Palace intrigue

Veteran female director’s latest drama is panned by online critics


Liu Tao: stars in Li Shaohong’s Palace of Devotion

Li Shaohong, 65, is considered to be one of the best of the ‘fifth generation’ of filmmakers who went to the Beijing Film Academy in the years immediately after the Cultural Revolution.

Two fellow graduates are Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, although Li is a rarer find as a female figure that has achieved remarkable success in an industry in China that was (and still is) dominated by men.

Many of her films, beginning with her 1992 debut Bloody Morning, were box-office hits, establishing Li as a bold, generational voice. She was also one of the first directors to make the crossover from film to TV. Her costume drama Palace of Desire was a huge ratings hit when it first came out in 2000, breaking new ground with the screenplay’s Shakespearean style, and making the fresh-faced Zhou Xun, a little-known actress at the time, into a national star.

More recently Li seemed to have lost her touch. In 2010, she directed the poorly-received The Dream of Red Mansions, loosely adapted from the classic Chinese novel of the same name. In 2019, there was a war film called Liberation, which flopped with audiences, failing to cover its production costs. Li’s next film, A City Called Macau, did poorly commercially as well.

In fact, if it wasn’t for the hugely popular acting competition Everybody Stand By, which starred Li as one of four mentors to the contestants, along with her old friend Chen and younger filmmakers like Zhao Wei and Guo Jingming, younger audiences would be largely unaware of her.

But the director isn’t quite ready to give up, it seems, with the release last week of the highly-anticipated TV drama Palace of Devotion.

Yet another female-centric costume drama, it features actress Liu Tao, 42, and former boyband member Zhou Yumin, 39. The show tells the story of a young girl Liu E (played by Liu) who, through a strange set of coincidences, meets Prince Zhao Heng (Zhou) in the Song Dynasty.

They fall in love and Prince Zhao makes Liu his concubine. Despite her humble beginnings, she turns out to be a perceptive judge of affairs of state, helping her husband to govern when he later becomes emperor.

The show is streaming on Youku, Tencent Video and iQiyi simultaneously. And expectations were high for the series, because of Li’s reputation. “Director Li Shaohong has strong artistic sensibility. Whether it is Palace of Desire and Juzi Hong Le, which made her famous, or the poorly-rated The Dream of Red Mansions, her work is always full of romanticism and distinct ideological messages… As a result, a lack of new work has made audiences excited about the new costume drama,” Tencent Entertainment explained.

Initial reviews for the show were underwhelming, however. On Douban it scored a rating of just 3.8 out of 10, prompting the kind of criticism that has been aimed at a number of similar series in recent months. For instance, a lot of people had trouble believing that the 42 year-old Liu could pass for a 15 year-old girl when the show began. “The girl Prince Zhao brings back to the palace is not a young woman. Calling her a dama [Chinese slang for middle-aged woman] would be more appropriate,” ThePaper.cn mocked. Zhang Ziyi took similar flak for playing a 15-year-old princess recently too (see WiC524).

Others were tired of the ‘Mary Sue’ storyline [a female character of perfect tone and form, lacking any flaws], a theme that we referred to in WiC499.

“The problem with the show is that it is still stuck in the Mary Sue era. The encounter of the two protagonists is caught up in the same plotline from 10 years ago of a beauty rescuing the hero. A handsome young prince leads his troops on a quest only to fall into a creek after an earthquake. And guess who comes to his rescue? A woman who has been weakened by just having a miscarriage. How is this not ridiculous,” one TV critic mocked.

Palace of Devotion probably wanted to catch the last train of the female-centric shows. However, by the time it aired the kind of shows that feature such female leads were already a thing of the past. The market now gravitates towards costume dramas with newer faces and fresher themes [see last week’s issue],” reckons Entertainment Unicorn, a showbiz blog.

Poor editing and an incoherent screenplay were also to blame, netizens argued. “The story is so rushed that nothing makes sense. Just because you want to keep the show moving doesn’t mean that audiences should have to watch what feels like a bunch of PowerPoint slides. The plot still needs to make sense,” one thundered.

“So much worse than Palace of Desire,” another lamented.

ThePaper.cn sees a deeper problem: a generational divide between the once-feted, older directors and the audiences of today. None of the fifth generation of filmmakers has enjoyed great success recently. Zhang Yimou’s latest offering One Second took just Rmb128 million at the box office, while Chen has taken time off from directing films to become the executive producer of the TV series Something Just Like This (see WiC519).

A weakness of the older set is that they have continued to make film and TV dramas with the same aesthetics of 20 years ago, the newspaper claimed. But when they try too hard to change their style in appealing to young audiences, they don’t always hit the mark, resulting in work that appeals to neither the young or the old.

“It is important for any filmmaker to figure out their positioning,” ThePaper.cn advises. “Otherwise, they risk embarrassing themselves by making something like Palace of Devotion, not only losing their core fan base but also failing to strike a chord with younger audiences.”

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