I read a lot, but I also like to watch TV. However, finding something engaging is hard. There’s a lot out there, but most of it seems not to be written for me. The dramas are too grim (“ripped from the headlines,” thank you, no), and the comedies often don’t hit my funny bone. I dislike a lot of the casting and story structure: almost everybody is white, and men get all/most of the good parts. Women are often sexualized, or they’re plot points. (I know: there’s always Shonda Rhimes. Too much soap opera.) To further limit my choices, I’m in the 10 percent of the U.S. population that doesn’t subscribe to “paid television services.” No cable or dish for me: I stick to “antenna TV.”
But I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I have more choice here—including programming in foreign languages—than if I lived in a rural area. A while back, as I channel surfed past the Chinese station, I saw that the broadcast, a scripted drama, had subtitles in English and another Asian language I didn’t recognize. Curious, I stayed to watch for a bit.
And got hooked.
The Legend of Fuyao, starring Yang Mi and Ethan Juan, is a 2018 Chinese television series based on the novel Empress Fuyao by Tianxia Guiyuan. The first year has 66 episodes, putting American TV production schedules to shame, and it moves at a dizzying pace. Here, roughly speaking, is the plot:
The Five Kingdoms, which share an uneasy political alliance, are led by the Imperial City of Tianquan. The Crown Prince of Tianquan (our hero, affectionately called “Wuji”) goes on a secret mission to quell the unrest. Along the way, he meets Fuyao and falls in love with her as they mend fences and battle the opposing forces.
But, of course, the course of true love does not run smoothly. For one thing, Fuyao isn’t royal. Big impediment there.
Fuyao, our heroine, has a mysterious past. She was formed from a lotus borne by the Ancient Firmament, which should have put her on easy street, but her life was blighted by a curse. Orphaned as an infant, she was enslaved to the Xuanyuan sect from the Taiyuan Kingdom. After a series of tragedies and in search of her true identity, she sets off on a journey to gather the magical artifacts that can lift the curse.
But before she takes off, she learns an invincible fighting technique called “Po Jiu Xiao.” As a consequence, she can subdue dozens of warriors single-handedly, and because of that skill, military leaders consult her before taking action. But she is also a skilled and canny negotiator when she’s outnumbered.
Meanwhile, Prince Wuji is no slouch in the fighting arena, either. He’s the Grand Mentor of the Ancient Firmament, which I bet will cause problems for Fuyao in a little while, and is friends with an adorable (CGI) magical pet hamster named Yuan Bao, who talks.
With the help of her loyal companions, Fuyao unravels the heinous plot of the Ancient Firmament. She discovers her real identity as the Lotus Princess and destroys the evil forces and brings peace to the land of Five Kingdoms. Ta-da!
So that’s the plot. I’m only up to episode 57 of 66, so the broadcast isn’t finished and I haven’t seen the end. I lifted this description from Wikipedia, because I have to tell you, I don’t understand everything by watching the show.
First of all, there’s problems with the subtitles, which are printed in white without an outline. Prince Wuji and all the royals wear white all the time, and the various palace walls are also usually white, so white on white is hard to read. Also, printing out English words for the Chinese thoughts takes up way too much space, so the English words just run off the right edge of the TV screen and are lost. What were they? What did the characters really say? We’ll never know.
In addition, the translations aren’t always that good. Even I can tell that, and I don’t have a single word of Chinese. (Although I can now tell that the Chinese word for something approximating “yes” sounds a lot like “sha” in English.) For example, there’s a scene where Prince Wuji tells the medical sage something, and the English translation is, “Wait here until I return!” and then the medical sage jumps on a horse and rides away. Yeah, not getting what happened there.
But I love this show. It’s beautiful to look at. The scenery, real and CGI, is fantastic. The actors are gorgeous. They wear stunning robes and have amazingly intricate hairstyles. There’s tons of action every minute. If you’ve ever seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’ve seen some wonderful wire work, with actors leaping two stories into the air, turning summersaults into space or flying across roofs. The wire work in The Legend of Fuyao is maybe not quite up to that standard, but it’s still excellent, and there’s lots of it. The swordplay is fantastic. (This trailer might give you an idea.) The cinematography is terrific. It’s a visual feast. And there’s humor, with the talking hamster and sometimes riotous drunken scenes.
And then there’s the storyline. I think the thing I love the most about The Legend of Fuyao is that Fuyao is front and center all the time. She drives the action. She tries and succeeds and sometimes she loses a battle or the confidence of the villagers, but she has a goal and everything she does is in service to it. She’s also a good friend—kind, smart, and generous—and she’s a good partner for Wuji, giving him her best advice, even though it can run counter to his own desires. And to Wuji’s credit, he listens to her and accepts that her opinions have value, even if he doesn’t always follow her suggestions.
I love this show. Only nine more episodes. Then what?
What about you? Do you have some unlikely pop culture favorites?