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The Autumn Ballad (2022) First Impressions
The beautifully handsome Jeremy Xu Zhengxi and Qiao Qin let sparks fly in this historical romance set in fictional country Dashuo that is an odd mix of criminal investigation, court politics and family melodrama. Jeremy is Liang Yi, head of the Firewood Investigation Office that digs the dirt on corrupt bureaucrats and has a impeccable track record of putting them behind bars much to the chagrin of many. This makes him an unpopular figure among the ruling elites but the man in his ruthless crusade couldn’t care less. He’s on a private mission to give the political Augean stables a strategic clean so that new blood and talent can strengthen the country’s weakening foundation. Although not obvious to him at first, he is also destined to fall for the intrepid Miss Qiu Yan, the daughter of a lower ranked official who spends a great deal of time anachronistically lamenting her lot in life and energetically seeks to improve it. Admittedly she has a lot to lament — the daughter of a concubine who is practically persona non grata in the Qiu household — as she plays musical revolving doors in the marriage gambit. The vocal and sometimes reckless Qiu Yan is not the least bit keen on being family chattel auctioned off to the highest bidder and does her best to be noticed by the amicable and hugely popular
Mr Bingley… uh… I mean Qin Xuan. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s the charming second second of a titled family who unlike his best friend Mr Darcy… um… Liang Yi, is affable and agreeable and doesn’t make it his practice to offend anyone.
It is a truth universally accepted that the rich single lads are ripe for the picking by the eager young ladies and their guardians. The Emperor’s favourite consort has her eye on trying to pair Liang Yi with a nice young lass from among the gentry and he strategically picks the mousey Qiu Min, Qiu Yan’s younger sister because he has some use for their father. Qiu Min, on the other hand, only has eyes for Qin Xuan who in turn has set his sights on Qiu Yan.
Confused? Don’t be. Even if the world of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has been turned upside down in this drama into a game of mix and match, the general character of the tropes haven’t changed all that much. Elizabeth Bennet is still destined to be with Mr Darcy after the crucible of early impressions and family dramas. Qiu Yan only thinks she needs to meet a nice man to get out of her family predicaments. No she doesn’t. Not a nice man at least. Qiu Yan doesn’t do nice nor does she do safe. She is drawn to danger like a moth to a flame. A young woman who spent her youth reading crime fiction as a staple and decrying convention will ultimately find love in the arms of the one who will move heaven and earth to save her entire family from a fate worse than death.
Normally I roll my eyes when there’s an anachronistic female lead who is bell ringing for female emancipation but here I give it a pass because of the way the male lead is set up. He is a cunning fellow prone to being misunderstood (a state of affairs that normally suits him just fine) and he needs a woman who can see right through him, keep up with him even if she is inexperienced in the way of the world outside dysfunctional dynamics of extended family. It’s a constant source of amusement not annoyance when they squabble because it stems from genuine distrust of motives. I’m at a point in the narrative that it’s clear Liang Yi knows he has fallen for Qiu Yan even though he’s about to tie the knot with her sister. It’s an extra blow below the waist when he finds out that she’s the girl he saved 6 years earlier from mountain bandits and gave encouragement to. If only he hadn’t been so harsh and pigheaded at the start.
I’ve been a fan of Jeremy Xu since his stint in The Legend of the Phoenix although I was aware of him in other dramas prior. He has a knack for playing shrewd operators and does a decent turn at looking tortured. He’s certainly very much at home with historical dramas and like others have said, I wouldn’t mind if he did nothing but play aristocratic warriors with top knots for the rest of his acting career. On the other hand I have mixed feelings about Qiao Qin but whatever she does here seems to be adequate for this proto suffragette, a modern woman out of her time. She’s clearly on a growth arc here. However, as I’m getting most of my enjoyment from the romance, it’s easy to point out that the leads have great chemistry and it covers over any other sins that the show might have. Despite the fact that there are detective elements in the show, its biggest selling… dare I say… isn’t who plays Hercule Poirot best but watching two people who aren’t all that different gradually go from being enemies to lovers.