Note: This review is based on the TVB version in Cantonese.
The Empress of China (武媚娘传奇)
Genre: Historical Fiction/Palace
Length: 82 (Original), 96 (Hunan TV), 75 (TVB)
Producer: Fan Bing Bing
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Fan Bing Bing as Wu Zetian/Wu Meiniang
Aarif Lee as Li Zhi/Emperor Gaozong
Zhang Fengyi as Li Shimin/Emperor Taizong
Janine Chang as Consort Xu Hui
Zhang Ting as Consort Wei
Kathy Chow as Consort Yang
Shi Shi as Empress Wang
Viann Zhang as Consort Xiao
Mi Lu as Princess Gaoyang
Li Chen as Li Mu
Although the Chinese title claims that the series will feature the life of Wu Meiniang, it is only half right. It’s true that Fan Bing Bing who plays the role is the center character of the show, but in hindsight it’s really nothing but 75 episodes covered in romance. Basically, to sum up the relationships on the show, Bing Bing is willing to wait for Zhang who misses his deceased Empress. Li Chen plays Bing Bing’s old flame and village friend, but Bing Bing turns him down hard. Aarif has a crush on Bing Bing and is willing to do anything for her while Aarif’s Empress is willing to do anything so that Aarif will pay attention to her. It’s a string of inefficient and wishful love relationships. It’s almost so messed up and that no two people are ever on the same boat and someone is loving someone else at the wrong time. I didn’t mention everyone, but you get the gist.
You would really expect something more political to go on since she does become the first and only female Emperor of China, but the producers do a better job of writing the romance piece of the story than the politics piece. Now, if you have seen other adaptions of Wu Meiniang, this one will bring forth a new light. Aside from the romance, it is very on trend with hundreds of the other palatial dramas that has been produced in the last decade.
Before diving into 75 episodes or 56 hours of drama, it is important to know why you’re interested in watching the series first. I was really interested in the development of Wu Meiniang’s character, but you need to understand that after 50 episodes, she is still rather innocent. When her character does take a turn for the worse, it happens too quickly and abruptly though it does make sense, especially after the death of her two newborns (or one since the other was still a fetus when he died so technically, the term “newborn” doesn’t apply).
Despite being a series set in the ancient days, this version seems quite modernized and romanticized. It has a few politics-centered subplots here and there, but nothing noteworthy. Even subplot on the prophecy that claims a female by the surname of Wu will take over the Tang empire was brought in, thrown out, and finally revisited because it felt obligated to. If you’re into the series for the beautiful costumes and ancient Chinese culture, the aesthetics are certainly very appealing and top notch.
A great amount of time and energy is focused on Taizong’s inner harem and developing Bing Bing and Zhang’s relationship.They spent nearly 50 episodes doing that only to have him die (of course). As if that wasn’t enough, when Gaozong takes over, they repeat the same thing with a group of younger girls fighting for the Emperor’s favor. Taizong’s harem was a snooze to watch, but the series really picks up in the last 25 episodes when Aarif becomes Emperor. Be prepared for a jealous ride.
The last five episodes has very linear storytelling and happens without any type of development whatsoever. Finally, they ended the series with less than one episode that shows Bing Bing as Emperor. I mean, she spent 15 years doing that job.
While I didn’t expect the series to take too long on Wu Zetian’s reign, what I did expect is for the development and buildup of Meiniang’s character throughout the 75 episodes to be more on point and not so flakey.
Characterization and Performances
Fan Bing Bing. While it was a bit weird watching Bing Bing play a character that was less than half her age at first (she entered the palace when she’s 14 and the actress herself is 33), if there was any Chinese actress suitable for this role, it was her. Of course, she has her youthful Asian genes to thank and can pass on as someone in her mid-twenties perhaps.
Brave, intelligent, and outspoken, Bing Bing plays Wu Zetian, the only female Emperor of China. She ascends the throne at 65 after Gaozong’s death. The series spends too much time during her younger and more naive days. She entered the palace at the age of 14 and was a Talented Lady in Taizong’s harem. While she deeply admired the man, she was never jealous of the ladies who had much higher titles than she did, including her best friend who rose through the ranks much quicker than she did.
The writers made it seem like Bing Bing’s path to becoming a ruthless and ambitious Emperor stemmed from friendship betrayal, which isn’t a convincing case. The series omitted the more political struggles she engaged in with famous Tang court official, Zhangsun Wuji. Also, when Gaozong was ill and she took care of the state affairs on his behalf, it was shown that she was doing it out of kindness rather than any kind of schemed hostile takeover.
Aarif Lee. Li Zhi, who later becomes Emperor Gaozong, is Taizong’s youngest son with Empress Zhangsun (deceased). Unlike his ambitious older brothers who has laid eyes on the throne for years, he is the most filial, gentle and compassionate of the three and only wishes for a carefree life. At the end, Taizong knew that among his three sons, only if he became Emperor that all his sons will remain safe.
I didn’t pay much attention to Aarif before episode 50. Only after he became Emperor did his character come out from behind the shadows and command more presence. He wasn’t known as a competent Emperor and the writers here didn’t try to change history, of course, but they did do a great job of capitalizing on his strengths and showing his compassionate and humble side instead. Even when he didn’t have any real feelings for his Empress, he was always protective of her reputation and feelings. And let’s not get into all the times that he was patient, protective, and in love with Bing Bing. In fact, everything from becoming Crown Prince to Emperor it turns out, he did it for Bing Bing’s sake. You see what I mean when I said that for a political-driven drama, it is more love-driven?
There is definitely room for improvement in Aarif’s emotional scenes with Bing Bing, but he did what he was able to do. For a singer, I’m usually less critical. Plus with his charming face, you can’t really stay mad at him for too long anyway. He really lives up to being the most handsome Chinese Emperor I’ve seen on TV. No kidding. He does have the face of a modern actor though so as good-looking as he is, he wouldn’t be the first actor I think of to cast in an ancient drama.
Zhang Fengyi. Unlike the younger cast, I didn’t really form much of an opinion for the actor who played Taizong. Zhang has always been a well-respected actor as far as I know. While I’ve always been fascinated by series that features Li Shimin in his younger, warrior, and pre-Tang Dynasty days, here, we get to see him near the end of his reign and his inner battles revolve around finding the right heir to the throne.
That said, I do enjoy his scenes with Bing Bing for the most part, especially when he gives her his Emperor stare one moment, but adores her the next. Despite their generation gap, they were a doable pair, of course, not at the caliber of Bing Bing and Aarif.
Janine Chang. Xu Wei is Meiniang’s best friend in the palace and like her, always had deep admiration for the Emperor. Although she rose among the concubine ranks much quicker than Meiniang ever did, she was always Meiniang’s shadow as Taizong didn’t seem to have that deep connection with her. In essence, she had the title without the substance.
Janine was definitely one of my favorite characters before she grew jealous of Meiniang. She has a cute and refined face, but was also one of the more mature Talented Ladies at a young age. I was disappointed that her friendship with Meiniang went down the drain, but she definitely played a huge role in Meiniang losing faith in the idea of friendship inside the palace.
Janine did a good job in her role, but she has the look of a protagonist rather than an antagonist.
Kathy Chow. At first I thought Kathy’s character was pointless as she was simply too “nice” and yielding, especially to Consort Wei. Kathy is Zhang’s favorite concubine, but unfortunately also Emperor Yangdi’s daughter of the fallen Sui dynasty. This means the odds aren’t in her son’s favor for being Crown Prince despite his merits. Later it is revealed that she has always secretly held a grudge on Taizong for taking over the empire that once belonged to her family. Thus, she has set her son up to murder his brothers so he can become the next crown prince and revive the Sui Dynasty.
As much as I disliked Kathy’s character as she was always in a suppressed and revengeful state, she was right when she told her son, “You think it’s a terrible thing because I’m telling you to murder your brothers? Everything I’m telling you to do, Li Shimin has once done.” Taizong may have done it for a good cause like some historians argue that if he didn’t murder his two brothers (one of which is the oldest heir), China won’t have the prosperous era that he created. But still as you can see, history can be a big joke in hindsight.
Viann Zhang. It wasn’t a coincidence when I thought Viann looked awfully similar to Bing Bing. I’ve always knew she had plastic surgery, but I was wondering if this is a joke that they casted two actresses who resembled each other in the same drama. Later it was revealed by Viann’s character herself that Aarif favored her because she resembled Bing Bing and he couldn’t have Bing Bing at the time.
While it must hurt to be someone else’s replacement, Viann was a pleasure to watch, especially in the scenes where she was jealous of Bing Bing. Those were pretty much the only scenes she had. She lived to be mad. No joke intended.
Filming. Mainland China’s dramas are filmed inside the most authentic sets in Hengdian World Studios, which is a miniature version of Beijing’s Forbidden City.
Costumes. Their team definitely went all out with the costume designs and makeup. Like most palatial dramas, it has one of the greatest selections of costumes among the concubines. Bing Bing herself, I heard, had over a hundred costumes though I don’t quite believe that. One of the most memorable and favorite costume of mine were definitely Janine’s white dress with blue embellishment that she wore during on special occasions in the palace. Another memorable one is Bing Bing’s purple outfit that she wore on the day she was given the name, Wu Meiniang. Also, Aarif’s yellow and gold-embellished outfit during his early Emperor days made him the most charming.
Makeup. The palace ladies makeup was absolutely flawless. However, the standout of the show is definitely Bing Bing’s makeup as she goes through her growth stages from a simple-minded Talented Lady to the highest of all, an Empress. Her earlier days’ makeup was as simple and pure as an angel while her makeup as an Empress consists of dark winged liner and heavy eyeshadow with cat-eye looks. Makeup was one of those tools they used to help her transition from being a naive 14-year-old girl to a ruthless Empress.
Editing. Although the Tang Dynasty was known for being more liberal in terms of attire, the concubines’ cleavage on the series was met with much criticisms. Subsequently, TVB’s post-production team edited the cleavage out of the TVB version that aired in Cantonese. For once, they do such a seamless job of editing. I’ve seen some photos of the original version and have to admit that the cleavage was quite tasteless to begin with. What a shame that they removed another historical accuracy on the show when there wasn’t a lot to begin with. 😉
I wished the drama focused more on Wu Meiniang’s wits and intelligence rather than catfights. I guess we can’t really blame them since fighting for the Emperor’s favor since it was their only option for a career back then. There were definitely some scenes that demonstrates Wu’s bravery, courage, strength, and articulation like the scene where she engaged in a battle of wits with the foreign diplomats and right before Taizong granted Bing Bing the name, Wu Meiniang.
Inefficient and ineffective execution of the plot was an issue for me. The story in general was slow and didn’t have enough memorable subplots. I slept through the first two thirds of the show. However, the discrepancies that were most laughable due to the unjustifiable random edits and cuts include the time when Aarif and Bing Bing hugged right after Zhang died. A few scenes later, she found out she was pregnant. C’mon, what does that tell teenagers who are watching?
Just like when one has too much money, with as much as 75-96 episodes on hand (depending on which version you watched), the producers didn’t know how to spend it wisely. The producers were horrible at pacing the overall timing of the series and a huge chunk of time was spent on irrelevant scenes and building up stuff that amounted to nothing.
At the best, you can describe this as aesthetically pleasing and romance-driven and at it’s worst, it can be called lengthy, slow-paced, and pointless.
Now I may have been a bit hyper-critical so far, but there isn’t anything I passionately hate about the series and it’s still something I will recommend. You just won’t be engaged during the entirety of it’s run and that’s okay.