Michael's Take: My Heroic Husband
#1
I was recently able to binge-watch the 1st season of this show. My Heroic Husband is a Chinese time-travel fantasy dramedy show produced by/for iQiyi. However, the show has been licensed to Amazon Prime and it's also available on YouTube (I'm not sure if the YouTube videos are legal but I think they are).

iQiyi includes English subtitles in all the episodes.

My Heroic Husband is a controversial show for a number of reasons. I'm not intimately familiar with this sub-genre of Chinese fantasy shows but apparently they've had to change their format in recent years to comply with (Chinese) government regulations.

The premise for the sub-genre is simple (formulaic): A protagonist in the modern era time-travels (or "transmigrates" as some call it) to a distant, ancient past. I don't know if these stories are always set in real historical ancient realms or if some of them are made up. It's possible that, for political reasons, names of countries and historical people may have to be changed.

In My Heroid Husband, the plot is basically a story (that is, the audience is watching a story being told by an unnamed narrator/writer). So this is an unusual twist for this sub-genre. The first episode of the season opens with the unnamed writer in his apartment. He receives a phone call from an editor or publisher who says their readers are tired of his main character and it's time to write about new characters. The writer becomes angry and frustrated and writes a final chapter that kills off the character - but then he changes his mind and calls his editor back. He proposes sending the character back in time to inhabit the body (and take over the life) of another character.

The two fictional characters are played by different actors. Ruoyun Zhang plays the old (contemporary) literary character, Jiang Haochen. Haochen is a young modern-day businessman whose partner betrays him. He confronts the partner in public and is beaten to death by security guards. He wakes up in the body of Ning Yi (played by Guo Qi Lin). Physically, the actors/characters are extremely different. Ruoyun Zhang is tall and thin and a classic "handsome" Chinese actor. Guo Qi Lin (also speled Guo Qilin on some sites) is a shorter, plainer-looking actor. He's not unattractive - in fact, many female fans say he's very cute. But he's definitely nothing like that classic chiseled physique one finds in so many lead actors.[url=https://www.imdb.com/name/nm7408353?ref_=tt_cl_t_1][/url]

Guo Qilin is a very gifted actor, in my opinion. And he seems to be well-accepted by the audience of the show.

Jiang Haochen/Ning Yi quickly learns that he has traveled to the city of Jiangning in the realm of Wu (one of three warring realms that appear - to me - to be based on 3 warring kingdoms that briefly existed over 1,000 years ago). Ning Yi's family is in debt so he's agreed to become a Matrilocal Husband to Su Tan'er (played by Yi Song). Tan'er is the granddaughter of a successful cloth merchant in Jiangning, but she is being pursued by the greedy, icky (tall/handsome) son of Jiangning's leading/wealthiest cloth merchant.

Tan'er is competing with her uncle and his son for possession of the family's jade seal, which signifies their status as silk merchants. Whomever holds the seal runs the family business. The uncle and cousin are typical misogynistic male chauvinists (played for comedic relief by Yue Yang and Liu Guang Lin).

The first half of the season follows Ning Yi as he rises from a mistreated second-class family member-by-marriage to the smartest, most successful, and wealthiest merchant in Jiangning. Along the way he humiliates the people who humiliate Su Tan'er and her family, and he introduces an endless series of modern innovations to ancient Chinese culture. It's a light-hearted romp through anachronistic business practices, until it's not.

There are scenes where the point is comedy and scenes where the drama becomes more serious. Characters are occasionally harmed but in the first half of the season most of the violence or mistreatment is fairly limited. It's more talked about than done, I guess you could say.

Ning Yi might occasionally break the 4th wall - he'll think out loud, criticizing the plot of the story or challenging the assumptions of the world he's living in. The audience knows what's going on but the characters don't.

The second half of the season takes Ning Yi and Su Tan'er (now in love with each other and happily married) to another city, where he's thinking of expanding his business empire (outside the Su family's silk business). But while there the city is seized by outlaws and things turn very dark. While there are still comedic scenes in the second half of the season, including lots to laugh at with Su Tan'er's uncle and cousin, the show transitions to a more traditional Chinese fantasy/historical drama.

There is court intrigue and kung fu and all the standard stuff. But Ning Yi continues to apply his knowledge of 21st century culture to every situation he's confronted with. His confidence is rarely shaken because he knows things that other characters in the story do not. He's able to stay one step ahead of the people who challenge him. His frustrations stem more from the fact that he's been drawn into a complicated political situation he doesn't want to be part of. And Su Tan'er becomes a pawn in that deadly game.

I said the show is controversial and I admit I don't understand all the nuances of those discussions.

One complaint made about the show is that it is based on a novel that is heavily chauvinistic and misogynistic. It's not very popular with women. Deng Ke (the director) and Qin Wen (the screenwriter) made a lot of changes to make the show more appealing to women, including rewriting some of the women characters to make them stronger, more important, and more balanced. But some viewers still complain that Ning Yi dominates the show while Su Tan'er is occasionally sent offstage to either become a damsel in distress or just of secondary importance to the plot.

Still, many women seem to like the show.

The time travel motif has apparently been done to death in Chinese television. I haven't seen all those shows, but long-time fans of the genre mention other shows and compare My Heroic Husband to them, sometimes not so favorably for MHH.

The show is directed toward younger audiences but I think people of all ages can enjoy it. Some scenes are not suitable for young children but this is essentially a family drama that incorporates a substantial amount of comedy. In the old days, we called these kinds of shows dramedies.

Another complaint directed at the show is that many of the cast leads worked together in a show called Joy of Life, in which Guo Qilin and Yi Song played brother and sister. They have good chemistry and I think that's why they were cast for these roles. It may be that working together as family in another show helped them develop good rapport. Many of their scenes are well-acted and their interplay is natural and easy-going. They're very convincing (to me) as a TV couple.

The directorial style is a bit unusual (to me). There are occasional (not many) rewind scenes where things only briefly hinted at previously are explained once one of Ning Yi/Jiang Haochen's plot twists is revealed. It's a bit like a detective drama retelling part of the story that the audience didn't get to see before when the mystery was unfolding.

There is also a great deal of subtle humor in the premise of the show. The Matrilocal Husbands are essentially demonized by society. They have had their masculinity stripped from them, and they know it. Ning Yi helps some of them overcome that social stigma and prove they are still ambitious men in their own rights. But their ambitions are not to rule empires - they're more "modern" than one might expect. I think the show's premise is part commentary on how male/female roles have changed in relationships in the modern world, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. But the show pokes fun at men who do traditional women's chores all the same, and that may be why some women are a bit put off.

I also get the sense that the show is making fun of modern business practices. Many of Ning Yi's ideas strike me as condescending and impersonal. You can almost hear (Lord, actually) Cutler Beckett from Pirates of the Caribbean whispering in the background, saying, "It's just good business."

They get a little carried away in some of the scenes, and I think the intention is to make the audience chuckle at the absurdity. I know I laughed at some of the crazy things Ning Yi does.

For me the story was a page turner (or an episode burner). And apparently many other people share my enthusiasm for it. I'm not saying it's a great show or a classic, but I enjoyed it. There is definitely a moralistic subtext to the plot and the writing, but I believe that is just the way these shows are supposed to be produced. The Chinese government is rather strict about what is allowed, and they want good guys to win, decent and moral law-abiding citizens to be avenged when they are wronged, and heroes to be basically good people despite their flaws.

My Heroic Husband takes some risks with the story and the characters. Ning Yi isn't always sweet and charming, but he's morally justified in doing whatever he does. It's just clear that there are lines he'll dare cross for Su Tan'er. And maybe that's why the show appeals to many young women. I suppose that's a chauvinistic thing to say, but Dixie Harrison (SF-Fandom's late co-founder) once explained to me that women liked Colin Ferrell's performance in "Phone Booth" (which I mocked at the time) because his character made them feel safe.

A strong male lead in a drama needs to fulfill certain expectations. In the remake of "The Jackal", in which Bruce Willis played the assassin, his character leaves a message for Richard Gere's character (Decland Mulqueen). He tells his victim (a dying Russian police officer played by Diane Venora) "tell Decland I said he can't protect his women." That line is a double entendre for audiences sensitive to brushes with the fourth wall - it acknowledges the classic trope that the hero of the story must protect his woman.

In My Heroic Husband, the man isn't always the one protecting the loved one. And I've deliberately omitted discussing some of the female characters who play out that message to avoid revealing spoilers. Let's just say that Su Tan'er isn't a weak women, but there are other women in the story I haven't mentioned who are more forthright and downright cunning.

The season ends with a cliff-hanger and a plot twist. The story briefly returns to the unnamed writer in his apartment, where he rewrites the final scene. So the audience knows a second season is coming (and iQiyi has already confirmed there will be a second season).

I must say, like many others, I'm looking forward to season 2.
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