A Journey to Love 一念关山 (2023) First Impressions (Episodes 1-9)
While watching the first 6 episodes of this new wuxia, a whole raft of seemingly random associations came to mind: The Avengers… The A-Team… 四大名捕 The Four Great Constables, Mission Impossible. One thought led to another. What’s the one feature they have in common? Unique set of abilities? Kind of. But not the answer to my question. Good triumphing over evil? No. Too vague. Life and death stakes. Again no.
In all the examples it’s about a team. The team. The penultimate team. The archetype. It begins with a ragtag group of individuals who otherwise would never rub shoulders coming together for a common cause/threat with the aid of some kind of unifying force. Each member of the team has a skill set specific to him or her and under the right kind of direction even impending disaster can be turned into opportunities.
It’s not too farfetched to say that despite its rather more romantic-sounding (and uninspired) English title, A Journey to Love is about the formation of the dream team. And that of course assumes that there’s someone with the foresight and the personality to hold it all together. Obviously this kind of team-up story is nothing new but in the right hands it almost always makes for a good story.
The leader in this instance is Ning Yuanzhou played here with sensitivity and good humour by Liu Yuning. Ning Yuanzhou who has just returned from a bloody conflict embarked on by his nation’s emperor against the neighbouring An. Yuanzhou survives the massacre jaded and world weary, ready to retire in some rural village with his faithful sidekick Yuan Lu (Chen Youwei). There’s no rest for the overly competent and soon the country’s prime minister comes knocking. With an entire army in fact. The minister is well aware that the former chief of the Six Realms Hall (Liu Dao Tang), has to be dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiating table. Liu Dao Tang is the equivalent of a multifaceted intelligence agency/secret service. The mission should he choose to accept is this: The Wu emperor is currently held hostage in An and their enemy demands an envoy, a prince of the royal family and a princely sum in gold to release their captive. Nobody does it better than Chief Ning. There has been a bit of buck passing among the Wu-vian royal court and the silly, naive Princess Yang Ying has put her hand up for the job because she wants a title to marry the man of her choice. On this issue there are competing voices/agendas. Not everyone wants the emperor to return or for the princess to survive the trip. There’s also the matter of the gold. The emperor’s brother Prince Danyang, the temporary regent who’s had his taste of power is loath to relinquish it. The empress who has her own agenda now that she’s with child is definitely on the side of bringing her husband back. The prime minister, on the other hand, doesn’t care who rules as long as he remains the most powerful man in the royal court. The infighting is enough to make anyone rip their hair out in despair but things are equally rotten in the state of An.
Before he’s approached by his government, he meets Ren Ruyi, a former assassin of the Scarlet Guards (Zhu Yi Wei), a rival elite organization to Liu Dao Tang from An State made up largely of women. Try as she might to throw him off her scent, his nose tingles. He sniffs her out from the moment they meet and after a series of mutually beneficial cooperative efforts, she soon becomes a de facto member of Liu Dao Tang. Despite a long hiatus from the genre, Liu Shishi hasn’t lost her touch as seen in some spectacular fight sequences.
Ning Yuanzhou isn’t immediately moved to sign along the dotted line for this rescue mission but when he finds out that his former brothers/subordinates who died on the battlefield are being (wrongly) accused of treason, he steps up on the condition that he gets to pick his own team — made up mostly of former commanders of the Liu Dao Tang. His specialty in the past was running a spy network and intelligence gathering although he eventually became the head of the organization. So he tells the prime minister that he has four men he needs. After a series of impressive “live” recruitment pitches, Yuanzhou goes on his merry way with his merry men. He selects Sun Lang, a defence specialist, Yu Shisan (literally No. 13), a proficient user of a multi-arrow crossbow, and Qian Zhao, the head of the imperial guards. But the weapons maketh not the men.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration on my part when I say that A Journey to Love has one of the better character set-ups and worldbuilding that I’ve seen for a C drama. All of that is achieved efficiently, economically within 3-4 episodes topped off with delicious humour. Fang Yilun especially is a revelation as the self-professed ladies’ man Yu Shisan. Observing his turns as a giddy school boy and a unabashed flirt was not something I ever thought I needed. Until now. In a flicker of a moment when Yu Shisan recognizes Ning Yuanzhou from a distance as he leaves his jail cell, his face registers surprise and then a knowing smile spreads across his face. It’s a fleeting moment that speaks a thousand words and it’s clear that we’re in the presence of old comrades.
The team has to contend with a geopolitical conundrum. On the surface the state of An has achieved a major victory over the state of Wu but there are undercurrents of discontent promoted by the monarch there. He wants to “stimulate” his competitive sons and the newly promoted Li Tongguang, so he says but I’m inclined to think that he’s trying to keep them busy sniping among themselves so that they don’t try to steal his throne from under his nose. These sorts of strategies are effective up to a point. But they don’t necessarily promote unity. Healthy competition is one thing but without the right values underpinning them, the fissures in the structure are guaranteed to present themselves at some point. Wu’s not that much better. Prince Danyang who’s not content to be a seat warmer also has designs on his brother’s wife. To be fair to him, he would in all likelihood do a better job ruling than his absent brother who embroiled his country in a foolhardy war that led to loss of troops, territory and treasure.
Outside of the Liu Dao Tang, there’s disunity aplenty. All eyes on the delegation to An, as all kinds of competing interests would prefer this mission not succeed. With Ning Yuanzhou in the hot seat those who want to save the emperor may be able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Members past and present of Liu Dao Tang are pleased with his return to the top job. His most recent predecessor Zhao Ji was not much liked. As Shisan tells Ruyi or Beauty 美人 as he calls her, the men who take orders from Ning Yuanzhou will follow him come hell and high water because they have reciprocal relationship. Chief Ning never asks of them what he won’t do himself. In contrast to all other types of leadership featured here, he epitomizes the ideal leader because he models self-sacrificing behaviour at all times.
So what’s Ruyi’s purpose in the narrative? It is first of all to watch and learn. To ask the right questions of the right people. As a lone wolf for all of her life up to this point, the notion of working in a team is a foreign concept. She is the quintessential stranger or outsider looking in with a certain amount of curiosity. She’s been raised under the strictest discipline among the Zhu Yi Wei and was a protege of the late empress. Deep down Ruyi senses that there’s something special about Ning Yuanzhou’s team and craves a taste of what these men have. Their blossoming romance is in service of that rather than the other way around. She likes everything she sees so she asks to procreate with him which is part of her former mentor’s final admonishment to her. “Don’t give your heart away too easily to a man. But you should have your own child.” Note that the late empress did not say she should never get involved with a man just that she should be smart about it. Of course Ruyi trying to put the cart before the horse ie. finding a man to have a baby with without an attachment to the child’s father ensures that all kinds of hilarity follows.
Despite all the egging on by his inner circle to acquiesce to Ruyi, Ning Yuanzhou maintains a friendly professional distance because of their organization’s iron clad rule that no one should emotionally entangle themselves with team mates while on a mission. It makes sense as emotions have a tendency to cloud judgment inevitably leading to errors in decision making and implementation. The question that emerges is whether or not Chief Ning can hold himself to that high standard consistently especially when the temptation to give in to those creeping emotions is ever present. Ruyi’s presence is potentially disruptive because of her previous identity and so it behooves Chief Ning to rebuild his team particularly for the purposes of the mission at hand where an experienced female assassin’s deft touch is needed.
A team is only as good as its leader. A truism no doubt but one that needs qualification. It’s not all on him. The quality of the people involved matters too. In life and death stakes the right people with the right skill set can make all the difference. Ning Yuanzhou’s relationship with his men isn’t of the tyrannical kind. They tease, advise and criticise. He seldom has to bark orders but consults with his subordinates. He doesn’t need to micromanage. His men know exactly what they need to do during such times. It’s a well-oiled machine. Idiosyncratic perhaps but he’s made it work. A decent leader knows who to use and how to use him/her. The battle scene in Episode 8 beautifully illustrates the teamwork Avengers style. There the male and female lead are collaborators first and foremost. Good action sequences should and do support character. It’s just another day at the office problem solving on different scale. Courage, ingenuity, cooperation are par for the course. So is good humour “the most handsome man is always habitually late” and camaraderie “Can you hold on?” Even the timid pacifist Mr Du pulls his weight when push comes to shove.
In Episode 9 there are rumblings that the integrity of the team could be in jeopardy. Qian Zhao (Wang Yizhe) who is good at everything and knows everything has his suspicions about Ruyi from the post-battle celebratory feast. It’s really about time that the rest of the team know who she is because the foundations of trust needs to be absolutely rock solid before the challenges increase in difficulty. Eventually all great teams become family by virtue of the fact they bond in adversity. What I do find fascinating as the story progresses is both leads have experienced some measure of disillusionment with their respective homelands and it might be that the show is signalling a mediatory role for them in days to come. It’s no accident of course that the newest addition is not only female but an orphan of An’s internal political strife. Neither country has the moral high ground. Power struggles are a feature of both and our team must find ways and means to navigate their way through because in this environment, no one is indispensable.
Are you watching A Journey to Love? If so, what are your thoughts? Please comment, share, like or subscribe.
I’ll be travelling for a few weeks so this will be the last post for a while. Enjoy this festive season and safe travels if you’re moving about during the holidays.