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Royal Feast (2022) Final Remarks
I’m not particularly bothered by the fact that dramas make political statements or if they want take a few liberties with history. In the hands of a good writer, politics and romance can mix in the way business and pleasure can. A well-told story will naturally have things to say about life and the human condition so it’s par for the course. The trick then is to be clever about it. Few people after a hard day of work or study consume popular culture with the view of being lectured at. Most are in it for a nice bit of thoughtful escapism. If let’s say, a drama markets itself as a romance with a bit of politics and mouth-watering delicacies on offer, it feels naturally like a harmless combination that no one can justifiably complain about. Therefore, it’s all about getting the balance right. Therein lies the problem for a drama like this.
It is on some level difficult to say what Royal Feast is. Yes, it is a historical drama in that there are people in it who walk around in clothing that nobody would be caught dead in today. But that might be too anemic a definition. These human beings belong to another era with its own set of challenges and judged by a subsequent era with its own cultural baggage. The temptation to tell their stories with our lenses is ever present or even to use their stories as a cover for ours loom large. That’s certainly been the trend in C dramas. In our postmodern age, there’s a strong sense that we have come to the end of history. We are constantly judging our antecedents not only by our own lights but by our ignorance of why they did the things they did.
Romance is undeniably challenging for writers of any genre but historical fiction arguably presents a special set of difficulties all on its own. In the case of The Autumn Ballad, it was essentially a crime show, so following a set of romance tropes was a surefire way that the writers would ultimately back themselves into a corner that they would have trouble getting out of. This was because the demands of two competing dominant genres were heading for a collision course. I’ve also been struck while watching A Business Proposal with other people, that viewers of romance dramas love tropes the way fast food is popular the world over — everyone knows exactly what they’re getting (with some variation) and it quickly satisfies an immediate urge. That’s at least how I make sense of the phenomenon behind A Business Proposal’s success.
The earliest trailers indicated that Royal Feast was supposed to be a love story between Ming emperor Zhu Zhanji and his favourite consort, Sun. As soon as it aired, however, it became evident that the drama was in effect a protracted, somewhat brutal look at women’s lives in the palace. The subject of female empowerment has become C drama staple for a while now and no one begrudges the women their opportunity to tell their stories. Up to a point. History in all its glorious detail interests only a very select group of nerdy individuals. I count myself as one of those. Everyone else, as the marketing department knows, is only as invested in a story of this kind if the romance goes according to the playbook ie. if the romance leads to consummation of some description.
However, it’s not hard to see how beating on the drum of the female empowerment message as an ongoing concern does inevitably interfere with how the romantic trajectory is depicted (just from a writing POV) if it becomes a bone of contention among the key characters. Lines are drawn on the battleground and the different sides line up in predictable ways. The leads will necessarily be at loggerheads if they are set up as opposing viewpoints on say, who should be the primary consort or which concubines should be buried with a recently deceased emperor. It’s a tragedy in search of a push and pull. Two strong personalities clashing will see both stubbornly refusing to move an inch. A cold war ensues. Then the inevitable question arises: Who’s the one being difficult here? I can imagine the man who is the emperor in this story might justifiably believe that he is the man who calls the shots because in truth, the buck does stop with him. Luckily the one called Zhu Zhanji is more reasonable than most. Far be it from me to be supporting polygamy even if socially sanctioned but trying to create a romance palatable for modern sensibilities out of a polygamous situation was never going to be a stroll in the park, on top of trying to insert an empowerment message in there to complicate things even further.
Royal Feast is really not a bad drama by any objective standard. On the contrary, it boasts strong historical creds and great production values, not to mention a largely competent cast of actors, many of whom have worked together regularly. Speaking personally, I had few problems with the entire package but also harboured a vague sense that this would have been a less morose, more energetic show if the show was more focused on the men who seemed to be having a lot more fun than the well-dressed women who were constantly walking on knives edge about being childless and/or sonless. Yes, it is pointless bloodshed to constantly fight for the top job but high born men of that era just didn’t see the world with those sorts of lenses. It’s not as if they intentionally wanted to see dead peasants lying on the streets as a result of their machinations but these men had overdeveloped ideas of entitlement and the need to make their mark. People often talk about women not having many opportunities in the bad old days but the reality is, that most men didn’t either especially if they weren’t the oldest son of a wealthy family or all that outstanding.
A large part of the problem has to be the way Yao Zijin is written too. Like her counterpart in The Red Sleeve, she’s more a fanfiction composite than a woman of her time. She fights tooth and nail to be an independent operator although that was always going to be a lost cause because both women in different historical contexts did end up being favoured consorts and mothers of crown princes. My opinion is that neither shows really get the balance right . At least, in the case of Red Sleeve, the romance had a much more visceral pay off. The king and his consort consummated their relationship onscreen. They had at least one child together before the show ended. True, both women seem to have a lot more fun being servants than they did being consorts but their inner ambition made certain that they would never be just servants happily doing the bidding of others at the bottom of the food chain. The moral here seems to be: if you don’t want to be noticed, don’t be too extraordinary. And don’t ever try stick your neck out for others.
Another sticking point too is that Zijin is more of the show’s moral centre than someone who is undergoing development. It often means that the people around her end up being a lot more colourful than she is. There was never anything to like or dislike but she was a lot more convivial when she was playing hide and seek with Zhu Zhanji in the early days of their “courtship”. As soon as things became a little rough, she kept her distance, maintained stiff upper lip in front of him signalling that their romance would not find that gleeful playfulness again.. His frustration though at times bordering on a terrible twos tantrum, was understandable to a degree. Zijin was always far more about the sisterhood than she was about Zhu Zhanji. It’s a political statement that plays havoc with true love. Even when she declares much later that she’s resolute about staying by the man who becomes emperor for better or for worse, it lacks any noticeable fervour or conviction. Wu Jingyan is a well-respected actor and I’ve seen her in other things where she really brings something memorable to the table. Here, I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s the direction she received. Perhaps it’s just that Yao Zijin isn’t a terribly interesting character to begin with, behaving more like a political mouthpiece for the writer than a living, breathing soul who saw being loved by a ruling monarch more of a burden than a joy. Xu Kai who is relatively new to me, is much more agreeable to watch as he seems also to be enjoying himself much more.
There’s nothing wrong with that per se but it’s understandably a disappointment for an audience that signs up to a show because there is an expectation that the romance would provide the welcome relief to all the treachery, backstabbing and loss of life. It can’t be a whole lot of fun if the romance becomes entangled in the overall message that a woman’s life in the palace is a never ending procession of conflicts even when (or especially if) you’re beloved by the man in charge because a) you still have to share him with other women b) it means that because of you, other women in the palace won’t be treated with the same respect and c) someone will get deposed from their position eventually. Although the fact is that the problems between Zhu Zhanji and Hu Shanxiang (his primary consort) began long before Zijin was in the picture.
It’s the second drama this year that’s big on the food porn. Clearly scads of time and money were spent on making the dishes light up for the camera. It ends up being the show’s biggest selling point. No doubt there is a point to this and it’s topical with all the sting of inflation as well as supply chain issues everywhere. The drama is right to put the focus on food and food politics in this moment in history because whether we care or know it, the physical well-being of a nation and its people rests almost entirely on how it deals with food — as a commodity and as an undeniable feature of health.