Chinese TV: LOVE BETWEEN FAIRY AND DEVIL – Essay by Dana Ziyasheva

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Sorry, Hollywood, but I’m cheating on you!

“I want to see the sun,” Orchid whispered to Moon Supreme. She had just plunged a magical sword into her heart, releasing vital energy that resurrected 100,000 petrified soldiers. Now, after witnessing this ultimate, earth-shattering sacrifice, we were watching the intimate farewell between Orchid and Moon Supreme. Just the two of them against the enormous disc of a setting desert sun. He cried and clasped her in his arms until a wisp of wind dissipated her in a handful of petals. He had hurt and betrayed her, and her way of paying him back was to save him and his tribe at the cost of her primordial spirit. My T-shirt was soaked with tears. What Hollywood show has ever had the same impact on me? Not a one.

The Chinese show Love Between Fairy and Devil is such a carefully choreographed ballet of emotions and thoughts on the nature of love, power, and society — hammering home its points with an impossibly attractive cast and a highly addictive soundtrack — that I, a bone-weary middle-aged woman with grown-up kids, found myself pledging all my time (and the entirety of my soul) to it.

Finding the Netflix release schedule too slow for my aching heart, I unearthed all 36 episodes of Love Between Fairy and Devil online and binge-watched the show in low res, late at night, reading subtitles until my eyes hurt. Now I’m re-watching it on Netflix, never skipping the opening credits, with their exquisite, hand-painted fairyland scenery. If this show told me to jump off a cliff, I would. Luckily, it never did. But it commanded me to become a fangirl of the 22-year-old lead actor, Wang He Di, aka Moon Supreme. It had me swooning over him in the show’s behind the scenes footage, not to mention his vlog, TikTok, and Instagram.

Before my Chinese TV obsession, I swore my heart forever to the Korean fantasy The Alchemy of Souls. The recipe was the same: a carefully choreographed ballet of emotions, thoughts on the nature of love, power, and society, an impossibly attractive cast, and an addictive soundtrack. I consumed fan-written recaps of every episode. We rejoiced together each time the leads kissed and helped each other get through the show’s tough times.

East Asian series are the best-kept secret of a small but growing fan base in the United States. Sometimes it feels like a dirty secret – one that, if revealed, might cause a family rift. I fought with my husband vigorously after he sneered at the Asian male actors; in his opinion, they were too feminine and couldn’t act. What an utterly uninformed, green-eyed, Hollywood-centric piece of mansplaining! The heroes of Eastern fantasies are equally well-versed in sword play, calligraphy, and state craft! A three-day stubble and a horned helmet splattered with dirt and fake blood sure look masculine. But what really gets me through the day is a well-put-together prince who tells a hardworking, misunderstood girl, “You belong to me. I’ll protect you at all costs.”

I tried, in vain, to make my hubby understand that the Chinese entertainment industry has upped its game, especially since early 2010. Back then, recapturing a domestic audience engrossed in K-drama was state policy. Flash forward to 2022, and, if the latest stats and ratings are anything to go by, Chinese TV has it in the bag.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved Outlander for exactly the same reasons that I now love Chinese and Korean series – out of this world romantic stories with tangible chemistry between the stars. But many Hollywood fantasy shows, like The Rings of Power, Shadow and Bone, The Wheel of Time, and Carnival Row, offer surprisingly little in terms of emotional stakes or audience engagement.

Of course, Chinese episodic TV can be a drag, too. Opening credits usually tell me everything I need to know about the level of production. Next comes the cast. I was surprised to recognize a male lead in a recent fantasy series; many years ago, he was an extra/runner on a movie set I worked on in Yunnan province of China. He looked just as sleepy and out of it on screen now as he did back then in real life, but that was the role – he played a prince hiding in a magic cave whose vital energy was suppressed by an evil spell. It was inevitable, though, that, one day, the sheer quantity of Chinese episodic production would yield quality. Fantasy series that stood out to me recently include The Rise of Phoenixes, Ashes of Love, and The Wolf. (The quality of Korean TV fantasy is steadier, albeit somewhat formulaic and too regimented for my taste.)

As a hardcore Game of Thrones fan, I welcomed House of the Dragon into my life with joy and open arms. But no matter how much I tried to relate to dynastic in-fighting among a bunch of silver-haired, dimly lit people, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the show was overhyped. Daemon Targaryen and Harwin Strong haven’t grown on me. I’d rather fly on a dragon’s back with Moon Supreme than have my neck snapped by Daemon (this egomaniac would never put me on his dragon’s back!). Emma d’Arcy’s adult Rhaenyra doesn’t match Millie Alcock’s younger version of the character, and she severely lacks the charisma and grit of Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen.

Love Between Fairy and Devil and Alchemy of Souls know how to spoil and pamper their audiences. Focus on world-building and suspension of disbelief is what makes the show-watching experience more immersive and thus, enjoyable. There are no jump scares in Eastern dreamlands. Everyone is polite and civil. Intrigues are sophisticated, gardens manicured, garments sumptuous. Not a hair out of place. Watching these shows, I feel safe, entertained, and respected. Which makes it all the more difficult to find my footing in high-fantasy originals on Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, and the like. Sorry, Hollywood, but until further notice, my love affair with Chinese and Korean TV continues unabated. — Dana Ziyasheva

ABOUT DANA ZIYASHEVA

Dana Ziyasheva is a filmmaker and journalist. She published her first film review at the age of 14, while covering the XIX All-Soviet Film Festival in her hometown of Almaty, Kazakhstan. A graduate of the Journalist Department of the Kazakh State University, she contributes to several online publications. Dana wrote, directed, and produced the dystopian fantasy film Greatland (2020) and indigenous drama Defenders of Life (2015), which helped outlaw underage marriages in Costa Rica. She’s worked with China Central TV and Film Group on children’s programs, as well as the feature film Kung Fu Man co-produced by Keanu Reeves. Her mission was to give voice to the voiceless and build Knowledge Societies in countries such as China, North Korea, Iraq, Russia, Honduras and Costa Rica. She is currently developing The Art of InfoWar, a documentary about media coverage in Ukraine. Dana keeps her eyes open for art-house gems from around the world.

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