Yang Yang and Dilraba Dilmurat make an attractive pairing in this Notting Hill style storyline playing an aerospace engineer, Yu Tu and a popular screen celebrity, Qiao Jinging respectively. In this tale of two people falling in love while battling it out on a mobile online multiplayer game, the duo are formerly high school classmates who are at very different stages in their respective careers. Jingjing is a household name in the entertainment industry with billboards of her face plastered everywhere. Yu Tu is at a crossroads where he’s seriously considering leaving the aerospace industry for a new start in finance where he feels he is better able to support his parents. Once upon a time, Jingjing approached the super STEM smart Yu Tu and confessed to him. And of course she was politely and flatly rejected because he had other ideas of what an ideal lifetime partner would look like. But then who really expects the average 18-year-old to know what sort of spouse suits them best? Book learning or academic smarts don’t entirely equip anyone with the wherewithal to deal with every situation that comes up in life.
11 episodes in (and I don’t mind admitting to watching all the available previews) and it’s safe to say I’m hooked. Truth be told I’m no a fan of the leads and this wasn’t a must watch. The cheesy title and the promise of a fairly prosaic storyline with the stunningly beautiful Dilraba playing a popular actress did not inspire a whole lot of confidence that we’d be getting a quality product. Fortunately for those in search of something with a bit more gravitas, however, the show is much better than it sounds. In fact, compared to many of the current offerings and the ever endless supply of trashy rom coms being trotted out on various streaming sites, this show presents a unique spin on an old old story especially in how the characters fit into the larger narrative.
One my pet peeves is the annoying combative female lead that for reasons only known to C drama writers is a favourite stereotype from the tattered rom com playbook. Even when there’s no reason why she needs to be adversarial against the male lead she throws tantrums that would surpass that of a three year old’s best efforts. In this year’s Mad for Each Other, there were plausible reasons why the female lead would irrationally see the male lead as a threat but it can’t be that every single female lead has to have mental health issues and suffer past trauma to be an objectionable human being. Thankfully there’s none of that here. Jingjing might not have had the academic creds to be a candidate for China’s equivalent of MIT, nevertheless she has what I call, stage savvy — quick wits and cunning. She’s definitely no airhead. Her strength of character is not proven by taking on the male lead in a tiresome series of verbal contests but through her steely resolve to take criticism from his strategic way of thinking and improve her gameplay in time for the big competition. She does this through sheer hard work. Bonding through the game and building teamwork, Yu Tu finally sees what he’s been missing out all this time.
In one of my favourite moments of the drama, when the leads meet for the first time under the building where she lives, the expressions on his face shifting from one of bewilderment, surprise, recognition and then amusement is wonderfully captured. He doesn’t expect the online player who has asked for his help to repair an air purifier is his old classmate, Qiao Jingjing and instead of taking offence, he good-naturedly agrees to be her teacher leading up to the competition. Two people who are seemingly world’s apart and have nothing in common throw themselves into the nitty gritty of the Honour of Kings universe and nerd out in her flashy penthouse.
It is fair to say that the leads are adequate to the task. Dilraba is a natural fit and lately I find her more expressive than when she was the titular Pretty Huizhen. Yang Yang who also seems to have made strides reminds me of Keanu Reeves for some reason. Perhaps it’s the gruff, flat, clipped delivery. I imagine it’s why he keeps being typecast as the nerdy tsundere male. For me it’s one of those rare dramas where the entire ensemble actually works and the so-called side stories don’t feel like noisy appenditures filling the air but add to the leads’ trajectories. While not a gamer myself (who has time really), I live with a StarCraft nerd and kids that are casual gamers. Unlike many I also enjoy the exploration of the aerospace side of things but that’s probably because I’m a bit of a sci-fi fan from way back.
After ten years in the industry Yu Tu is suffering from something of a life crisis over his future and he’s wandering in the proverbial wilderness trying to find himself. His ex pops up and nags that he has a bad of habit of leaving people hanging. His old professor shows up and nags that money shouldn’t be an object when he’s doing frontier science. And then tries to guilt him into changing his mind. His former uni mate nags about how Yu Tu will have to go back to square one. It’s all calculated to send Yu Tu into fits of agony, like a man carrying the world on his shoulders. Despite being one of the smartest people in the country, he hasn’t the foggiest idea on a number of fronts. On top of everything else he has to grapple with, he finds that Jingjing even with all her baggage of glitz and glamour is much more his cup of tea than his younger self would have ever thought possible. No doubt timing is almost everything.
Still it’s no fairy tale in the usual sense although the set-up suggests otherwise. There’s a harsh streak of realism running right through which grounds it in contemporary social issues that afflict not just the mainland Chinese population but all people living in the 21st century navigating the battleground of modernity. It radiates an authenticity that I find rare in C drama romances and the relatability factor is high. Indeed it’s a cause for celebration to be able to find something not reliant on slapstick, hijinkx and high melodrama to move the plot along. Just good old fashioned storytelling and character development. No doubt it’s hard to do something like this well but so far the show gets a thumbs up from me for doing a stellar job with characters that behave like real human beings without being a snoozefest.