The Mysterious Lotus Casebook (2023) First Impressions
A title of this nature pretty much speaks for itself. A humorous hodgepodge of wuxia action, politics and murder mysteries starring Cheng Yi, Joseph Zeng and Xiao Shunyao as an unlikely trio travelling around the martial arts world (jianghu) for various reasons. Cheng Yi’s character Li Lianhua aka Li Xiangyi is looking for the remains of his beloved senior, while Joseph Zeng’s Fan Duobing is aiming to prove himself to the Pinkerton detective agency of his era, Banchuan Yuan. Xiao Shunyao’s Di Feisheng however wants to have a final showdown with Li Xiangyi so that he can say fair and square that he’s No.1 Unfortunately for him that’s no longer possible because 10 years earlier, leading up to a skirmish between Li Xiangyi and Di Feisheng, the former was deliberately poisoned barely making it out alive. The two challengers from opposing pugilistic sects and their rivalry caused a great deal of upheaval which tragically led to high body count.
At the start of the drama Li Xiangyi has taken on the persona of Li Lianhua (lotus), a wandering physician with a reputation as something of a miracle healer. This moniker isn’t entirely without foundation. He is a skilled doctor in his own right but more importantly, a shrewd observer of the human condition. The glibness with which he tells lies is at times astonishing. This combination makes him a highly effective sleuth in the vein of the world famous resident of 22B Baker Street. Early on he encounters Fan Duobing who is eager to traverse the length and breath of jianghu away from the all-protective eye of his aristocratic parents. The two cross swords at first sight and bicker a-plenty until Di Fengsheng enters the picture wanting a rematch. The ignorant lad, mercilessly lied to by his companions, fails to notice that he’s among giants in wulin, is quick to direct his wrath against the surly newcomer who looks upon him like a Goliath looks upon David. Soon the caravan that Li Lianhua travels around in with his trusty doggy Fox Spirit becomes crowded.
Fan Duobing is clearly meant to be a composite figure. On the one hand he’s the stereotypical rookie in every freshly formed team but conveniently clueless when he needs to be and strikingly perspicuous when the moment calls. He is capable of hitting the nail on the head at crucial moments so that he’s not a complete waste of tv oxygen. Joseph Zeng is a work in progress but for the most part he tackles the role with a great deal of gusto. I loved him in Heavenly Sword and Dragon Slaying Sabre (2019) so I’m able to overlook the limitations. While I’m well aware that he is supposed to be the butt of humour and is on some kind of growth journey (of course), it’s painful that the lad clearly lacks common sense which for about 8 episodes sees me facepalming. He’s run away from home with two servants and not a lot of cash. His lack of financial savvy becomes something of a running gag and he ends up leeching off Li Lianhua while eyeing him as suspect number one for the role of murderer or the infamous Medicine Demon.
In the early episodes the show relies a little too much on the impulsiveness of those-not-called Li Lianhua and random red herrings that look so obviously like red herrings. Compared to something like Ancient Detective, Imperial Coroner or even last year’s The Blood of Youth, what’s needed is a disciplined hand especially with regards to eliciting humour.
Still it’s a lot of fun and there’s some genuinely decent detective work in the script. The show finds its groove at around Episode 6. The cases are generally intriguing and there’s always much more than meets the eye. The grave robber arc is my favourite so far firstly because of the multiple agendas at play and what that leads to; and secondly, it adds to the world building — grave robbers, as disreputable then as it is now, have their own niche in this martial arts world. They have their tools of the trade and their own language in which they conduct business. But like all kinds of theft, there’s very little honour among thieves.
While his friends and former subordinates are speculating over his survival, Li Lianhua prefers to stay away. He believes that the catastrophe of 10 years ago was largely the result of his hubris and really the only thing he’s living for in his remaining months is to find what’s left of his senior. He’s also guilty over former flame who was tired of waiting for him. Still he lets himself get roped into one mystery after another because many of them intersect with the path that he’s on.
Women are set up to be potential disruptors to jianghu utopia. They don’t belong. They don’t get it. The code of chivalry gets in the way of “romance”. Or vice versa depending on where you stand. Men compete to be the best but the ladies would rather they didn’t as it would lead to troublesome injuries or fatalities. Men have obligations to their brothers-in-arms — also a nuisance because their men go off on long journeys and take forever to return to home and hearth.
I do feel a tad sorry for Fan Duobing despite my criticisms. He is largely kept in the dark about the identities of his esteemed companions. It’s especially hilarious because he idolizes Li Xingyi and has no idea that the sullen A’Fei that rubs him up the wrong way is a figure of notoriety.
So far it’s an enjoyable watch despite a wobbly start and half-hearted world building. It does get better as the story progresses and there’s no denying that the humour improves once the duo becomes trio.
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