A Journey to Love (2023) 一念关山
Summary: Ren Ru Yi (Ft Liu Shi Shi), a former top assassin from the Scarlet Guard, joins Ning Yuan Zhou (ft Liu Yu Ning) and the members of the Six Realms Hall to escort Princess Yang Ying disguised as a prince in a diplomatic envoy from the Kingdom of Wu to the Kingdom of An in order to recover the captured King of Wu.
Total Episode Count: 40
Initial Airing Date: November 28, 2023
*Note – English translations may not match official translations
Initial Rating: 7.5/10: A strong return to costume dramas for Liu Shi Shi. This original screenplay boasts a well rounded group cast, subverted expectations and thoughtful lessons. Pacing in the middle of the drama could be improved but overall an entertaining watch.
Final Rating: 7.3/10: The ending suffered from problematic editing/pacing and overfocus on the main romance in the midst of more impactful plot points but overall this was still a strong drama that I thoroughly enjoyed for its immersive story, well rounded characters and touching overarching themes. This is one of the few dramas where I felt it would have benefited from more episodes rather than less.
ren Ru Yi 任如意
liu shi shi 许凯
The best assassin from the Scarlet Guard who is on a mission for revenge.
Ning Yuan Zhou 宁远州
liu yu ning 景甜
Leader of the Six Realms Hall with top notch martial arts prowess and intelligence
Yu Shi San 于十三
fang yi lun 方逸伦
Member of Six Realms Hall. A flirt and master of makeup. He knows his way around women.
Yang Ying 杨盈
he lan dou 何蓝窦
Unloved princess that disguises herself as a prince in order to marry her beloved
Li tong guang 李同光
chang hua sen 常华森
Ru Yi’s first student. Currently a Marquis in the Kingdom of An. Obsessed with his teacher.
qian zhao 钱昭
wang yi zhe 王一哲
Member of the Six Realms Hall. Knows a little bit of everything. Generally silent but knows all the gossip
yuan lu 元禄
chen yu wei 陈宥维
Member of the Six Realms Hall. An optimistic 18 year old that is skilled at handcrafts
sun lang 孙朗
li huan 李欢
Member of the Six Realms Hall. Knows his way around animals and sadly is never on top of all gossip
This is my second favorite drama of the year. A Journey to Love is an original screenplay. A breath of fresh air given all of the dramas based off of books. And, this is Liu Shi Shi’s first return to a costume romance drama for the first time in 6 years. There has been heavy marketing and buzz for her return. This drama has breached 10,000 on iqiyi’s popularity index in 4 days and is all over social media. I believe this drama is worth it. The costumes, set, fight scenes, plot and characters are all above average. This drama also shows the strength of the 85 flowers. Liu Shi Shi dominated the small screen 10 years ago and people are still willing to tune in to watch her. This is not necessarily the case for the 95 flowers right now.
There’s been a lot of controversy around this drama for Liu Yu Ning’s attractiveness. People think he’s not very handsome. I think he’s fine and not worth all the anger. He doesn’t market himself as the most handsome man out there. Instead, if you watch a lot of his interviews, he knows that his only “strength” vs others is his height, not his looks. What could be improved is his posture. Perhaps it’s because of his 190cm height that he hunches over a lot but his posture is never straight and it’s quite a stark contrast vs Liu Shi Shi who has ballet training and is straight as a board. There’s still room for improvement from him to be sure so hopefully he takes the feedback for his future projects.
What I liked
- Subverted expectations
- Swift revenge: This drama is unexpectedly quick in ridding enemies. It opens to a corrupt Zhao Ji who leads Liu Dao Tang. In other dramas you’d think that this would be the big bad and he’d be around for many episodes. Except, he very quickly meets his end. Ning Yuan Zhou doesn’t think twice before ending his life. Ru Yi is just as swift in enacting revenge for her fallen friends. She gets the information she needs and doesn’t waste time in getting the job done. The joke now is whether or not there are enough bad guys for the entire show!
- Open dialogue: At least so far, this show portrays healthy relationships between Ning Yuan Zhou and Ru Yi. Neither are perfect but rather than having issues fester, they are quick in having conversations even if they are arguments.
- Gossip is king: This show manages to cut from heartfelt sadness to hilarity very quickly largely due to the jokesters at Liu Dao Tang who love gossip. We assumed that the men from Liu Dao Tang would be very serious but nope, they all love to learn all the tea and aren’t listen to everything.
- Group cast! Each character is well rounded and allowed to shine! For once, the side and supporting characters of a drama are not seen as additional fodder but actually add a lot of heart and depth to the show. Each actor/actress is allowed to shine and their motivations and actions make sense within the confines of the story.
- Fang Yi Lun’s Yu Shi San is hilarious and has me in stitches whenever he shows up on screen. Somehow he manages to not be “oily” even though he is a flirt and loves women. He is probably the breakout star of this drama and I enjoy whenever he’s on screen.
- He Lan Dou’s Princess Disguised as a Prince: For once, we have a girl disguised as a boy and you could actually believe this is a boy! This young princess is adorable when she’s with her teacher and the crew of Liu Dao Tang but you can see her growth on this journey. She was way in over her head when she decided to pretend to be a man but under the tutelage of Ru Yi and many others, she learns to be a brave leader.
- Qian Zhao, Sun Lang, Yuan Lu: Qian Zhao doesn’t say much but loves the gossip and will be on rooftops to hear all the conversations. Sun Lang is never on time to hear all the gossip and adores little animals. Yuan Lu is the sunshine young brother that everyone dotes on and since he’s closest in age to the princess, is able to joke with her. They all round out an heartwarming “family” on this perilous journey. Each person has their strengths and weaknesses and they grow together.
- Highlighted themes beyond “romance”: From the various storylines, we saw what it means to grow up from a timid young lamb to a woman who is self sufficient. We saw the importance of brotherhood from members of Liu Dao Tang. We saw the strength of banding together to protect ones homeland and the sacrifices people make to ensure peace. We saw what the burdens of being the ruler of a kingdom means and the counter examples of that. For me, this drama showed that there’s more than just “love”. Many other dramas do have a big fight in the finale that seems shoehorned in. But for this drama, those themes permeated throughout the entire journey and had more of an impact once the story wrapped up.
- Focus on different relationships: I appreciate that this drama points out important issues with different types of relationships for audiences to ponder. Here are some lessons I thought were important to highlight.
- Lessons on leadership
- Leaders should not simply expect loyalty and sacrifice: Ning Yuan Zhou is disheartened to hear that the captured Emperor of Wu does not think the sacrifices of his men are material. He’s not eager to bring them justice for their heroic deeds.
- Lessons on brotherhood
- Lessons on respecting women
- If a woman doesn’t reciprocate interest, any amorous language or advances are seen as offensive
- Women are not objects to be traded nor should they be expected to use their physical appearance for gain
- Lessons on relationships
- People need to discuss life goals in order to stay together:
- You can fall in love/take interest many times in your life. It doesn’t mean you always have to act.
- Just because a woman is in a relationship with a man, doesn’t mean that the man can order her about: Diplomat Du assumed that Ning Yuan Zhou can order Ru Yi to pretend to be a princess to meet Li Tong Guang. He doesn’t directly ask Ru Yi for her opinion and instead sidesteps her and asks Ning Yuan Zhou to make the decision for her.
- A woman can have many loves. As long as you have no regret or remorse, there is no reason why a woman must be bound to love only one man her entire life.
- General life lessons:
- It’s important to see one’s actions rather than focus on where they grew up or how they were raised
- Lessons on leadership
- Big budget production – From the intricate hairstyles to detailed costumes, to the sweeping landscapes, to the gigantic cast, to the bigger war fights, this drama oozes money and it is much appreciated.
- OST – I’m really digging this soundtrack, only the 3rd drama soundtrack I’m really into this year.
What did not work –
- Li Tong Guang – People online have been lapping up the pairing between Liu Shi Shi’s Ru Yi and her disciple Li Tong Guang. But Li Tong Guang’s character is pretty much an incel. He does NOT have a healthy idea of women nor does he have a healthy idea of his love for his teacher. He is controlling, obsessive, impulsive, rude and arrogant. The drama actually does a great job in pointing out these flaws and there are certainly some components of his character that are upstanding, but just because his teacher didn’t want to see him, he goes on a killing rampage that could result in war and millions of deaths. How can you approve of his actions after that? My patience for this guy is wearing thin. As Ru Yi correctly states, he doesn’t really know how to “love her”. He didn’t go out to avenge the late Empress which would have been what Ru Yi wanted. His words of “I want her” are more controlling and obsessive. He does not respect Ru Yi whatsoever.
- “You need to have your own child” – This is a line that the late Empress tells Ru Yi in her dying breath and sets Ru Yi on a path to want to use Ning Yuan Zhou as a baby making partner, nothing further. I’m sure the drama will show this isn’t her full meaning but for a show that is trying to emphasize lessons on female independence, this line seems a little out of left field.
- Pacing and timeline in the endgame: The last 6 episodes of the drama in particular suffered from cramming too many things into it. Ru Yi and Ning Yuan Zhou were flitting around the different nations on screen in 2 seconds when the original journey took many episodes. This drama suffered from not being able to flesh out certain story lines near the end which made for some plot holes. Many warfare scenes were reduced to simple narration which I’m assuming was the result of budget constraints. Additionally, there was a beautiful dance that Liu Shi Shi filmed but was edited to be extremely barebones that drew the ire of fans.
- Focus on the main romance story line in the end: Once Ning Yuan Zhou and Ren Ru Yi’s relationship was established, it did feel like the romantic scenes between them were unnecessary later on in the drama. This was because there were more impactful themes that made their focus on love rather out of place.
Stray observations: The cast probably did horseback riding lessons since for the most part we see them on actual horseback rather than fake horses!
POST ENDING THOUGHTS
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! Proceed with Warning!
I have SO many thoughts about the ending of this drama. Please DO NOT READ unless you’ve finished the show!
This is a drama that also suffered heavily from misplaced expectations and spoilers. Because the drama was so highly anticipated and there were plenty of footage captured from when the drama was filmed, fans had way too many speculations on where the drama would go. Unfortunately, many of those expectations were misplaced/didn’t come to fruition. That then in turn led to a lot of backlash because the plot didn’t go where people wanted it to go.
About that Ending: I’m actually totally fine with the ending and I’m happy with where it went. In times of war, tragedy happens. Sacrifices were made to ensure that others could survive and prosper. There were many lessons imparted on Li Tong Guang to make that point at the end (more on this later). If the main couple survived, I honestly think audiences would have been more upset.
Why can we not have a “BE” or “bad ending” where everyone dies? We had plenty of these types of dramas in the past. I’ve read many comments saying “I heard everyone dies so I’m not going to watch it” or “I’m afraid to get too attached if they all die so I don’t want to watch it”. Those are all fair points and if you’re not in the mood for a sad story that’s ok. But this drama I thought did the sacrifices well. It wasn’t like just some random bad person showed up in the end and the main cast suddenly dropped their intelligence levels to die for the sake of tears. No, this credible threat and the horrors of war meant that there would be deaths. Other dramas of the past such as Chinese Paladin 仙剑奇侠传 was a cute and fun journey for much of the drama but Zhao Ling’Er lived up to her duty. That drama is a classic and did not have happy endings. It is because of those sacrifices that the show leaves a bigger impact. I walked away focused more on how I appreciated the “大义“ or heroic actions of the main cast rather than being upset why none of then could have their “happy ending” which cannot be said for many other shows.
Yu Shi San + Chu Yue: Their so called “love” was meant to be an ill-fated one. Yu Shi San has stated over and over again that he is a man who does not want to stop for any woman. He calls himself a wanderer. He loves hard but also often. Yes, Chu Yue certainly captured his attention, but his conversation with Jin Mei Niang also made it very clear that he does not want to be tied down. Therefore, his every decision to NOT be with Chu Yue is in line with his character. For people really upset they didn’t “end up” together, I believe those people fall into the camp of 1) always wanting a “perfect” ending for a couple and 2) having that fantasy that a woman can change a man’s ways through love. On the second point, if the genders were reversed and Chu Yue wanted to go off and do her own thing, if Yu Shi San wanted to tie her down, there will be so much backlash. Why is it any different the other way around. Mature love means that you can love a person and not be with them. Yu Shi San shows he cares for Chu Yue by saving her life but that doesnt mean he needed to declare ever lasting love and settle down. Their “love” story and ending made a ton of sense.
Li Tong Guang: I’m going to go with the belief that the director/screenwriter made Li Tong Guang a worse character but in the end, he was STILL AWFUL. It was his rash decision that got so many people killed, including Ning Yuan Zhou. He drugged his teacher and tried to force her to marry him. After everything that’s happened, why was this still a plot line? The An kingdom emperor was murdered and he decides that his most important task is to force Ru Yi to marry him? This made no sense whatsoever as to why Li Tong Guang was still that fixated on Ru Yi.
Yang Ying: My favorite storyline in the entire drama is Yang Ying’s growth story line. Yang Ying went from a timid young woman, to a woman who stood up in front of a creepy, traitorous king to save both herself and her companions. She wasn’t afraid to change the equation in order to show her value as a princess. He Lan Dou’s portrayal was also surprisingly good and she captivated me on screen especially towards the end. She showed she is a worthy student of Ru Yi and in my opinion, she is so much better than Li Tong Guang. His main redeeming factor is that his CP with Yang Ying actually makes sense and he seems to treat her well. Their story could be an entirely new drama and I’d absolutely love to read a fanfic about their life together after the events of this drama.
10+ years later –
Let’s dissect this ending because there are MANY theories online. Not to say I know definitively what the ending is but here’s my read.
- Chu Yue and the young boy, Ning Shi San – There’s so much confusion around this. The young boy Ning Shi San visits “Gu Gu” or “Aunt” in a dream state. Chu Yue is envisioning the life that Ning Yuan Zhou and Ren Ru Yi COULD have had if they survived. They would have two adorable children, one named Ning Shi San in honor of Yu Shi San and one girl named Ren Lu in honor of Yuan Lu. It’s all just a fantasy! I’m reading so many comments about how this child is such a plot hole and that makes the ending awful. ??? The ending scene shows those that sacrificed themselves together
- Some posit that Chu Yue heading off with Ning Shi San reflected her path on her deathbed. That’s possible but I don’t really think so. There’s no indication that she’s dying. Instead, she sees Ning Yuan Zhou, Yu Shi San, Ru Yi and them galloping in the flourishing grasslands. She’s crying at seeing the heroes that sacrificed their lives to achieve the current peace and prosperity.
- He Xian is now prosperous – 10 years after the bloodshed, we are in He Xian again. Children are learning in school, the markets are thriving, the plains where thousands died are now green and flourishing. This means that there is peace and prosperity in the lands which speaks to strong diplomacy and good governance.
- No where does it indicate that Li Tong Guang and Yang Ying died – I’m reading places that because there’s a line that the An Emperor is inviting Chu Yue to see his “coronation” ceremony or ceremony where he now can start ruling means that Li Tong Guang must have died. Where does it indicate that? I’m assuming Li Tong Guang and Yang Ying worked together to help raise a well adjusted young man in the 3rd prince. Li Tong Guang and Yang Ying’s ultimate goal is peace and prosperity. They are not there to usurp power. Why is a seamless transition of power so out of the realm of possibility?