A team of five is assembled by Wen Si Yuan to attempt to “recover” the mysterious Mountain River Painting, comprising Zuo Qing Zi (medicine practitioner), with the rest being martial art practitioners from jianghu – Su Yun Luo @ Fei Kou Er, Yin Chang Ge & Shen Man Qing (both from Shen Yang Sect) and Zhu Yan. In their task, they go through life & death encounters, building up their friendship over time. The original task to recover the painting morphs into a more complicated link to various other plots and provided a good introductory context for the remaining series.
Their collaboration further provides key events:
- Jianghu’s tournament at Zhen Yang Sect, revealing the various factions within the jianghu & the gray area they operate in
- Zuo Qing Zi’s difficult journey through adulthood, in a web of lies to protect royalty at his own family’s expense
- Su Yun Luo’s dogged pursuit of a cure for his Master, and her past link with Zuo Qing Zi
- Link of Wen Si Yuan (or Si Ma Lang) to the accusation of Si Ma family being traitors & his own personal motives
- Link of Shen Man Qing, with her complicated feelings towards her family’s persecution at the hands of the Si Ma family, her gratitude towards Zhen Yang Sect & her master, her dream of freedom and her attraction & gravitation towards Wen Si Yuan
- Link of Zhu Yuan’s background to his sect & family, giving glimpse of him being possessed
- Yin Chang Ge’s simple-mindedness & naivete in his exploratory journey out in the jianghu
These key events are tied in between the jianghu and palace political fight for the throne, linking each of the characters towards the reluctant fight for survival of their sects in jianghu and a far-away emperor for a stable kingdom.
I would consider the 43-episode series as a “serious & heavy” period drama, with focus on mainly the key characters & their personal journeys, linking them in the past and current, amidst a very complicated fight for the ultimate crown of the emperor.
Love stories, yes with pairing of the 3 couples – Zuo Qing Zi & Su Yun Luo, Wen Si Yuan/ Si Ma Lang & Shen Man Qing, Yin Chang Ge & Xie Jiang Er.
The series does spend a lot of time exploring the romantic development of the couples & their journeys. The first 2 couples’ journey are fraught with difficulties from all angles, with focus on their discovery of themselves, their own feelings & ultimately their choices. The relationships herewith are heavy, with a lot of doubt & pondering of those involved.
What turns me off slightly especially for the main couple of Zuo Qing Zi & Su Yun Luo is their many misunderstandings, and their on-off relationship. Although both love each other very much, Su Yun Luo’s one-track mind to save her Master comes at a heavy price. Zuo Qing Zi is dedicated in his love for Yun Luo, but rarely communicates his feelings & intention to a more simple-minded Yun Luo. The lack of understanding of each other & lack of communication are almost a recipe for disaster in their love journey. It is also quite depressing to see the two of them suffering when there are so many opportunities for them not to go down the misery road.
Although Wen Si Yuan & Shen Man Qing’s journey is also fraught with misunderstandings, there are valid reasons for the information to be withheld. Once these are resolved, they are open with each other & communicates way better. From almost dead enemies to lovers, I find myself rooting more for this couple than the main couple.
The last young couple is a sweet pure romance, with a lighter romance which provides some brighter spot. My only main grouse is the couple’s ending. It was so unnecessary!
But what caught my attention is the sweet brotherhood relationship between Zhu Yan and Yin Chang Ge, both supporting each other in their self-doubt in maneuvering the gray area. Both boys are naïve at the start, but embarked on slightly different route based on their chosen path. Regardless, they care for each other. Chang Ge especially takes his oath to ensure his brother stays the course of goodness seriously.
Another character worthy of mention is the ever dedicated Bai Mo as Zuo Qing Zi’s disciple – ever the caring & worried poor soul but never daring to be disobedient towards the Master. He also provides the little comedic reprieve from such a heavy drama.
Black, White and all the gray in between Theme
The series portrays the tacit understanding that jianghu and palace should not intertwine, but precisely because of this tacit understanding, the more they are intertwined under all the web of lies. The key theme seems to indicate all parties (be it in the jianghu or palace), each individual with their own motive mainly driven by a need for survival.
- The sect leader of Zhen Yang Sect maintains the biggest secret to keep their survival as the main sect in the jianghu, and working closely together with Duke of Wen Ning (main villain chasing after the throne)
- Remaining Si Ma family seeking revenge for their persecutions many years back, at the cost of their own life & happiness
- Duke of Wen Ning’s continuous chase & plots towards the throne, throwing everyone under the bus in his chase
- Zhu Yan’s internal fight with his own demon, revenge vs acceptance
One very poignant theme is Zuo Qing Zi’s family and their dedication to the kingdom’s fallen young emperor. His father’s (Duke of Jing An) choice to sacrifice Zuo Qing Zi to save the young emperor a decade ago, scarred Zuo Qing Zi and his family. But during the critical time, Zuo Qing Zi himself could not choose to save his father. He ends up taking the exact route as his father, sacrificing his father to save the kingdom (for whatever it is worth).
I took my own sweet time to complete watching this series, having a bit of a break in between episodes. One main reason – the series is just too heavy to absorb all at one go. Apparently the conversations are meaningful with many hidden meanings if you know how to appreciate the language (yours truly obviously doesn’t).
One thing I totally love about the series is the opening and closing theme songs. The tune is poignant, somehow tugging your heart. The opening theme song is apparently a combination of 3 historical love poems from the Song dynasty. Link to the tune & a simple piano arrangement.
Closing theme song is sung by Henry Huo, another singer excelling in singing theme songs. His composition Rolled-up Pearl Curtain (卷珠帘) is one of my favourites.
The series excel in character development throughout the journey. I love how each of the character has grown from their experiences, and identifying their own path as they choose along the way. The pacing of the series is actually just right, not too fast not too slow.
However, the drama is very heavy, almost feeling that there is a heavy brick on your chest while watching the series. The plot especially linking with the palace politics is a little confusing & in my mind, a little less developed. Last but not least, I hated the many misunderstandings between the main couple – Zuo Qing Zi and Su Yun Luo. I love the male lead Zuo Qing Zi and his dedication towards his love for Su Yun Luo. But I also hated the softer side of him – he always gives in to Su Yun Luo’s requirements & other people’s expectations of him.
Somehow the villains in the series are all mediocre, and did not catch my attention.
The series is not for light hearted watch, with its heavy tone which requires almost undivided attention. Personally, I felt that the series is better depicting the journeys of the key characters rather than a romance series. There are too many miscommunications between the main couple, even though I really like the male lead. Main redemption of the series – the great theme songs! Watch it only if you are not distracted. 😀