Why We Tell Stories Part 2: Short C Dramas Taster
Far be it for me to be promoting Douyin shows as I’m not exactly a fan of the platform’s impact on our culture but the short romane dramas can be found in various places. Mostly they’re a fun escapist watch with wildly different degrees of absurdity. If they’re not excruciatingly frustrating. The more plot driven they are, the more ridiculous. In most instances they constructed along the lines of fairy tales that can roughly be categorized as Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast stories whether they be contract marriages, flash marriages, arranged/forced marriages, substitute wives, fated Yin-Yang couples or aphrodisiac induced one-night stands that go awry. Despite the 21st century backdrop, the world that these men and women inhabit are feudalistic in their orientation. These fake locations are ruled by powerful elite clans/families who are the real law and order of their society. The ML… always the CEO is the CEO or the successor of the most powerful of all families. He is the lord and master of all — a terrifying tyrannical power that he wields usually for the benefit of the woman he loves but sometimes not… especially when he falls prey to the whispers of his own Iago, usually a woman who covets the role of the lord’s lady. When he turns against his wife… the prince turns into the Beast. He is a man cursed. He is tormented and ashamed by his lingering affection for her. To assuage his own guilt, he tortures her by throwing her into the dungeon — jail or a mental asylum — and yet is consistently drawn to her despite the murmurings of her adversary. He is both the perpetrator and victim of the narrative that the wife he loves is guilty of many sins. He has the power to punish and he uses it mercilessly. Or he might just be a icy aloof master who strikes fear in the hearts of his vassal as he sits in his barricaded fortress. That is until he meets the woman who can melt his heart and lift the curse that afflicts him. In most cases it’s the uncovering of a cloud of deception that unshackles them all.
Besides being a rescue fantasy Beauty and the Beast has also become a male redemption story for the ages. In the Disney version, it is established that the beast was an arrogant prince who committed a grave sin punished for his troubles. The curse is lifted when he gives himself self-sacrificially and experiences “true love”. Along similar lines is my favourite Beauty and the Beast story out of all short dramas features a seemingly ill-fated YinYang couple. He is a volatile, gangster style fixer for his family. She is practitioner of Taoist supernatural arts who purportedly has no 七情core emotions. Shen Xiujin is a terrifying figure who yields a small dagger and threatens to kill anyone that gets in his way. Su Qiao leaves the security of her mountain refuge to get up close and personal because her shifu tells her that she won’t live beyond 20 unless she hangs around the second master of the Shen family. As she has no emotions she doesn’t find him all that horrifying even while his explosions of violence require a great deal of coaxing. She tells him that he’s important to her. She begs him to marry her. She claims can’t live without him and no one in the world wants him to live more than her. It’s not exactly the entire truth but it’s not an outright lie. She needs him. Eventually he’s intrigued but distrustful of her motives. Despite his propensity to be sceptical he succumbs to her winsome ways. Her effusive protectiveness of him warms his heart which leads to a war within his soul. This strange young woman is simple and direct. She soon discovers that cuddling up to this violent man and kissing him can help her replenish her spiritual energy levels. Of course.
In all honesty this drama was obviously made on a shoestring budget. The world building is scant, the audio is all over the place and the direction leaves much to be desired. There’s also an overreliance on internal dialogue. The editing… the less said the better. That said, the character work of the leads in lieu of the themes is sound. Particularly in relation to the main romance. More importantly however it features Shu Tong in the male lead role — perhaps my favourite of these budget dramas. He is mesmerizing to watch in these antihero roles bringing to the table a wistful vulnerability even when his characters are at their tyrannical worst. It’s ming-boggling that an actor of his calibre (and looks) is subsisting off crumbs in a large banqueting table when lesser types hog the centrestage.
Apart from the physical scars he wears, A’Jin is a deeply wounded creature. He’s been much exploited by his own family and his existence is often described as “hellish”. He is raised for violence and it becomes his default. When he finds out that Su Qiao can’t feel, he is conflicted. Little by little she chips away at his defences especially when she tells him that he’s capable of much good if given the chance. All of her efforts — planned and unplanned — sees her inadvertently leading him out of the darkness he’s been trapped in. Through all their experiences these two broken people learn salient lessons about love. For him it boils down to this: Is he able to accept her as she is the way she accepts him the way he is? When he discovers the answer to that, that’s when he finds the healing that he never imagined could happen.
It’s hard to entirely buy into the fact that Su Qiao can’t feel and can only gain her core emotions when certain requirements are met. What actually comes across throughout is that she is gradually experiencing more and more emotions as she interacts with A’Jin. Perhaps it isn’t so much that she can’t feel but she can’t identify her feelings with clarity because she’s been treated as a jinx since birth.
High on my recommendation list and featuring a popular pairing is a contract marriage and “hot uncle” tale a la Cinderella who loses her family fortune and her fiance who is caught cheating at the 11th hour. In her revenge she seduces her ex’s hot young uncle, the city’s most eligible bachelor and they both enter into a contract marriage as part of her big plan to regain everything she’s lost. The leads are Liu Qing and Meng Na and their chemistry is off the charts amazing. The hype around them is clearly warranted. I’ve seen dozens of these types of shows and this one is decently written compared to others. The show doesn’t rely heavily on misunderstandings or cliches to get by and the teamwork is pitch perfect. A man and a woman with a common cause who are almost entirely on the same page from the start to finish is surprisingly not as well used a trope as it should be. Cinderella here is not particularly virtuous or timid. Instead she’s shrewd. Her cards are on all the table the moment she starts negotiation. On his side he’s under pressure from his family to enter into a marriage alliance with another family but he’s wavering. There’s little doubt that he’s attracted to her from the beginning despite the seeming indifference. That would explain how well he plays the role of the contract husband — above and beyond the call of duty. I should add that the “hot uncle” trope is a well-used one in all likelihood because it makes revenge against the cheating couple all the sweeter.
Here Cinderella knows she needs the prince to achieve a goals. Flirtation over a few dances won’t do. She has to have his protection to fend off unwanted attention and to clean up after her. Just on that basis alone, this is far superior to all the silly alternatives. In those FL obviously needs the male lead’s help but pretends that she can handle everything on her own because she’s too pigheaded or too stupid. In the end she’s still reliant on a man to get her out of one pickle after another. Whether it’s the male lead or a lad waiting in the wings to be the male lead. My biggest bugbear are those ones where she has a child/children in tow and lurches from crisis to crisis with a heady recklessness. In some instances she’s well aware of who the father is but feigns ignorance while hatching a ridiculously convoluted plot around him. She’s apparently more afraid that he will snatch her child from her than die a terrible death. So why bother with revenge? Why not live happily with your child(ren) away from all the fray? It makes no sense that any mother would put her child in possible jeopardy to gain everything and yet try to dodge inquiries of the children’s father with one lie after another. It’s usually a lazy device to protract the push and pull sometimes even to the point of frustration. It hurts the romance and the show as a whole.
Despite Cinderella’s efforts to keep things to herself, the prince inevitably gets wind of things. He has to or he’s just a side character which sometimes the storytelling relegates him to. Over much focus on the villains sees him largely as a passive observer. My Lady is a Hidden Boss is one of the better amnesia, mistaken identity shows. A tough talking, clever female lead and even cluey CEO lead who falls for her fast despite all his misgivings about her ingratiating herself into his family. The melodramatic tropes are all there — secret/stolen identity, childhood connection, first love, scheming half or step-sister, family power struggle, amnesia — but used well and even in innovative ways. Cinderella here is not the helpless damsel in distress but takes on Cinderella’s identity to help avenge her adversaries and protect her loved ones.
Beauty/Belle is often a substitute bride forced to marry disabled CEOs are also among my favourites. It’s seldom love at first sight. He eyes her with deep suspicion and she quietly laments the humiliation of being tethered to a man who is not only cantankerous and moody but isn’t likely to perform his connubial duties. Except that he’s often his faking the true state of his physical condition. Sometimes it’s real and she’s a miracle worker responsible for healing him. There’s always a plot against his life and it’s almost always a family member behind it. I have a special fondness for these because the leads don’t mess around. They quickly realise that they are better off working together than butting heads. Because he is somewhat reliant on her at first, he has few alternatives but to trust her especially when she proves herself to be boldly protective. He in turn throws his weight behind her when dealing with the nasty in-laws who have been bullying their unloved daughter for years. Often these stories draw on elements of the Cinderella and the Beauty mythos as part of the re-telling, recreating process.
There are in all likelihood hundreds and thousands of these around the web. Despite the mixed production quality the popularity confirms at least one thing: We love these old stories and take them anyway we can get them.