What I've Been Watching 4 July 2022
Begin Again (2020): Among all of the contract marriage stories that have emerged out of C and K drama sausage factories in recent years, this is easily one of the best. All the usual ingredients are unabashedly present but the writing and performances puts this one in a class almost entirely on its own. The two-hour whet-the-appetite “movie” version first appeared on my Tube feed, then I went on the hunt for the 35-episode drama version (also found on the Tube) which was better by miles.
On a more elementary level, the show really does nothing new but what it does do with the old tricks is imbue them with a boldness and down-to-earth quality that elevates the tropisms. The show knows precisely what it is by inserting satirical elements and occasionally breaking the fourth wall but it never loses its way by drowning itself in unnecessary melodrama as it nods its way through the romance comedy tropes in relentless fashion. In 35 episodes, the show goes through the entire gamut including a six-year separation, a child and the detestable noble idiocy. It is the whole house including the kitchen sink and the garden shed. Yet it comes together somehow and seldom feels like a mere revisit of of all the usual cliches. In the final analysis the drama’s decided success lies largely in the execution of a well-considered script.
It all begins where it usually begins — a threat by a family elder but with a bit of a twist. Lu Fangning (played by the versatile Zhou Yutong) is the CEO of the family business but doesn’t have a lot of credibility with the more conservative board members. Her father thinks that marrying and producing a child will help improve her currency with the oldies so hands her an ultimatum. As might be expected, she’s not terribly keen on being tied down by a man or a child until she crosses paths with the calmly handsome surgeon, Ling Rui, acted by immensely attractive Gong Jun. She’s smitten right away but he takes a lot more convincing largely because of her domineering, brash personality. On the surface it looks like something of a role reversal initially but it is not a simple case of subversion that the drama plays up with no small amount of glee.
So what’s the good and otherwise sensible doctor’s excuse for signing on to a ridiculous marriage contract with a woman whose goals are completely different to his? Well, his youngest aunt is in debt and while he earns a good enough wage to live on, the sum that is owed is a hefty one. The other reason, however, is one he keeps to himself. He inevitably discovers… wait for it… that they have a childhood connection. Alas it’s fate and he owes her a debt of gratitude for being the closest thing to a friend during the most difficult time of his life. She might carry off the bossy bravado with defiant aplomb but he remembers that there was a heart of gold beating under it. Besides, it’s only for a year. Or until the debt is paid. While Ling Rui may look like a he’s pushover because he has a good bedside manner, he can still drive a mean bargain like the best of them.
This all sounds like a recipe for an explosive disaster and it could be except that everybody’s favourite surgeon (that’s no hyperbole) does gradually fall for Fanning’s winning albeit bombastic ways. However, being honest with his feelings doesn’t come easily for Ling Rui who is often wracked with doubts about being putty in her hands. He can’t be sure that she’s not trying to use him to further her own ends and she doesn’t know what she’s doing wrong when she’s already at her wits end. A shouting match ensues, she goes cold on him and then he resolves to woo her properly. To begin again as it were.
All is well and the show enters into phase two where the two start behaving like a genuinely loving married couple to plenty of disgusted onlookers. External obstacles come by and serve only to strengthen their bond. An employee of the company wreaks havoc and Ling Rui is there to hold her hand at every point even to the point of giving up his lifelong dream as a fellow at a medical research institution in Germany. She’s in the dark until his mother comes crying and pleading with her. Immediately Fangning is guilt-stricken, thinking that she’s really been a disturbance in his otherwise well-ordered existence. In an excessive display of martyrdom, she leaves a set of divorce papers behind, takes off in the middle of the night only to discover later that she’s pregnant. All in that order. Meanwhile Ling Rui runs around frantically in search of his missing wife in all her favourite haunts and takes his heartbroken self off to Germany.
It’s the dreaded Noble Idiocy 101 and in the scheme of things, an entirely pointless exercise because there was no reason why they couldn’t have all gone to Germany together after the debacle at the company. But then there wouldn’t be an entertaining phase three to complete this heartwarming “healing” drama.
Phase three sees the return of Fangning to the mainland because her business partner has “kidnapped” her five-year-old son, Yoyo to force her hand. Little Yoyo, who is a constant source of delight, has his own agenda — he wants to find his dad in the haystack of the city where his parents met and fell in love. Fortunately for him and for us, Yoyo finds his dad sooner rather than later and more frivolity ensues when Ling Rui tries to insert himself into Fangning’s life via the willing conduit of their precocious son.
There’s little doubt that phase three is my favourite not just because there’s an adorable child in the mix. Cute kids in contract marriages is always a bonus. Cute kids in contract marriages spouting great dialogue beyond their years is to die for. What elevates the ludicrous nature of the entire scenario brought about by the noble idiocy of six years ago is the writers’ profound understanding of fallen human dynamics. The kind of games men and women play to protect their egos. Two people separated not by the machinations of others but by hubris disguised as well-meaning sacrifice. It’s not a burden of love as they think but an exhibition of pride — Fangning was evidently trying to outdo Ling Rui in the art of self-sacrifice. In her mind, he gave up his dream for her so now as compensation she will give up everything for him. Including him. (Note the absurd irony of the situation). As usual she was trying to outdo the competition.
Except of course that’s not how marriage works.
On some level it make sense for a couple to begin again, try and rebuild their marriage because they have a child together. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that but there are plenty of hurt feelings and guilt floating in the ether that remain unspoken for longer than is healthy. Ling Rui who is still traumatized by her unceremonious hasty departure lives in constant fear that she will do her disappearing act again. Hence all his schemes are calculated to keep her permanently close even if it means using their son. Fangning, on the other hand, is saddled by so much guilt that she can’t imagine why Ling Rui would even think to reconcile except under obligation for the sake of their son. She was a disruptive influence in his life right from the start so her desire to set him free is not without some well-meaning intent to “compensate”. On the other hand, she’s helplessly confused by Ling Rui’s newfound take-charge attitude that’s backing her into all kinds of corners. She can sense the seething resentment in the overbearing demeanour but not the fear that’s really driving things.
It is sly of the writers to turn the roots of the noble idiocy into a character flaw but that gives it a certain credibility and mileage for storytelling when Ling Rui and Fangning skirt the elephant in the room and dance around each other awkwardly before reaching their happily-ever-after. Zhou Yutong and Gong Jun are just magic together but there’s no doubt that the little Youyou played by the appropriately named Honney is the cherry on top. When they play happy family, the place is dripping with sweetness like a well-stacked pyramid of profiteroles. Besides the noble idiocy provides plenty of fodder for moralizing about how couples are responsible for the flourishing of their marriages.
The cast (which includes family members and colleagues) are well-positioned in this dense forest of personalities but it’s the leads that really hold the whole edifice (sometimes on very shaky ground) together. They are both fine actors in their own right but especially Zhou Yutong who is very good with the comedic side of things. Gong Jun when he grins mischievously with a glint in his eye reminds me of Cary Elwes of Princess Bride fame. This drama too has some of the wittiest and funniest dialogue that I’ve seen in a C drama.
The show is not without its weaknesses. It is baffling that every single C drama including rom coms feels the need for some kind of faux villain with a revenge agenda that hardly makes any sense except to throw the proverbial spanner in the works. I can’t see the character’s justification for causing as much damage as he does and I’m getting rather weary of people using grief as the rationale for fictional vengeance as if to imply that it mitigates the outcomes of the offence. I also think that the push and pull between Lu Yiyao and Cai Siyu though amusing becomes unnecessarily protracted. It’s naked plot manipulation to walk in step with the leads’ own relationship woes just as the separation trope is. I don’t necessarily object to the six year time skip because we get a lot of delightful father-son bonding but it is still what it is — bald convenience for the production that takes away from an otherwise grounded script.
Still the moralizing around marriage is one that I can largely get onboard with. Marriage isn’t two people acting as separate entities as they individually see fit. It certainly isn’t just a transaction like any other or any other relationship. “The two shall become one flesh.” Marriage is profoundly spiritual. Even when the leads make a mockery of the institution with their “business” contract, because they try to accommodate each other as they live together, they learn to love each other in unexpected ways. Perhaps even to the extent of having a greater awareness than those who fall in love first and then marry. Frankly, to my mind, more than the lead couple still having feelings for each other is the more important question of forgiveness. What keeps couples together isn’t love so much as forgiveness. Unless Ling Rui and Fangning can forgive each other, they will forever be at an impasse. He can only resort to tricks and machinations to get her to stay. She will continue to walk on eggshells around him unsure where she stands with him, feeling undeserving of any second chance.
Thank goodness for friends to provide an outsider’s point of view or they’d be going around in circles forever. This is the part of the show that has the most traction with me. It’s also, I think the most realistic. Good, clear communication is undoubtedly essential in a marriage but genuine forgiveness brings some degree of healing… so that they can Begin Again.
A Dream of Splendor: I'm only up to Episode 12 even at this point. I wanted to persevere with this one because it is obviously a quality production but it’s not as addictive as it should be. I know it is a good drama, all the elements are there -- I love the Song dynasty, there's a wealth of historical information, capable female characters and a shrewd male lead -- but the storytelling continues to bother me: there's far more exposition in this than is needed and with the cast of thousands, it often leaves me wondering how important most of them are in the scheme of things. It saddens me somewhat that they have to turn the ex Ouyang Xu into a villain because he made bad choices under duress and because he doesn't have much of a spine. It's early days for me but for a show that looks sophisticated and classy, the storytelling is surprisingly prosaic. It's really not that hard to see where things are headed especially if you're a seasoned drama viewer. Everything feels... so glaringly familiar.
Fall in Love: The anodyne title says it all. (Although the Chinese title is a lot more suggestive: Love From Zero to One — a play on the names of the male characters) It’s one of those cheap and nasty time-wasters which has a surprisingly decent ending (if one can last that long). No show that features mental health issues is ever going to make it out at the other end completely unscathed but one that has a love triangle that includes a split personality is always going to be a hard sell. A destitute cousin of Hyde, Jekyll and Me to be sure but with a much more reasonable ending. I finished it for the leads not the incoherent script.
For some unknown reason it reminded me of the old Japanese drama Zettai Kareshi or Absolute Boyfriend (which has been remade in Taiwan and South Korea). I seem to remember seeing a trailer for a German version. It’s certainly an interesting take about what makes us human but apparently some have interpreted this piece of satirical science fiction as saying that the programmable fantasy robot can somehow replace the human boyfriend. A endless diet of romance dramas can certainly have that effect.
Our Times (2015): This is an older Taiwanese high school film starring Darren Wang and Vivian Sung that I came across via another channel on the Tube. It was surprisingly addictive and included a nice set of cameos by Joe Chen and Jerry Yan. It was a punchy heartwarming growing up story centred around the unlikely friendship between the Andy Lau-loving Zhenxin and the school’s biggest thug, Taiyu formed to help each other win their respective crushes only to end up falling for each other. It’s not really a spoiler because it’s pretty obvious where the show’s headed from the start. I can hardly watch K high school dramas apparently but high school dramas from elsewhere (especially J ones) are fine with me.
Cafe Minambang: This is crazy hilarious and has potential. Very over-the-top. Admittedly I started watching it for Seo In-guk and Kwak Si-yang. Not disappointed so far. Kwak Si-yang just continues to amaze me with his versatility. It’s not every good-looking actor who is willing to do this to himself.
Anyway, it’s far more entertaining than Doom At Your Service already.