Telemad

TV review: It's love or bust in Fan Bingbing's Empress Of China

The Empress Of China is a timid take on the historical character despite the controversy over plunging necklines

There is no end of Tang-style finery in The Empress Of China, a Chinese costume drama now world-famous as the show that showed off too much cleavage for the Chinese censors' comfort.

Unfortunately, when the display of bosoms in revealing Tang-inspired dresses was cut, it ruined the clothes - and the show. It's hard to have a good look at the vivid floral designs on the dresses in the imperial harem now, when only the women's heads and shoulders, albeit framed by sculptured hair and dangling accessories, are visible in close-ups.

Effectively stripped of the costumes, the show has nothing on predecessors such as Empresses In The Palace. Watching that 2011 show, you had the sense of slipping deeper and deeper into a languid, jaded world. The goings-on in that Qing palace were intricate, opaque and thus fascinating; you couldn't bear to leave before you had figured out everything.

In contrast, The Empress Of China feels modern and rather flat as it flips between palace drama, women's melodrama and idol drama. Much of it has to do with its conception of its title character Wu Ruyi, alias Wu Zetian (Fan Bingbing), as a spunky, pure and cute heroine.

The historical Wu was 14 when she entered the palace as a junior concubine and her husband, Tang Emperor Taizong, alias Li Shiming, was 40. She did not rise through the ranks in the harem during his reign, but later married his son, Emperor Gaozong, alias Li Zhi, four years her junior, outlived him and ascended the throne.

According to the show, Wu is a total babe and cool girl, with an ability to think outside the box that is almost contemporary.

While other women fight tooth and nail to take control of the harem - although being a chief consort is really rather like being a grand housekeeper - Wu just wants to be herself and do her own thing.

She meets Li Shiming (Zhang Fengyi, Farewell My Concubine, 1993) one night when she is exploring the residence of his late empress on a whim. She dances, wearing the empress' mask, and he joins her for a few twirls.

In their subsequent encounters, she proves to be good at chess, horse-riding and calligraphy as well as talking back to him. It sets her apart from the other concubines and she is the envy of the harem when she is assigned to the imperial study.

What the other women know too well is that the emperor has little time for them, but has picked Wu, that lucky wench, to be at his side for most of his waking hours as a sort of secretary.

Yet she is also a woman of her time. In the show, she survives one disaster after another by being a better woman and truer lover than the jealous and murderous consorts (Janine Chang, Zhang Ting and Kathy Chow) around her.

There is something reductive about such an account of Wu, however. Too often, it comes across as another story of another good woman in court, following in the footsteps of Jewel In The Palace (2003) and Beyond The Realm Of Conscience (2009).

The actual Wu's life may or may not have revolved around her husbands. The drama's inability to imagine a future female emperor who is more than a romantic heroine or good wife is dispiriting, however. For a show about a bold mover and shaker - and despite all the daring necklines - The Empress Of China is rather tame.

My Sunshine, a Chinese urban romance and my guilty pleasure of the week, has quite a few failings: The show about a renewed romance between a meek photographer (Tiffany Tang) and her former university boyfriend, a strong, silent lawyer (Wallace Chung), is hopelessly old-fashioned, perhaps to the point of senselessness.

A major plot point - Tang is accused of abandoning Chung and other friends after her father suddenly sent her to New York years ago, in the 2000s - gives me a headache when I try to think it out. Didn't she have a phone? Couldn't she have called them to explain her disappearance?

I am being stupid, of course. My Sunshine isn't a show made for the brain. It is made for the heart - or the part of it that believes in the eternity of the first love and can't resist the idea of an icy man who melts when he is in love.

As far as I am concerned, the important test of such a love story, which has two sets of actors playing the characters in the present and the past, is whether it has emotional continuity. Do the younger couple feel like they could grow up to be the older couple? Do I want to believe it?

And I do here, I truly do.

woeiwan@sph.com.sg