This recent offering from mainland China is the first so-called historical drama since Ancient Detective that I haven't felt the slightest urge to drop after the obligatory first act. It's one that I've been looking forward to probably since the end of last year and 18 episodes on, it's delivering. The production boasts not only the reunion of leads Ju Jingyi and Zhang Zhehan from the Legend of Yunxi (2018) fame but also much of the cast and all of the crew from that surprise hit. It has a good balance of the comedic and the serious. If the show somehow... and even miraculously manages to maintain its momentum right to the end, it will be a better show than its predecessor. Already I feel it's addictive pull... something I haven't experienced for some time now.
Ruyi Pavilion is not a sequel of the Legend of Yunxi and has a completely different storyline. While it has a smattering of wuxia elements, it isn't an outright jianghu story. While it dabbles with premonitions as a plot device, it's not defined by the fantasy tag. There are elements of a palace drama with the usual kinds of power struggles and court intrigue. The story begins with a bump on the head and bad dreams. The female lead Fu Rong on a kite extraction expedition falls to the ground and begins to see visions during her slumber of possible future events. Being the good-hearted and conniving sort, she attempts to find ways and means to prevent various incidents from happening well aware that nobody will ever believe that she has the selective power of foresight. She is also privy to events related to Xu Jin, the emperor's fourth son, Prince Su and if the premonitions are to be believed, it bodes an ill-fated connection. Fu Rong is the second daughter of a local magistrate and is the glib troublemaker of her family.
Around the time they meet, Xu Jin has just returned to the capital from his military duties at the border. As a child, he allegedly caused an incident among the royals which sealed his reputation as a jinx. He is summoned back to the palace to answer for his actions because he summarily executed the Superintendent of the Imperial Guards for his part in a conspiracy to siphon off military rations. As a result he becomes the target of a series of assassination attempts. To investigate the matter further, the emperor installs him as the latest commander of the Imperial Guards warning him to be circumspect and judicious at all times.
Much of the early part of the show sees Fu Rong trying to avoid Xu Jin because of their ill-fated connection but hilariously enough as she stumbles into one thing after another they inevitably cross swords... of the verbal kind at least. She's a bit of a busybody but means well and he's an official investigator who takes his job seriously. They were always destined to cross paths. Whether guided by greater cosmic forces or by character all attempts by her to avoid him are rendered futile by her choices and circumstances.
As was the case with Yunxi, this drama features a love polygon of sorts. Unlike Yunxi, the love polygon here is pretty meh because the "other man" is really not the exactly the stuff of dreams. (On the contrary, he seems to be the stuff of nightmares) Xu Ping is Prince An, the emperor's younger brother and he maintains a dual identity as an enigmatic scholar who holds rockstar status in the capital. He's an old childhood buddy of Fu Rong's and he's always liked her. During an arts event organised by him they meet briefly and although he recognises her, she doesn't recognise him at first. Xu Ping initially seems like a suave, leisured scholar but he too is plotting against Xu Jin and the emperor because he has mummy issues. A decade earlier, Xu Jin was sent to the temple to recite sutras and pray only to accidentally kick over a candle and set fire to the place which resulted in the death of Xu Ping's mother. Xu Ping believes, as I do, that there was more to it than meets the eye but the emperor is being tight-lipped about the matter.
I don't think it's that much of a spoiler to say that many of the plots directed towards Xu Jin come from the third prince, Xu Mao who is your run-of-the-mill avaricious, ambitious royal who is aided and abetted by his uncle the Marquis of Xindu. His cousin and the marquis' older son is Wu Baiqi who after a serious falling out with his dad years earlier joined the Imperial Guards. When Xu Ping begins piggybacking on his nephew's schemes, it's when things started to get horribly nasty.
Brokering these various parties, is the legendary Ruyi Pavilion an outfit that deals in intelligence to those who can pay for it. The owner has accumulated secrets over the years and when the time is ripe she sends out what is essentially relevant blackmail material to get things moving.
While the scheming of the show isn't exactly in the calibre of Nirvana in Fire, it does have some semblance of gravity and plausibility. There are genuine stakes and consequences to people committing political mistakes. After Maiden Holmes I've come to realise that I can't watch rom coms masquerading as palace dramas. I don't have the stomach for it. It's fine to have humour and romance but when the male lead who should know better starts making amateurish mistakes or acts like he's living in the 21st century, I can't help feeling that I'm too old to be wasting time on those even if the chemistry is off the charts. Plot is king.
For me Ruyi Pavilion gets it right for the most part. The romance, I have to say, is well done. The humour usually lands well. Of course Ju Jingyi and Zhang Zhehan's natural chemistry has become iconic thanks to Yunxi but thankfully the show doesn't rely on that in its storytelling. Their dynamic for the most part is different from their previous collaboration largely because Zhang Zhehan's character, Xu Jing is cut from a somewhat different cloth. While he may be aloof as it befits a man of his station, he is capable of being companionable and speaking his mind. He also has an unexpectedly boyishly mischievous streak which surfaces mostly when with interacting with Fu Rong. Kudos to Zhang Zhehan for a well-rounded performance which has me grinning from ear to ear.
I'm also enjoying the romance between Fu Rong's sister, Fu Xuan and Wu Baiqi. It's not really a competition as to which is better. Not for me at least. They're both well done and feed into the bigger storyline organically. There's also the added bonus of character development for all concerned driven by the romance. Wu Baiqi needs to pull up his socks and Fu Xuan could loosen her corset a tad.
Both these male leads in my book are very swoony in the sense that they know exactly what they want and go for it. They're generally smart about it and they don't push too hard too soon. But they strike while the iron is hot. They do understand who these women are and may even revel in the challenge so they come across as worthy suitors. On some level I would like Xu Ping to be a better rival for Xu Jin of course but he's a hard character to root for. I never really thought I would suffer pangs of second male lead syndrome to begin with but there's really nothing to see here at all. It's obvious on her side that it's all just chummy. A clever thing the show does early on is to show how very little they have in common. She spends a short stint at his studio running errands and is completely bored out of her mind. She has no scholarly bent whatsoever although under her teacher's tutelage, she is growing as a jewellery designer. There's no doubting though that she's drawn to danger like a moth to a flame because she is an inveterate busybody.
To be honest, I kept my expectations low at the start but the show has done better than I expected and aside from a couple of niggly things, it's giving me hope. At the end of the day, it's a C drama.... one can never be too sure until the big bad croaks. But we're certainly hoping for a happily-ever-after for the leads.