Shen Qin, the Prime Minister’s daughter, is due to be married to a powerful general, Xiao Han Sheng, but she is already in love with another man, Prince Ning. In a nefarious bid to disentangle herself from this marriage, Shen Qin traps a female artist, Shi Qi, and uses a magician to perform a type of sorcery that enables the two ladies to swap faces.
Shi Qi wakes up with her face now belonging to the Prime Minister’s daughter and is blackmailed by Shen Qin into marrying Xiao Han Sheng. To her surprise, she recognises Xiao Han Sheng from an old encounter in the past. Conflicted, she has to carry out a charade as his wife, Shen Qin, and matters get complicated when Prince Ning also starts getting interested in her. (Source: MDL)
A Familiar Stranger is a hidden gem. I hadn’t heard much about it and think more people should be giving it love. This is a short webdrama that I thought was incredibly well done. (I don’t quite get all the differences between web dramas in China and such – I do know they’re more an established medium than in the states – but sometimes still quite low budget. That’s not the case here/I don’t know how much was actually spent but it definitely doesn’t lack in terms of quality.) The sets, actors, script, musicality and OST (original sound track) are all great. In fact, after first watching it a week or so ago I rewatched it again a few days later, and have re-started it again for this review. And I’ve watched two other dramas that the male and female lead star in, respectively, I thought they were that good. (Also the theme for this month is “unusual historical” which … *gestures* – I mean, everything I watch now is an “unusual historical” in terms of our usual romance novels.)
Two things to address first – the series is based on a premise of magical realism. The summary addresses it; the two female leads switch faces due to the secondary “heroine” being … rather unhinged. Just go with this being possible/happening. Everything else is realistic and firmly sensible. Second, both female leads are incredible actors. They at points have to play “each other” with totally different personalities and they portray them perfectly. It’s so good. In the original format there were 18 ten minute episodes. I watched it as eight episodes that were about 22 minutes each. It’s hard to explain, but after the first few minutes, Shi Qi has Shen Qin’s face/everyone thinks she’s Shen Qin. I’m still going to refer to her as Shi Qi though to make things easier for the sake of the review.
Now on to the characterizations. Shi Qi is our heroine (although she spends most of the series “as” Shen Qin). Her face was stolen so as stated she’d taken the place of the Prime Minister’s daughter to marry a general. Her reaction when she wakes up with a different face is fast – but on point. Shi Qi is smart, gentle, practical, brave, and loyal. She’s being blackmailed – her face/identity was already stolen, so … who would even believe what she’s saying. Then there’s the fact that the marriage was “bestowed” by the emperor, and going against his order means death. More, she’s being forced to comply with orders because her sister’s life is on the line – her long lost sister she’s spent her entire adult life looking for. She’s also worried about the consequences and results once the truth is revealed. Shi Qi was saved by the general a few years ago, although she didn’t know who he was at the time. She’s wanted to find him/who he is, and is shocked to learn he’s her new husband. She’s torn between her love, wanting to be true to herself (which is a good and honest person), wanting to see/save her sister, and you know, staying alive. It’s a lot for our poor girl to handle. But she does, and does it beautifully. She doesn’t betray the General, but still does what she must to comply with the blackmail. It’s hard to explain without spoilers, but anyway, I really liked Shi Qi and would love to have a friend like her. (She even tries to tell the General what’s going on/that she isn’t the Prime Minister’s daughter from go, but he thinks she’s a spy – with good reason – and shushes her.) Oh and – one thing is, despite their faces being switched Shi Qi keeps the tiny mole under her right eye. (Shen Qin mentions it saying “how did I forget about this.” Just roll with it and add this to the suspension of disbelief column. Really it’s just that one hurdle.) She tries to come clean/be honest a number of times, but whenever she talks about Shen Qin of course people think she’s talking about herself – and knowing she can’t “expose” Shen Qin she then takes the blame for things.
Our hero is the general Xiao Han Sheng. (I keep calling him “the General” because he’s referred to/everyone addresses him as “General” but it’s too weird for me to say just that/without “the.”) Luckily he sees through Shi Qi’s poor attempts – she’s a rather terrible liar, poor too honest little thing. I saw a comment that described the General as “a walking green flag” and not only is that term absolutely perfect for him, I’m stealing it for future use. Even thinking she might be a spy he saves Shi Qi on their wedding night. He’s a great general and someone all the princes are trying to pull to their side/curry favor with so they’ll have support in their bids for the throne. (The General is also quietly trying to investigate the recent abrupt death of the crown prince.) He knows there’s something fishy about his marriage – not only the fact that the Prime Minister specifically asked the emperor for the pairing, but with his new wife herself/before even meeting her. However, once he does – he initially lets her go. He saw the ligature marks on her wrists which show she didn’t go into the marriage willingly either (plus you know, the whole assassination attempt on her on their wedding night). First, he let her leave, but Shi Qi came back, and he treats her well. He quietly observes her and investigates Shi Qi’s past – and knows there’s something definitely different. The General supports her, and at one point asks her if she’s hiding anything from him. When Shi Qi responds affirmatively he tries to follow up but doesn’t press her on it – he knows her true character and says he’ll wait for her to be able to tell him everything. He also remembers his first meeting with Shi Qi and fell in love with her then. He has a conversation with his military advisor where he asks “would you believe what your eyes tell you or what your heart tells you.” The General could definitely be in the top ten of a heroes list. He remembers basically everything Shi Qi said (three years ago), they had a life/death connection, and a memory of fireflies, so things Shi Qi says once they’re married makes him think of the “unknown woman.” The flashbacks, and later a conversation all bring it up.
The other two “main” characters are Shen Qin, and Prince Ning. Shen Qin is the Prime Minister’s daughter, and in love with Prince Ning, which is why she doesn’t want to marry the general and grabs Shi Qi to change faces with her. (Shen Qin also says she’s pregnant the night before the wedding. Prince Ning doesn’t believe her though.) Once Shi Qi (with Shen Qin’s face) gets married though, Prince Ning becomes much more interested in her, and comes on to her a number of times. There are some violent confrontations, and our hero the General is always there to save the day. While Prince Ning is the villain, he does have some redeeming qualities, and Shen Qin is definitely in love with him. She’s devoted to an alarming degree. Granted, Prince Ning does have some redeeming qualities.
There are so many different plotlines going on in such a short series, and they’re all tied up neatly. It’s so very satisfying. First of all the overarching thing is the General investigating the death of the crown prince. Prince Ning and Shen Qin think the General has some sort of evidence against Prince Ning, so they not only want Shi Qi to investigate, they want her to get it for them. Shi Qi doesn’t just blindly listen to Shen Qin either; Shen Qin not only knows things about her sister, but has things she had previously given to her sister. Shen Qin also subtly threatens her – giving candy to the General’s [adoptive] daughter, showing up in their manor, tells her she’ll ruin her face, and so on. Then there’s the fact that the General and Shi Qi have low key been searching for each other for three years. And Shi Qi has been trying to find her sister for years. And of course the General and Shi Qi falling in love (again). Their awkwardness is so cute, and then their support once they’re “really together.”
I was impressed by the attention to detail and quality of this production. As I said, the costumes, the sets, the musicality, and especially the actors. Hell, even the cinematography and angles. After watching a few other web series the difference is night and day. In my opinion, A Familiar Stranger stands up to any number of big budget series. A[nother] way the General identifies Shi Qi is the scar she has on her shoulder. It helps the plot, but also stands to reason they exist – something that has bothered me in other series is when a character supposedly does something terribly arduous (or hell is injured grievously) but somehow are fine the next day/have no injuries or scars. There are also the other subtle differences between characters – the personality differences, the skills, their taste(s), how the General figures them out … it’s all so good. (Her handwriting and hobbies, the pictures – the way he reacts or more accurately doesn’t react to the erotic painting he’s sent.) I also loved his what I think of as “slide in game” – the way he subtly edges closer to the heroine at various points – it’s so smooth and so good. Our staid general has game.
The General’s daughter (Yuan Bao) provides comedic relief for the show – she acts like a long suffering adult. (I think the military advisor is also supposed to be comedic relief but it didn’t work as much for me.) Yuan Bao is also the matchmaker/fairy godmother between the hero and heroine. Yuan Bao schemes to bring the hero and heroine together, and also asks each about the other to try to figure out other ways to pair them together/get them to like each other. Although she already gets the sense/knows they like each other. They’re both shy/”overly respectful” – I don’t know how much a cultural difference/shock there will be. Not just the present from China to America, but obviously in the past. There was literally a “no touching” “rule” so… you know. That being said, shout out to the kiss scenes where the actors are actually kissing. In a lot of cdramas it’s this deadfish lip press and cameras circling and awkwardness (sarcastic thanks, censorship rules). None of that for A Familiar Stranger. Even without the kissing there’s the longing, the intense chemistry that has you leaning in and rooting our leads on in their love. Seriously – a number of authors could take notes from the sexual tension. And of course since it’s a c-drama the whole thing is very PG. (Maybe PG 13.) Both the male leads also get comedic moments too.
Any quibble I might have with the show is very minor, and there’s a big twist at the end that had my jaw dropping. Even knowing about it during my second watch I was still all “big eyes.” The ending is very satisfactory, and I felt it was complete. Sometimes these series end on cliffhangers, but that wasn’t the case here. However, I wouldn’t mind a second season – and the leads have said the same. (Of course there’s the possibility/probability that not only is there nothing in the works, they’ll be too busy with other bigger projects.)
There’s an impressive amount of feeling and complexity packed into [eight] short episodes. The dialogue is on point too. This is a low commitment drama that I think would be an excellent introduction to cdramas. I’m on my third+ watch and I can definitely see myself revisiting it again in the future. I’m also going to be looking for more dramas that Ke Ying (who plays Shi Qi), Ryan Cheng (who plays Xiao Han Sheng), and even Kay Song (who plays Shen Qin) star in. I definitely recommend this series.
You can watch episode one/the whole series for free here (It has the 18 ~ten minute episodes):
(I watched on Viki so I can’t vouch for the YT translation/subtitles but a few skips and they seem on point so 💯)