I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, to pimp out a drama that has only aired one episode, and has the possibility of turning into an epic fail fest, simply by virtue of it being a TW-drama.
See, TW-dramas have a very spotty track record of starting strong and ending with a whimper (or starting with a whimper and ending with a thud). Well, like this drama I am about to pimp out, I, too, shall take a leap of faith. Everyone – the most interest TW-drama this year may just be Zhong Wu Yen (鍾無艷).
I checked out this drama out of curiosity over Ming Dao’s return to the TW-screen after two years slumming it being in C-dramas. But I am staying for completely different and much more substantive reasons. Within the span of one episode, it becomes clear that the set-up is conceptually interesting, and there is a high possibility this drama will be much more substantial than your average TW-fluff.
Zhong Wu Yen re-imagines the folkstory of the titular heroine, who was an ugly concubine of an emperor that went to war on his behalf to win his affection, but all the empreror wanted was to lounge around with the pretty, vapid, and useless other concubine.
She wins the war, but not her emperor’s heart. In the end, Zhong Wu Yen cuts off her hair, and the love in her heart, leaving the emperor because he is a shallow and supercilious ass who will never appreciate or love her. Yay for female empowerment, boo for shallow male lust.
Much like the K-drama Delightful Girl Choonhyang took the Korean folk tale OTP and re-imagined them meeting in modern times, Zhong Wu Yen uses the same conceit but with a different execution. In the modern world, the same-named Zhong Wu Yen is an intelligent, capable, kind, and thoughtful young lady beloved by everyone around her. She is perfect, but for her big red birthmark on her face.
The emperor is re-imagined as the son of a chaebol (as usual), but this time all the rich boy trappings are used to mock said character. Qi Xuan rocks a lame orange muffin of a haircut, looks an an overfed guppy, and has the personality of a wet towel, i.e. he’s a giant douchebag. I don’t mean he only gives off the impression he’s a douche, he really is a bona fide tool at the start of the drama.
He’s considered good looking by the media and the masses, but acknowledged as vapid and shallow. The drama introduces him using all the bells and whistles: news reports touting his popularity, media coverage of his lavish costume birthday party, etc. But everyone treats Qi Xuan like the big useless good-looking lug that he is, with affection bordering on mild condescension.
Everyone except Zhong Wu Yen, who adores this lame-ass sorry excuse of a man (due to his kindness towards her when they were children, and of course the history stemming from their previous incarnations).
Silly plot machinations bring them into each other’s vicinity, and we’re off to the races. Zhong Wu Yen reminds me of a mash up of key plot elements in Autumn’s Concerto, P.S. Man, and Fated to Love You: where the hero goes to the heroine’s village to do penance, where the heroine is unattractive (whether shy or bookish), where the hero is a ass – but all given a twist that makes it feel fresh.
Zhong Wu Yen is confident even fully aware that she has a facial imperfection. Nonetheless she has a bright personality and a warm spirit that I immediately feel in love with on first watch (and it didn’t hurt that Cheryl Yang immediately conveyed the strength and giant heart of her character).
I love how the story feels more grounded than the flights of fancy in most TW-dramas. Right now it’s just two people who are likely made for each other meeting, and us wondering how it will all play out.
I am really intrigued at how they structured Qi Xuan’s character. So far he’s such a cheery tool that Ming Dao even plays him with a ridiculous self-awareness. He doesn’t seem cool or cute at all to the viewer, which I appreciate. It’s going to take a lot of character development to make him worthy of Zhong Wu Yen.
And another reason for me sticking around is that Chris Wu, who played my favorite second lead in any TW-drama, from Autumn’s Concerto, is back as the blind(?) second lead.
I think at the end of the day, even if Zhong Wu Yen turns out to be your typical TW-drama, with silliness punctuated by some adorable moments, at least it attempted to be bolder in its set-up than anything in recent memory. Cheryl is not just a wonderful actress, but she is bold and brave in taking on a role that requires her to act with a quarter of her face covered by a red splotch.
Most actresses hesitate to uglify or dirtify themselves for a role, and here Cheryl says “make me ugly by real standards, not just TV pretend standards.” And yet the irony is I find Cheryl beautiful when I see her onscreen (this coming from me, who refused to watch My Queen because I thought Cheryl was unattractive).
I am reminded also of My Name is Kim Sam Soon, when Kim Suh Na gamely added a few pounds (though she was still gorgeous) to play a woman that in real life isn’t a perfect specimen.
I think this drama has an opportunity to make a meaningful story with a heartfelt message about love, appearances, perception, and maturity (I know it has already challenged my own prejudices and won one round). I hope it delivers and remains true to the good vibe I got in episode one. All I ask is less antics and more honesty.
I’m touched that a TW idol-drama would openly attempt a story with more depth than your average meet cute-hate-love-hate-love stories. The weaknesses I can see right now are likely to be a very iffy acting-ability wise second female lead, and a potentially lackluster story. However, I remain curious and optimistic magic can be made. Hopefully my wish will come true.