This is a review for Part 1 of Joy of Life; subsequent parts (planned to be 3 parts at this stage) are in development. It’s important to know this going in because the series does end with a major cliff-hanger which I’ll discuss in the spoiler section of this post. That said, please do yourself a favor and watch this drama! I haven’t been as caught up in a Chinese drama so full of plot twists and turns since Nirvana In Fire, and that is saying a lot (as anyone who knows me will understand).
What is it about this drama that has captivated me so? Pretty much everything, so much so that I’ve taken up the source novel (available on Webnovel.com/app) to cross-check the drama against the source material and spend a
little lot more time in Fan Xian’s world. Note: While tonally the drama is true to the source in terms of the nature of characters and basic aspects of the plot revealed in the novel, there are major changes to the timeline, most significantly when characters are introduced. I’ll do a comparison of book to drama post at a future date.
The series is introduced as the work of science fiction created by a student (Zhang Ruoyan) which he’s presenting to an instructor. His story begins with the circumstances of the rescue of the infant Fan Xian during a conflict in which his mother is killed. A mysterious blind man (eyes covered by a thin, ribbon-like strip of cloth) carries the infant to safety; a mysterious man in a wheelchair directs him to take him to the village of Danzhou to be raised in the home of his paternal grandmother. The blind man is Wuzhu, the trusted companion of the baby’s mother, and first mentor to young Fan Xian, and the cripple is the powerful spymaster Chen Pingping, head of the Overwatch Bureau founded by Fan Xian’s mother.
Fan Xian is raised as the illegitimate son of Revenue Minister Fan Jian, another who is tied by love and respect to the dead woman, and tutored in poisons and medicine as a youngster by yet another Fei Jie. Fie Jie is one of the division heads of the Overwatch Bureau, and sees young Fan Xian as his most beloved pupil.
Fan Xian survives an assassination attempt as a child, but is finally summoned to go to the capital 4 years later, ostensibly by his father, but in truth, there are other players working in the wings; namely Chen Pingping and the Emperor. Who is this young man, and why is he so sought after, and so skilled in many ways? Wuzhu has trained him physically, and gifted him with a book left by his mother explaining how to achieve grandmaster-level martial arts skills and manage his extreme levels of zhenqi and Fei Jie has taught him to cope with poison, but when you’ve had to deal with all he’s had to deal with, you either crumble or develop resources. Fan Xian excels at the latter. In addition to his physical skills, he somehow knows that he has the memories of another lifetime, another world (or worlds) ago, and uses that knowledge to dabble in literature and poetry (borrowing, let’s say, from the works of those long-ago, unknown in this time, authors), successfully publishing novels and poetry with the help of his half-sister, Fan Ruoruo.
In the capital his fortunes and challenges rise and grow in complexity. He finds the love of his life early on, but their future is uncertain. She’s the illegitimate daughter of the Eldest Princess and the Prime Minister, and has been taken under the wing of the Emperor. Too bad that mother is a schemer and wants things that belong to others (namely, the treasury that once belonged to Fan Xian’s mother and now is held by the throne), and that there are a number of other hurdles (Crown Prince, 2nd Prince, etc.) to deal with as well.
With that brief initial synopsis covered, let’s look at the elements that make this story work so well. First has to be the mixture of bravery, insouciance, moral strength, and zest for life that Zhang Ruoyan brings to the character of Fan Xian. I’ve read that he was not considered a good choice for the role and, in reading the novel, he doesn’t match the physical description (almost feminine good looks) of Fan Xian, but he has taken this character and made himself Fan Xian. There is no way they could recast this role with another actor at this point (as was done in Ever Night) because it just would not work. He’s not the only actor to make an indelible impression — even the youngster who plays Fan Xian as a child is remarkable! The choice of the script adapter to move up the introductions to the characters of the Emperor and Chen Pingping was a sound one; their interactions with each other and with Fan Xian are compelling and these veteran actors are scene stealers in their own right. I can’t look away when the Emperor is onscreen!
There are also touching and/or playful supporting characters in addition to the schemers and villains, such as the sly Wang Qinian, stalwart Teng Zijing, the graceful Fan Ruoruo, and more. Li Qin as Lin Wan’er is lovely and a touching counterpoint to the brash Fan Xian, and their love story, while a relatively brief portion of the plot, is well-told and is skillfully interwoven into the major plot points.
The world created by this story, the reasons for why Fan Xian is who he is, who he becomes, and the trials he faces kept me hitting the ‘next’ button far longer each night than I should, and at the end of the day’s viewing I would treat myself to letting the full outro song play over the ending credits and listen to the voice of Xiao Zhan lull me into the hope that things will work out for our hero. Take a listen, and I’ll get into spoiler territory after the video.
Do not read further if you do not want to be spoiled by what happens in the show. Major plot points may be discussed. Do not share those points in the comments below, please.
While I had this drama on my list because of good comments I’d seen/heard, I’ll be honest and say that I wanted to watch it now because of my serious case of Xiao Zhan fever, thanks to his memorable role in The Untamed. I knew that his appearance would come late in the series, thanks to the comments of others, but I was patient. I could wait. I knew that he filmed his part while in the midst of his work on the other series, so rationalized that it would be more of a cameo, but I hoped that his late appearance meant that he would be a major player in Part 2. Well, let’s just say that I was right and was so wrong in some ways!
Fan Xian is set up by Chen Pingping to lead a mission to trade spy for spy with the neighboring kingdom of Qi. The Emperor wants him to get major exposure and training for his future role (great visibility) because, as one comes to learn, Fan Jian is not Fan Xian’s birth father after all (surprise!) But Chen Pingping has his eyes on a bigger prize; access to the mysterious temple from which Fan Xian’s mother came, and all the potential technological advances and prizes that it would hold (she ‘developed’ some of these while winning the hearts of the Emperor, Fan Jian, and Fei Jie), and the person Fan Xian is bringing north to Qi is someone who he believes knows the location of that temple. If anyone can discover that secret, it will be Fan Xian because Chen Pingping has led this Xiao En to hope that Fan Xian is kin. But no… there’s someone else, someone Chen Pingping has tucked away in plain sight and raised to be the ultimate Qing soldier… Yan Bingyun (Xiao Zhan), the spy to be redeemed. An inflexible, task-oriented heartbreaker! Ah, the anguish of those final moments of the story in Fan Xian’s timeline! And the bitter disappointment of the teacher in modern times seeing those words on the page, asking the writer, “Is he ____?” (left blank because I won’t spoil that much for careless readers), and with a snap of the laptop we learn this is only Part 1!