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NBooth

Empresses in the Palace

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Apparently this just dropped on [uS] Netflix:

 

The popular Chinese historical drama has been re-edited into 6 episodes in the US version, each of which runs 90-minutes.
 
The original Chinese version has 76 episodes, each of which run 45-minutes.
 
"The Legend of Zhenhuan" first aired in China in 2011.
 
It follows the intrigues among the emperor's concubines in the imperial palace of the Qing Dynasty.
 
 
I'm told by a friend that the series was incredibly popular in China. The Netflix version is made up of six 90-minute episodes, which means that what we get a truncated version of the original show. I'm watching it anyway; first episode last night. It's disjointed; you can easily see that lots of material has been cut, and the narrative in the first episode doesn't move as smoothly as it could. It only picks up steam in the last half-hour, but when it does it gets pretty entertaining. And, for all that it takes place in a different era, the show makes interesting counter-programming to Netflix's own Marco Polo (or, perhaps, supplemental programming). I'm going to stick with it, at any rate; it's certainly watchable enough to spend 90 minutes with at a time, but it's not binge-worthy.

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It's available on Netflix Canada as well. 

 

I'm curious to watch it, if only to see what a "prestige" drama looks like in China.

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It's available on Netflix Canada as well. 

 

I'm curious to watch it, if only to see what a "prestige" drama looks like in China.

 

It's a strange beast, for sure. And the Netflix edits don't do the storyline any favors; important events seem to be skipped over, and extending each episode to 90 minutes saps whatever sense of pacing it might have had (and pacing in these things--based on my one other experience, the Di Renjie tv show--is already a little wonky to someone accustomed to Western dramas). But the first hour of the second episode--which I watched last night--is actually kind of fun, and I'm finding myself much more interested in the intrigues of the Imperial harem than I would ever have thought possible. So there's that.

Edited by NBooth

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Three eps in: it's finally feeling cohesive, although the editing still messes with the pacing. I mean, I can understand why the episode opens and closes where it does, but there's a much more natural climax about 70 min into the episode.

 

Still, there's a lot of interesting stuff here going on with the harem:

 

1.One would think that this sort of setting wouldn't lend itself to national-political schemes, but (of course!) harems are national-political institutions. Women enter them as part of an alliance with the Emperor, and their relative statuses fluctuate based on national goings-on. 

 

2. Zhen Huan (the protagonist) is turning into an interesting character. The first episode seems to be devoted to how darn good she is at everything and how everyone should love her, but by the third episode she's showing a talent for scheming that matches her nemesis, Consort Hua.

 

3. Speaking of which, Consort Hua has a really wonderful scene with Zhen Huan in episode 3; the way she transforms from a scheming monster to a genuinely tragic figure is--not subtle, nor smooth, but interesting. Particularly in that scene.

 

So yeah, I'm liking this well enough--still--to keep at it.

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Deadline: Netflix To Show Chinese Drama ‘Empresses In The Palace'; Is It Next Step In Entry Into China?

 

Intriguingly, however, the move’s real significance could be in marking a foundation for a major new relationship for the streaming giant with LeTV, one of China’s leading online video platforms with more than 100,000 TV episodes and 5,000 movies.

 

Deadline understands that execs from Netflix and LeTV met this week to begin discussing ways in which the two companies can collaborate moving forward. One particular area of interest will be with the international rollout of LeTV Cloud. 

 

Weird that Deadline calls this story an "exclusive," since the series has been up for several days now--but perhaps it's the LeTV angle that's exclusive.

 

Although talks between the companies are in their infancy, on the table is both collaboration on original English-language and Chinese-language content, as well as both parties facilitating the other’s global ambitions: Netflix’s desire to enter the potentially massive online Chinese market, and LeTV’s desire to branch out internationally.
Edited by NBooth

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Finished this last night. I spent most of the series liking-not-loving it in that way one does with soapy, somewhat-overwrought period dramas. The camerawork is, by and large, static--looking primitive even compared to much older shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which I watched in tandem with Empresses. The CGI work ranges from noticeably bad (any shot of large armies) to laughable (any shot of an angry cat). The emotion can seem strained. And the pacing--oy, the pacing!--is all shot to tatters by the way Netflix hacked and slashed its way to six episodes (though it's remarkable how consistently the episode seems to reach a satisfying conclusion at exactly the 60 min. mark--with 30 still to go). [That said, I think--based on what little other Chinese drama I've seen--that pacing works differently on Chinese television anyway. Besides which, for the amount they've had to condense, I think the Netflix folks have done a remarkable job keeping things at least minimally coherent]

 

The last two episodes really raised the series, for me, from likable to immensely likable. Episode Five is where the show really cuts loose with the melodrama, featuring as it does:

 

1. Self-castration

2. Tongues being cut out

3. Multiple people beaten to death

4. Pseudo-scientific blood tests, played absolutely straight

 

Why those struck me as more ridiculous (in a good way) than hordes of feral CGI cats I don't know, but there you have it.

 

Meanwhile, Zhen Huan--who spent the first episode proving just how darn good she is--slowly becomes as adept at scheming as any of her enemies. She's the opposite of Frank Underwood in a way--where Underwood is pure Will-to-Power, Zhen Huan is a tragic figure, forced to become ruthless in order to survive. And, boy-howdy, does she become ruthless. In the last episode, which sees her consolidating power (this is no spoiler, since we know from the first episode where the storyline's heading), Sun Li is mesmerizing; the scene in which she taunts the dying emperor is ice-cold and almost compulsively watchable.

 

One thing I admire about the show--and, again, I'm going to compare it to House of Cards--is the treatment of Zhen Huan's enemies: Consort Hua, Lingrong, and the Empress. These women do absolutely terrible things to each other, and for chunks of their screentime they seem to be pure malice. But where HoC sees Underwood's enemies as either stooges or perfected visions of his own Will-to-Power, so that any victory Frank has is--at least on some level--a victory for the audience as well, Empresses is very careful at every turn to undercut Zhen Huan's triumph. I mentioned above the scene with Consort Hua; even better is the confrontation between the Emperor and the Empress:

 

Through the whole series, the Empress has been slowly revealed to be the cold mastermind behind all the other goings-on. She manipulated Hua and Lingrong--she also oversaw the deaths of several royal heirs in her quest to get her own son on the imperial throne, with herself finally and forever as the Empress Dowager. But what we see at last is that she is not pure malice; her own uncertain position--broken promises from the Emperor, the shifting whims of the imperial harem, etc--has driven her to commit the deeds she has. She tearfully pours her heart out to the Emperor, and as the scene progresses we see that the real monster in the room isn't the Empress--it's her husband and the harem-system he represents. And so when he finally rejects her and sends her to exile in the Cold Palace we can only pity her and despise 

him--the man who was, remember, set up as the fairy-tale king in the first episode. Combined with his determination to force Zhen Huan to murder her lover the Marquess Guo (the man the Emperor impersonated in the very first episode), this ruthlessness finally underlines the fact that the harem-life is a beautifully-painted death mask.

 

I strongly suspect this show won't be for everyone; like I say, the production is hit-and-miss (though the production design is top-rate) and there's enough melodramatic emotionalism to make a Victorian novelist squirm in discomfort. But this show has a sliver of ice at its heart and is--I think--fairly rewarding to anyone who presses past the initially off-putting stuff. 

Edited by NBooth

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Just found that this series (misleadingly called "the complete series" when it's actually just the abridgment) is now on Amazon Instant. There's also a VOD DVD.

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sequel?

 

Quote

Mainland Chinese actress Zhou Xun (周迅) will star as Empress Ulanara in the upcoming period drama, Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace <后宮如懿傳>, which can be considered a sequel to the popular palace intrigue series Legend of Zhen Huan <後宮甄嬛傳>.

Set during the Qing Dynasty, Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace is based on a novel by author Liu Lianzi (流瀲紫), who also penned the novel that was later adapted into Legend of Zhen Huan. The drama tells the story of Lady Ulanara, who was originally a concubine of the Qianlong Emperor and was eventually promoted to Empress after the death of his first empress.

EDIT: Woah. While searching around, I stumbled across this 'blog post that gives more details about how the series was abridged for American viewers. I knew it was abridged, but I had no idea that there were whole scenes added (mostly, it seems, the book-ends involving the older Zhen Huan).

Edited by NBooth

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