Lost You Forever (2023) The Problem with Reverse Harems
I’ve been told that I need to read the novel. I’ve never been told that before in all my eight years of watching C dramas. The recommendation comes not because the novel itself is worth reading. I’m sure it is judging from the authorship and popularity but because apparently I don’t understand a certain character — namely Tushan Jing. According to certain members of the viewing public… I would better understand him if I read the novel. Then I would have greater access to his inner life. But that’s not really what’s going on I suspect. I mean, what are they implying? That there’s something wrong with the adaptation? The director? Or worse still, there’s something inadequate about the performance? God forbid. It does beg the question though. Why don’t I need to read the novel to say understand the inner life of Xiao Yao, Xiang Liu, or even Cang Xuan?
What’s really going on it seems to me is that somehow I have had the cheek to question the conventional reverse harem narrative — that the best guy gets the girl. To be honest, I used to think the same myself but when I started thinking about all the reverse harems that I’ve ever seen over the years, it’s actually obvious that it’s not true at all. In fact, it’s not even true of love triangles for the most part. This certainly explains an important phenomenon known as Second Male Lead Syndrome in fandom. The other sticking point I have too is that word “better” or “best”. Or that even more terrifying word “deserving”. Just think of Scarlet Heart, the novelist’s most famous adaptation. A few guys loved the girl in that one. How do you even begin to determine who the best guy was in that story?
It’s absolutely the wrong question.
We live in a very performance oriented world. We are also prone to judge people quickly. All that is even more true in wealthier East Asian countries where competition for the top jobs is fierce. I grew up in Southeast Asia so I am well-acquainted with the stereotype. It’s hardly surprising then that those sorts of ideas get imported into relationships and child raising.
Tushan Jing fans want me to love him. It’s a harmless enough agenda. Maybe I will in Part 2. But under that “you have to read the novel to understand his character” statement I sense a backhanded put-down. To whom that’s addressed to I don’t know — to the director, the actor, the script writer or to me. Perhaps it is me because even after almost five decades of watching television and films across multiple genres, I don’t understand how characterization works. Apparently I can understand every other character in the show including the most unlikeable entitled aristocratic girls in the piece but not a male character that has far more screen time than they do. It doesn’t even matter that I understand the language to a large extent.
As I said about Not Others (2023), I don’t have to like a character to enjoy a show. And I love this show. Otherwise I wouldn’t be wasting time posting all kinds of comments about it on a public forum. I don’t love the main romance though… but it doesn’t mean that I’m uninformed about why those two people were drawn together. For a girl with severe abandonment issues, a mild mannered attractive man who repeatedly says things like “I’ll go wherever you go” or “I’ll always be by your side” must sound like a godsend. Frankly I think it’s lovely too except that I’m turning into a jaded ahjumma who has seen good friends go their separate ways after making those kinds of vows years earlier. Still I don’t necessarily begrudge him his moment in the spotlight. On the other hand it doesn’t help though that he’s engaged to someone else and had been for quite some time. Wouldn’t that be cause for concern? Sincere or not? First red flag. But I’m willing to give him a chance to see how he’s going to extricate himself from that rather knotty situation. Second red flag — the much touted niceness.
You must think I’ve now gone mad. What’s wrong with a nice guy? Nothing until his niceness becomes his undoing. And there are ripple effects when niceness isn’t tampered by wisdom. Niceness in that instance becomes a double-edged sword. It’s fine to be nice when you’re living in a quiet village where nobody cares who you are and gets on with day to day survival. A place where everyone is neighbourly. Far from the rarefied but deadly atmosphere of tribal politics. It’s not fine when you feel obliged to get along with your very cunning and dysfunctional family which includes an older half brother who tortured you and left you to die on the street. Grandma insists that you marry your designated fiancee and designated fiancee insists that she needs to marry you after all she’s done for your family. You’re a nice guy. A little insecure perhaps but good-natured and guileless. You don’t want to rock the boat. You don’t want to hurt anyone. You also have an inkling that this fiancee of yours doesn’t like you that much. So you let your family fob you off with excuses repeatedly. You don’t do anything to turn the tables. Fifteen years to make good on your original promises. Eventually after lots of pretend negotiation your beloved family tricks you into a loveless marriage and “I’ll always be by your side” becomes an empty refrain from a meaningless love song from yesterday.
So overnight Mr Nice Guy of Dahuang looks like a scoundrel to the woman who loves him. Cang Xuan wants to beat him up. Xiang Liu thinks he’s a laughingstock. With characteristic gallows humour Xiang Liu offers Xiao Yao his services to off the new wife and the newborn with a birth secret. The Nice Guy that Xiao Yao liked very specifically for his gentleness, unambitious nature is a big disappointment. So how do we understand all of this… Well, if you think he was tricked by very bad people (and he was) then it feels like for a supposedly smart guy who is very good at chess… he is pretty darn idiotic for not having some kind of plan to deal with his biggest obstacle or an exit strategy. Maybe he’s just plain incompetent. But no way, he’s said to be a good businessman, right? In the end his niceness cost him. The very qualities that Xiao Yao purportedly fell for became quite un-ironically… his greatest weakness. The guy was out of his league and unprepared to do battle. If he can’t protect himself, how can he protect the woman that he loves?
Hurray. The writing here is consequential. So there is a downside to being “too nice”. People take advantage of you. People walk all over you. The lesson being: Everybody has flaws.
So no. The guy who gets the girl isn’t the better guy. I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve never had a problem with that. But those who insist that is the way to understand reverse harems aren’t seeing the wood for the trees. It’s Xiao Yao’s choice ultimately. That word “deserving” has no place here. My problem with the main romance is actually a lot simpler than that — it does nothing for me. I’m bored. It doesn’t excite me and the chemistry just isn’t there. Now and again I get a sibling vibe. Especially during the first half of the show. Yang Zi does her best to be girly but it feels odd after her cross-dressing girl boss stint. Unfortunately too I don’t find Tushan Jing to be a very compelling character in his own right. My feeling towards him is one of apathy more than anything else. Just because Xiao Yao likes him doesn’t mean I have to. Sometimes he’s a cute little puppy that I’m happy to pet on the head but I don’t want him as my guard dog.
Apparently this is where I have to read the novel to discover how great he is. Er… no… I shouldn’t have to. Not everybody has the time. I don’t have all the time to do the reading that I want to do as it is. I have a very large library waiting for me. Not to mention what else is on my Kindle. The drama should do a good enough job on its own. It’s not my problem if a drama doesn’t adapt the story properly. Also it is possible that thousands of viewers around the world can have different points of view about the same thing.
Reverse harems as I once said when discussing Moon Lovers are all about the men. Not the man. It is about the men and the woman they love and/or are trying to protect. It is absolutely the case in Lost You Forever that all three men have something that prevents them from devoting themselves to her wholeheartedly. With Cang Xuan, it’s his ambition to take the reigns of the country. Plus the misfortune of being brother-zoned. With Xiang Liu, aside from the fact that he’s a demon with a terrible reputation, he’s committed to the other side of the fence. The Romeo and Juliet comparisons though banal undoubtedly have some merit. With Tushan Jing, he’s got to unshackle himself from the Tushan clan somehow even if it means shedding his good boy persona. Sure he got past first and second base but he still managed to lose the girl before the end of Part 1 because for one reason or another he didn’t seem to believe that his family baggage was problematic enough to become an obstacle to his happily-ever-after. It’s a world somewhat divided and fraught with dangers. While all these men try to sort out their feelings for Xiao Yao and what to do, she strategically inserts herself into key (but risky) moments of the story because her role is now to see Cang Xuan achieve his bid for the throne. She’s left Qingshui Town behind… maybe even forever. That has long-term ramifications for her and the three suitors.
In Episode 37 we are invited to see the strong attraction between Xiao Yao and Xiang Liu. It’s certainly not one sided. Quick witted woman that she is, she senses that he cares a little more than he lets on. The temptation to succumb to her winning ways on his part is is ever present so he resorts to quips and derisory comments to pull him out of the moment. The angst is heart-rending but I can never take my eyes off the nuanced changes to his facial expressions. It’s deeply moving. Every scene they share matters so much more. There are several occasions that he could have given in but didn’t. There’s a kind of nobility in that. A stoicism consistent with the soul of an unwavering warrior. An acceptance that some things just aren’t meant to be. When he saved her from certain death that one time, it would have been an opportune moment to whisk her away forever. But he did just want her to live and be happy. If she had remained in Qingshui Town as Wen Xiaoliu, we may have had justification for a different set of choices on his part. As C.S. Lewis once famously wrote, “Love is not an affectionate feeling but a steady wish for the loved person's good as far as it can be obtained.”
It should be said that all three men love her and I think on her part she loves them but differently. That’s the point of the harem. The preservation of her welfare is paramount to all and that would include her safety from external threat. Cang Xuan of course feels he has no chance with Tushan Jing in the picture prior to his coronation. All he can do is move forward and watch his beloved Xiao Yao romance someone else under his nose. The timing of everything did not work in his favour. He failed to recognize her at Qingshui Town for the longest time and were even antagonists for a period. All of that meant that his chance to be more than a “brother” to her was lost forever. Adult Xiao Yao is no longer the young girl that promised that they would be together forever.
It goes to show that timing and time are hugely important factors in why some relationships reach fulfilment or are doomed from the start. If there’s no opportunity or a strong resistance to opportunity, things can go awry no matter how strong the feelings are.
This tale of three men and a princess has the makings of high tragedy. I’m here for it with a full box of tissues. Or two. Clearly the price of happiness comes at a cost that everyone has to pay. When I think of Xiang Liu’s trajectory I am reminded of Frodo’s journey from The Lord of the Rings. Some are called to make the ultimate sacrifices so that those left behind can live in relative security and experience some measure of happiness.
I look forward to Part 2. Pour on the angst.
If you enjoyed this post, please like, subscribe, share or leave a comment. As always thanks for reading.