Don’t See New Chapters? Blame F4 Thailand

Apologies to anyone who has been looking for new chapters and forced to turn to the MTL instead. My mind has been wholly taken over with obsessing about F4 Thailand and there truly isn’t much room in my mind for other stories right now.

F4 Thailand is the newest iteration of Hana Yori Dango/Meteor Garden/Boys Over Flowers and it is -I kid you not- RIDICULOUSLY fantastic. Better than fantastic. Mindblowing.

Only 4 episodes have aired so far (and only 1 episode airs per week) and I’m basically living my life in the time between each episode by rewatching past episodes and refreshing the MyDramaList forum page to see if there are any new topics of discussion. There is fantastic coverage of this drama over there and I recommend anyone who is watching the show, or curious about the show to check it out.

There is so much about F4 that is worth talking about, but as for why I can’t stop obsessing? It’s because this version has done something that should NOT be possible. They took one of the most toxic romances in dramaland and have somehow figured out what was so compelling about the story in the first place, keeping all the major story moments yet adding substance to each moment in a way that leaves my jaw on the floor each episode. There is an ocean-full of depth to each character, and I am in love with all of them.

I *know* this story, I have seen it told and retold over and over again, and yet I cannot wait to find out what is going to happen next. I truly don’t know what else F4 has up its sleeve, but I trust it is going to be good.

****Edit 4/9/2022

The show finished today. It was a beautiful, amazing ride and I am so so so happy to have found this show and also found the fans who knew how to look deeper than the surface. It kept me engrossed till the very end and blew my mind with it’s story telling too many times to count. Thank you for everything, F4 Thailand.

A Love So Beautiful

thoughts by Z

It really is so beautiful.

Starring Shen Yue and Hu Yi Tian; aired in 2017; 23 episodes (plus a bonus episode)

I have rewatched this show many times already and I’m sure I’ll watch it again.

Shen Yue is always a delight, even if it’s a show not worth watching (*cough* Another Me *cough*), but there is something so absolutely magical about her portrayal of 16 year old Xiao Xi that I have such a hard time believing another script or character will ever be so perfect for her.

This character has such an over-the-top imagination that watching another actor’s lesser portrayal would make scenes like Xiao Xi standing atop her bed with streamers of toilet paper hanging off a chopstick in her hair while singing a sad lament about her father’s unfortunate demise (which he overhears, aghast) seem just too twee. But in A Love So Beautiful, I have already bought in to all the characters and their small town life, and I am already so in love with Xiao Xi’s youthful and unabashed naiveté, that it truly feels more like I’m peeking into her life rather than watching a show. She is just so good.

I am a person who is always so acutely aware of myself and how I might be being perceived by others, and I’ve always been this way. It’s hard to describe just how much I admire Xiao Xi.

When I think back on my past, I try to be kind to myself. I think that having too many regrets is kind of like a betrayal of the good right now, and right now has some good. Even still, if I had one piece of advice to give my younger self it might actually be this: it’s okay to like something and it’s okay if people know it.

I only wore clothes that were unbranded and unadorned.

I only watched TV shows that I wanted to watch when no one else was around.

I only joined in activities if someone else wanted to do it first.

And on. And on.

I had somehow developed a complex around having a personality.

I spent a lot of my 20s unlearning this behavior. One of the ways I’ve combatted it is by developing opinions on movies and TV show. I’m no critic, but I do like to pick out the parts that moved me or meant something to me, and to go deep enough to express (out loud) just why.

Hence this blog.

Xiao Xi, on the other hand, is so brashly and brazenly herself. She is a petite bundle of personality, and she steps into mishaps and overwhelmingly embarrassing situations time and again simply because she is following her passions and she is following her heart.

And that’s what makes her admirable. And that’s why I’ll keep rewatching.

In case you have loved the show and didn’t yet know, I recommend reading the book that A Love So Beautiful is based on. I’ve linked to the NovelUpdates site where you can find the links to the fan-translated chapters. It is well translated and a lovely, light read.

Because This Is My First Life

thoughts by Z

Wow. Just….perfect.

Starring Lee Min Ki and Jung So Min; aired in 2017; 16 episodes

I think I actually watched this show shortly after it aired for the first time in 2017 and I didn’t particularly like it. I even recalled feeling like it was at the bottom of the shows I had watched up until that point.

At the time, I was new to watching Asian dramas and was mostly just scouring Netflix for Japanese and Taiwanese dramas, which led to watching more and more Chinese and Korean dramas.

I loved watching each drama, but I leaned heavily on the 10 second skip for all of them. Even shows that were totally up my alley, even shows that were fantastically written and produced, even shows that had no unnecessary characters or boring side plots. Regardless, I skipped merrily through them all. This drama down, that drama down. It was like I was watching dramas to earn another notch in my belt, more than anything else.

And what a waste that was.

Because This is My First Life deserved so much more than novice-drama-watcher version of myself. I am so thankful I randomly picked it up again a few weeks ago, because it is decisively one of the best Kdramas that I have seen and one of my personal favorites.

Going forward, I’ll pay no mind to spoilers.

The basic set-up has Ji Ho (our Female Lead, played by Jung So Min) desperately in need of a place to stay and Se Hee (our Male Lead, played by Lee Min Ki) in need of a wife. Enter: contract relationship.

When I think back on what I disliked about Because This is My First Life, my thoughts are vague and useless. The only thing that I can really pull out of the haze is how I didn’t like that Ji Ho always seemed to embarrass herself in front of Se Hee and that she doesn’t just fall for Se Hee first, she admits she likes him and pursues him actively. Because we know that Se Hee enters the contract explicitly stating that he doesn’t want a relationship, it seemed uncool for Ji Ho to demand he reciprocate her feelings and then, when he doesn’t, to break the contract and leave.

Wow I was wrong. Their interactions, their understanding of one another, their personal and romantic growth was so well done. SO WELL DONE.

How did I miss that?

It really makes me wonder what caused such a radical perspective shift and what else about me is so different after a few years of mainlining kdramas.

I do not have the skill or the time to delve into all the great things about the drama, so I’ll focus on one of the things that I have been ruminating on since I finished.

During my re-watch, I felt annoyance at Ji Ho for kissing Se Hee without his permission. They are waiting at a bus stop and she pours a little bit of her broken heart out onto him. He listens very respectfully and gives a lovely bit of advice (in my memory it was along the lines of, “we are all living this life for the first time, all we can do is our best”). It was exactly what she needed to hear when she needed to hear it, and it leads Ji Ho to decide, “fuck it” and kiss him (her first kiss).

From her perspective, it’s sweet and liberating. It provides a push for her character to move away from the Ji Ho before the kiss (dumped by romantic interest, forced to leave home, unfairly treated at her job) into the Ji Ho who will be making more and more decisions for herself.

From Se Hee’s perspective, however, the kiss was unwanted and uncomfortable.

It is very hard to watch a show treat a casual and unwanted kiss from a stranger as a positive decision, but I actually came to respect the show so much for how it dealt with the kiss after-the-fact.

I know I am not alone in having grown up with few examples of healthy discussions around consent for kissing. The only example I can think of is in Honey We Shrunk Ourselves, when the shrunken parents peek around the cereal box to watch a teenage boy try and kiss their daughter during a party, and they are so proud after they see their daughter tell him off for not asking permission first. This scene is the only scene in the whole movie that made an impression on me (well, and the fact that bananas are full of potassium) and it made such a strong impression because it was the first time I even thought that a girl, even one who likes the boy, doesn’t have to simply acquiesce to a kiss.

Similarly, though distinct, I know I am also not alone in having needed to unlearn decades of social programming that says that men are supposed to *want* unsolicited advances from women.

Women acquiesce; Men desire

In Because This is My First Life, Ji Ho is like I was. She thought that her decision to kiss Se Hee wouldn’t be unwelcome or unwanted. It was a decision she made purely from her own perspective, and it led her to take advantage of a stranger.

And the show didn’t gloss over it.

The show doesn’t belabor it at all, either. I actually think it strikes a really nice balance between being forthright without being heavy-handed.

Se Hee tells Ji Ho the kiss was unwelcome.

Ji Ho feels contrite and has to reckon with her behavior (though it doesn’t stop her from getting angry when Se Hee hilariously locks his bedroom door every night- as if he was worried she planned to come ravage him in his sleep).

And this is more or less the extent to which the show brings it up. There is some discussion, there are jokes.

But there are no more unwanted kisses.

And toward the end of the drama, when Ji Ho breaks the contract and leaves the house, she does it because she isn’t willing to force her feelings onto Se Hee or to force him to accept them. She also can’t simply turn off her feelings, so of course she can’t stay in the contract relationship.

What I initially saw as rude, annoying, selfish behavior during my first watch actually comes across during the re-watch as the perfect culmination of her experiences and character growth.

I loved it. I felt it in my heart.

She wasn’t leaving to be petty, she just knew he needed the space. He needed to be an equal partner in the relationship, and that couldn’t happen if she was making the decision one-sidedly.

She learned, she grew.

So did I.

The Sword and The Brocade

thoughts by Z

What a lovely drama.

Starring Tan Song Yun and Wallace Chung; aired in 2021; 45 episodes

I fell in love with Tan Song Yun (aka Seven Tan) in The Fox’s Summer. She has such a spunky vitality that is so so engaging to watch. Even though I wasn’t a big fan of My Mr. Mermaid or Under the Power, if I could find a fan edit of just her scenes, I’d watch it in a heartbeat. She’s just that engaging.

Because of this, The Sword and The Brocade subverted my expectations. I tuned in thinking that I was about to watch another fusion drama, with Shi Yi (played by Tan Song Yun) as the brash, takes-no-shit Female Lead who steps all over the societal barriers that are meant to keep her down to assert her independence and win the admiration and love of the Male Lead (and Second Male Lead while she’s at it, obviously) and become the focus for the hatred and scheming of a bevy of court-ladies, concubines, madams, and the politically-corrupt. And to be honest, I was hella looking forward to it.

The Sword and The Brocade is not that drama.

It is thoughtful and subdued; calm and controlled.

Just like Shi Yi, our amazing Female Lead.

Don’t get me wrong. There is all kinds of scheming from the harem and the political-corruption has maaaaybe just a little too much screen time, but the reason I’m here writing down my thoughts about this drama is because I was so taken in by the story arcs and the thoughtfulness with which the script held true to the characters. Just so wonderful.

The basic set up:

Shi Yi is the daughter of a concubine. She spends a significant portion (and the happiest) of her childhood away from her father and half-siblings, having been sent away by the main wife. She and her mother scrape out a living mostly due to their hard-work and Shi Yi’s talent in embroidery. Shi Yi harbors the wish that she can use embroidery to continue to provide a basic, comfortable life for herself and her mother. But when she is called back by her father and pressed to marry General Xu Ling Yi (aka Marquis Yongping; played beautifully by Wallace Chung), her desire to remain unmarried and independent is starkly at odds with societal and familial expectations.

Going forward, I’ll pay no mind to spoilers.

This drama is a slow burn. For good reason, many reviewers have compared it to The Story of Ming Lan and I think if you liked Ming Lan, you’ll like Sword & Brocade (and vise-versa).

Both have concubine-born FLs who are acutely aware of their standing in society and the odds stacked against them. Both have MLs who are older and have had previous relationships (and children). Both treat their viewers respectfully, allowing us to slowly grasp the complex relationships and rules that turn seemingly-low level stakes into edge-of-your-seat entertainment.

I think it’s fair to guess that if you like Jane Austin, and find yourself gasping when Darcy reaches for Elizabeth’s hand to help her into the carriage, then you’ll definitely find yourself clenching your jaw each time Shi Yi is called in front of her mother-in-law for an unearned scolding.

Without attempting (and, I’m sure, failing) to recap the entire show, I want to speak on one particular reason that I found The Sword and The Brocade so moving, so worthwhile.

From the very beginning I believed that Shi Yi had the ability to be independent. She had the intelligence, fortitude, and practical skill (embroidery) to leave the capital and live comfortably with her mother and her BFF/maid Dong Qing. In such a devastatingly patriarchal, Confucian time-and-place, striking out on her own and living life for herself (not her matriarchal family, or her husband, or her husband’s family, or her children, ad infinitum) seems like the only path that could offer her a modicum of autonomy.

So HOW could a time-period romance with a “happily married” end goal POSSIBLY stay true to this character and deliver a satisfying, believable arc? How could she maintain her agency and be in a relationship with such a heavy imbalance?

Amazingly, the show delivers.

Some viewers seemed displeased that Ling Yi fell so hard for Shi Yi, and yet Shi Yi kept her distance for a long time. She didn’t even seem to have feelings for him, and she was quick to allow herself to be manipulated into thinking he was responsible for her mother’s death. Even once she started acting on her romantic feelings for him, Ling Yi still pined and pined, torturing himself with the question of whether she actually loved him or simply felt grateful toward him.

But why should Shi Yi, who never wanted to be married in the first place and who accepted the marriage and took on the burden of main wife with aplomb, even in the face of hostile in-laws and scheming from the harem, why should she fall for Ling Yi in the first place?

Because he’s nice to her? Because he respects her? Because he loves her?

Not good enough.

This seems just like Ling Yi fears, that she’s actually just confusing her feeling of gratitude with feelings of love.

In part, this is due to her lack of previous relationships. She has nothing to compare her feelings to, so of course she flounders when trying to understand them.

But more than that, much more than that, is the fact that the relationship is too unbalanced for us (or them) to believe that she can even truly separate feelings of gratitude and love.

An employee in a relationship with a boss. A student in a relationship with a teacher.

You cannot divorce romantic feelings from the power dynamic.

Similarly, stay-at-home mothers who become destitute after a divorce because they lack independent funds and who can’t easily find a new job because they lack the expected experience. How many (mostly) women stay in unhappy relationships simply because they know they can’t afford to leave it? Too many.

Ling Yi is a good man. He treats all of his concubines respectfully (if only respectfully) and he sticks to his values and works hard in court to rid it of corruption and help the populace. He also does all kinds of swoon-worthy things for Shi Yi.

But still, it wasn’t until he told her to keep the divorce agreement that I believed in their relationship whole heartedly.

This was a beautiful decision from the scriptwriters.

Shi Yi has finally fallen for Ling Yi. They have been through more than 40 episodes of tribulations together and made it through stronger for it. They have the utmost trust in each other and Shi Yi is planning to rip up her divorce agreement.

But Ling Yi stops her.

He tells her to keep it.

It’s such a small thing, but it is so powerful.

It doesn’t matter if he is trustworthy. It doesn’t matter if they love each other. It doesn’t matter if they have the utmost faith in one another and their relationship.

It isn’t a true relationship until it is balanced, and it can’t be balanced until Shi Yi has the agency to leave it.

That she chooses to stay is what makes it a true happily-ever-after.