It takes just a few minutes into Story of Yanxi Palace, the smash hit 2018 Chinese language historic palace drama, for the coaching wheels to fly off.
Alongside our heroine, Wei Yingluo (Wu Jinyan), the viewers is dropped into the center of a sophisticated society with clandestine guidelines and labyrinthine social codes: the Forbidden Metropolis. Ruled by the real-life Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong, and constructed across the stratagems and maneuvers of his many concubines, the 18th-century metropolis oozes opulence and ornate luxurious — but additionally teems with duplicity and hazard.
In contrast to the viewers, nonetheless, Wei Yingluo has come ready.
The story opens with a bunch of lowly embroidery maids, all new to the palace, encountering a bunch of eligible noblewomen on their method to meet the emperor. After one of many noblewomen bullies them, Wei Yingluo, a brand new maid, steps in and smooths issues over. Yingluo assuages the noble girl’s anger by displaying her a novel trick that makes her footsteps path roses — thus sending her on her method to meet the emperor with a particular benefit over the opposite would-be consorts.
To date, so good: Our hero is a modest, discerning lady who is aware of easy methods to flatter to maintain the peace.
The second the emperor (Yuan Nie) sees the roses the lady has trailed behind her, he realizes she has disobeyed the imperial Manchu decree in opposition to footbinding — an enormous offense. He immediately disgraces her and her complete clan.
This, we understand, is what occurs when somebody crosses Wei Yingluo: a devious, delicate type of sabotage that relies upon upon the perpetrator’s personal errors to rattling them ultimately.
Similar to that, we’re off to the races. Over the course of 70 episodes, our lowly palace maid faces an limitless onslaught of energy performs and manipulations, all amid a gradual, unprecedented social climb by way of the ranks of the courtroom. Whereas watching, I stored being reminded of The Queen’s Gambit, a present the place the story’s chief enchantment is the satisfaction of getting to look at a succesful lady being succesful, whereas all the boys in her life both help her, get out of the way in which, or dwell to rue their mistake in attempting to own her.
Relaxation assured, Yanxi Palace additionally has all of the betrayal, backstabbing, homicide, epic love sagas, and tragedy any fan of different grittier genres and reveals, like Recreation of Thrones or hit Chinese language xianxia drama The Untamed, may need. Granted, palace dramas like this one sometimes have loads of grim tropes, however I used to be unprepared for the way a lot violence and bloodshed accompanied a transparent give attention to girls’s storylines. Memorable performances from its big ensemble forged seal the deal — particularly Wu Jinyan as Wei Yingluo, a heroine amongst heroines. Crafty, reckless, cussed, but additionally type, somewhat goofy, and somewhat insecure, she by no means relinquishes her management over her personal life, regardless of how a lot life within the Forbidden Metropolis dictates feminine subservience.
Loosely primarily based on an actual historic determine (to inform you who can be a spoiler, however in case you should know, right here’s a touch), Yingluo shortly turns into a palace troublemaker: An unruly, outspoken rule-breaker who narrowly avoids sure shame by being three steps forward of everybody round her. Yingluo’s solely weapons could also be etiquette and embroidery, however she wields them with such talent that she shortly turns into a risk to the palace’s intricate social hierarchy — and a thorn within the facet of the emperor himself.
Yingluo’s deliberate social climbing isn’t due to ambition, nonetheless; her actual objective is to search out the one who murdered her sister, a palace maiden who was expelled in shame after a murky scandal, solely to finish up strangled shortly after. Satisfied her demise was no suicide, Yingluo enters the Forbidden Metropolis working as a maid in an effort to search the perpetrator. What she finds is a palace filled with tripwires and subterfuge, with concubines jockeying for energy, keen to do no matter they will to realize the emperor’s favor, together with resorting to sabotage, betrayal, and even homicide. Inside such an influence construction, true friendship amongst girls is the hardest-won prize of all — nevertheless it additionally is likely to be Wei Yingluo’s final secret energy.
To date this would possibly sound like a typical palace drama, filled with shallow scheming and social class construction at play. However even for longtime followers of Chinese language historicals, Yanxi Palace stands out for its puzzle-box plotting, infinitely bingeable pacing — 70 episodes would possibly sound like a slog, however there are factors the place it’s almost unattainable to cease watching — and addictive characterizations. We watch Yingluo stage up, shounen anime protagonist model, as she bests opponent after opponent, counting on a mix of sensible talent and psychological technique. Alongside these maneuvers, she has to study to navigate a sequence of romantic entanglements: to strike a fragile steadiness between the love she has for the younger palace guard Fuca (Xu Kai), her friendship with the conniving eunuch, Yuan (Wang Maolei), and her quite a few charged clashes with the emperor.
Yanxi Palace’s showrunner is the veteran palace drama screenwriter Yu Zheng, placing a loudly feminist spin on tropes he is aware of nicely. The palace concubines battle for company and autonomy in an oppressively patriarchal society. The present additionally fixates on the connection between energy and affect. Yingluo’s enemies always weaponize virtuous ideas in an effort to manipulate perceptions of reality and use them to wreck lives. The extra highly effective they’re, the more durable the “actual” reality is to uncover.
Legendary Hong Kong actress Charmaine Sheh is especially memorable as Consort Xian, a concubine with a legit villain origin story born out of her realization that the meekness, decorum, and gentleness she’s carried out all her life have solely left her weak and powerless. Consort Xian consigns herself to belief nobody, whereas Wei Yingluo is pushed by loyalty to the trusted girls in her life. Their separate methods evolve over your complete sequence earlier than lastly coming into direct battle, and the payoff is epic.
Little or no is thought in regards to the lifetime of Wei Yingluo’s historic counterpart or a lot of the present’s different historic analogs; exterior of some key background particulars, the plot is completely fictional. (One other palace drama that adopted Yanxi Palace, Ruyi Zhuan, presents Charmaine Sheh’s historic determine because the heroine.) However Yanxi Palace additionally serves up an genuine slice of Chinese language historical past, due to its beautiful manufacturing design.
The sequence landed in the midst of an enormous craze for historic palace dramas (a lot of that are on Netflix, in case you get a yen for extra), and it had an enormous finances, reportedly round $45 million. Fortunately for us, most of it appears to have gone into the manufacturing design, and the trustworthy, painstaking recreation of cultural and historic particulars. Should you’re a fan of historic dramas however have been upset by the gaudy insubstantial really feel of reveals like The Gilded Age or Bridgerton, the sheer physicality of Yanxi Palace’s manufacturing particulars would possibly make a refreshing change. The present is filled with intangible cultural heritage crafts, a few of which the concubines and their maids apply, like uncommon embroidery and jewellery strategies. The costuming and equipment are sometimes relics of actual Qing Dynasty palace clothes, which the present employed actual Forbidden Metropolis relic recreation specialists to make. Particular person clothes had exorbitant worth tags, and a single crown worn by one consort reportedly price almost $150,000.
The funding paid off in an enormous manner. Yanxi Palace instantly gained rave evaluations from the general public, critics, and cultural specialists for its restorative care. As soon as the present had the general public’s consideration, the plot carried them away: The present grew to become the most-Googled present of 2018, regardless of Google being banned in China. It additionally boosted museum attendance in China together with Forbidden Metropolis tourism.
And, in what’s undoubtedly the largest mark of its cultural influence, its monumental success triggered the Chinese language Communist Celebration to harangue that palace dramas had a “destructive influence.” Fortunately, it appears as if few viewers members agree.
The Story of Yanxi Palace is out there free of charge on YouTube, free of charge on Viki, and free of charge on iQiyi and the iQiyi app. I like to recommend watching on Viki, the place the English subtitles function translators’ notes for added context. Whereas the primary sequence just isn’t on Netflix, a brief sequel that includes a number of returning forged members, together with Wu Jinyan, is solely on Netflix. Yanxi Palace: Princess Adventures follows Yingluo’s daughter as she navigates a palace that — largely due to her mother — is somewhat kinder to all the ladies inside it.
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