Story of Kunning (2023) An essay and a hot take
Beware… there be spoilers afoot…
So I finished Story of Kunning yesterday after a period of a few days of binge watching. It was recommended to me by fellow drama travellers on Janghaven and so I took a peek and away we went. 38 episodes later everyone who sold this show to me is noticeably absent from the thread. For a while I was trying to work out which dynasty this was set in and thought from how the officials were dressed it was Tang but was later informed that this was set in some made up pastiche of a country that does a lot of borrowing from various eras. “Borrowing” is certainly the name of the game in this story.
It’s a popular show and I’m bound to step on toes here. Still it’s never stopped me before. I have to preface by saying that while it was no masterpiece of television, I enjoyed enough of it to complete it. The first half was definitely better than the second half. I was inclined to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in some instances and overlook some logic issues to press on. In the final analysis it was an easy watch and I was entertained. However despite the ending I am left feeling ambivalent about the so-called primary pairing. I don’t find myself barracking for a romance between show’s protagonists Xie Wei (Zhang Linghe) and Jiang Xuening (Bai Lu). Certainly not when there’s a Zhang Zhe (Wang Xingyue) around. I find myself at odds with myself in this when I think about the stance I took about the reverse harem in Lost You Forever and the antihero getting the girl. In my own defence perhaps, I would put forward the case that Kunning’s harem turns out largely to be a plot device and about positioning the POV. It becomes less about character and the female lead but more about making the Xuening character an eyewitness to pivotal moments in a power struggle among the story’s main political players.
The story’s female protagonist Jiang Xuening has died an ignominious death but has been given a second chance to relive her early years: to right wrongs which she was instrumental in bringing about. So it is imperative to the plot that she’s present at all these events to make changes except that in reality if she’s actually turned over a new leaf, she can’t possibly be everywhere all at once unless she’s dragged into the fray by other characters. Therefore in this second timeline she seems to have less agency than she did when she was actively gunning for the empress title.
Part of the problem I have with the romantic endgame is how the story gets there. Because in the original timeline the great love of Xuening’s life was the Justice Minister Zhang Zhe. Despite all her machinations as evil Empress, he was the one guy who couldn’t be bought by anyone. The only human being that she actually had genuine affection for in the rough and tumble of palace conflict. Her feelings were apparently reciprocated despite his own better judgement. So when she becomes reacquainted with him in the second timeline she’s compulsively eager to get close to him again and manages to make him fall for her. Again.
Xie Wei, on the other hand, was the terrifying nemesis in the first timeline. The dark brooding antihero. The bogeyman of her worst nightmares. Even if he is/was her teacher at some point. Maybe it’s the Phantom - Christine dynamic that I’m reacting to. I see the word “toxic” thrown around the web and while I hesitate to use it myself, I can see where commenters are coming from. That jealousy scene which led to the both of them having sex afterwards was scarcely romantic. It could be disturbing or unintentionally comedic depending on how one looks at it. But more importantly, in contrast to that, her relationship with Zhang Zhe that seemed so sweet and wholesome ended before it even began. The justification for that makes little sense to me. She feels guilty about not being able to prevent his mother’s death. She’s not worthy of him. All of that rings hollow. It then begs the question: What made her head turn for him even at her most malevolent ambitious self? Or why he fell for her? I felt short-changed. In truth the show is setting her up to be elsewhere in the storyline. Consequently her affection for Zhang Zhe comes across as a passing whim. A brief schoolgirl infatuation perhaps. A footnote in the scheme of things. A turn in effect that contradicts the claims of the first timeline. It’s clear for the storyteller that it’s an inconvenient state of affairs if she ends up with Zhang Zhe — it impacts her mobility and her ability to land into more scrapes with no powerful man with a coterie of aides to rescue her from her exploits. She needs a more powerful man to keep her safe from herself and there’s a cost that apparently comes with that deal. In exchange her saviour complex is allowed more room to fly. It’s rather instructive too that afterwards Zhang Zhe disappears in and out the narrative which is one of the more frustrating aspects of this production. That’s why I insist on a spin-off series with him as the male lead in the vein of Di Renjie or Bao Zheng. There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s (in the first timeline) set up to be Di Renjie to her Empress Wu. Meanwhile I continue to harbour a suspicion that the showrunners were terrified of this dynamic overshadowing the endgame.
The storyteller is now repositioned as a receptacle or outlet for Xie Wei’s repressed darker impulses. That aforementioned moment of intimacy is symbolic of that. All his pent-up emotions are released as he lurches from one rescue mission to the next. Implied rough sex is the culmination of that. Hence the repeated bodily injuries to invoke pity. She’s Beauty taming the Beast. So she thinks. When in all likelihood Beauty is also being tamed by the Beast.
I like a good Monte Cristo story as much as the next person and this show certainly aspires to follow in the footsteps of a Nirvana in Fire. The fingerprints are all there. Zhang Linghe is a standout in the role of the master strategist. However it lacks the gravitas of its predecessor because of its rather simplistic/abridged version of palace politics and conflict. The show’s overall storyline is highly derivative and it feels it. While it’s fun it’s a veritable soap opera where one side of the family is trying wrestle the entire company from the other. One side of the family is evil and the other side is morally upright. The show repeatedly tells you who you must root for — who are the good guys and who are the baddies. And who should be together. It’s moralizing directed mainly at the impressionable.
Hence the show is fanfiction — several layers of fanfiction in fact. Even without the framing device at the start, the story still plays out like fanfiction. Xuening is the self-insert. She is penning the fix-it fic. Xuening who became the empress was a mistake. That narrative has to be rewritten so that Xuening neutralizes her selfish ambitions and become a self-sacrificing patriot. She then becomes the trophy/reward for the man who sacrifices his childhood and his moral compass and perhaps even his humanity. Nevertheless it is the promise of self-sacrifice rather than the reality of self-sacrifice as seen in Frodo’s arc from Lord from the Rings or even Mei Changsu’s from Nirvana in Fire. Both men gave up everything including their futures so that others can have one. At the end of The Return of the King, when Sam asks Frodo why he has to leave for the Grey Havens when they had saved The Shire. Frodo’s response is poignant and bittersweet. “But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.” That’s why Xie Wei’s so-called self-sacrifice under these circumstances lacks narrative punch. That’s why Lost You Forever (despite my initial misgivings) ends up being a far more impactful show because it embraces this zero-sum game tragic vision of life.
In the midst of all this there’s a character death in the final episode. A rather senseless one, to be frank. There’s no need for the character to die except to make two points. One, the importance of loyalty and two, self-sacrifice. At least in the way that it was set up, the character’s self-sacrifice was needless. So why her? And not Xie Wei? Because the writer knows that some sacrifices have to be made in times of grave conflict. It ups the stakes. But because she’s in love with her male lead she can’t bear for him to never see a day of happiness. So she inserts herself into the story in order that she can heal his wounds and tame the tyrant. It’s her final rescue mission. It’s not surprising then that there are viewers, myself included who think that she is motivated by gratitude and pity to be with him. Even the language shared between them is there right from the beginning. The staging of that final showdown between the Duke Xue and Xie Wei as Ning’er bursts into the scene is silly. So is the kiss before his collapse but it serves as added proof to the thesis presented here.
Consequently Xie Wei then becomes the lie. The fantasy. The rescue fantasy in fact. No man can have everything. But he is the winner that takes all because he is saved by the love of a good woman. At least that’s what we’re led believe. He was endowed with talents and intelligence at birth. He may have been abused by the adults in his life but he was still able to overcome and play the long game. He served in court, had the ear of the emperor himself and was able to influence others. He never frames himself as a victim and yet the people around him insist on telling us that he is a pitiful character to the point of banality. An attempt at softening the viewers for the endgame.
Xie Wei should have died. Or left Qian. (The nightmare insert was correct) He once had near absolute power in his hands. The lives of hundreds of thousands were his to command. Thankfully he used it responsibly for good. So in the end, this is a fanfic about “rescuing” Frodo and Mei Changsu and giving them a happy ending. Kunning is a Disney fairytale not history. Zhang Zhe is the one who makes the sacrifice in this fix-it fic. He gives up his love for her sake even when she undergoes a reformation and for the bigger picture. His principled stand and respect for Ning’er’s agency was used against him by the storyteller. He is unceremoniously dumped because he doesn’t need rescuing by her and he doesn’t have the power to save her from herself.
Yup… the saviour complex in strong in this one.
Chase the Truth gets this part right. People died in that show too. Both cops and gangsters. It’s par for the course. But even the most despicable gangsters know that once they’ve embarked on a trajectory, not even the most beloved women in their lives can hold them back. That’s the one thing the cops and gangsters have in common.
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