The Legend of Shen Li (2024) 与凤行

Summary: A comedic fantasy romance, Shen Li ft Zhao Li Ying, Prince of Bi Cang of the Spirit clan (Ling Zu) falls to the mortal realm in order to escape an arranged marriage. She is rescued by Xing Yun ft Ling Geng Xin, a mortal with mysterious knowledge. This is the much anticipated second pairing between Zhao Li Ying and Lin Geng Xin. 

 

Total Episode Count: 39

Initial Airing Date: March 18, 2024

Platform: Tencent, Mango TV

*Note – English translations may not match official translations

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Initial Rating: 7/10 [First 20 episodes] An almost blockbuster worthy production, this drama is stunning to watch with beautifully intricate costumes and stellar special effects. However, it doesn’t quite hit the mark story/romance wise to match the production until 10+ episodes in. 

Final Review: 7.3/10 – The drama ended on a stronger note, driven primarily by the chemistry between Zhao Li Ying and Lin Geng Xin. There’s more passion in the romance as both Shen Li and Xing Zhi battle their feelings with duty in the face of bigger threats but become more resolute. It is held back by a weaker antagonist and some filler content.

The drama follows the book rather closely for those wanting to read it. I binged the book after starting the drama and was pleasantly surprised at how true the drama was to the source material. 

shen li 沈璃

zhao li ying 赵丽颖

Prince of Bi Cang, the most powerful general of the Spirit Clan (Ling Zu)

xing zhi 行止

lin geng xin 林更新

The last god of old. He wields unmatched power in the realms

mo fang墨方

xing yun lai 辛云来 

General of the Spirit clan and close confidante of Shen Li

fu rong jun 拂容君

he yu 何与

Member of the fairy clan and betrothed to Shen Li. He is as unhappy about this match as she is.

Plot

Shen Li is the Prince of Bi Cang of the Spirit clan (Ling Zu). She lived for 1000 years and is a powerful general in addition to prince (in Chinese the word is Wang which can be translated to Prince or King). However, she has been ordered to marry an immortal from the fairy clan (sky clan). She does not approve of this marriage whatsoever and decides to run for it. She fights off the people chasing her but is injured and falls into the mortal realm. Shen Li is weakened in the fight and reduced to her original form, a small phoenix. She is almost butchered as a chicken but was fortunately saved by the a mortal man, Xing Yun. Despite being human, he seems to be able to hear her speak, is an amazing chef and somehow knows how to nurse her back to health. 

This drama is based off a book and it follows the book pretty closely. But, interestingly and as we’ve talked about on the podcast, the drama changed the “demon clan” or Mo Zu that was portrayed in the book, to Ling Zu or Spirit clan. 

Initial thoughts

This is a comedy romance fantasy drama that sees a second pairing between Zhao Li YIng and Lin Geng Xin. This is a massive deal for those who have been chasing Chinese dramas because the two starred in the insanely popular Princess Agents or 楚乔传 back in 2017. That drama was a huge hit but spoiler warning, the ending left much to be desired. There were plans for a sequel but it never came to fruition and fans of Princess Agents were desolate at never knowing what happened to the main stars.

There was a LOT of anticipation for this drama for fans wishing to see these two back on screen as a couple. Plus, Zhao Li Ying in general has a massive following. On Tencent, it is the fastest drama to breach 30,000 – within the first 25 hours of airing. On Hunan television, it started with 0.7% in viewership ratings, the highest for all regional television networks. There is very high buzz all around on the various social media platforms and online sites. Weibo had like a million trending topics, the drama is hitting peaks on Baidu discussion and searches, it’s adding hundreds of millions of views on Chinese tik tok, I could go on.

However, as the drama aired, while the Tencent popularity index stayed near 30,000, Hunan television ratings were unstable. For how strongly this drama started out, it did not reach even greater heights or bigger popularity. In contrast with Lost You Forever, for example, one would expect this drama to breach 33,000 on Tencent’s popularity index but it has not… And I can say I completely understand why. Let’s talk about it. 

What’s been great:

High production quality: I’m absolutely loving the costumes of this drama.  The book doesn’t provide too much detail on clothing for the drama but the costume department took this to the next level. I adore Shen Li’s clothing as Prince of Bi Cang and all of the accessories. The rest of the Spirit clan costumes are also intricate and multifaceted. The sets are also varied, unique and beautiful. Often times these fantasy dramas can feel repetitive or rather empty. That is not the case with The Legend of Shen Li. Overall, I am impressed with this drama.  You can tell a lot of investment was put into producing it.

Top notch special effects: For once, I watch a Chinese fantasy drama and think wow, the special effects here are actually good! In the first couple of episodes, Shen Li is reduced to her “phoenix” form on the human realms. Basically just a beautiful bird that Xing Yun finds and takes care of. This bird is really quite cute and had me burst out laughing in several instances due to the various antics it got up to while trying to escape. While still “fake”, the special effects were decent enough that people online said crazy,I really just watched 2 episodes of a fake bird on screen and enjoyed it. 

Beyond that, the grand fight scenes that the various characters are engaged in are quite decent, especially when it comes to Xing Zhi. As a god, when he steps forward to use his power, you can see how impactful it resonates with massive bursts of ice or other magical forms. Almost like Thor using Mjolnir in an Avengers film.  This is a drama where we see the money really being spent on the special effects and is worthy of the “S+” production quality. 

AMAZING Soundtrack: I’m really enjoying the theme songs of the drama but this is one of the FIRST Chinese dramas in maybe like the last decade where I’ve been listening on repeat the full soundtrack of this show. The instrumental music is extremely high quality with many folk/traditional Chinese music influences. It’s been a highlight not only in the show but also while I’m doing work. I highly recommend listening to the soundtrack which is available on Youtube. 

Mature female lead: One of the most refreshing aspects of Shen Li’s character apart from being a top general and a powerful fighter is that she is not overly weepy about relationships. She proclaimed her feelings and doesn’t hide it. She maybe spends a little time being internally conflicted but owns her feelings once she feels it. Outside of that, she appreciates having someone to be vulnerable with, but she doesn’t shy away from a fight. She is the first person to step up to the challenge, even if it means getting severely injured. I was somewhat conflicted about having Xing Zhi often times stepping in to save her and being many times more powerful than her but she doesn’t necessarily need him. Without him, she would still fight to the death to protect her loved ones.

Troubles of being a god: Many fantasy dramas portray gods and often times we’re just in awe of how powerful the god is. We also just gawk at how many years a god lives. However, this drama fully shows us 1) the loneliness of being a god and 2) the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” part of being a god. Xing Zhi is the only god of old left in the world. All of his friends have left him after living for hundreds of thousands of years. He is lonely. Not only that, he’s bored out of his mind. Because he’s bored, he will try many things to get over that boredom. It makes you think, huh. It might actually suck to be all alone for what feels like eternity. People respect you and venerate you, but you have no friends or literally anyone to talk to. So much time has passed that he can’t even remember what many of his friends look like.

Outside of that, he wields massive power. Such power, if used on personal feelings, could mean the end of the world. That is why he shouldn’t have feelings. If misdirected or used for “bad”, the result could be catastrophic. Both Xing Zhi and Shen Li understand this. A mature way to look at the world rather than focus on just the romance and why both of them try to fight their feelings so much.

 

What could have been better:

Oddly, it feels like Zhao Li Ying’s acting is more wooden than I would have liked – Between the two main leads, it is actually Zhao Li Ying’s acting that feels weaker compared to Lin Geng Xin. I certainly commend her for the effort she put into training for the role. There are many behind the scenes clips showing how hard she worked in order to wield her spear and do the martial arts scenes well. However, her portrayal of Shen Li often feels very wooden. There is a lack of emotion coming from her eyes to convey her love or attraction. Perhaps she is trying to show the strong Prince Shen Li but because there isn’t enough depth in how she emotes, the resulting interactions between her and Lin Geng Xin’s Xing Yun/Xing Zhi is not as emotional, and detracts from the passion of the romance. 

The other controversy for Zhao Li YIng is that she decided to use a voice dub for this role. While we’ve seen her use her own voice in numerous dramas like The Story of Ming Lan, apparently she said she wanted to give audiences a better viewing experience and thus decided to go with a voice dub. I actually don’t mind the voice dub but the view is if your voice doesn’t fit the role, should you even take it? Sometimes the voice dub does feel like she’s just reading off the script though, which again detracts from the role.  

Mo Fang’s Xin Yun Lai: While I just spoke about Zhao Li Ying, Mo Fang’s actor Xin Yun Lai felt the most out of place and wooden of the main cast. While handsome, I don’t think he fully hit the mark in all of the emotions Mo Fang was supposed to portray. He wasn’t as front and center in the beginning part of the drama so it didn’t make much of an impact, however his role expanded in the second half but it didn’t seem like he was able to stick the landing. I also didn’t particularly like the direction Mo Fang as a character went but that was my gripe more with the book than the drama itself.

Slow burn to start: The chemistry between Shen Li and Xing Yun is not as intense while she is in the mortal realm as perhaps people would have liked. Therefore while there are comedic moments in the drama, the plot moves along at a slower pace. There isn’t that eagerness to see what happens next because the passion just isn’t there. It takes many episodes to build up to more of that intensity which I think is why it’s lost some luster. I discuss this in more detail later in this review but there are spoilers ahead. It takes 10-15 episodes for this drama to really hit its stride. I’m eagerly chasing this drama now we’re in the mid to late game but at the beginning, I was like, meh. It’s fine. 

 

Let’s talk about this romance [SPOILERS AHEAD. READ WITH DISCRETION. Contains content up to first 20 ep of the drama]

One of the reasons why I can see people not enjoying the first couple of episodes of the drama is because it doesn’t feel like the romance between Shen Li and Xing Yun is very strong. I can completely understand that. Contrast the multi episode arch between Shen Li and Xing Yun where Shen Li’s attraction to Xing Yun almost seems a little forced, vs the natural chemistry that was through the roof in next door’s In Blossoms between Yang Cai Wei and Pan Yue in just 2 episodes. It’s very easy to ship Yang Cai Wei and Pan Yue very quickly while it was much harder to ship Shen Li and Xing Yun. 

Shen Li

My read is this. Shen Li as a character knows that she is immortal while Xing Yun is only a mortal. While she did grow to be attracted to this intriguing man that documented many mundane things, was poor, had a sad life but somehow lived very nonchalantly, she was not fully head over heels in love with him. She cared for this man because for once in her life, she could feel vulnerable and he was there to take care of her. But there were still boundaries. She always knew he would die before her so she could not expend too much of her emotional bandwidth on him. While yes, she did give her 500 years of her life force in order to keep him alive as a mortal, I took it as her last gift for him.

That is why, when she was released from imprisonment in the Ling Jie or Spirit realm, she was sad for a moment to hear that Xing Yun passed away, but didn’t dwell too much on it. She knew he was mortal and would die. One day in the sky is one year in the mortal realm. He lived for another 20-30 years into old age before dying peacefully, and that was almost some comfort for Shen Li but only a month passed for her in the sky. Only a month in her 1000 year life time. While her time on earth was impactful, but not life ending. 

Following her release from imprisonment, she went on with her life because she knew full well that the man she cared for, Xing Yun, will never return.  This level of clarity, knowing that Xing Yun was a unique person who lived his life and will not come back, is unique. Think about 10 miles peach blossoms/Eternal Love where Ye Hua could not get over the fact that his mortal wife Su Su died and tried for hundreds of years to bring her back. Shen Li accepted that Xing Yun lived his life and died. She made no efforts whatsoever to revive him or bring him back. The comparison I have is being widowed. Your significant other died, and you can still hold love for them in your heart, but you move on because you accept they can never come back. 

If Xing Zhi never appeared, I DO think that Shen Li would have gotten over him and remembered him fondly.

 

Xing Zhi

As for Xing Yun/Xing Zhi, he is also unlike other male romance fantasy leads because he knows full well he cannot have emotions, even as the mortal Xing Yun. Xing Yun retained the memories of the god Xing Zhi where it was drilled into his head that gods cannot have emotions. Compare that with Ye Hua who knows he’s the prince of the sky but decided to marry Su Su and caused Su Su so much anguish and hurt. (roll eyes).

In the mortal realm, it often felt like Xing Yun was also keeping boundaries. While he was perhaps intrigued with Shen Li, his attraction was much more reserved than Shen Li’s attraction. She was bold enough to announce that she liked Xing Yun. He never said the same words. His actions, though, betrayed his affection and perhaps he himself never recognized the extent of his attraction for Shen Li.

Building Romance

However, the drama picks up and to me becomes much more interesting and swoonworthy when Xing Zhi returns to his god form and shows up to meet Shen Li. Now we know why he was more reserved with Shen Li and we see that internal conflict that is brewing inside of both Shen Li and Xing Zhi. Shen Li in her head knows she should separate Xing Yun from Xing Zhi and keep her distance but Xing Zhi keeps showing up. He on his part also knows that he should stay away from Shen Li and not let any more feelings build so as to not cause trouble for the world, but he cannot help himself either. This push and pull in both of their “full” forms is to me much more interesting than their interactions in the mortal realm.

It feels like their interactions in the mortal realm laid the groundwork for their love, but their time in the spirit realm (Ling Jie) and then in the Sky is bringing their attraction to the next level. She is falling in love with the god Xing Zhi, and he is allowing his god self to fall in love with her. By seeing the full extent of his power, she understands why he can’t love her. He also point blank tells her he cannot like her. She doesn’t cry or weep at that. She accepts this as her reality but that doesn’t mean both of them can’t still hold their affections for each other.

This crescendo of the relationship is much more interesting, but that means you have to get through the first 10-15 episodes to get there. 

 

Overall Thoughts 

This drama has maintained significant buzz over the last few weeks which was aided by heavy marketing from both Zhao Li Ying and Lin Geng Xin. This is quite refreshing since the two do not mind being “paired” together as a couple for marketing purposes and in the online interactions, they genuinely seem like good friends having a good time. Many comments I’m seeing are joking that with how well they interact, it’s hard to not try to ship the real actor and actress as opposed to shipping only the characters on screen. 

Ling Geng Xin, who hasn’t been as career focused I would say, has made a decent splash online with this role, garnering new fans while also giving old fans (like me) comfort in seeing him return in a decent way. After all, we’ve watched him since Startling With Each Step or Bu Bu Jing Xin all the way back a decade ago. We’ll see what this does for him career wise. 

This might be the last fantasy or historical type drama we see from Zhao Li Ying in a while so savor it while we can. 

 

[Spoilers Ahead into the Ending]

What else I really enjoyed:

Shen Li not shying away from a fight: In these fantasy dramas, often times we are talking about gods and deities with world ending power. Most of the time, it is the guy who has more power than the woman and steps in to save her. For this drama, what I really appreciated was that Shen Li and Xing Zhi actually decided to go their separate ways because they recognized their duty. When Shen Li returned to Ling Jie and saw it in ruin, she went herself to fight the attackers. She used all of her own strength on the battlefield to fight Fu Sheng and willingly sacrificed herself to bring Fu Sheng down. She is far weaker than Xing Zhi but she did not ask for help from Xing Zhi because she knows this was HER fight. She shouldn’t rely on HIM. In her dying breath, she said Xing Zhi, it hurts. But she didn’t say, Xing Zhi, come save me. If she didn’t have the ability to reincarnate because she is a phoenix, the story would have just ended there. The drama would have played out the way we saw it with Xing Zhi utterly heartbroken and defying “sky order” in order to recover her body. He would have lived out his life perhaps in regret. Both were lucky to have a second chance and this time, he recognized how much he cared for her.  

 

What Needed Work:

Mo Fang: Gosh Mo Fang/Xin Yun Lai. This villain really didn’t do it for me. Even when I read the book, it felt like such a cop out that he would be a traitor but was still in love with Shen Li. It felt like a weak link and it didn’t help that Xin Yun Lai as an actor I don’t think did a great job with showing his internal conflict for Shen Li. Fu Sheng was probably the more interesting villain.

 

Let me know what you think!

Karen

 

 

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