A Dream of Splendor (2022) 梦华录  : C-Drama Series Review

The 40-episode series focuses on 3 strong-willed women living in Northern Song with the main characters of Zhao Pan Er (portrayed by Liu Yi Fei), Sun San Niang (portrayed by Liu Yan) and Song Yin Zhang (portrayed by Jelly Lin of the Mermaid movie fame). The 3 ladies have different personalities, and faces different experiences and tribulation throughout the series.

Liu Yi Fei as Zhao Pan Er

Zhao Pan Er is driven, smart and bold, managing a small teahouse in the Qiantang county with her good friend Sun San Niang. When her fiancé Ouyang Xu passes the Scholarly exam, she looks forward to joining him in the capital city. Unfortunately, Ouyang Xu is matched with Lady Gao for an arranged marriage, resulting in the scholar abandoning Pan Er. Instead of accepting fate, Pan Er travels to the capital to seek for an answer.

As she travels to the capital city, she encounters and saves the slightly cold and arrogant Gu Qian Fan who is from the Capital Security Office, coincidentally in Qiantang county to investigate a case. As they travel towards the capital city together, they cross path with Sun San Niang and Song Yin Zhang. San Niang is divorced and looks forward to a new life elsewhere while Yin Zhang is cheated and abused by husband Zhou She.

Gu Qian Fan – cold & romantic?

As Pan Er and San Niang plan out a scheme to rescue the abused Yin Zhang, Pan Er pretends to be a rich courtesan to trick Zhou She. They ended up in court, whereby Pan Er manages to get a divorce request for Yin Zhang, obtaining the title deed to compensate Yin Zhang’s dowry and even exiling Zhou She.

Historic Titbits # 1 : The Court case is actually a key scene in the Chinese opera of Zhao Pan Er Feng Yue Jiu Feng Chen” (赵盼儿风月救风尘) by Guan Han Qing (关汉卿). The original Chinese story focuses on Song Yin Zhang requesting the assistance of Zhao Pan Er from an abusive marriage.

Historic Titbits # 2 : Song Dynasty’s women are able to seek divorce, subject to specific conditions. This allows Yin Zhang to succeed in her court case against Zhou She.  

Historic Titbits # 3 : Yin Zhang is a pipa musician of the Song Dynasty attached to the government, whereby she is paid a salary to perform. During Song Dynasty, pipa is a popular instrument with its rounded body (not to be confused during Qin Dynasty whereby pipa refers to a slightly different instrument).

Upon reaching Eastern Capital, Pan Er confronts Ouyang Xu. Ouyang Xu is unable to fulfil the 3 requests set by Pan Er and decides to avoid her by getting out of the city by being a Taoist-rite official elsewhere. Pan Er, San Niang and Yin Zhang decide to stay on in Eastern Capital and open a tea-house selling tea and Jiangnan snacks. Their business venture is innovative whereby they introduce scarcity to increase the pricing, with the price taking into consideration of skillsets in preparing tea and great ambience with good accompanying music. As other teahouses are threatened with their new venture, there are copy cats everywhere although these competitors are unable to fully immerse and provide similar quality in terms of tea and snacks.

Deceptively naive-looking villain Ou Yang Xu

Observations #1 : Using honed skillsets to prepare tea and snacks with passion, married with good business acumen will turn a business profitable anytime anywhere. 😀  

Historic Titbits # 4 : The introduction of the art of tea in the series is reflective of the key importance of tea in the daily life during Song Dynasty. During the competition between the teahouse owner Mr Hu and Pan Er, the art of brewing tea is very special with the use of “dragon and phoenix porcelain”, whisking method to infuse water and tea, the longevity of the whisked foam, even the art of foam on tea. Interesting!

Meanwhile back in Eastern capital, Gu Qian Fan is thrown into the complicated plots of the various factions in the palace. Although surnamed Gu (following her mother’s maiden surname), Qian Fan is actually the son of Xiao Qin Yan a shrewd official waiting to be called back to service as the Prime Minister. He has dedicated his last decade of service under official minister Qi Mu to serve the Emperor by being the mole with Eunuch Lei Jing in Capital Security Office. He is pulled in different directions and his own loyalty and beliefs are tested.

Muses on Acting, Girl-Power and Romance – Zhao Pan Er and Gu Qian Fan

This is my first time watching Liu Yi Fei in a costumed drama series. I hated her acting in the movie Mulan (2019), but really like her in Zhao Pan Er’s character. She is able to carry through the quick-witted but slightly wilful rural girl, who is out to prove herself worthy. She is tough on the outer side, but suffering confidence issue due to her “pariah” status in the past.

I like her persistence in chasing her beliefs. She is also open to listening to criticism (especially from Gu Qian Fan!), and reflects upon her own actions. She is also good with communication – able to identify her own hurt from the abandonment by Ouyang Xu, but clearly giving an ultimatum to Gu Qian Fan to be able to identify his own intention before moving forward in their relationship.

Observations # 2 : Liu Yi Fei has a slightly crooked nose bridge, but her fuller face is very pretty. She looks healthy, as compared with the other thin actresses. And reports state that she is a very friendly and generous actress, giving away presents to crew and cast members.  

I have watched Chen Xiao in other drama series before, but do not have high expectation of his performances. The character of Gu Qian Fan is a little confusing. Being branded the Living Devil, presumably ruthless in his pursuit of the prisoners and confessions, his character is totally different when he is with Pan Er. The stark contrast is a little unbelievable, and his ease in succumbing to his emotions while in love, but maintaining the cold exterior of an investigating officer is also difficult to empathise with.

Romancing on the boat along the canal

However, the chemistry between Liu Yi Fei and Chen Xiao is great in the series, and I look forward to all their interactions. I love their squabbles, and their trust in each other. I love the fact that Qian Fan is usually critical of Pan Er’s actions but still supportive of her decisions. I love how Pan Er is transparent in her communication raising her own trust and understanding of Qian Fan, knowing he has many secrets before they meet. It is very reflective of realistic real life communication issues of a couple, and a positive vibe to the relationship as well.

My only grouse is towards the end of the series, their romance starts becoming stale with more misunderstandings. Instead of making the series interesting, the direction seems to be aimless and actually starts showing cracks in the whole series.

Other Non-Believable Girl-Power

Song Yin Zhang’s character is a little more muted. Naïve, timid & a little more introverted, and heavily influenced by her experiences. However, her love for music is apparent and her dedication towards pipa instruments leads her towards her own self-discovery. I have never really had a good impression of Jelly Lin and obviously the character she portrays Yin Zhang is also not my favourite. Yin Zhang’s character seems weak with no clarity in thoughts, making it very difficult for me to empathise with her especially her frequent need for approval and reliance on others.

Song Yin Zhang with her pipa

Her 2nd encounter with womaniser Shen Ruo Yun is almost a repeat of her first mistake – naively trusting the fake gentleman Shen Ruo Yun. I find it very difficult to empathise with the character, mainly due to the weak & immature personality. However, I also felt that the character is terribly developed. At the Minister Lin’s manor, Song Yin Zhang is actually saved from the scheming Shen Ruo Yun who is offering her to the minister for pleasure, by an angel in the form of singer Zhang Hao Hao. Definitely she did not save her ownself. Subsequently, she is supposedly more aware and built her own confidence overnight which I find it difficult to believe.

Sun San Niang’s character is fiery and direct, very much an open book. Putting behind her cheating husband and the hurt she experiences, her interaction with Du Chang Feng is often comical. However, as character-development, the series really does not focus on this character. I am glad that the two of them got together, although their romance is a little cringe-worthy. 😀  

Sun San Niang with her cooking skills

There is a side couple of Chief Guard Chi Pan and singer Zhang Hao Hao, which I also like. Their interaction is very cute, with the slightly childish Chi Pan always giving in to the Zhang Hao Hao. I really thought it would be great for them to end up together. I really am getting to like Dai Xu the actor who portrays Chief Guard Chi Pan. The characters that he has portrayed is so different – a childish, not so smart but proud & cute Chief Guard in this series, a secretive villain in Last One Standing and a egoistic husband in Love is True. Very impressive.

Rich Guard Chi Pan

Who is the Real Villain?

The series painted Ou Yang Xu as the real villain, a scholar willing to let go of everything for reputation and the chance to rise up the ranks of being an official. The character development seems to paint him in better light at the beginning, then his missteps become bigger and bigger, until he goes through the dark path to manipulate, scheme against others for his own benefits and even trying to kill Pan Er. An easy villain to blame.

However, I find the characters painted of the Emperor and Empress worse. Supposedly very much in love, but the Empress scheming to rid the officials by overstepping her own boundary. And then to save her own reputation (of once being married to another before being the wife of the Emperor). I would say the real villain is really the egoistic royalties!

Conclusion 6/10

The first ¾ of the series is fast-moving, and continuously pulls you in. Somehow, the last 10 episodes or so seems to morphed into a different direction (and not a good one at that). The final rating is reflective of this very messy ending. The ending feels rushed with aimless direction and no strong plots to get it moving.

Watch this series for the romance and very interesting historical information of the Song Dynasty, especially at the beginning. Ultimately, it is a romance series, but it goes haywire towards the end. The focus on the 2 main leads is great until the plot gets really, really weird at the end. The characters are loosely developed, most are one-dimensional. The attempt to paint them in different dimensions failed miserably and often very confusing.

The chemistry between Liu Yi Fei and Chen Xiao’s characters are great, but could not be used to sustain a 40-episode long series. Acting-wise, I do like both the leads’ acting, but unfortunately, the plot really got lost half way. No amount of good acting could fix it. Cut the series a lot of slacks especially in the last 10 episodes. Otherwise, you may be better off skipping this series.  

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