fully fleshed out as the mystery gradually unravels.

The characters truly do come alive thanks in no small part to the superb performances of the cast. Bai Jing Ting delivers as the fresh-faced game designer Xiao He Yun, as he utterly embodies the conflicting emotions of someone who wants nothing to do with this calamity yet cannot extricate himself completely from caring about a total stranger. Zhao Jin Mai plays college girl Li Shi Qing in a somewhat more subdued role compared to her co-lead but no less convincing as a naive youngster inadvertently caught up in an incomprehensible and extreme situation.

To be perfectly honest, at the beginning I wasn’t really expecting romance in this drama. However, seeing both Bai Jing Ting and Zhao Jin Mai living dangerously throughout in attempting to survive this distressing time loop has sufficiently shifted my mindset to unequivocally root for them as a romantic couple. In addition to both their characters being adorably sweet and innocent, as well as the unintended comic relief and minor frustration at times from witnessing their numerous futile attempts at unravelling the mystery, the emotional connection they share that is borne of hardship and tragedy genuinely does tug at the heartstrings.

Of the supporting cast, as usual Liu Yi Jun impresses with his immense experience and mastery of his craft. Despite the limited screen presence, his character of police detective Zhang Cheng displays the necessary nuances that befits the characterisation and brings a touch of class to the drama. Likewise Liu Tao’s surprising appearance here as police inspector Du Ju, who elevates the cast list with some star power albeit while wearing a rather unsightly wig. That said, I would have loved to see more complexity from her character aside from delivering her now iconic line, “Perform drug test!”.

Special mention goes to the strong performances in the portrayal of certain other side characters who I shall not name to avoid spoiling the story. It's worth mentioning that You Jing Rou makes a rather brief but quite impactful appearance in the supporting role of Liu Yao.

This drama features music composed and arranged by South Korean composer Kim Hyun Do for 2 of the 3 tracks listed in the soundtrack. My personal favourite is the emotional theme song, the English-language love ballad My Only, performed exclusively by Zhou Shen.

My Only by Zhou Shen
Wake Up by Wang Xiaokun
Rebound by Chen Hui

Final Thoughts

Reset turned out to be a pleasant surprise indeed. It may not have the bearings of a big budget epic or colossal production headlined by an extensive cast list of star names. But it does the basics very well with a great script and storytelling approach, convincing acting with relatable characters and a hugely satisfying closure. I think this drama exceeded many viewers' expectations in the end, including mine.

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Completed
One and Only
103 people found this review helpful
Aug 28, 2021
24 of 24 episodes seen
Completed 16
Overall 10
Story 10
Acting/Cast 10
Music 10
Rewatch Value 10

Love of a distant past

One and Only has the distinction of being the first production in 2021 that I’m rating a perfect 10 overall. Personally for me, it is the best C-drama historical of the year and quite possibly one of the best of all time, within the sub-genre of historical romance (non-comedy). To put it simply, and I don’t often use this term, this drama is a MASTERPIECE.

The Story

Based on the celebrated novel, One Life, One Incarnation – Beautiful Bones" (一生一世美人骨) by multiple award-winning novelist and screenwriter Mo Bao Fei Bao (墨宝非宝), who also wrote the screenplay for this drama. As a brief summary, the story revolves around the love between Cui Shi Yi and Zhousheng Chen that spans a period of two lifetimes, namely during the ancient era of the fictional Beizhen Empire and contemporary China of the present day. One and Only follows the star-crossed lovers journey during the earlier lifetime, while a sequel that takes place in the modern time period, Forever and Ever, is slated for back-to-back release.

As I understand from readers of the source material, both parts of the story convey vastly contrasting outcomes, notably the earlier backstory ends in tragedy while the sequel, which forms the main component of the novel, has a much happier conclusion.

Although primarily a slow-burn sweeping epic love story, One and Only does explore the sociopolitics and values of a deeply-ingrained Confucian setting which I suspect is modelled on the Northern and Southern Dynasties era, if not earlier, that includes filial piety, obeisance to King and country. Besides the political maneuverings and warfare, relationship dynamics in the form of master and disciples, as well as “sibling camaraderie” is heavily featured.

Production Details

This iQiyi production is helmed by the critically acclaimed Guo Hu, who had previously directed well known productions including The Journey of Flower, Eternal Love (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms), Lost Love in Times, and Love and Destiny. The original score and one of the OSTs is composed by the prolific and highly regarded Tan Xuan, who had served as music producer for numerous productions including Love and Redemption, Princess Agents, The Glory of Tang Dynasty and Eternal Love, among many others. For only a 24-episode serial, principal photography took entirely two months at Hengdian World Studios, the meticulous process of which is magnificently depicted in the end product itself.

Why do I consider this production a masterpiece that deserves a “10” rating?

The Technical Execution

I’m hugely impressed with the technical aspects of direction, art direction, cinematography, and choreography. The post-production editing and overdub, in terms of the voice dubbing process, the voice actors utilised and sound mixing, as well as the visual and special effects employed are exceptionally well rendered. The appropriate levels of colour grading along with countless immersive, overhead and tracking shots amidst the backdrop of grand pastoral views, while even parallax angles are applied to great effect especially during scenes of battles and massed congregations.

The seamless transitions between the various sequences, scenes and shifts in atmospherics are testament to the experience and capabilities of the director as well as the entire production crew. All these components seek to ensure that this production becomes a well crafted aesthetic and cinematic treat indeed.

The Production Values

One and Only is made of big money and it truly shows. Nothing at all looks cheap or out of place. From the wigs, costumes, accessories, set designs, props, horses, snow… the list just goes on. This is a top-tier production through and through. The big names in the production crew and the quality of the casting certainly reflect the overall production values.

In comparison with other C-historicals and despite the fact that Hengdian is a popular and convenient filming venue for many similar productions, it is extremely apparent that extra care and attention to the finer details have been taken for every production stage and its related aspects. I do believe that it could also be partially attributed to the fact that the drama format is shorter, at 24 episodes, thus affording the production more time to perfect the principal photography and post production processes, as opposed to 40 or 50-episode dramas with the same filming schedule, thus resulting in shorter duration for fine-tuning or filming additional takes of each shot. Having fewer episodes also contributes to compact plotlines and significantly reduces the amount of fillers, with the end result of a more engaging and compelling storytelling.

The Cast and Acting

I do think that the narrative for the first part of the novel is rather straightforward while the interweaving sub-plots relating to certain side characters are not overly convoluted. Because of this and also how strongly written the main characters are, I feel that One and Only is largely character-driven. For this type of drama to succeed, the leads would have to give one hell of a performance to breathe life into their characters. Fortunately, this is where the cast well and truly delivers.

I’ve been a fan of both Bai Lu and Ren Jia Lun ever since I first saw them in The Legends and Detective Dee respectively. Although some of their roles or choices in certain projects have led to questions in the past, I’ve never doubted their broad potential and talents. I honestly think their performances here are the best that I have ever seen from them and are worthy of wider recognition for their efforts.

Bai Lu imbues her character of Cui Shi Yi with such grace, elegance, nuance and emotional depth that absolutely defines the term masterclass in acting. She portrays a character who is mute and having to use sign language, albeit temporarily, that slowly but surely undergoes immense character growth to mature from being a shy and timid young girl to a confident, independent and resolute woman. There is a massive intensity in her convincing depiction of the sheer torment, anguish and sadness that genuinely touches viewers' hearts (or mine, at least). And that poignant scene in the final episode, where she is dressed in all red, truly is poetry in motion…

Ren Jia Lun plays the noble and warm-hearted Zhousheng Chen, royal Prince of Beizhen, General of the West State and Master of his eleven disciples. I’ve always believed that Ren Jia Lun is at his best when he is cast in profound roles because very few actors are able to genuinely portray stoic and solemn characters as well as he does. There is a powerfully understated quality to his performance in this drama that makes you believe he is completely immersed in the character. Intelligent, calm and heroic, all the traits of a capable leader are put on full display in his depiction right to the bitter end.

Bai Lu and Ren Jia Lun, as Cui Shi Yi and Zhousheng Chen, share some of the most convincing, irresistible, organic and downright heartbreaking chemistry and emotional connection that deeply touches the soul. No aspect of their relationship development feels rushed, irrational, undercooked or over-the-top. Their love is subtle, meaningful and simply perfect. They are meant for each other.

As far as the supporting cast is concerned, suffice to say everyone delivers a commendable effort in their respective portrayals. The veterans in Fu Jun and Liu Wei Wei, depicting Advisor Xie and Shi Yi’s mother respectively inject a measure of class and finesse to the production. No drama would be complete without the antagonist, Liu Zi Xing who is played by the relative newcomer, Wang Xing Yue. I’m quite surprised he is only 19 years old, but he does give a decent account of himself and succeeds in making me hate his guts. Among the many familiar faces in the production, look out for memorable appearances by Daisy Dai, Yao Yi Chen and the ever amusing Han Cheng Yu.

The Music

Alongside the fittingly sombre and introspective compositions of the original score, there are four OSTs in the soundtrack. Zhang Bichen has established herself as one of the premier soundtrack contributors in recent years and her rendition of the theme song, along with Ren Jia Lun’s character theme, are my personal favourites of the compilation.
张碧晨 Zhang Bichen - 如故 As It Is
任嘉伦 Ren Jialun - 如一 Like One
郑云龙 Zheng Yunlong - 定心 Tranquil
李紫婷 (Mimi Lee), 井胧 (Jing Long) - 无虞 (Unworried)

Final Thoughts

I do not usually favour sad stories, particularly those with tragic outcomes, and almost always avoid such dramas. However, I’m glad I did not because One and Only is indeed a very special production that has been made with such care, effort and passion that it would be remiss of me not to have given this a shot and appreciate the fine work of the entire production crew and the cast. And, I keep telling myself, at least there’s consolation in the form of the upcoming sequel’s more promising narrative and ultimate closure to look forward to.

“Beauty bones are rare in the world.
Those with bones do not have skin, and those with skins do not have bones.
Most people in the world have superficial eyes, only the skin, but no bone.
If in this society, there is someone who has the memory of two lives and loves you deeply. How happy.
Shi Yi was like this to Zhousheng Chen.
And he has forgotten her a long time ago”.

(excerpt from the novel’s introduction)

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Completed
Legend of Fei
80 people found this review helpful
Jan 16, 2021
51 of 51 episodes seen
Completed 21
Overall 8.5
Story 8.5
Acting/Cast 9.0
Music 9.0
Rewatch Value 8.5
This review may contain spoilers

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

The Legend of Fei is an intriguing drama.

This is a show that has been highly anticipated since early 2020, and for good reasons too. It is headlined by two of the biggest stars in the Chinese entertainment industry today, Zhao Li Ying and Wang Yi Bo. This is also ZLY’s comeback project since her leave of absence due to her maternity. The drama is an adaptation of the novel Bandits by renowned and award winning fiction novelist, Priest who will be having several more of her novels adapted to dramas in the coming year.

In addition to that, the involvement of a highly experienced production team led by director Ng Gam Yuen who had previously directed Princess Agents (also with ZLY) and, somewhat surprisingly although not uncommon, a team of nine screenwriters were engaged to write the screenplay based on the critically acclaimed source material which had won the Network Literature Biennial Award in 2017. All of this points to a potentially successful blockbuster drama in the making, right? Apparently, as it turns out, not many would agree.

Within the first few weeks of airing, this drama ended up becoming extremely maligned and divided opinions of viewers not only in China but also among international audience, so much so that even on the drama’s MDL page, debates and differing opinions were intensely magnified in the comments board. Personally, I feel that although the drama certainly is imperfect, there are redeeming aspects that warrant folks to cut it some slack and maybe shower some love instead.

In a nutshell, this is a wuxia drama that tells the story of Zhou Fei (ZLY), who hails from a renowned family of pugilists and the 3rd-generation heir of the Snow-Breaking Blade technique created by her grandfather, as she leaves her home in the mountains known as Fortress of the 48 to explore the Jianghu world. She meets Xie Yun (WYB) who joins her on her adventures as they encounter colourful characters, both good and evil and from various sects and affiliations.

This is essentially a coming of age tale typical of the wuxia genre where Zhou Fei, as the FL, meets many martial arts masters who help improve her skills to become stronger and finally battle the villains. Along the way, she finds love but also experiences the tragedy of losing loved ones. Themes of chivalry, heroism, brotherhood and loyalty are interwoven with the underlying romance, overarching mystery and, of course, the climax of the story - the epic final showdown. I’m not an avid reader of the recent wuxia novels but I notice the trend of late where the ML of the genre appears to be physically weaker and less of a fighter compared to the FL, as is the case in this show and another similar one, The Moon Brightens for You. But, I’m not complaining and I think female empowerment is a positive trend for a change.

Production
The production values displayed somehow does not seem to reflect the rumoured big budget of the show, with certain set designs that appeared inferior in quality and even obviously fake. For instance the settings of the forest where majority of the action takes place, the setting of the Spinning Wire Formation of the Ximo River (specifically the “rock boulders” which do not seem all that “solid”), and various other scenes, where the lack of authenticity is visibly apparent.

Probably the biggest gripe of all is on the direction, screenplay and editing for this drama. Contrary to most criticisms that are directed at the acting especially of the leads, I think the directing of the interactions between the characters as well as the pacing of the storytelling should take the most blame. Actors can only work with what they are given and how they are directed to act their scenes. Furthermore, how it is that so much fillers and dragging out of the plot were shoehorned into the story seems rather surprising considering the quality of the production crew. Additionally, the transitions between scenes and framing of certain sequences did come across as somewhat disjointed, which is attributed to the editing department. A mitigating factor was mentioned where principal filming had to be halted midway through due to the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020. However, this is where the final editing and post production process should come in to make the necessary adjustments.

Choreography
The martial arts choreography is not the finest of the genre, it has to be said. A number of the action sequences do not flow smoothly in terms of the swordsmanship, acrobatics, and overall movements. When it works, it can be spellbinding but when it doesn’t, it becomes painfully obvious to see. Granted, there were reports referencing ZLY’s lack of fitness while performing her own stunts and other physical exertions, having just recovered following her maternity confinement. Perhaps, this being the first time a blade/ sabre (dao) is wielded by ZLY’s character instead of the usual sword (jian) resulted in the execution of a different and more challenging fighting technique, the Snow-Breaking Blade.

The same observation applies to all other cast members involved where at times the fighting appeared contrived rather than naturally free-flowing. The awkwardness is exemplified in other techniques such as the Taoist Tao Teh Ching Mayfly formation, Guanxi Yellow and Green Palm, Floating Palm, and Water-Cutting technique. On the other hand, the Lotus Palm, Cloud Impelling Palm and Mountain Sword technique do at least appear more believable and convincing.

Characters
The action stunts aside, I have no complaints with either ZLY or WYB as far as their acting is concerned, and both characters I thought were well written. The issues as I mentioned earlier relate more to the direction rather than the cast themselves. The quality of ZLY’s acting and character portrayals are never in question while WYB possesses much potential to soar even higher through his upcoming projects. I like FLs that are written to be consistently strong not just in terms of physical strength and martial arts prowess but also in mental resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity and tragedy. Zhou Fei is a character that I enjoy watching and she does not succumb to the usual tropes of losing her sense and sensibility or transforming into a damsel in distress that needs rescuing. Likewise the character of Xie Yun as the happy-go-lucky charming and supportive sidekick who hides a traumatic past behind the facade.

There were grievances regarding the perceived poor dubbing particularly that of ZLY and I have to agree. The voice is provided by Liu Rui whose previous works focused mainly on modern dramas like Flash Girl/ Our Shining Days, which sadly lacked the authority and depth needed to elevate the character of Zhou Fei to more imposing levels. WYB’s voice dubbing is provided by Hu Liangwei, whose works include Heaven Official’s Blessing donghua, which is marginally better and probably matches the playful tone of the character Xie Yun.

Regarding the chemistry between the two leads, so many viewers complained about 2 things - that they are incompatible due to the 10-year age gap (ZLY is 33 while WYB is 23) and hence lacks the natural chemistry, and that the FL looked so much older than the actual age of her character who is supposedly a 16-year old teenager. Personally for me, there is no such thing as age gaps when it comes to romance, and therefore I’ll take this as a variation of noona romance which works fine for me. 10 years isn’t a lot even if the female is older and from what I can see, particularly towards the tail-end of the show, the chemistry is apparent to be seen and throughout the entire story progression, the development of their relationship has been slow burn but no less resolute.

As for the second argument, I have to agree somewhat. No matter how much make up applied or soft filters used, it is what it is and there is no escaping that. But look, this is not something that is shockingly unexpected or unprecedented. Tang Yan (37) played a teenage Xiao Yan Yan in Legend of Xiao Chuo, Zhang Lu Yi (40) depicted a 13 year old boy in Qin Dynasty Epic, Tang Wei (38) acted the role of a teenage Sun Ruo Wei in Ming Dynasty, Tan Song Yun (30) played a teenage Li Jian Man in Go Ahead, while Zhang Zi Yi (41) is currently portraying a teenage Wang Xuan in the airing Rebel Princess. For me, good acting with seasoned actors should be the benchmark and that is acceptable to me.

The supporting cast of Zhang Hui Wen, Chen Ruo Xuan, Zhou Jie Qiong, and Zhang Xin Yu gives a decent account of their respective portrayals of Zhou Fei and Xie Yun’s band of friends. In particular, the character development of Wu Chu Chu and her romance with Li Sheng is quite remarkably depicted. Li Yan, however, represented everything I dislike about the annoying females in historicals but fortunately her role isn’t significant. She and the character Yang Jin are truly made for each other, as part of the 3 romantic couples in the show.

It has to be said that a number of villains do not appear all that imposing and intimidating. I’m fine with the colour coordinated costumes and scary masks used to distinguish the bad guys but the respective leaders of the evil clans are simply not all that villainous, in form or substance. Case in point, the Demon Manor’s section chiefs comprising Blessed Dog, Giant Leopard, and Sparrow. The Four Guardians of the Mountain’s Dragon and Tortoise masters are more hilarious and comical than menacing. On the other hand, I do appreciate the Timber Wolf Shen Tian Shu as the leader of the Demons, played by Geng Le who does possess the gravitas for this role. Guo Xin’s Mu Xiao Qiao, the Phoenix master, is one of my favourite (semi)villains in the show and brilliantly gives off Dong Fang Bu Bai vibes. Other villains such as the Snow Wolf and the evil Eunuch are very interesting characters but unfortunately only had limited screen time.

As far as good guys go, I actually enjoyed watching Che Xiao’s compelling portrayal of Li Jin Rong, Zhou Fei’s mother, as a strong woman and competent leader of the Fortress of 48. Dong Xuan’s Duan Jiu Niang is a very likeable character and I suspect she had as much fun playing the slightly deranged role as viewers did watching her albeit for a short portion of the show. Hu Bing, who usually plays the villain, delivers a very charismatic depiction of the legendary grandfather, Li Zheng. I’m a big fan of Zong Feng Yan, who plays Zhou Fei’s father Zhou Yi Tang. This seasoned veteran never disappoints and he seems to excel particularly in historical dramas.

Music
The OSTs for this drama is probably the only aspect done to perfection. Each track seamlessly captures the essence of the story and the scenes throughout. The opening theme truly sets the tone of the show while WYB’s rendition (with accompaniment by the Dizi, which brought memories of The Untamed…) evokes feelings of a dreamy ethereal romance.

1. 《逐浪 Chasing the waves》by 尚雯婕 Shang Wenjie (Opening theme)
2. 《无华 Unadorned》by 张靓颖 & 刘宇宁 Jane Zhang & Liu Yuning (Ending theme)
3. 《熹微 Weak rays of sunlight》by 王一博 Wang Yibo
4. 《如翡 Like Fei》by 王晰 & 赖美云 Wang Xi & Lai Meiyun
5. 《结 Knot》by 胡夏 Hu Xia
6. 《红尘莫欺我年少 Don't deceive me when I was young》by 希林娜依 高 Curly Gao
7. 《采莲曲 Picking Lotus song》by 陈珏 Chen Jue

Overall
Despite the numerous drawbacks, The Legend of Fei does manage to get certain aspects done well enough that even things out and, in my humble opinion, ultimately redeems the entire production. How the drama starts off may leave much to be desired but the improvement towards the second half and the strong finish at the end, with the HEA ending where all that’s well ends well, gave me the satisfaction of completing this drama. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but I did enjoy myself by looking past the flaws only to discover a rainbow after the rain.

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Completed
The Witch's Diner
55 people found this review helpful
Aug 13, 2021
8 of 8 episodes seen
Completed 6
Overall 8.5
Story 8.5
Acting/Cast 9.0
Music 9.0
Rewatch Value 8.0

Be careful what you wish for...

...because it might just come true. The Witch’s Diner is an urban fantasy that revolves around the arcane ways of contemporary witchcraft. It combines the supernatural with slice of life, and includes elements of a mystery as well as romance. In addition to the dark arts, the culinary arts are featured prominently through the variety of delectable gourmet dishes which are central to the core narrative.

The concept is straightforward - customers make a wish at the eponymous restaurant, and the resident witch-cum-masterchef will magically prepare a unique dish accordingly. Eating the dish will grant the wish but not without a price in return.

Following the TVING brand revamp in 2020 after the joint venture between JTBC and CJ E&M was finalised (and most recently Naver bought into the venture as well), the streaming service currently provides premium content via paid subscription. Included as part of its original programming for 2021, this drama certainly reflects the production values strived for by the streaming service. The overall quality and technical aspects, including the visual effects, are unquestionably well executed. The art direction and the production design are quite impressive, in particular the diner which has been sumptuously remodelled to induce a palpable gothic atmosphere. I’ve enjoyed the cinematic grading as well as how the colour palettes seamlessly contrast between darker moments and the more lighthearted scenes.

Similar in premise and tone to other stories that deal with paranormal activities, such as Mystic Pop-up Bar and Hotel Del Luna, this drama falls somewhere in the middle in terms of its plotline and themes. It isn’t spine-chillingly frightening or morbidly infused with gore and horror, while at the same time it is slightly melodramatic with a number of poignant moments that may induce a tear or two. The overarching mystery concerns who the witch is, how the “wish-fulfilment” service came about, and how the ML and FL are connected to her. Along the way, we observe mini story-arcs of folks with problems who somehow end up at the diner seeking otherworldly solutions to what ails them.

At a relatively short 8 episodes, the storytelling is compact without the intrusion of unnecessary fillers. It is engagingly paced where the drama takes its time to explore the backstories of the various characters. It’s worth pointing out certain themes that may trigger such as abuse and bullying. The sense of tension and anxiety are sufficiently imbued into the story as it unfolds, and continues to build right to the climactic end.

The performances of the cast certainly deserve praise. I’ve truly enjoyed Chae Jong Hyeop’s emotional depth through his nuanced characterization as the noble and warmhearted Lee Gil Yong. I feel he is more suited to this role than the one in Sisyphus: The Myth. Nam Ji Hyun displays impressive range in her depiction of the conflicted Jung Jin, a character that goes through much adversity. The role of Jo Hee Ra the witch is played by the experienced Song Ji Hyo. Despite looking very much the part, I do feel that the portrayal is rather understated because of how the character was written - unlike other similar dramas, Jo Hee Ra isn’t an outrageous OTT character that’s loud or stands out from the crowd. She’s probably the most down-to-earth witch I’ve ever come across in a drama. I do however admire her avant garde fashion sense and found myself chuckling at her portrayal of a younger self.

Special mentions go to a number of supporting and guest stars who make their appearances in this production. These include So Hee Jung who plays FL's mother with such conviction and relatability. Ahn Eun Jin, the musical actress who delivers a fantastic solo rendition in a stage play, as well as Lee Joo Shil and Im Won Hee who portray mother and son respectively in one of the more heartbreaking scenes in the drama. I was actually taken aback by how good he is in dramatic capacity compared to his somewhat more comical role in Dark Hole.

The soundtrack features a total of four songs that fits the mellow undertone of the drama, with the exception of YESEO’s Fair Dish which provides an interestingly magical and mysterious vibe with a hint of mischief.
1. Se.A – Holding On
2. JUNNY – Alone
3. YESEO – Fair Dish
4. Han Seungwoo (VICTON) – Please

All in all, I would classify The Witch’s Diner as a healing, introspective and evocative drama. It's perfectly understated without all the fanfare and light enough to be enjoyed without heavy exertion. I certainly savoured the experience.

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Completed
Psych-Hunter
45 people found this review helpful
Dec 17, 2020
36 of 36 episodes seen
Completed 12
Overall 8.5
Story 9.0
Acting/Cast 9.0
Music 8.5
Rewatch Value 8.0

Enter Sandman

I’ve always loved mysteries and detective dramas, especially with a refreshingly unique concept and innovative approach to investigations of cases. Even better if it has elements of friendship and bromance or sismance, while romance is optional because there are already so many romance-fuelled dramas out there and we need more of the other stuff for a change. I’m positively thrilled to attest that this drama has all of the above qualities (minus sismance but plus romance).

Psych-Hunter is a supernatural mystery and psychological thriller adapted from the novel Haunted Houses Handbook (凶宅笔记) by Er Shi San (贰十三) which was published in 2013. As I understand from readers of the novel, the adaptation is modified slightly pertaining to the main characters’ backstory and the inclusion of a romance arc, hence the FL is added in the screenplay. It is directed by Li Ze Lu (李泽露), who had directed the similarly-themed Tomb of the Sea (of the Lost Tomb franchise), and his experience in this genre really shines through.

What makes this show truly fascinating is not only the fusion of investigation procedural with traditional Chinese beliefs, mythology and the art of geomancy (Feng Shui), but also the practice of “exploring the psyche” aka Zhuyoushu (where one completely immerses within the psyche of the subject in a subconscious state, as opposed to mind reading). Having this concept set in the Republican period in China is appropriate as this particular era is steeped in moral ambiguity and intense fear of superstitions, folklore and mysticism, all of which enhances the paranormal vibes of the mysteries being investigated.

The drama showcases high production values through outstanding art direction, lavish Republican era settings and beautiful costumes – in particular the smart police uniforms, extravagant evening gowns and the bespoke 3-piece suits - along with generally fantastic cinematography and steady camerawork during action scenes. The framing of the intriguing abstract setting of the psyche world is visually stunning, and the steampunk outfit worn by the 2 leads during the hypnosis sequences is a nice touch.

The story centres on the friendship between the 3 leads and their investigations in Changshanzhou. Jiang Shou is adept at exploring the human psyche. Qin Yi Heng is the scion of the prominent Qin family and a skilled medical doctor. Yuan Mu Qing is a (self proclaimed) policewoman and daughter of the local warlord. The overarching plot is about Jiang Shuo’s unexplained memory loss, the disappearance of family, friends and others linked to the main villain known as Liu Zhi aka Six Fingers. In connection with the main mystery, our band of protagonists encounter no less than 15 mysterious cases in their pursuit of the villain, namely:

1.Feng Shui murders
2.The abduction
3.The horologist
4.The bizarre black cat
5.Mu Qing’s past
6.Game of death
7.Jiang Shuo’s psyche
8.The playboy
9.Movie studio murders
10. The mysterious village
11. Dead spirits’ post office
12. The riddle of the cheongsam
13. The haunted mansion
14. The tattoo conspiracy
15. The Rubik’s cube

Each case is infused with elements of horror, some more so than others, which puts a bit of scare in viewers. The story starts off briskly then settles at a steady pace, before reaching a frantic and thrilling climax. There are certain unexplained plot holes and loose threads that are left hanging along the way, but we still get the answers to the major question marks by the end. Somewhere past the halfway mark around episodes 22 to 27, the romance gets in the way somewhat unnecessarily with draggy fillers and certain characters - Jiang Shuo and Yuan Mu Qing being the chief culprits – momentarily losing their composure (and common sense). Fortunately, by episode 28, normal service resumes and the 3 friends re-focus on solving mysteries. The haunted mansion, the tattoo conspiracy and finally the Rubik’s cube mystery which brings closure to the overarching plot, are the most convoluted and action packed among all the cases and require much thinking to unravel the puzzle. The big reveal takes place right in the penultimate episode where at long last we learn the truth of who Liu Zhi really is. NOT TOTALLY UNEXPECTED YET SHOCKINGLY UNEXPECTED AT THE SAME TIME. Absolutely and utterly FREAKING MINDBLOWING. I will stop right here and not spoil it.

The main cast generally performed well, in particular Liu Dong Qin’s understated and naturally portrayed Qin Yi Heng. The actor subtly invokes the right dose of intelligence, stoicism, and vulnerability that elevated the portrayal of this very well written character to greater heights. The nuanced micro-expressions and overall exemplary acting really sets Liu Dong Qin apart from the rest of the cast and points to an extremely talented actor indeed. I’m tempted to follow his portfolio of work after this, notably his main role in Medical Examiner Dr Qin 2, and other future projects.

Hou Ming Hao is a popular actor who’s well known for many major roles, including the iconic character of Wu Xie in The Lost Tomb 2 so he is no stranger to this genre. His acting here is on point and fits well the role of Jiang Shuo – lively, witty, street-smart with a hint of mischief in his eyes, plus he cross-dresses very nicely indeed. Perhaps the only issue I have is the lack of consistency with the way the character is written, which is attributed primarily to the romance element written in involving him and Yuan Mu Qing. He somehow loses his edge and suffers from serious lapses of judgment for about 6 to 7 episodes. For the most part, including the amusing bromance between him and Qin Yi Heng, I’ve enjoyed Jiang Shou’s scenes which provides much entertainment value to the show.

Yuan Mu Qing is played by Zhu Xu Dan (Bambi), whom I last saw in Heavenly Sword and Dragon Slaying Sabre (incidentally, the final episode here reminded me of her transformation in HSADSS). She’s an experienced actress who has been cast in a long list of dramas and I thought she did okay here as part of the investigative trio and is convincing as the pampered daughter of a warlord. However, her character suffers from the same inconsistent writing at various points in the show. At times she can be lethal with her martial arts, strong and smart, as befits a policewoman (even an auxiliary one) only to turn into a damsel in distress, and her extreme neediness to cling onto Jiang Shou did grate on the nerves a little. I’m generally indifferent to the romance arc, as long as it doesn’t disrupt the storytelling but unfortunately it did for a few episodes. Mercifully, her character grows out of it towards the end.

The OST features 4 tracks, including the energetic intro rock piece Hunter Heart, and the subdued and emotional Let Her Go as the closing theme, which is very beautifully sung. Track listing as follows:
1. Shin - Hunter Heart
2. Sean He, King - Let Her Go
3. Meng Zi Kun - Game of Happiness and Sadness
4. King - Empty Fortress

On the whole, Psych-Hunter is one of the better produced and extremely entertaining detective investigation dramas of the year that successfully integrates supernatural themes, traditional Chinese beliefs and cleverly conceived mysteries into a smartly condensed package, along with poignant moments of pure bromance. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself and now that we have come to the end, I will truly miss this show. I’m not sure if there will be a season 2 but if not, hopefully another similar one comes along in the not too distant future.

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Completed
The Devil Judge
109 people found this review helpful
Aug 22, 2021
16 of 16 episodes seen
Completed 41
Overall 9.0
Story 8.5
Acting/Cast 9.5
Music 9.0
Rewatch Value 8.0

The devil is in the details

The Devil Judge is conceptual, surreal, provocative and very much character-driven by one man, Ji Sung as Kang Yo Han, the eponymous main character of this drama.

Based on only the second screenplay ever written thus far by Moon Yoo Seok, a former judge himself, who created the well-received Miss Hammurabi in 2018. This time he presents viewers with an imagined version of the judiciary operating within a dystopian setting. In particular, the concept of a “live court” where trials are streamed in real-time and the verdicts are decided by the general public via online voting. This premise revolves around the titular devil judge who presides over this unconventional justice system.

What I enjoyed about this drama

The technical execution is top notch. Direction, editing, cinematography, cinematic visuals and special effects are all very good. The absence of awkward scene transitions or inconsistent camerawork and sound mixing throughout makes for very pleasant viewing indeed, from an audiovisual standpoint.

The high production values reflected in the overall production quality, set designs, shooting locales and costuming are very impressive. From the grandeur of high society events and soirées, the opulent mansions, luxury cars to the uniquely futuristic setting of the supreme court, along with its distinctively cultish ceremonial attires.

The tale of one man’s vengeance by taking the road less travelled that reads like a contemporary and twisted version of the Count of Monte Cristo. The approach falls into the category of cutting-edge dramas that pushes the boundaries of conventional storytelling. Or at least it makes a decent attempt to do so. It is a fusion of psychological thriller, legal drama and mystery that are interwoven with themes of revenge, love and betrayal, as well as elements of politics and corruption. For the most part, the combination of the myriad aspects has been seamlessly integrated into the narrative which induces considerable thought-provoking debates, certainly among viewers, on matters pertaining to morality and justice.

Most of the main and supporting characters are intriguingly written and superbly rendered. No one is purely black or white, and almost everyone is shrouded in grey mist. Where allegiances lie and what motives prevail are constantly being second guessed. Over the course of the entire drama, viewers slowly peel layers upon layers of these multi-dimensional and sometimes larger than life personas.

This is very much the case with Kang Yo Han, the titular character and main protagonist... or is it antagonist? Perhaps somewhere in between, no one can really say for sure because this is one personality that’s open to diverse interpretations, depending on where your moral compass’ true north is set. In a recent interview, Moon Yoo Seok had intimated that having written a good and just main character in Miss Hammurabi, he was inclined to explore a character that is the total opposite and who operates within a contrasting environment, in this case a failed state and corrupted judiciary.

This in-depth character study into the so-called devil judge, is made even more compelling by the excellent portrayal. I’m well aware of Ji Sung’s talents and accolades in the industry, there’s no question what an experienced and fantastic actor he is. But still I was taken aback. His embodiment of the role is utterly immersive, inspiring and captivating, for he truly possesses the gravitas, screen presence and versatility to succeed in this powerful characterization.

Aside from KYH, Jung Sun Ah is a character that mystifies the most alongside a complex story arc of her own that is no less fascinating. She comes across as charming, disturbing, manipulative and opportunistic. In reality, she is a psychopathic and surrealistic dominatrix as well as a complete femme fatale. Played by the prolific Kim Min Jung who injects, in no small measure, a nuanced passive-aggressive vibe into the profile. Some may argue that the character is one-dimensional with ambiguous motivations, but it’s quite fitting that she and KYH share a kind of dysfunctional chemistry and power dynamics that make them the perfect adversarial / love-hate pairing from hell.

Among the supporting characters, Heo Jung Se, the President, catches the eye as the most OTT yet amusingly so at the same time. Baek Hyun Jin is essentially reprising his performance in Taxi Driver with the exact same portrayal. Ahn Nae Sang has been seen in many dramas of late and here he plays the Chief Justice, Min Jung Ho. It is a measure of his experience that he manages to infuse the character with sufficient misplaced idealism and self-righteousness that infuriates most, if not all, viewers. Deftly portrayed with understated conviction and believability indeed. Jang Young Nam as the stoic Minister of Justice, Cha Kyung Hee delivers a commendable depiction where she projects the aura of an iron lady to perfection. The wheelchair-bound Kang Elijah, portrayed by Jeon Chae Eun, is another that's deserving of praise. For someone so young, she showcases such range beyond her years, especially in the last two episodes.

There are a total of 4 OSTs in the soundtrack, of which two resonate with me the most. The poignant classical instrumental piece, Enemy of Truth, and Tempest, the alluringly intoxicating pop-rock fusion. If ever there was a song that fully encapsulates the characteristics of the devil judge himself, it would be this track along with its distinctive guitar riffs and accompanying MV. Additionally the BGM, comprising delicate piano pieces, further elevates introspective moments throughout. Credit must go to the music director, Jung Se Rin for the impressive original score.

허클베리핀 Huckleberry Finn – Tempest
정세린 Jung Se Rin - Enemy Of Truth (진실의 적)
Sondia – Nightmare (악몽)
Zeenan – What You Gonna Do

What I didn't enjoy as much

Issues with the plot development. Despite a really promising start along with numerous twists and turns as well as cliffhanger endings in almost every episode, somewhere towards the tail end of the second half, the story begins to feel repetitive and static. It was a case of one step forward and two steps backwards in a kind of time loop where certain characters repeatedly play out the same scenes time and again. I’m really referring to Kim Ga On and Yoon Soo Hyun here. Overdosed with a crisis of conscience, these two are either constantly disputing KYH or doubting themselves and even each other. The initial intrigue from their mind games and relationship dynamics eventually devolves into a rather superfluous recurring pattern. The presence of a considerably pivotal event in a later episode renders a particular character as nothing more than a mere plot device for the final arc.

If I’m being totally honest, the characters Kim Ga On and Yoon Soo Hyun do feel quite inconsistently written. The lack of profound evolution or at least palpable growth in either character who continuously exasperates with their appalling nonsensical decision making that contributes absolutely nothing tangible or substantial to the overall storyline, other than to recycle dramatic angst that detract from the more compelling direction of the drama. Park Jin Young, who plays Kim Ga On, isn’t the most convincing supreme court judge. He looks fresh out of college and somewhat lacking in life experience. Perhaps his role was intentionally written to be such, to instigate an emotional reaction from viewers and to set up the climactic end, which he does so competently. He does possess much potential, if only his character had been written with more depth.

Likewise Park Gyu Young, who elicits a similar response to her interpretation of police detective Yoon Soo Hyun. She spends most of the time pointing her service revolver at nearly everyone and jumping head on into situations that are beyond her control, oftentimes irrationally and without adhering to procedural protocols i.e. calling for back-up. I do think she’s a promising actress, having previously seen her in Sweet Home. Perhaps she would fare better with a more suitably written role in the future.

Although the nature of dystopia being depicted is supposedly totalitarian instead of post-apocalyptic, scenes of great injustice or suffering aren’t particularly apparent and not in abundance anyway. Apart from an isolated slum neighbourhood in the outskirts where small scale skirmishes break out and montages of public protests interspersed among certain episodes, the atmosphere very much looks like present-day Seoul. This gives rise to a feeling of disconnect between the purported setting and the featured visuals.

Final thoughts

All things considered, despite the misgivings that I have, The Devil Judge remains a compelling production worthy of viewing for its innovative concept, truly exceptional performances by its main leads and no holds barred storytelling. The final point worth mentioning is that the drama does eventually make good on most of the issues I have to redeem itself and ultimately end on a hugely satisfying note.

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Completed
Beyond Evil
160 people found this review helpful
by WandereR Flower Award1
Apr 11, 2021
16 of 16 episodes seen
Completed 10
Overall 9.5
Story 9.5
Acting/Cast 10
Music 9.5
Rewatch Value 8.0

The Daesang for the 57th Baeksang goes to…

Shin Ha Kyun, of course! I can’t think of any other more worthy recipient of this prestigious accolade. He truly is the driving force behind Beyond Evil because without him, this drama would have ended up being Not Quite Evil. In fact this drama isn’t as much about evil as it is about filial piety (or lack thereof) and shady business ethics, with a dose of mental health issues included. In any case, I hope he gets a nomination at the very least because he is definitely deserving of the recognition for all the good work he has done here, and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself watching his performance in this extremely well made production.

This drama is set in the small town of Manyang, which has a sinister history of mysterious killings and gruesome mutilation of young women that remain unsolved until the present day. Part of this local community is a close-knit group of childhood friends, most of whom grew up to become members of the police force, while the others comprise the local butcher and convenience store operator, respectively. One day, a young hotshot police detective gets transferred to the Manyang police substation and all hell breaks loose in this sleepy town.

The plot is exquisitely written, despite not being groundbreaking, and we’ve seen this premise in many psychological crime thrillers. A small town with a hideous past and its suspicious inhabitants harbouring many unknown secrets, the perfect recipe for a can of worms that would’ve been better off left unopened. Except, in this case, it gets much more convoluted than that - a decades’ long conspiracy that culminates in a scandal of the highest order. This is very much a character driven drama and represents an in-depth case study of the complicated dynamics among the central characters. This is a complex and slowburn psychological whodunnit with dark humour and suspense along with themes of friendship, familial bond, betrayal, forgiveness and redemption.

Helmed by the young director Shim Na Yeon, a relative newcomer to the industry whose recent works cover mostly youth-themed melodramas and romance, and written by the experienced Kim Soo Jin whose previous crime dramas include Mad Dog and Life Special Investigation Team. Being part of the spring drama lineup of JTBC Studios, this drama features commendable production values. The cinematography showcases excellent shots of the Manyang town landscape, including the beautifully tall grass fields where multiple crime scenes have purportedly occurred, and the scenic port city of Busan for a story arc that lasts a couple of episodes. Other than that, the majority of the drama is set in the bright interrogation rooms and gloomy holding cells of the Manyang police substation, Munju police station and the Seoul police HQ. There are countless scenes of barbequing meat and drinking at the Manyang diner-cum-butcher shop as well.

The drama’s true strength lies in its cast and their superb acting, as well as the overall quality of the dialogue. Ever the consummate pro, Shin Ha Kyun does what Shin Ha Kyun does best. For the uninitiated (and for the purpose of managing excessive shock or awe), expect visceral intensity and raw emotions conveyed via truly immersive wholehearted portrayals. For regular viewers and admirers, his execution here is even more elevated from his usual performances in Less Than Evil and Pied Piper. His characterization of Lee Dong Shik is a delicate balancing act between nuanced and downright insane, and will probably represent the standard of acting for this genre in years to come (a close comparison would be Lee Hee Joon’s characterization in Mouse, so there’s potential in this area). Depicting a flawed anti-hero complex and emotionally traumatized character shouldering the burden of a profoundly tragic past is certainly no mean feat and Shin Ha Kyun does it magnificently indeed.

Of the 2 MLs featured in this drama, the other lead is the character of Han Joo Won who is decently portrayed by Yeo Jin Goo. Those familiar with his works would no doubt witness the same signature aspects of his acting. Since Hotel Del Luna (and even earlier, The Royal Gambler) he has perfected the art of the “intense gaze”. Not many actors can pull off this trademark look. An added bonus in this show, he does a near-complete character change that lasts a few episodes at the midway point. Despite not being a fan of the character - he comes across as aloof, sanctimonious, petulant, selfish and entitled, who possesses an unhealthy and somewhat irrational obsession for solving crimes while incessantly defying his own father at every turn - I do appreciate the characterization. The chemistry between the two men, Lee Dong Shik and Han Joo Won, is on point and works very well.

They are ably supported by the rest of the cast comprising the experienced veterans Chun Ho Jin, Choi Jin Ho, Kil Hae Yeon, Heo Sung Tae, Kim Shin Rok and Lee Kyu Hoe. Their versatility truly shows in playing a mix of understated, layered, OTT and mentally unstable characters. I’m also quite impressed with Choi Sung Eun in particular, whose portrayal of Yoo Jae Yi is very powerful and convincing and she stands out as the strongest female character in the show.

Aside from the acting, one aspect that probably doesn't get enough appreciation and recognition is the music for the drama. Kudos to the music director, the hugely experienced and prolific Ha Geun Young, who has done a fantastic job of arranging the original score with an infusion of contemplative jazz performed by a big band ensemble. There's more than a hint of cabaret and the vibe of classic film noir that somehow perfectly captures the essence of the drama. In addition to the music score, the accompanying original songs are terrific as well:

1. Choi Baek Ho - The Night
2. BIBI - Timeless
3. Car The Garden - Empty
4. SunWoo JungA - The Road

All things considered, Beyond Evil has been a hugely satisfying watch and certainly went beyond my initial expectations. I sincerely hope this drama and Shin Ha Kyun will be part of the nominations to be announced next week for the 57th Baeksang Awards this year. They absolutely deserve it!

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Completed
Stand by Me
86 people found this review helpful
Sep 2, 2021
49 of 49 episodes seen
Completed 14
Overall 9.5
Story 9.5
Acting/Cast 9.5
Music 9.5
Rewatch Value 9.0

Checkmate, I Win

Stand By Me began airing exactly 12 months after Love and Redemption was released last year, much to the happiness and joy of Cheng Yi fans all around the world (myself included). L&R was the drama that propelled him to stardom, and this production reaffirmed his status as one of the most anticipated drama actors in the C-historical genre. Starring numerous colleagues from his agency, H&R Century Pictures, we get a L&R reunion of sorts. This includes his “sister-in-law” Zhang Yu Xi who plays his significant other this time around.

Production details that may interest you

Originally titled Dream Awakening Chang’an, the title was changed to Stand by Me along with the setting of the story as a result of the censorship requirements imposed by China’s NRTA. Initially planned as a romanticised retelling of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Li Yan aka Wuzong’s reign, the script was changed to a fictional tale of an alternate version of Tang, the Xing Dynasty’s Emperor Qi Yan. That said, the historical account of actual happenings and real life figures such as the Grand Eunuch Qiu Shiliang and Sweet Dew or Morning Dew (Ganlu) incident in the 9th century remain present in the story. The social as well as court conventions are very much Tang in appearance, most obviously the attire being worn by the various characters.

Stand by Me is both a TV drama and a web series, being simultaneously released on Hunan Satellite TV’s Golden Eagle Private Theatre and Mango TV. Filmed entirely at Hengdian, the drama is directed by Liu Guo Nan who helmed the Glory of Tang anthology, and assisted by Zhao Li Jun, who helmed Deep Lurk, another Cheng Yi drama slated for release some time later. The award-winning Shao Chang Yong serves as art director, which adds a touch of class and credibility to the production design.

The screenplay is written by Shi Si Que (十四阙), who is the current editor-in-chief of China’s Dongxi Animation Club. He has written numerous novels and short stories, while this drama represents his first foray into screenwriting.

The Production Values

The overall quality of the production is reasonably high, as can be seen from the art direction and set designs. For the most part, the technical execution is decent in terms of the direction and cinematography. During the first few episodes, there are a few noticeable editing and dubbing issues which I attribute to the change in settings from Tang to Xing Dynasty. The subtitles are generally correct but for those who understand Mandarin, the name “Great Tang” is mentioned in lieu of Great Xing on a few occasions. The buildup of the backstory in the first episode does feel somewhat rushed with the frenetic scene transitions but things begin to settle down not long afterwards.

The action sequences, particularly the synchronised swordplay formations and sword fights in general appear to be reasonably well choreographed. I like that there is no excessive use of fast cuts, slow-motion and close-ups, which makes the flow of the action less contrived. The villainous character of Qiu Shiliang employing the use of the traditional Taoist “horse-tail whisk” (拂尘), typically used in Wudang martial arts, adds a nice touch to the depiction.

The Narrative

Stand By Me is adapted from the novel Sword Weapon (Jian Qi Hang 剑器行) by the writer Feihua (飞花), a talented novelist who had won the Top Ten Novel Award of the Second Online Literature Competition in 1999.

The drama follows the journey of two sisters, descendants of a noble family that have fallen from grace as a result of political machinations and treachery. Due to the tragic events that followed, both sisters went their separate ways only to reunite at the very place that caused the downfall of their family - the royal palace. At either end of the continuing political tug-of-war is the noble Emperor and the wily chief eunuch who seeks to undermine the authority of the throne. Amidst this tumultuous backdrop, somehow the sisters end up on opposing sides in this court intrigue.

Palace politics with all its clever schemes and nefarious plots are heavily featured, in addition to themes of romance and love, as well as betrayal and revenge. This is one of the most riveting, thrilling, and suspenseful palace dramas of the year. Unpredictable twists and turns, shocking revelations, and countless exchanges between “multiple sides” merge beautifully into an exciting historical extravaganza. The storytelling is fast paced and action-packed, involving various perspectives and hidden agendas by multiple POV characters. The momentum never lets up and is sustained until the very end. All of this culminates in a profound conclusion that promises to leave a lasting impression on viewers.

It’s worth mentioning that there is more than a subtle hint of Chinese Chess (Xiangqi 象棋) being referenced throughout. Usually Go (Weiqi 围棋) is showcased in historicals as the boardgame of choice for aristocrats but it’s a nice change to see another ancient game being featured. Aside from the Purple Robed Bureau (subtitled as Violet Bureau), a fictional organisation that bears close relation to Xiangqi is the Chess of Generals Bureau, whose members represent the chess pieces such as Left and Right Advisors, Chariots, Ministers and the Chess Overseer. Fascinating stuff indeed.

The Cast Performance

Cheng Yi headlines this drama by portraying the role of Emperor Qi Yan. There isn’t much left to be said about this magnificent actor who brings his A-game every time he puts on a show for us viewers. As in L&R and also The Promise of Chang’an, it’s hard to see other actors surpassing Cheng Yi’s supreme mastery of poignant and emotional scenes of great torment and suffering, including his now trademark “poetically beautiful blood-spitting” moments. Truly the best of the best. In Stand by Me, Cheng Yi provides us with further glimpses of his versatility and range with a vastly different and never-seen-before side to his very multifaceted portrayal - the cold, ruthless and sensual Emperor. Seeing is believing and I truly do believe there is much more to this man than meets the eye that, hopefully, will be showcased in his future projects.

Zhang Yu Xi, who had previously played Chu Ling Long in L&R, appears as the female lead and primary love interest this time, Cheng Ruo Yu. A promising actress who possesses much depth in her moving portrayal of emotional pain and suffering. As it was in L&R when her character had suffered PTSD, the conviction of her expressions certainly reflects her growing maturity in tackling complex characterizations, which is the case in this drama. She manages to infuse her character here with a fusion of kindness and righteousness that are borne of purity, as well as a developing sense of awareness and pragmatism. These are qualities that reflect the tremendous growth her character experiences through the course of the story.

Deserving of equal billing as part of the three leads, the ever charming and elegant Xuan Lu graces this drama with her appearance as one of the estranged sisters. She had previously caught the eye with her memorable depiction of the delicate and kind Jiang Yan Li in The Untamed. This time, she brings an air of sophistication to the cool and calculated character that is perpetually shrouded in mystery, Qiu Yan Zhi. I honestly feel that there are moments where she manages to steal the limelight from Cheng Yi and Zhang Yu Xi, for she has such a presence that lights up the screen whenever she appears.

Notable mentions for other major characters go to Han Dong who plays Prince Guang, and He Cheng Ming as the chief eunuch Qiu Shiliang. Han Dong is an exceptional actor who has appeared in many historicals so there are no surprises to the dimensions he imbues the characters he portrays. His nuanced microexpressions are always expertly delivered and a joy to behold. He Cheng Ming, who previously played Si Feng’s father and Master of Li Ze Palace in L&R, is another experienced hand with a wide repertoire of works in many varied roles. This time around, he is perhaps more subdued and less OTT, but still retains that aura of an expert performer who immerses into the character with such consummate ease. In short, he always looks like he’s having fun and he carries the role with glee. I have to admit, the mannerisms in his depiction remind me at times of Sun Wukong the Monkey King.

Among the familiar faces in supporting roles, look out for Xi Xue (Under the Power, Lin Ling), who has a significant arc as Cheng Xi, Yang Xi Zi (L&R, Xiao Yin Hua) as Princess Misha, He Zhong Hua (L&R, Xuan Ji’s father) as Li Deyun, Li Jun Yi (L&R, Zhong Min Yan) as Yan Xiu, Ethan Yao (L&R, Ting Nu) as Han Yue, Fu Fang Jun (L&R, Wu Zhi Qi) as Han Ding, and of course, the unforgettable Bai Shu (L&R, Tengshe) as Prince An.

The Music

No C-historical would be complete without epic songs from the likes of Zhou Shen and Liu Yuning. Cheng Yi also contributes to the soundtrack with his beautiful rendition of Shou Shou, which is my favourite track of this drama. Along with the BGM, there are a total of 7 tracks:

Yu Yan Shuo 鱼雁说 by Audio Monster/Silver Lin (音频怪物 / 银临)
Chang'an 长安 by Liu Yuning 刘宇宁
In Through Dream若梦 by Zhou Shen 周深
Small Dust 小尘 by Shuang Sheng 双生
High Above in the Sky 当空 by Nana 许艺娜
Shou Shou 相守 by Cheng Yi 成毅
Worrying about the Sky 杞人忧天 by Allen Su Xing 苏醒

Overall

Stand by Me is a drama I had been anticipating from Cheng Yi since last year, and I’m pleased to say I haven’t been disappointed with the plot and overall technical execution of the production as well as the performance of the cast. It is not flawless by any means but I appreciate the nature of the storytelling that eventually culminates in a rather conceptual ending, which somehow seems to be the standard for C-historicals these days. In any case, the entertainment value is high and I have thoroughly enjoyed the intrigue as well as unexpected plot points throughout the 49 episodes of its run.

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Completed
Love and Leashes
38 people found this review helpful
Feb 11, 2022
Completed 4
Overall 8.5
Story 8.5
Acting/Cast 8.5
Music 8.5
Rewatch Value 8.0

Fifty Shades of Pink

Fifty Shades of Grey, this isn’t. There are parallels to be drawn involving primarily the contractual relationship trope and the BDSM theme, if it isn’t already apparent. That is where the similarities end, however. Despite the R-18 rating, I would consider Love and Leashes to be much less intense and provocative but rather more fun and heartwarming. After all, this film is meant to coincide with this year’s V-Day which takes place in just a couple of days. Hence the more upbeat and romantic vibe, this is definitely a case of love being slowly unleashed.

Jung Ji Hoo is your average salaryman working in a 9 to 5 job. Unbeknownst to his co-workers, however, he has another side to him - one that involves a fetish for BDSM. One day, due to a mix-up by the delivery service, a female colleague finds out his secret. What transpires subsequently involves a whole lot of awkwardness and embarrassment as well as the resulting suggestive intimate moments, before eventually leading to something more profound.

Directed by Park Hyun Jin, who also co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with Lee Da Hye, the source material is the Naver webtoon entitled The Moral Sense conceived by Gyeoul aka Winter, which was serialised from 2015 to 2018. The original score was composed by Kim Hong Jip and Lee Jin Hee, with Lee Sun Kyu playing the guitar. Principal photography took place from April to July 2021.

What I Generally Liked

Running at just under 2 hours, I thought the film was rather entertaining and eventful. The concept is refreshing, by Korean or even Asian standards, for a mainstream production distributed globally by Netflix. You don’t often come across BDSM-themed romance as the main feature of the story and in this case, the subject matter was handled in a very tasteful and mature manner.

For me, the main takeaway from the film has more to do with the relationship dynamics in terms of the emotional connection between two individuals rather than purely the explicit nature of the BDSM acts themselves to be manifested as a comedic effect or cheap thrills. I particularly appreciated the nuances drawn from the eventual growth of both leads and the organic evolution of their relationship. Additionally, the film explores elements of office politics and gender discrimination that are very much borne of a deep-rooted patriarchal culture.

Given the involvement from Netflix, the film unsurprisingly delivers reasonably high production values. I’ve enjoyed the overall quality of the visuals presented and the set designs, while the accompanying music score nicely complements the ambience of the scenes.

My first time seeing both Seo Hyun and Lee Jun Young in lead roles and they gave a pretty decent account of themselves in their portrayals of Jung Ji Woo and Jung Ji Hoo respectively. I haven’t read the webtoon but I do think they managed to personify their characterizations the way they were intended to be convincing and relatable to viewers, to a certain extent.

The ML is just adorable, almost like a puppy who loves playing with whips, handcuffs and candle wax. The FL, on the other hand, is like a deer caught in headlights. At first, anyway, as she gradually gets a hang of the whole situation. In fact, her transformation from the down-to-earth girl next door to a dominatrix behind closed doors is quite remarkable.

For the most part, the film comes across as quite lighthearted but things do get a tad serious in the final third, where we get to observe a bit more substance in the portrayals of both leads as they finally deal with the repercussions of their actions. I honestly feel that Seo Hyun generally did more of the heavy lifting in this film.

Final Thoughts

As a feature length film that is meant to be mostly a romance comedy, I think the scope of the storytelling is quite extensive. Perhaps certain aspects could have been fleshed out more, such as the respective backstories of the leads and interactions with the people around them but I honestly think those aren’t particularly major issues. For all intents and purposes, and without giving too much away, I was rather pleased with the final outcome and closure to their story. Suffice to say, all’s well that ends well.

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