Saturday, June 01, 2019

Forbidden City: Story of Yanxi Palace

It was the most Googled television show in China—and then it was yanked from iQiyi, the Chinese premium streaming service, because the official state media decided historical dramas were no longer politically acceptable. They phrased it somewhat differently, but that was the bottom line. Frankly, their reasoning seems awfully torturous, because the first two episodes do absolutely nothing to glamorize courtly life. At least viewers will get another chance to see one of the most popular shows in the world, albeit outside of China, when episodes one and two of Story of Yanxi Palace screen today at the Freer Gallery, in conjunction with the exhibition, Empresses of the Forbidden City 1644-1912.

Yanxi Palace is a lot like an 18th Century Chinese Upstairs Downstairs. Rivalries are fierce amongst the palace servants, but those of the consorts “upstairs” are even bitterer and potentially more dangerous. In fact, the matron of the embroidery maids ruefully notes many of the royal concubines have less freedom and dignity than the young women she oversees.

Wei Yingluo is one of them, but she is more than she appears. She has risked everything to infiltrate the palace to investigate the murder of her sister. She does not understand the ways of the palace yet, but her inherent honesty and resentment of injustice almost spurs her to intercede in a power struggle waged by Royal Consort Gao Ningxin against one of the Empress’s loyal allies. Wei’s righteous vibes also rub many of her embroidery colleagues the wrong way, but they have no idea what they are getting into when they try to bully her. The battle lines are clearly drawn and presumably they will also start to cross class boundaries in later episodes.

Frankly, Wei is an extraordinarily modern heroine, so the official criticism of the show will strike open-minded viewers as the hollow doubletalk that it so obviously is. Wu Jinyan is terrific as the driven, not-the-least-bit submissive, vengeance-seeking antiheroine. She clearly establishes Wei’s persona, with only a mere two episodes. It is easy to see why fans were so hooked on her exploits.

Likewise, Tan Zhuo makes a terrific Joan Collins-esque villainess as the scheming Gao. However, both the virtuous Empress and her arrogant, pig-headed excuse for an Emperor are a rather dull duo so far. At this point, we will not even meet Wei’s prime suspect and potential love interest, who may very well turn out to be one and the same.

The appeal of Yanxi Palace needs little explanation. There is all kinds of scheming and betrayal going on, against a lushly-produced period backdrop. It ought to be more widely available here in America and in China, where it is beloved. Highly recommended for fans of juicy costume dramas, the first two episodes of Story of Yanxi Palace screen this afternoon (6/1) at the Freer.