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What I've been watching 28/02/2022
After the higgledy piggledy travesty that was Cupid’s Kitchen, I’ve been bitten by the food porn bug and fortunately for me Royal Feast seems to have hit the spot even after a wobbly start. Oddly enough, the first couple of trailers I saw featured almost no victuals in them but plenty of scenes highlighting the leads in various stages of their relationship. Take away the delectable delicacies, Royal Feast is pretty much your garden variety lavishly looking historical drama headlining a motley crew of individuals skulking about on the palace grounds with competing agendas. Of course food is gloriously important here and everyone is a gourmand or a food critic. The royal family in the days of three Ming emperors gets first dibs at the kitchen offerings and they get to decide what’s good or not. A lot of the action happens in the Imperial Food Bureau’s oversized kitchen where eager women compete to be the top dog and earn the favours of the country’s extended first family. Thankfully we get front row seats at the technicolour kitchen theatre as we gawk uninhibited (and shamelessly) over mouthwatering delights that represent the best of Chinese culture and tradition.
The show has been compared to the iconic Dae Jang Geum for good reason but despite the obvious similarities the two decade old K drama, it has more in common with last year’s The Red Sleeve with various twists of its own. The story begins with the Food Bureau’s latest recruits Su Yuehua, Yao Zijin and Yin Ziping. The heroine here is the practically perfect Yao Zijin played by the elegant Wu Jinyan who very quickly comes to be noticed by the Emperor’s grandson Zhu Zhanji (Xu Kai) who spends his time in his study absorbed in literary and artistic pursuits while helping his helplessly overweight father, the Crown Prince (Hong Jiantao) fend off political attacks on his very large self. Zhangji falls for Zijin rather fast partly because he’s not getting a whole lotta lovin’ from his own sickly consort (Zhang Nan) who is still grumpy about being dragged into the royal fray by her more ambitious siblings. She stays aloof from the young prince even when he makes the right kind of overtures initially and the result is that they don’t have kids. Which is a problem for her.
The inevitable kitchen politics is made more grubby and complex because everybody of any importance in the story has secrets while their rivals are in search of leverage. Belying the celebration of good food is the notion of that feasts, in the right hands, are ripe opportunities for political fights to play out. Even the morose-looking lad who heads up the Jin Yi Wei or the Brocade Guards has his tragic backstory and agenda to drive in particular directions. He too finds himself drawn to the spunky Zijin despite pretending he doesn’t care.
Speaking of Wu Jinyan, I recently also completed The Legend of Hao Lan after almost three years later. I’ve always liked it — the harem politics is as nasty as nasty can be — but because life being what it is, never finished it. Mao Zijun is the big discovery here as the father of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. He plays Ying Yiren or Zichu of Qin state who spends a chunk of his life in Zhao as a hostage prince. There he meets ambitious merchant Lu Buwei (Nie Yuan) and his then concubine Li Haolan. Through a series of unpredictable events and circumstances, Ying Yiren marries Li Haolan and sires their only child together. Yiren is a fascinating creature — a master planner, manipulator and visionary — and Mao Zijun inhabits the role with elegance, quiet confidence and a high regard for the man who laid the foundations for Qin to dominate and subjugate the other warring states under its banner. It’s politics as theatre at its finest. The role of women as seen through Haolan’s misadventures in that political arena also gets plenty of airtime here.
I am barely hanging on with Bulgasal at this point and am only watching it because my children are still keen to keep going. My initial sense that 16 episodes was going to be a hard ask seems to be right on hindsight. The drama drags on, going around in circles because it’s predicated on the notion that nobody’s limited point of view can be trusted for all kinds of reasons. Therefore everyone keeps doing the same thing expecting a different result. But at this point I don’t much care about the sordid past — who killed who, and who did what 1000 years ago. The highlight of the show rests solely on the shoulders of the makeshift family dynamic but even there it isn’t that well utilized because it’s integration with the cursing-ending plot and the so-called romance is far from smooth. After a while the pattern of “will-he-won’t-he” has that sluggish sameness to it. Lee Jin-uk’s character runs around trying to kill someone in every episode depending on what he finds out rather than making better use of the time he has before he ends the entire fiasco to spend with his new and not-so-new family. Instead the lion’s share of his interactions are with Kwon Nara’s character. I’m consistently befuddled as to why she has as much screen time as she does with her tendency to cause more problems than solve them. She’s an archetype that doesn’t sit comfortably in a story like this, apart from trying to imply a budding romance which doesn’t really contribute a great deal to the present timeline. I think my muted disappointment with his one comes from the fact that I was expecting this to be more along the lines of Uncanny Counter.
The historical romance The Autumn Ballad was my first crack drama for the year until Episode 28. Before that happened, I was pretty much onboard with everything. It’s left a bitter aftertaste and I’m less enthused about what’s coming. After an involuntary confession in front of Jeremy Xu’s character Liang Yi, that she wants to be his wife forever and stay with him, Qiu Yan decides she wants to be free and independent to travel the country and collect material for her book. All in the same episode. And with no warning. What has she been doing in the last 27 episodes if not to accumulate content for her forthcoming book. Moreover, it isn’t as if she is some great pugilist capable of handling actual physical dangers. And what about the persistent Yuan Lang who kidnapped her once? It’s one of my least favourite plot devices but at least it’s happening early and not half an hour into the final episode. Whatever justifications fans can come up with for this abrupt shift into the final act, it still feels far too much like a case of bait and switch. Or a separation device. Using her proto-feminist stance by way of an explanation for this new development doesn’t excuse it from indulging in clumsy/sloppy storytelling and the shoehorning of plot devices.
Still Jeremy Xu is never not wonderful in this. And the chemistry between the leads has been consistently outstanding.
Ghost Doctor that finished airing last week was a good-enough-to-watch drama but fell short of greatness because it spent an inordinate amount of time on aspects of the show that were less interesting (Young-min’s relationship with Uee’s weepy character being the obvious culprit) than on the more poignant and pivotal parts of the drama like the arcs of the other wandering comatosed spirits, Young-min’s relationship with Seung-tak, Seung-tak’s relationship with love interest Soo-jin and the other miscellaneous almost useless surgeons in the cardiothoracic department. The medical side of things was top-notch though — well-researched and almost on par with Hospital Playlist and speaking of which, I am sure that many of the same locations were used in both shows. The bromance between Rain’s Young-min and Kim Beom’s Seung-tak is really the reasons to watch this.
I don’t usually talk about western dramas on this blog except in passing but when I came down with a bug, I watched the new Jack Reacher drama with the other half that’s streaming on Amazon Prime and wanted to give it a plug. I’ve only read two Reacher books and I’ve seen the Tom Cruise movies but this adaptation of the first novel, The Killing Floor, is almost the book come to life. Alan Ritchson largely fits the description of book Reacher even if he errs on the bulky side. He’s good acting wise in the role and I found myself chuckling at his back and forth with Malcolm Goodwin who plays Oscar Finlay. His chemistry with Willa Fitzgerald as Roscoe Conklin is also a casting coup. The only real criticism I have of it is the big showdown at the end which calls for a great deal of suspension of disbelief.
I also caught Young Wallander on Netflix while I was laid up with the flu. I’m a fan of the Kenneth Branagh series so this was a no-brainer. It was interesting that watching this unfold had me thinking about many K dramas in light of the themes presented. I think it had rather mixed reviews when it first came out but I really didn’t mind it at all. Adam Paisson has a lovely boy-next-door quality rather than Branagh’s more moody, jaded persona. I note that the second season has recently come online and I might take a look when time permits.
Mindhunter reminded me of why I spend more time with Asian dramas these days. Under the guise of doing research on serial killers, the show is really about sex. I can certainly see the correlation between the two but a lot of it feels like an excuse to go pornographic. I finally dropped this after 7 episodes with no desire to go further. Not my cup of tea. It’s safe to bet that I’ll get the same character trajectories with Through the Darkness without the unnecessary bits.
Finally on this really long list is Maison de Police, a heartwarming, humorous J drama about a young detective who collaborates with a group of ex and retired cops who now live together under the same roof. It’s running gag that the ex-police commissioner’s inherited family home is often called a nursing home. I came for Nishijima Hidetoshi and stayed for the entire package. The cases aren’t a stretch although there’s the occasional surprise but it’s the dynamic of these men and the “rookie” that makes this quirky gem an absolute joy and delight. As one might expect there are plenty of ageing jokes to be had as well as quick derisive banter between strange bedfellows. Despite the age gap, I found myself wanting a bit of romance between Nishijima’s Sasuke and the only female in the team, Makino Hiyori. In more ways than one this is a much lighter, child-friendlier version of the long-running British series New Tricks.