The Legend of Zhuo Hua (2023) 灼灼风流
Summary: Mu Zhuo Hua ft Jing Tian seizes her opportunity and sneaks away from home to take the imperial entrance exams in the hopes of gaining a post at court and save herself from being married off as a concubine. In order to make money to fund her trip, she, trained in medicine by her mother, cares over courtesans. One fateful night, she rescues a a poisoned Prince of Ding, Liu Yan ft Feng Shao Feng at a brothel who is searching for clues as to what caused the death of his army 5 years ago. Liu Yan is suspicious of Mu Zhuo Hua but also intrigued by her abilities.
Total Episode Count: 40
Initial Airing Date: Aug 19, 2023
*Note – English translations may not match official translations
Final Rating 7/10: A surprisingly good quality drama that closed out the summer. Jing Tian and Feng Shao Feng’s characters are actually quite equally matched in terms of intelligence and wit. While there was initial criticism for the cast being too old for a romance drama like this, their age brought better acting skills which allowed for an enjoyable show. My main critiques are about the overly familiar and unmatching voice dubs for the main pair and a convoluted last quarter of the drama.
mu zhuo hua 慕灼华
jing tian 景甜
A skilled scholar and doctor, Mu Zhuo Hua’s only goal in life is to become a court official in order to escape her life at home as the forgotten 7th daughter in the Mu Family.
liu yan 刘衍
feng shao feng 冯绍峰
The reserved but thoughtful Prince of Ding, Liu Yan was once a powerful general who has since become weak due to his injuries. He primarily wants to avenge the death of his army.
Princess rou Jia
wang li kun 王丽坤
Hailed as a goddess, Princess Rou Jia has set up numerous charities across the country to save countless lives.
shen jing hong 沈惊鸿
xu hai qiao 徐海乔
A talented scholar, he aims to succeed in the imperial entrance exams in order to once again see the Princess that saved his life.
Overall ThoughtsIt is a pity that this drama didn’t get too much marketing but the word of mouth has been decent enough that this drama made a small splash into the end of summer. This cast is full of familiar faces and while I think Jing Tian and Wang Li Kun both look amazing, there was plenty of criticism around especially Feng Shao Feng as the Prince of Ding being too old for the role. Though at first it did seem like the overall cast of characters, except for the oldest Prince Liu Chen were maybe 5 years older than I would have liked, the overall product was just fine. I prefer this where the acting of each person on screen is decent even if they are older vs the wooden portrayals of younger actors. This is a charming romantic comedy that surprised me with its depth and upstanding characters that I wish was able to go the extra mile but was probably held back due to censorship.
What I liked [MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]
- Mu Zhuo Hua as a clear headed, talented young woman – I commend Jing Tian as Mu Zhuo Hua since it’s so different from Si Teng (Rattan) and you almost forget how intense and sultry she was in that role versus this one.
- Career driven – Mu Zhuo Hua trained her entire life in order to take the imperial entrance exams and be an official at court to escape her fate as someone’s concubine. She is resolute in this desire and she makes that clear to the Prince of Ding that because a rule exists in the kingdom where if a woman marries, she must give up her position at court, she cannot marry him. Even though she knows she likes him, her love will come second to her career. You go girl! Plus, she doesn’t fall into silly traps when a wealthy young woman in love with the Prince tries to engage Mu Zhuo Hua in these jealous games. Mu Zhuo Hua is confident enough in herself that she doesn’t see it necessary.
- Skilled and knowledgeable but with clear flaws – She spent her life studying and reading by grace of her mother and her teacher which means that she actually does have what it takes. She is able to analyze the current situation at court, memorize many manuscripts, earn money as a fantastic doctor and not falter under pressure. Plus she is extremely observant. The Prince of Ding helped speak up for her but many of these things she did herself. Though, she’s not perfect and I appreciated that. She cannot create beautiful poems like her colleague Shen Jing Hong and a burst out laughing when Shen Jing Hong says she loves money.
- Liu Yan – A Prince Through and Through – Most people, myself included, thought Feng Shao Feng was too old to act in rom coms any more but but his portrayal of Liu Yan exceeded my expectations. I thought Feng Shao Feng did a great job but we must give praise to the character of Liu Yan
- Respectful and thoughtful – The Prince of Ding was the one to request for women to be allowed to take the entrance exams and participate as officials at court. That already speaks to his wish for equality. He is exceedingly respectful to Mu Zhuo Hua and even bows to show his apology when he realizes he made a mistake. Plus the fact that he accepts she cannot marry him and is willing to be her “mistress?”/”side piece?”. Well, her “wai shi” and giving her more authority in the relationship really showed his respect and love for her. He didn’t mind not marrying her if it meant that would prevent her from achieving her dreams. That right there is true love.
- Politically savvy – For once, a prince that doesn’t want the throne. We’ve watched too many dramas where that is the trope and the screenwriters don’t take the audience for fools as to what the clear and present dangers to Liu Yan are. The Prince of Ding with his military power could be seen as a threat to the throne. He knows this and purposefully delays or refuses to marry so that he doesn’t have an heir which could destabilize his relationship with his brother the Emperor and the throne. He is a mentor to his nephews and clearly understands the power dynamics at play.
- The screenwriters were quite cheeky
- The screenwriters probably knew what the audience was going to say about Feng Shao Feng’s age and in the first meeting with Mu Zhuo Hua and the Prince of Ding, Mu Zhuo Hua utters the line, “this guy is already so old and past his prime” in thinking the Prince might be a male courtesan. So yep, rather than pretending that the Prince of Ding is the most handsome man in all the land, the drama subverts expectations and then we’re actually thinking, hey he’s not THAT bad. Haha.
- The joke of the Prince of Ding being a “wai shi” had me cackling because of Feng Shao Feng’s now iconic line from The Story of Ming Lan where he had a “wai shi” that was weak and couldn’t manage herself is all over the internet. The screenwriters actually had Mu Zhuo Hua use this line on the Prince of Ding when they were joking about their relationship. No way was that a coincidence.
What could have been better [SPOILERS AHEAD]
- Liu Yan’s voice dub – Oh man, Feng Shao Feng’s voice dub in this drama just doesn’t match what was expected of him. Feng Shao Feng’s enunciation is good enough to not have a voice dub and perhaps the director wanted to differentiate Liu Yan from Gu Ting Ye from The Story of Ming Lan but it was just so odd to hear this voice vs Feng Shao Feng’s real one. It didn’t match what I thought would be Liu Yan’s voice. They could’ve picked a better voice dub.
- Focus shift into the finale – The first 2/3 or 3/4 of the drama was focused primarily around Mu Zhuo Hua’s journey to the capital and succeeding at court plus her interactions with Liu Yan/Prince of Ding. However, heading into the end game, the “main” villain of the drama becomes the focal point and Mu Zhuo Hua seems to be just background fodder. Instead of a growth story around her, the drama shifts focus to court politics and Machiavellian schemes. Because of this, it felt like the main villain was the main character and the show became an entirely different one. I personally would have LOVED to see the main villain as the main character in their own drama. That would have been so cool! But because of this shift, the drama lost a lot of the heart and intrigue it started out with. And to be honest, it was a little convoluted and boring.
- I wish the villain succeeded – I won’t be too explicit to avoid major spoilers but let’s just say it definitely seemed like the screenwriters made the villain much worse than needed in order to make the villain’s demise natural. It would have been amazing if the screenwriters took that extra step to see the “villain” actually succeed in their plan. Because of censorship reasons I’m assuming, the plot felt a little heavy handed and forced into the endgame with overly obvious schemes. Someone should call up Shonda Rhimes to make a western version of this drama and actually go there. That would be awesome!
Stray observations –
- The maid Ju Li was absolutely adorable in this show and her romance equally sweet
- Mu Zhuo Hua’s dad is awful by all accounts but he was hilarious on screen. I have a soft spot for Huang Hai Bing already and he managed to make a terrible character not unlikeable!
That’s all for me! Let me know what you think!