Blossoms Shanghai (2023) 繁花
Summary: Ah Bao ft Hu Ge is a young man trying to make his way in Shanghai. He requests tutelage from Ye Shu ft You Ben Chang, a wise old man with ruthless business acumen. By the early 1990s, Ah Bao has transformed into Bao Zong or Executive Bao, a legendary figure on Huang He Road. This drama follows both his business ventures and his interactions with the various unique individuals around him
Total Episode Count: 30
Initial Airing Date: December 27, 2023
Platform: CCTV8, Tencent
*Note – English translations may not match official translations
Karen’s Rating: 8/10: A stunningly shot drama by legendary director Wong Kar Wai, this drama brings Shanghai in the 1990s to life. The amazing primarily Shanghainese cast brings unique charm when telling the story of various individuals that brought about Executive Bao’s success. Each actor/actress excels in his/her role and propelled this drama to the first big hit of 2024.
This drama preferably should be watched in the Shanghainese version.
TV Ratings Success
The drama aired on CCTV8 and Tencent on December 27. It quickly became a hit. On CCTV8, ratings breached 2% within the first 10 minutes of airing and on Tencent, the popularity index breached 31,000 within its 14 days of airing. The 4th drama to breach 30,000 for Tencent. Every day, there are many trending posts on this drama and it has caused a surge in interest in both the locations and foods mentioned in the drama. Not only that, there’s been heavy discussion on whether or not the depiction of Shanghai in the 90s is accurate or not.
The Legendary Director – Wang Jia Wei/Wong Kar Wai 王家卫
Blossoms Shanghai was directed by renowned Hong Kong director, Wang Jia Wei or Wang Kar Wai. He I could say is in the same league as Steven Spielberg. He made a name for himself directing movies in Hong Kong. Some notable films in his repertoire include 2000’s In the Mood for Love featuring Liang Chao Wei and Zhang Man Yu, 2004’s 2046 featuring Liang Chao Wei and Wang Fei, 1994’s Chong Qing Express with Liang Chao Wei and Ling Qing Xia. His last directorial project was 一代宗师 or the Grandmaster in 2013. He was a juggernaut in the Hong Kong film industry in the 90s and early 2000s and is known for a very unique style that defined that era. Interestingly, and I did not know this, he was born in ShangHai actually. believe this is his first foray into a television drama with Blossoms Shanghai and his first project to be presented to audiences in a decade so naturally, there was buzz around this.
Ah Bao or Bao Zong 阿宝/宝总
Hu Ge 胡歌
A young man seeking his fortune in the late 1980s, by 1993, Ah Bao has transformed into the wealthy, powerful, handsome and mysterious Bao Zong (Executive Bao). He has many connections and business dealings in Shanghai.
Hu Ge was my idol so to speak growing up. We were obsessed with his first role in 仙剑奇侠传 or Chinese Paladin and watched him throughout the years in various projects. Both Chinese Paladin 1 + Chinese Paladin 3 were bonafide hits in the 2000s and then he starred in another smash hit with 琅琊榜 or Royal Nirvana. That drama is on the list of top historical dramas of all time for me and many others. Needless to say, 胡歌’s return here is very welcomed and he has a solid base of folks across generations interested in his output here.
Miss Wang Ming Zhu 汪明珠
Tang Yan 唐嫣
Miss Wang works at the Shanghai Import/Export company – a state owned enterprise tasked with helping approve business activity. Highly capable and runs like the wind, she is close friends with Bao Zong
唐嫣 Tang Yan is one of the 85 flowers that made a huge comeback with this role. She and Hu Ge are old friends having filmed numerous dramas together, the first one being Chinese Paladin 3. Tang Yan has been in the public eye for 15 years now and was a staple icon for those watching Chinese dramas in the 2010s. The offscreen relationship between 唐嫣 and 胡歌 is super sweet. He is her daughter’s 舅舅 or Uncle and there are clips of him visiting her on set, for example, when she was filming the Legend of Xiao Chuo. It’s fantastic seeing them on screen again
Ling Zi 玲子
Ma Yi Li 马伊利
Ling Zi is the restaurant owner of Ye Dong Jing that Bao Zong opened with her. She loves money like none other and can get into squabbles with her friends and Bao Zong but no one can deny her abilities as a restaurant owner.
We were first introduced to Ma Yi Li as the new Zi Wei 紫薇 in the 3rd Pearl Princess in 2003. We’ve seen her in various shows here and there. Her acting abilities are well regarded but she was embroiled in divorce controversy with her husband for a number of years. She is the personification of a Shanghai woman in this role
Li Li 李李
Xin Zhi Lei 辛芷蕾
Li Li 李李 ft Xin Zhi Lei 辛芷蕾
A mysterious woman from Shen Zhen, Li Li arrives on Huang He Lu and opens up a new restaurant Zhi Zhen Yuan to much fanfare and controversy.
The only person not from shanghai of this main cast is 辛芷蕾 who hails from 东北 province. 辛芷蕾 folks I don’t think should be too unfamiliar with. She hasn’t headlined many dramas but she was in Ruyi’s Love in the Palace, and Joy of Life among many other dramas. Recently, she’s been gaining lots of popularity after the airing of Diva’s Hit The Road and the stark difference between her on screen portrayal in this drama vs her real life persona has been a hot topic of online discussion.
Ye Shu 爷叔
You Ben Chang 游本昌
A seasoned business man, he sees many likable qualities in Ah Bao and decides to help him become a renowned businessman. Ye Shu understands how businesses run and the nascent stock market. But moreso, he knows how to find and use connections to get the value he needs.
I can see this drama actually having mixed reviews. It can be hard to get into at first. Why is the lighting so dark? I can’t understand a single thing in Shanghai-nese. Why is there so much yelling and fighting all the time? Why are there always so many odd camera angles. I was initially more annoyed with this drama actually and didn’t see the hype but by episode 10 I was hooked!
PRO TIP – DO NOT BINGE THIS DRAMA. Take it maybe 2-3 episodes at a time. I made the mistake of watching many episodes on my phone while on the flight back from Paris and my eyes were highly strained.
This drama has so much to offer that you have to really take time to digest it. Some viewers may not like that. Cathy is in that camp where she isn’t too big of a fan. While I LOVED the color palette, the costumes, the food, the locations, the history, the language. If you watch this drama, you get a sense that each tiny thing was thought out by the director with painstaking detail. That might be sensory overload for some people but this drama will be one that is analyzed and dissected for many years to come. It is a drama of thoughtfulness and even CCTV itself said that this drama may be a 孤本 or a lone show.
Three Years in the making with no script and multiple “last” shots – Apparently, this drama took many years to film and prevented the cast from taking on other projects. The reason was because the director would call people back many times to film various scenes in order to fit his image. Furthermore, the project took many creative licenses. In many interviews with the cast, they said how they would show up on set and given a few pieces of dialogue and that’s it. They would have to create the magic then and there with the director. But if, for example, several months later after the Director did some post production and editing of the drama and didn’t like certain parts of the show, he would call the cast back to do reshoots. Xin Zhi Lei said she shot what she thought was her final scene like 3 times.
Color palette: One aspect of the show that people may not have liked is the color palette. Much of the show is filmed in darkness and even when it is daylight, the brightness of the sun is often muted. This certainly sets the mood for what type of show you’re going to be seeing. There is a mystical aura because so much of what is portrayed on screen is shrouded in darkness and shadow.
But, there is great richness in the colors of the show. The palettes largely focused on red, yellow and orange. I did get some fatigue in binging this drama but it does add to the uniqueness of the show.
Camera Angles: Something very unique about this show is that very rarely do you see the camera face a character head on. When we see people speak, we are often times watching them from a downward angle or else from an upward angle, rarely on a flat plane. That was quite differentiated, and similarly, I can see fatigue for this style but it begs the question from the viewer as to why the director chose this angle vs another. Additionally, you’ll notice that the camera often follows characters behind walls/obstructions. As if you’re peeking in on their life rather than have it presented directly to you. There’s a lot of use of mirrors, blurs and opaque lighting that further adds to the mysterious aura of the show.
This drama shines in the distinctive characters brought on screen. This distinction is brought about not only by the fantastic acting by each person, but through other means.
Costumes – The three main ladies where very distinctive outfits that fit their characters.. I love Ling Zi’s various silk scarves as that is a staple of Shanghai attire. Li Li’s luxurious dresses and hairstyles match her aggressive nature. She also wears a lot of animal print which in interviews was said that it signifies that she is like a hunter on a hunt. Miss Wang’s color coordinated suits and shoulder pads fits her role in the company but someone working on Huang He Lu. But Bao Zong’s current outfit vs what he wore in flashbacks, the leather jackets that other cast members wore and the colorful prints from ladies of Huang He road added much appreciated flavor to each person.
Character posture – One very unique component of each character is how they present themselves. Ling Zi is often times leaning back with her shoulder almost at a 45 degree angle to her waist when she takes to people. When she walks, there is an interesting strut that shows her proudness but also her femininity. I feel like this is quite a “shanghai” mannerism as Ling Zi does it so naturally but I tried it and almost pulled something in my back. Li Li’s walk has been lauded as a triumph for the actress, Xin Zhi Lei, who apparently had to take many lessons to learn how to walk the proper way Li Li would walk. Li Li’s posture oozes power, sex appeal and directness. It fits her very well.
Meaningful side characters: While we highlighted the main cast, each side character in the show is also impactful and we could do detailed character analysis on each person. A Bao/Ling Zi’s friends from Night Tokyo, Lu Mei Lin, the female restaurant owner of Jin Mei Lin, Executive Wei and Executive Fan, Mei Ping from Miss Wang’s work place, Miss Wang’s teacher to name a few. They are vibrant individuals that add a lot of color to the drama. Why a person acts a certain way is largely understandable and multidimensional. Somehow, the drama managed to pack so many characters in 30 episodes without it feeling too clustered.
But can audiences move away from the romance? One thing I wish audiences would shy away from is who Bao Zong would end up with. When the drama aired, there were so many trending topics of who Bao Zong loved more. There was so much comparison between the three main ladies, Li Li, Miss Wang and Ling Zi. We also met Bao Zong’s first love – the woman who set him on his path from Ah Bao to Bao Zong.
As we progressed through the show, Miss Wang and Ling Zi recognized that they were both too reliant on Bao Zong and that both of them misread their relationship with him. Both of these ladies wanted more but he wasn’t taking that step so they realized they needed to make their own way without him.
When Miss Wang left her office and didn’t have the backing of Bao Zong, people on Huang He Road basically ignored her. Ling Zi heard the awful things her friends said about her in regards to her muddy relationship with Bao Zong and her own capabilities. Both women came back to take control of their own careers and destinies. Ling Zi started her own true restaurant without Bao Zong as a stakeholder while Miss Wang started her own company with Executive Wei. Their respective paths to growth and independence were so much more intriguing that the simple “who did Bao Zong love more”. My question is, why does it matter? Man, the number of detailed analysis on Bao Zong’s monologue in the end saying that he did end up with Miss Wang is on another level.
My reading is that Bao Zong gave all his “love” to his first love. He has a bigger soft spot for Miss Wang and he’s grateful for Ling Zi. They’re both very important to him but I don’t think he’s ready to take that next step to “lover” from their current roles as business partners and friends. As for Li Li, there is clear sexual attraction because both are top notch in their game. It’s difficult not to be attracted to someone that is your equal but that doesn’t mean they need to “be together”. Li Li has too much love for Mr. A and way too much baggage to let go.
About Mr. A…That’s one thing I haven’t fully figured out. I won’t spoil it here but who he is and who he might be related to is up for debate. Let me know who you think this Mr. A is.
Impact of the Drama
Xin Zhi Lei skyrocketed in popularity. Hu Ge and Tang Yan make a triumphant return
Hu Ge and Tang Yan were well known in the industry but had taken quite some time off from the small screen. This drama took 3 years to film and it paid off. Because of her low profile, Tang Yan was seen to have lost a bit of star power in the 85 flowers compared to say Yang Mi. This was a massive win for her and showed that she actually CAN act.
Hu Ge solidified himself as an established actor. He now has had multiple classics under his belt including Chinese Paladin and Nirvana in Fire but now in his 40s, he’s moved away from the rom com fantasy dramas to roles with more gravitas and impact.
Xin Zhi Lei is probably the biggest winner. At 37 years old, she is certainly older than the ladies competing for eyeballs in romance dramas and she has been in numerous dramas throughout the years, but people fell in love with her confidence and sensuality as Li Li. It helped that her persona on screen is in stark contrast to how she is in real life that we saw in Divas Hit the Road which speaks to her acting abilities. Her facial features are quite unique from other women in C-ent which makes her memorable.
Shanghai Tourism exploded
As if Shanghai wasn’t already a popular tourist destination, but with Blossoms Shanghai the originally quiet Huang He Road which lost its vigor from its hey day in the 1990s suddenly became teeming with people. There are many influencers taking tours of the street and fans of the show want to get a glance of what the place is like in real life. Peace Hotel where Ye Shu and Bao Zong set up shop saw the British Suite’s price skyrocket to over 18000 RMB a night as fans clamored to see what the place was like. The street where Ling Zi’s Ye Dong Jing was like also saw a sharp uptick in visitors. Even the actor Zheng Kai who played Wei Zong did a little vlog touring the sights only for it to be packed in most places he went.
Not only were the sites popular, the food became a hot topic as well. Blossoms Shanghai introduced many classic Shanghai dishes and some other unique ones served at Zhi ZHen Huan. The pork chop and sticky rice cake dish that Miss Wang and Bao Zong favored also quickly became all the rage. They’re even serving it now in a shop in NYC that apparently had long lines due to the craze! At the Peace Hotel, they’re offering a prix fixe meal that is quite pricey based on all the food that was presented in the drama. From the videos I’ve seen of people trying it, it’s probably not worth the 1000+RMB price tag. But again, this just shows the cultural impact this drama has had. We get glimpses of Ben Bang cuisine or more Shanghai style food as well as cantonese/hong kong style food.
All in all, a culturally impactful show with a lot to dissect and think about. I highly recommend giving it a shot! Hopefully it comes out soon with English subtitles.