I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
It feels a little weird to talk about TV shows on a site dedicated to books...but anyway, in light of this reading slump I've been having for two years or so, I've found it helpful to branch out and explore other mediums of art to remind myself how wide and awesome stories can be, and it's been a pretty cool exploration.
So, I've been mooning over a Chinese drama called The Prince of Lanling (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_of_Lan_Ling) for about a year. It's one of those experiences that completely blow you away, but since no one around you has seen it or loved it as you have you keep wondering if your fangirl feelings for it are justified. After watching it and re-watching it maybe thirty times or so I've finally decided that I think they are.
I don't even know where to begin on how amazing this drama is, and how much it just swept me off my feet. For one thing, it was my first entry into Chinese drama, and usually when you poke into a new interest it takes a while to find something good, something that reaffirms why you got interested in it in the first place. Certainly it's been that way for books, movies, and Western TV shows for me. Yet somehow--SOMEHOW--I was lucky enough to stumble upon something that I still find superior to any other Chinese drama I've watched since.
This drama is 46 episodes long, each about 45 minutes. That's pretty damn long by any standard. One of the things I've experienced with similar Western TV shows is repetitiveness, and the characteristic length of the medium becomes a lot more noticeable. There are always those episodes that meander around in different directions and make you suspect the directors are just putting in filler to make the story seem like it's going somewhere. It's such a common tendency that I've almost come to accept it, as if TV shows are supposed to drag around endlessly before getting to the point, and mostly I just grit my teeth and try to get through it as best I can in hopes that I won't miss anything important along the way.
But The Prince of Lanling is nothing like that. One huge reason is the pacing. If you've ever watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, the plot progression is a lot like that--each episode serves a specific purpose with a mini-conclusion, and it breaks up the complexity and length of the plot while keeping you engaged with what direction it's going to take. There are some scenes which in the hands of anyone else might have become superfluous, but somehow, behind each scene, you can detect the sense of purpose linking it all together, whether it's a theme, or some surprising reveal about a character's personality, or a moment of comic relief to relieve the constant tension--the equivalent of a novel's authorial voice, if that makes any sense. There are never any episodes to distract you, or to try tricking you into thinking that the story is more complex than it really is.
At the same time, I never found the plot predictable. I think it's the fact that the suspense relies less on plot incidents and more on the emotional development of the characters. Part of that for me was how my expectations were overturned, over and over again, right from the beginning. You watch the first ten episodes or so and you think it's going to be a light fun ride, perhaps a fast-paced adventure story, because the drama starts out focusing on the characters' external personalities. There's Yang Xue Wu's idealism and innocence, Lanling Wang's heroism, Yuwen Yong's cold kingly demeanor, Gao Wei's petty immaturity. Added in with all of that are the constant reminders of how everyone's lives has been structured by the ongoing war between the two northern kingdoms, Qi and Zhou, which is the basic premise of the plot. Again, comparing it to ATLA--it's that atmosphere of idealistic hope offset by the dehumanizing violence of warfare. (I thought about Avatar a lot while watching this, even though I doubt the two shows had any influence on each other).
But then it takes a bit of a sharp turn and starts reeeaally getting into the guts of the characters. The beginning of the story is more ambiguous, and the characters' actions stand on their own--we're not really invited to judge them, just watch them play out their conflicts. They go through difficult struggles, but we're generally reassured of their being able to get out of them. Maybe it's only a sharp turn in retrospect--I actually didn't even notice that change coming on until maybe five or six episodes into it, perhaps around when(show spoiler)
and you realize that you were in for something you did not see coming.
The story starts to fill in holes that you didn't realize were even there--what made these characters who they are now? How is that affecting what's going on at the present moment of their lives? That last question gets to be quite an important one, because many of these characters wield a ton of political power and influence and one of the most fascinating things about this show is the connections made between the characters' individual personalities and how they change the world around them, for better or worse. One example is Yuwen Yong, probably my favorite character. You never forget that he is, first and foremost, a king with millions of lives in his hands, and his energy is always directed at asserting control and order even if it makes him cruel, as he seems when we first see him. He may be the most powerful person in China, but his childhood was characterized by a struggle for survival and early loss of innocence, so it makes sense that he rules his kingdom with an iron fist.
There's also the part when the show starts inviting you to make connections between the characters, often in really ironic and unpredictable ways, which again make sense only in retrospect. We first get a picture of these characters as being divided by national boundaries--Yuwen Yong is the Zhou emperor and Lanling Wang is a Qi general, so naturally they're born enemies and don't hesitate to try killing each other when they get the chance. Their political visions don't agree--Yuwen Yong wants to conquer all of northern China and unite it under a single banner, while Lanling Wang fights to end the bloodshed and leave the two kingdoms divided in peace. And yet, as the show goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that these two men have more in common with each other than they do with their own families, which, since are royal, are rife with political intrigue. There's one scene in particular, in episode 9, when the two are facing each other on the battlefield, and the camera slows everything down to super-slow motion. Both of them are trying to kill the other, and yet as the camera focuses on them loading their bows about to shoot each other to death, it just serves to emphasize how equally matched they are in intelligence and leadership, connected by a shared desire to protect the kingdoms they love--as opposed to Lanling Wang's cousin the crown prince Gao Wei, or Yuwen Yong's uncle Yuwen Hu, both of whom pursue power for selfish reasons and couldn't care less about the people they rule. (For elaboration on those two characters' personalities--Yuwen Hu is willfully cruel and tyrannical, while Gao Wei is weak-willed and incompetent. One interesting idea in The Prince of Lanling is that both kinds of people are equally dangerous to the prosperity of the state.)
Those connections between the characters are reflected in the brilliant parallel plotting, two different storylines which are connected by similar themes of legitimacy and power struggles. When the war cools down, both Yuwen Yong and Lanling Wang have to face the domestic consequences of the war, and the arguments over who gets credit/blame for this or that heroic maneuver have enormous effects, further deepening the rivalries between characters who are supposed to be on the same side. This sounds petty at first, and it kind of is, but what's amazing about it is how the conflict moves from something more on-the-surface into something deep-rooted and psychological, setting the stage for the development of an almost Shakespearean path of tragedy (though, once again, we never even realize that until the characters are actually at each other's throats). There were times when the plot reminded me strongly of King Lear--one of the subplots actually takes that explicit direction, with the same classic struggle of power between the first and second generation, caused by some huge oversight that blows up in the old Qi emperor's face only when it's too late to realize it. Unlike King Lear, however, even the deeply flawed villains are so sympathetic and emotionally vulnerable that we often forget how evil they are, almost implying that all this horrible cruel drama could be avoided if only they had the love and support needed to anchor them. Gao Wei is so selfish and incompetent at first, but his story is interspersed with some very tender moments that remind you, again and again, what little choice he had in the way he grew up, being constantly measured against standards he could never live up to. It's interesting to me that, despite his bitter rivalry with Lanling Wang, he doesn't actually hate him as a person—only what he represents. His relationship with Lanling Wang—and with his position as crown prince—is one of the most mind-blowing parts of the drama, even on a superficial political level, because his legitimacy as heir to the throne is contrasted against his complete lack of qualifications for that position due to the psychological effects of the way he was raised. Whereas Lanling Wang has all the qualifications, but none of the legitimacy, and slowly becomes a passive target of Gao Wei's ever-growing resentment with no choice but to sit and take it.
The title character of the drama--Lanling Wang (蘭陵王）, or the Prince of Lanling in English--is actually pretty simplistic. Throughout the show the image we get of him is more of an ideal than a human being. He always does the right thing, and his every action is justified in the name of some honorable ideal, even if he makes a mistake or two along the way. Although he does have some inner turmoil, it's always in the context of righteousness. He's so selfless, in fact, that at one point he actually holds himself responsible for Gao Wei's emotional instability, as if by virtue of his own existence it's his fault that his cousin is making a total wreck of being king. Part of it, as we see, is his upbringing--unlike the other characters, he had little to hinder his emotional development, and had the love and loyalty of friends and family as well as the sense of responsibility that comes with being a leader. His main purpose in the story is to drive the plot--for Yang Xue Wu and Zheng Er to fall in love with, for a military and then romantic rival for Yuwen Yong to compete against, for an impossibly high standard to torture Gao Wei from childhood to adulthood, for an icon of hope that the people suffering from the war and Gao Wei's incompetent rule can look up to. Where the surrounding characters are repeatedly worn down to exhaustion by the dehumanizing world they live in, Lanling Wang always has a higher purpose to carry him through everything. People either love him or hate him for it, and those who hate him usually do so because they feel they can't compare.
Usually I hate characters like this, but since this is The Prince of Lanling and not some other show, it's actually used to amazing effect. There are some points when it's rather ridiculously exaggerated, but the fact that Lanling Wang is basically perfect and morally irreproachable in every way just serves to highlight the struggle of trying to live up to being the best people we possibly can, a running theme throughout the drama. Sometimes that ideal inspires us to work harder and better ourselves (Yang Xue Wu), but sometimes the pain of never living up to it is just too much (Zheng Er, Gao Wei). Sometimes it inspires an amazing loyalty in the people who follow him (Yang Shi Shen), sometimes it incites hatred and bitterness (Zhu Ting). In a more fictional sense, for me Lanling Wang's character served to offset the development of my favorite character in the entire drama, Yuwen Yong, or Emperor Wu (周武帝）as he is known in history.
I think it's with Yuwen Yong that the drama's expert handling of moral blacks and whites really hits an all-time high. From the start this character isn't defined by whether he's good or bad, or even if he's a combination of the two. He isn't a morally grey character who redeems himself through reform, nor is he simply a good guy with questionable methods of attaining his goals. His complexity comes through slowly though, because he's very similar to Lanling Wang at first--both are brave, honorable, and are loved and respected by their subordinates (and Yuwen Yong admits himself that he gets a kick out of comparing himself to Lanling Wang). It's really how they function as people that's different. While Lanling Wang is always sincere, Yuwen Yong usually has ulterior motives. While Lanling Wang always does the right thing, Yuwen Yong is often forced to make moral compromises, the psychological consequences of which can be staggering (though really, being a king he's used to dealing with hard problems on a daily basis--but when he breaks down, he breaks down hard.) He's a fundamentally a human being but also one with an almost unbelievable amount of power and influence, and Daniel Chan's portrayal of Yuwen Yong's kingly persona will remind you of that in every scene he's in. I said earlier that the suspense relies on the emotional development of the characters, and that is especially true with Yuwen Yong. We wonder a lot less about what will happen to him than about what kind of person he will become. His life is structured by an ambitious vision for unifying northern China, and all his decisions are made with that goal in mind, even if they are somewhat amoral, like kidnapping Yang Xue Wu for propaganda purposes despite the fact that it betrayed her trust in him as a friend. There's another incident that I won't spoil for you which, in any other context, would have been despicable, but instead you're led to sympathize with how much it tortures him to have to swallow his pain for a greater cause, and how useless it makes him feel. Yet oddly enough, his struggles in grappling with the most difficult questions of what it means to be a great king simply makes it more obvious what a wise ruler he truly is. His tendency towards ruthlessness is balanced out by a capacity for kindness as well as a genuine desire to see peace and prosperity in the world, and part of his motivation is that he believes he's the only one with the vision and means to make it happen. He tells Yang Xue Wu in a conversation that he believes destiny (another recurring theme) is always in people's own hands, and for the most part he lives up to that, slowly shaping his country, his people, and his own life at the same time.
But even then his story isn't quite over. There are just so many things to love about this show that I could talk forever and ever, but one of my favorites is the theme of achieving your dreams, and the irony of finding that, no matter how hard you search for some ultimate happiness, there's always something missing in the end. For Yang Xue Wu, it's how in the midst of a world of chaos and warfare, her domestic happiness is repeatedly taken away from her. For Gao Wei it's how nothing he throws at Lanling Wang can alleviate his feelings of insecurity. For Yuwen Yong, it's his unrequited love for Xue Wu. For all the complexity of Yuwen Yong's character, we're also shown that his emotional needs are pretty plain and simple, and those needs—someone for whom he can drop the constant pressure of being a powerful tyrant and just be a normal person—are never quite met. As a king who's learned to be tough and exert control through extremely exhausting ways—fear, kingly awe, order, etc.—in Yang Xue Wu Yuwen Yong finds someone he for whom he can be vulnerable. Their relationship is amazing because, once Yuwen Yong drops the kingly tyrant facade, they're on equal terms with each other, and Yuwen Yong's awesome power as emperor is at odds with the fact that he can't get Xue Wu no matter how hard he tries, because personal love and respect are not things that can be taken by force. The tragic part is how deeply aware he is of that, and it's a harrowing journey to see such a great king who thought that conquering the known world would be his ultimate victory, yet still find that sense of fulfillment wanting with the loss of the only woman who sees him as a human being.
Aside from all that there's not much that The Prince of Lanling didn't excel at. The actors were phenomenal and brought out the best parts of each character. Obviously, for me Daniel Chan was the best as he plays Yuwen Yong, but Nikita Mao who plays Zheng Er blew my mind--first the innocent and unassuming girl, then the vengeful queen. I also cannot overstate how effective the music was in bringing out the emotional content of each scene, even through changes of tone, always swelling or quieting at all the right moments, switching from grand and epic one second to sorrowful or hopeful the next so subtly that you don't really notice it until you actively go back into the drama to find things to gush about as I am doing with this review. The setting is unbelievably beautiful, with the idyllic countryside sort of landscape in the White Mountain Village and the gigantic royal palaces of each of the warring kingdoms. Whether it's historically accurate I'm not sure, but it's consistent and very eye-catching, so I have no complaints. Besides the aesthetic bits, I was constantly shocked, over and over again, at the complexity of the Chinese language and history and culture. Yuwen Yong can be married and still have dozens of concubines, which sounds supremely awkward and horrible but does come in handy when he has people to protect, namely Yang Xue Wu. I was repeatedly awed by the imperial political structure which is so rigid and organized but flexible enough for the people at top to be amazingly powerful. This is great for wise and responsible rulers (Yuwen Yong), but bad for insecure ones (Gao Wei) and even worse for intelligent ones with no conscience (Zheng Er). The story also got deep enough in the characters that I became interested in the historical period it draws upon, the Northern and Southern Dynasties period in China shortly before the rise of the Sui Dynasty in the 6th century A.D., and I discovered that the plot of the drama is surprisingly in line with real history aside from some rearrangement with dates. To be able to mix history with fiction to such an extent that you can hardly tell what's embellished and what's not is a huge achievement indeed. Yuwen Yong did conquer northern China by 578 A.D., Lanling Wang really did break through the siege of Luoyang with only 500 cavalry, and Gao Wei's resentment and paranoia regarding Lanling Wang was a real thing that allegedly resulted in his death.
Like all great TV shows, it's hard to pin down exactly what makes this so worth watching. The plot feels familiar, as if you've heard of it before, but the story is still fresh, exciting, and unpredictable. No subplot, conflict, or character is left underdeveloped or resolved unsatisfactorily. The overarching tone is one that points to inevitable tragedy and the self-destructiveness of human nature, and yet the characters have such an amazing ability to find meaning in their lives, holding onto hopes and ideals for a better future in the midst of a chaotic era of history. The scope of the story that extends from the power of emperors and empresses to the commoners struggling from the domestic effects of war gives a sense of universality, a message that everyone is vulnerable to the same flaws and pitfalls whether you're a king or a peasant. It's pretty historically accurate as it goes, but the few unrealistic elements--a king's unrequited love for a peasant girl, a "heavenly maiden" who can cure epidemics--confer an almost fairy-tale-like feeling to a setting which we'd otherwise find just a tad too down-to-earth. I guess I'm saying that even after this ridiculously long ramble of a review I still don't quite know why I love this drama so much. It has all the mystery of history and foreign culture, drawing on philosophical questions that the Chinese pondered for centuries in classical novels like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, yet I find so many of the themes deeply relevant to our own lives today. Why do we chase after things we can't have? Is the ideal of a peaceful and prosperous world possible, even if only temporarily? Is it better to unite under a single ruler or leave kingdoms divided? What does mean to be a great leader? Are we really in control of our destinies, or do we just enjoy thinking that? Or maybe I found that reading only Western literature is not enough for me, and even though The Prince of Lanling isn't exactly a monumental classic among TV viewers (although I've heard it's quite popular in China), it opened up a whole new world to me at a time when I wondered if my interest in literature could no longer sustain itself. If it helps, like I said above I still can't find any Chinese drama that measures up to The Prince of Lanling. In a wider sense though, this drama is right up there in my favorites list with Avatar: The Last Airbender and King Lear.
So, yeah. If my rambling dissuades you from watching the drama, I apologize for that. But things like this do tend to come out when I keep everything bottled up for a year.