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The Oath of Love (2022) First Impressions
Yang Zi and Xiao Zhan star as opposites at different stages in their professional trajectories in this recently released romance-centred drama from the mainland. Yang Zi plays Lin Zhixiao a university undergraduate studying music with a special focus on the cello. Xiao Zhan, on the other hand is Gu Wei, an established, respected gastroenterologist/ general surgeon who at the start of the drama finds no reason to remain in clinical practice. The two first meet under the silliest circumstances at a drinking establishment (where obligatory chaos is bound to ensue) calculated to leave an unforgettable first impression and then find themselves in a follow-up encounter at a hospital to where the good doctor labours and where Zhixiao’s curmudgeonly father gets treatment for his tummy issues. All of this seals the deal. It’s a predictably disastrous beginning for two people who are (from all the trailers and previews) destined to fall in love and end up together against all odds. Just picture Mr Darcy getting dragged along by his well-meaning cousin, Mr Bingley to a pub to pick up women over drinks. Stand back and watch him bark in his most surly manner, “Beautiful women? Where are all the beautiful women?”
It’s chapter and verse from the rom com libretto and it might elicit a polite yawn or a discreet eye roll. But thank heavens it’s only for the first few episodes where everyone braces themselves for the worst and nothing really bad eventuates. From then on it does live up to the hype.
After a wobbly opening almost sinking into a mire of tropisms, the show finally comes into its own after the fourth episode when the show happily strays from its rom com origins and becomes a rather more delightful slice-of-life romance between two people who might not normally find themselves in the same room except for the wildly unpredictable nature of life. In very little time the coolly handsome Gu Wei falls hard and fast for the budding young cellist. In no time flat everybody including a cute kid can see that something’s different about the perfectionist doctor… all except the woman at the centre of his affections.
Someone else who notices fairly quickly and disapproves equally strongly is a rather overbearing colleague Gao Xi (Ma Yuxie) who has had her eye on Gu Wei since their student days. She has also received the parental stamp of approval which complicates things somewhat for the indifferent Gu Wei and gives her justification for staking her claim. I suppose even a show like this feels that it needs villains but Gao Xi is turning into a veritable menace. She’s now spying on him and carrying tales back to Mum and Dad for rearguard support because she’s so obviously incapable of winning his heart based on her own good qualities. It is disappointing to see that a woman of her age hasn’t come round to the idea that if a man hasn’t made a move already after a decade, then you know… I mean… come on already… let’s face it… he’s just not that into you.
The genius of this show and what makes this a much more captivating show than many a romance that’s fallen my way is due to the staging and playing out of the male lead’s reaction to the female lead even when she’s not there: The way he looks at her when she’s in the room as if nobody else matters. The way he charmingly smiles to himself when he thinks no one is watching or when he randomly recalls a moment with her when he’s reading boring medical textbooks. This entire scenario is obviously not only wonderfully enhanced by the fact that the male lead falls for the female lead first but because of the fact that he does fall for her first — which is exactly the way God intended it. There is something pleasing to the senses about watching a man adjust his priorities, act outside his comfort zone and just generally do seemingly uncharacteristic things because there’s a woman he wants to please and protect with a new sense of purpose burning in his heart. There is something inherently fitting about the man being the initiator and pursuer, doing all the heavy lifting because at the end of the day, the woman in the relationship needs to experience security from what her beloved is ready to do and the lengths he is prepared to go for her. This I suspect might be what people mean when they say something puzzling like “a woman should marry a man who loves her more than she loves him.”
This is also why these typical jealous, catty, scheming unloved females (as exemplified here) that dominate love triangles are more common in fiction than reality. Most women sensibly know that genuine love can’t come forth from coercion even if they silently pine for the man of their dreams in the privacy of their bedrooms. I don’t think anyone in their right mind actually wants long-term investment with someone who’s in love with someone else when ultimately there is no emotional security in that. It seems unnecessarily stressful and ridiculously hard work. Even from a purely self-interest perspective, the mental turmoil is poor compensation for all the trouble. I understand human greed but it’s a case of short-term gain that results in long-term pain. It is also mind boggling that Gao Xi doesn’t think there’s anything wrong in the slightest with reading other people’s private emails at work and already that tells me that her ethical compass will take her down the path of hell. It is rather telling too that she is at that point of desperation that it doesn’t even occur to her that her recent attempts to sabotage Gu Wei’s bid for independence might not endear her to him in the long run.
Gao Xi has had the benefit of time but time is not the factor some romances might have you believe. First come isn’t necessarily first served. Gu Wei’s perception of her has always been that of classmate and colleague. He’s workzoned her for years. He says so himself unequivocally to a bewildered Zhixiao wondering why he’s being so hilariously emphatic about it. It’s not just that he isn’t interested in dating and marrying a fellow doctor, it’s that he evidently has other ideas about what dating/marriage should look like and Gao Xi just doesn’t fit the bill. Perhaps he wants to draw a clear line between personal stuff and work. Perhaps there’s more to life for him than work or medicine. Or maybe he just wants someone with a different perspective he can talk to about life in general. Zhixiao was, afterall, the one who managed to talk him out of leaving clinical practice not the longtime colleague who thinks she knows him best.
I give credit the writer here for giving the leads some terrific interactions and to the director for framing them so nicely in predominantly ordinary routine events while imbuing them with new aspects. There is something about the “drama queen” personality of Zhixiao that has widespread appeal and really, despite the obvious differences in personality, it’s not that hard to see why he’s come to like her so quickly. Her banter with everyone especially her father is easily one of the best parts of the show. She’s extroverted, witty and good-humoured. Not unlike a certain Elizabeth Bennet I might add. Gao Xi despite her good looks is as dull as dishwater next to her. All the years of having her somewhat overbearing, strict dad as a sparring partner has sharpened Zhixiao’s verbal skills. A case in point. In a bit of a sleight of hand Gu Wei cunningly asks her if she looks after her boyfriend as well as she looks after her dad. This is what she says to him in rather exasperated fashion:
“My boyfriend? Sigh. My boyfriend must be still on his way to get acquainted with me. When he arrives, I will say to him, ‘It’s been so many years, why have you taken so long to show up?’ “
It isn’t just the humour she brings to the mundane that captivates Gu Wei but her good sense and all-round likeability. He’s seen her in action caring assiduously for her cantankerous dad but he has also seen her interact with the aforementioned cute kid who occupies the bed next to her father’s. There’s nothing like a glib kid to bring two people together and the best part is that they don’t have to bring him home or tuck him in bed either. It’s likely that she checks all the boxes of a list he didn’t even know he was carrying around in his head. She also happens to come along during a crossroad in his journey where he became fixated with a single perspective of is so-called failure to save his mentor. It was she who was able to act as a listening ear and sounding board, reminding him of the all-too human face of medicine.
Much of the humour has also come from the fact that Gu Wei is sauntering around her going “look at me, look at me” while Zhixiao is completely oblivious to his schemes until bestie Sansan sets her right. Even though no one’s confessed yet, he’s already hugged her, fondled her hair, touched her forehead, done a hand hold, held her arm more than once. There’s no doubting that he has in mind the arduous task of making babies with her eventually.
Neither of the leads have to be extraordinary here but their chemistry, still in its infancy as I write this, more or less works. Yang Zi in particular is very good with her delivery and her long experience in the acting game shows. One of my favourite moments in the show involves the cute kid distributing cake during his farewell party to the people that were involved in his recovery. What’s really fascinating is that on one level it is about the adults saying goodbye to cute kid but on another level it hints darkly at a love triangle that’s taking shape — its overtones as well as undercurrents with the key players present. In this scene Gu Wei’s stakes his preference for one woman’s opinion over another when the subject of what constitutes clean cutlery comes up. Yang Zi as Zhixiao senses that there’s some awkward tension in the air but that confused look on her face says it all. She knows that something important involving her has just transpired but she can’t quite put her finger on what it is.