A Dream of Splendor (2022) First Impressions
Set in the Song dynasty, a notorious commander of the Capital Security Office, Gu Qianfan has been tasked by his superior, Commissioner Lei Jing, to retrieve a painting from the Jiangnan province which could potentially embarrass the royal family. The infamous Capital Security Office is an investigative branch which answers to no one but the man on the throne himself. While he’s nosing around in Qianting county, Gu Qianfan’s subordinate invites him to a popular teahouse where he witnesses the spunky proprietor and her pastry chef taking matters into their own hands when their place of business is held hostage by a band of misbehaving salt dealers on the run from local constables. Eventually, (and inevitably) the fight escalates into something more than two untrained women can handle, and so the visiting commander is forced to step in and put an end to the whole fracas. It doesn’t take long but the man is visibly smitten.
The grateful proprietor is Zhao Pan’er, formerly a dancer and musician at a high-end brothel who has managed to move on from her pariah status to some minor degree of respectability as a business owner. When she finds out that her knight in shining armour is an officer of the Capital Security Office, she becomes far less amenable to him. She aims to send him away with a nasty tummy ache but he catches on quick and thwarts her plans.
This turn of events marks the rumblings of an unexpected romance between two people from completely different spheres of life and whose paths might not have otherwise intersected but from here on, their respective fates are tied together for good or ill. They dodge death together on a number of occasions and while Gu Qianfan eventually falls for the courageous Zhao Pan’er, her heart (at this point) is still firmly fixed on the man she’s promised to: Ouyang Xu, a newly minted presented scholar, who has been granted marriage to a certain Gao Hui, an official’s daughter who is accustomed to having her own way.
Having now seen 8 episodes, I’m certainly a lot more enthused about the drama than when I first started. For a while there, I was bemused by all the effusive praise. I could see the potential but there was nothing apart from the cinematography and set pieces that seemed particularly outstanding. The first episode was a decent enough introduction of the main characters but I found myself losing interest slightly in those early episodes when the three key female characters all happened to struck with the misfortune of being married or betrothed to scoundrels all about the same time. Part of it, I imagine, is about the writer finding some justification for all three longtime friends who are seemingly content where they are to set off to Dongjing (the eastern capital). The other reason is also to showcase Pan’er’s steadfast loyalty and innate intelligence. Why else would a savvy aristocratic male lead even take a second look? Even at Episode 8, the show still feels very much like it’s in setup phase. Even now I don’t feel all that invested in either Sanniang or Yinzhang to feel like I care about their individual arcs. Consequently those first four episode was a hard slog for me. The pacing was all over the place. Mind you, I like the romantic leads. I didn’t mind the conspiracy but Sanniang and Yinzhang feel like extra baggage. It’s an odd thing to say, I know, because in the source material, two of the women are the main characters and there’s no Gu Qianfan.
On top of all that I can’t claim to be fan of the lead actors although I think Liu Yifei is really good here. She’s all grown up now and this role signals her desire to be taken much more seriously. Zhao Pan’er is certainly made for a much more modern audience with her views of monogamy especially considering the time period and where she’s come from. No doubt vast swathes of the audience will take her side because she is the underdog here. (And who doesn’t love a good underdog story) But the man who leaves her for another is not a villain. In fact, he is a pitiful figure because he is giving her up under duress. This works out well for Gu Qianfan played by Chen Xiao who is already pining for her from a distance. While he’s around, he does what he can to protect her — he definitely has the connections — but he’s a tsundere albeit a lot more talkative than most.
Chen Xiao is a mixed bag for me. When he’s good, he’s good (he smiles so prettily) but he’s not consistently fun to watch. The mopey thing he does even in Queen Dugu is a downer. I’m fond of brooding actors but for some reason he just doesn’t do it for me. The character of Gu Qianfan on the other hand has depth and aspects. Those come through a little when he’s interacting with Zhao Pan’er but in all honesty, his relationship with his father fascinates me so much more. Dad is an intriguing fellow. At this point he’s my favourite character because he doesn’t quite comport himself in the way you might expect someone of his rank or breeding to. On some level he is the stereotypical aristocratic official but in other ways, he has a delightful taste for the irony. He’s well aware that he’s not a “good” person and he knows that he’s playing a much bigger game. I love that scene where he raises his sights to the sky talking to the spirit of Qianfan’s deceased mother after a heated argument with Qianfan who walks away in a huff. He’s absolutely gleeful that his son has gotten angry with him… thrilled to bits that his son who is always ceremoniously polite to him has finally raised his voice and shown some emotion. This tells me that Dad is a shrewd operator and not as straitlaced as one might expect. Or at least with no pretensions to being straitlaced. He is able to see things from different perspectives. Clearly the estrangement hits them both hard and one wonders why there is one in the first place. (I have a few ideas about that) But despite the son’s concerted efforts to distance himself from the paternal side of the family, the father happily applies his knack for meticulous planning towards the welfare of his son.
In my opinion the show takes a turn for the better at around Episode 5. It becomes a lot more interesting when that world becomes a lot more than women dealing with men who deserve to have millstones tied around their necks. The stage is larger and the stakes are a lot higher. Pan’er and Co are completely out of their depth. Even Qianfan doesn’t have that much clout which is why he reluctantly condescends to seek help elsewhere.
As an avid tea (black and herbal) drinker, I want more of the tea-making stuff which is up to this point surprisingly rather on the scant side. The ladies from what I gather will set up shop in the capital and make their mark.
I can also imagine that much of the praise for the show comes from the love of the romance. It’s certainly the drama’s greatest selling point because apart from one brief Pride and Prejudice moment at the start, the leads communicate openly and with a depth that I wasn’t expecting. Misunderstandings don’t plague their relationship which immediately suggests that external obstacles will be the thing to look forward in the weeks to come. Things being what they are, I just don’t see how Qianfan can maintain any kind of facade of neutrality. Or keep his nose clean. Especially if there are going to be objections to his relationship with Pan’er who isn’t just a former entertainer from a brothel. Her father was also a disgraced official. There’s probably a ugly secret in there somewhere which will cause the leads to separate or create some tension.
Yeah, I know. Clearly I’ve watched too many dramas.
Despite some criticisms, I am enjoying the show. The elements are all there for a good drama — intelligent leads, good chemistry, a nice array of characters, decent dialogue and excellent camera work. It’s not exactly making claims to originality so far but this will be more my cup of tea when palace politics comes into greater focus.