Who Rules the World (2022) Early Impressions
Minor spoilers for Episodes 1-6
Finally, a wuxia drama with excellent pacing and engaging fight scenes that had my attention out the blocks. Even with a cast of thousands, the storytelling and characterization sings quality. So far this bodes great things to come. It is symphonic with many moving parts led by a conductor who is aware that God is in the details. I can’t claim to be a fan of either of the leads, Yang Yang and Zhao Lushi, but they seem well cast in their respective roles as two jianghu identities that take gleeful pleasure in bickering over motives and methods as they investigate the sudden emergence of a bloodthirsty pugilistic sect known as the Soul Takers and seek out the method to the madness in a recent spate of killings.
At the start of the drama the leads are introduced as Hei Fengxi and Bai Fengxi (black and white) who (along with everybody else in the martial arts world) are on the trail of some McGuffin object known as the Empyrean token that legitimizes the Dadong imperial family’s authority. The set-up is somewhat Dune-like. There’s a ruling family overseeing several houses/fiefdoms who may or may not have agendas of their own. When the Empyrean token goes AWOL, every province is on the move to make sure that it falls into their hands. These are tumultuous times awaiting a leader who is itching to unify the whole country under a single ruler.
Doning one of his hats, Hei Fengxi aka Feng Lanxi (Yang Yang) runs an efficient intelligence network (Fountain Abode) across the country assisted by the ubiquity of well-trained gyrfalcons. Among the martial arts community he is known as one of the Four Gentlemen while closer to home he is a prince, a possible contender for the seat of Yongzhou in competition with his younger half brother (Liu Ruilin last seen in The Autumn Ballad). It’s the usual story of jostling for power where palace politics is concerned but it’s not the primary focus of the drama. Unlike what Bai Fengxi thinks about him, he is really one of the good guys doing his bit to keep the peace. It’s obvious that he has the smarts and the wherewithal not just to take over from his father but to take control of the entire world. However, the father in question is probably more interested in ensuring that his progeny are duking it out amongst themselves than to be more definite about who his successor might be.
Lanxi’s dual identity is a constant juggling act which is always hugely entertaining to watch. After all it takes a brilliant mind to manage the farce with meticulous detail. To the people in his province he is a weak sickly prince but this is merely his cover story so that he can get on with the task of protecting that which he wants to protect. There is undoubtedly something of the superhero vigilante about him, not unlike Zorro or the bat crusader.
It is not easy to be sure of what the Soul Takers are up to at this point. One thing we can be sure of is that they are building an army. They may be ruthless in carrying out their deeds but they are mere foot soldiers who leave nothing to chance even when caught. Bai Fengxi, a member of the righteous Tianshuang sect has made it her mission to protect the potential targets and deal with the villains of the piece.
Apart from Feng Lanxi and Bai Fengxi, there are all kinds of fascinating characters wandering around in the story particularly because there’s a rush for the token. For instance Leon Lai pops up as the successor to Yingzhou as does Zhang Haowei as another Gentleman of jianghu. In this early stage it’s hard to tell where they all line up because even the very best can fall prey to pride and ambition.
Last but not least, the drama lives up to its wuxia roots with some of the better choreographed and executed fight scenes I’ve seen in a C drama for goodness knows how long. Unlike a lot of dramas that have wuxia pretensions, this one actually takes the trouble with physical confrontations in a way that gives the world building and context credibility. The key figures here are superhero practitioners of martial arts designating themselves peacekeepers of the land and so far at least, this drama is eager to demonstrate some credibility on that front.