“Legend of the Phoenix” follows Ye Ningzhi (He Hong Shan), a sprightly circus performer who falls for Wei Guang (Jeremy Tsui), a strategist for the royal palace. She gets embroiled in the power struggle between Emperor Pang Tong (Cui Peng) and Grand Princess Pang Zhen (Liu Min). Ye Ningzhi later enters the palace, resolving to protect the citizens of Eastern Liang.
“Legend of the Phoenix” stands out from other Chinese costume dramas in that it diverges from the typical trajectory of palace stories. Here are three ways that it does just that!
Warning: spoilers from the drama below.
The focus on politics over the inner court
Unlike other palace dramas, this series does not have a strong focus on the harem. Rather, “Legend of the Phoenix” has chosen to center its plot on the weak dynasty, inadequate ruler, and the various complications that put the nation in danger. This distinction brings in a good opportunity for the protagonist Ningzhi to show character development. She starts off as a lively young girl whose main worry comes from chasing after Wei Guang to becoming a female official and concubine who puts the safety of the nation above all else.
This comes as a surprising direction for the storyline, especially since the beginning of the series focuses on Ningzhi and Wei Guang’s romance. In fact, it focuses on it so strongly that a turn for the angsty and typical fanfare of betrayals and harem drama almost seems a given. However, because the drama strays from this, Ningzhi’s maturation becomes much more meaningful. While she is tied down to her fate as a concubine, she accepts the weight of responsibility she has to undertake as someone from the royal family. Thus, the drama goes beyond the common portrayal of a woman who vies for power and shifts the focal point to what a woman of power can do for the weak and powerless.
Main leads who communicate and do not drag out misunderstandings
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the show has to do with Wei Guang and Ningzhi’s deep trust. They both value and have faith in the capabilities and loyalty of the other. Even though they run into trials where mistrust breeds and doubt enters their minds, the misunderstandings quickly get addressed and cleared up. At most, it only lasts for a few episodes, so conflicts between the two never escalate to a point of frustration. The fact that the leads reach out to communicate their problems and remain openly honest with how they feel exudes a freshness to this story. Their tacit understanding of each other also allows the romance to never really steer into a tragic or angsty direction, even though they face countless obstacles in reuniting.
The different takes of the central characters and the romance
Ningzhi’s brave but playful actions would potentially get her killed in other palace dramas, but this show lessens the tense and cold atmosphere of the palace through its portrayal of the Empress (Cao Xi Wen) and Lang Kun (Wayne Lai). The Empress, in particular, lets go of Ningzhi multiple times despite her daring actions, which makes her an unexpected frenemy. This characterization piqued my interest namely because secondary characters in palace dramas are usually one-dimensional with one overpowering trait. However, the Empress has both a warm and cold side to her that makes her memorable and likable. Lang Kun, on the other hand, gives our leads numerous troubles, but he also has unexpected sides to him that one wouldn’t expect from a so-called villainous character.
Another distinction comes from the way the romance is portrayed. While Ningzhi does indeed enter the palace, she never falls for the king and does not consummate their marriage. This seems quite unbelievable for a palace drama, but it is welcoming to see that Ningzhi never wavers. Furthermore, because Ningzhi and Wei Guang both have the same goal in mind of stabilizing the nation and its people, their romance often takes a second seat. Most of the problems that ensue end up leaving our leads separated or in risky life-or-death situations. Despite that, these two continue to see the big picture and the potential consequences if the dynasty falls. This romantic depiction goes beyond what normally is seen in dramas and creates a touching storyline as the two work to achieve their dreams for Eastern Liang.
“Legend of the Phoenix” has a rather simple and straightforward way of fleshing out its plot, but it distinguishes itself from other dramas by adding refreshing takes on its characters, themes, and relationships. The drama also showcases outstanding secondary characters in the multifaceted Lang Kun and the Empress. While the drama also takes on a tonal shift once Ningzhi enters the palace, the series does not forget to sprinkle in bits of humor and provides heartfelt storytelling of the bonds formed and the ascension of an admirable heroine.