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Team TBR Challenge Review: The Autumn Ballad

Here are two [synopses] of the series:

The story of a witty young girl named Qiu Yan and a cold-faced duke named Liang Yi, who goes from battling each other with wits and boldness to understanding and accompanying each other.

Qiu Yan is the least favored eldest daughter of the Qiu Manor. She managed to reap happiness step by step relying on her own efforts and wisdom. (From MyDramaList)

Or

As the eldest daughter of an influential scholar and Vice Minister of Works, Qiu Yan (Qiao Xin) ought to have been highly favored within her family. Alas, as the daughter of her father’s concubine, the favor Qiu Yan should have received often went to her younger sister, Qiu Min (Kabby Hui). Often overlooked and frequently mistreated, Qiu Yan’s only chance of escape from her less-than-fortunate life comes in the form of an arranged marriage. Unfortunately even that goes awry at the last minute, leaving Qiu Yan an object of scorn and mistrust.

Determined to clear her name, Qiu Yan takes on the investigation herself; but she isn’t the only one looking into the case of her newly departed husband. As head inspector of the government’s investigative agency, Duke Liang Yi (Jeremy Tsui) is determined to uncover the truth. Often crossing paths with Qiu Yan, the two form an unlikely friendship, which works out advantageously for both, as the closing of their case gets them both what they want most. But the fates that tie Qiu Yan and Liang Yi together aren’t finished meddling just yet.

When her family is threatened by an unexpected accusation, Qiu Yan and Liang Yi must work together once more, to save her family from ultimate disgrace. As they work to clear her family’s name, the sparks that often fly between them eventually ignite a much bigger flame. But can love blossom in the midst of a major family crisis?

A fantastic story of clashing wills and melting hearts, “The Autumn Ballad” is a 2022 Chinese romance drama directed by Ding Ying Zhou. (From Rakuten Viki)

(Today was the first time I’d ever seen the trailer… anyway.) The “prompt” for the challenge this month is “Starting Over” and I’m currently having my heart ripped out by my rewatch of The Autumn Ballad … and I think it really fits well. (The book I’m reading very slowly, Kraving Tavek by Zoey Draven, would fit well too but I have a feeling even much more angst is in the second half and I fear it turning into wangst … so we’ll see.) Anyway … it’s funny because I think I actually tried watching The Autumn Ballad a while back but the opening scene turned me off – but last week I saw more of the episode when someone else turned it on and I got hooked. Hard. I literally watched all 34 episodes in two days … so there you go. (I also literally didn’t sleep the second night which is not recommended for healthy responsible adults.) 😅 It also means I’m fuzzy on some details so a piecemeal rewatch is called for, although I’m fast forwarding through all the parts that annoyed me the first go round, so there’s that too.

I don’t know if I’ll do a good job describing things/doing it justice because I’m so in it … but here we go.

Overall, I really liked the series. Obviously, considering I binged it, and immediately turned around and started it all over again. (And am nearly done with my second watch.) That being said, I have some mixed feelings – and this time I love parts more and hate parts more

Qiu Yan/Su Yiwan (although in my opinion she never really becomes the latter) is a wonderful heroine, and I loved that she had flaws that the show just … let be. The actress (Qiao Xin) does a great job portraying the character. I’ve never seen her in anything else before, but I’d definitely watch another historical she’s in. I did feel there were holes in the plot/script where this supposedly incredibly intelligent girl was TSTL – but I didn’t know if that was due to her age or just … “lack of care” in the writing. Anyway, she’s smart, stubborn, bold, brave, petty, independent, and clueless. I don’t think she ever really understood how deeply the hero loved her until like the last five minutes. (Or last minute? Spoiler: the show blessedly ends with them reuniting, but they don’t speak – they’re like ten yards apart staring at each other meaningfully. This was one of my major hate moments.) Considering her difficult background, and how poorly almost everyone has treated her her whole life, she feels that strength is the most important thing – being bold and fearless. She doesn’t understand compromise or standing down for most of the series. Oftentimes this is a benefit, but sometimes it causes major problems. What bothered me about her/this is … for such a smart girl, how could she not understand consequences. She had such tunnel vision in the beginning. Qiu Yan has such a big heart, and is willing to help and protect her family, giving up her own wants and desires, all for family. Throw in extreme danger, burden, and ungratefulness from many of them. (This I think is a strong cultural factor.)

Liang Yi have moved into my top five heroes in C-dramas. Maybe all heroes. He’s willing to do anything, and give up everything to help the heroine. He puts his life on the line for her countless times, and even turns back on his major vengeance to help her family (because of her). He definitely isn’t perfect though. Through the first ten plus episodes he’s really an asshole to the heroine. (He thinks she’s a calculating social climber with no real redeeming qualities, and she’s trying to seduce his best friend just to be a rich lady.) Circumstances continue to throw them together though, and he sees her much more clearly, and the attraction grows. Through this he also softens. In the later episodes there are a few times we see him utterly heartbroken, and I loved that the actor (Jeremy Tsui) really went in hard with that – willing to show us an ugly cry face, actual tears, it feels like your heart is getting ripped out along with his. To the world, he’s a cruel, calculating bastard. He’s ruthless and only cares about power and clout in the imperial court. In a small part he has lost his way for his vision for justice and a better country, because at the beginning he doesn’t care any more about protecting the little people who are collateral damage when it comes to big picture change. But his motive has always been to protect and strengthen the country, and weed out corruption. (Obviously unpopular with corrupt court officials, who clearly hold a lot of control in terms of public opinion.) He’s hated and feared. And he understands it – he says he chose his own path, and walks it willingly.

As I mentioned, I hated the ending. Not just in how unsatisfactory the reunion is, but also what led to the separation. Granted I was sleep deprived but I felt it was very badly done, all the events in the last (two) episodes. They’re thrown together and nonsensical. I also don’t think I understand the purpose of it/if I’m right … it’s a shitty ass purpose that doesn’t stand up for all that was given and lost. And here we potentially have a cultural disconnect (obviously I have a much more Western view than the original target audience), and then >.> indelicately put, the whole commie message. “It’s worth giving up your everything for the sake of the country, even if/when it isn’t deserved.” I can’t think of how to describe it because I’m too angry at what I’m seeing on screen right now. Which is another thing I hated. The villain in the show wins. At the end we have this thrown in “subplot” that … well I don’t want to give spoilers, so there’s this whole thing but … the asshole who has been a thorn in the hero’s side for the entire series wins everything. He gets everything he wanted, a promotion, becomes basically the most important person in the imperial court (other than the emperor of course), his rival, Liang Yi, our hero is gone, his name tarnished …

The villain is a corrupt evil asshole. He lies and ruined the heroine’s family – causing her father’s death, and it’s only through the basically unreal machinations of the hero and heroine are her family partially restored. The villain also tortures the heroine (I’m still mad that was such a minor blip to the show), and literally ruins the hero’s life. The villain frames Liang Yi, calls him a traitor to the world, the hero’s home is sealed off, makes him become a hunted fugitive …

And for what? The villain has no purpose or goal other than “take down the hero” until nearly the end where they work together to save the country. And … we’re … supposed to believe that redeems the villain? Are you fucking goddamn kidding me? And THAT is a guy who you want having incredible power? Like … am I having a stroke here?

So anyway … looking at the plot itself/the story one would be utterly “what. the. fuck.” At least I was.

In part I guess it “doesn’t matter” because our hero chose to give things up. (I’m still not 100% clear if the hero loses his title as well – he was a marquis/the equivalent … so I don’t know if he just lost his position in court, or also the marquisate. I think we all know I’m a petty monster, so I care. Even if he doesn’t. I care. Even if he doesn’t do anything with it – he should still have it. Especially after all his contributions and sacrifices.

I also hated her third sister (Qiu Min), who is one of the main secondary characters. Seriously we could’ve had a better ending if the show had cut out her sniveling and sniffling. She spends probably a good thirty minutes of the series doing that, if not more. Beyond that though, she’s fucking evil. She absolutely never understands her older sister, and only sees her in the worst light. Real talk – and I haven’t seen this mentioned anywhere in the few reviews I’ve read… Qiu Min rapes the guy she’s interested in (Qin Xuan). The show definitely doesn’t describe it that way … but she gets him drunk, roofies him … (and also told him her sister (Qiu Yan(, who he loves, is dead, and that he should pretend she’s her sister. So.) Qin Xuan and Qiu Yan had actually been a couple, although Qiu Min has always had a crush on him. It’s a mess. And a whole thing. Other spoiler/warning: Qiu Min is raped … and a possible trope I’m noticing that I hate is … “woman is raped and turns evil.” So now she’s a sniveling brat who is also evil. (I do feel very badly for her. But god damn does she just really go hard on the “I’m going to be the worst person possible but absolutely think there’s nothing wrong with what I’m doing and everything bad is my sister.”) She does do some good which the show is supposed to make us think “well everything before was fine then” but … I’m not snowed. Note: you don’t really see anything re: the rape(s) happen on screen, but you definitely know it happens. I also hate the useless emperor.

What I loved … the romance. Even though I wanted more … what’s funny is it starts off as a love/hate – which is a trope I strongly dislike in writing. Here it works though because while each doesn’t think much of the other, they are impressed by the other person. They’re both very smart and direct, and don’t feel the need to pretend with each other or observe inane social niceties, because they don’t think much of the other person – so why bother? But it also makes things a lot easier, and they get to be exactly who they are. But as stated, as they spend more time together working to solve cases, the attraction develops. The hero starts to fall for the heroine in episode ten, in my opinion. And he changes. The furtive looks, the softening of his expression … our hero loves the heroine more than she loves him. Or at least, he shows it more. The heroine is more concerned with her own freedom once she’s in a place to consider what she wants/has saved her family (again). I’m not mad at her for that. Live your life, girl. Especially in ancient China – grab what independence you can, and enjoy life as you want it when you’re able. It’s what she ~initially thinks is the most important.

With all the censorship [rules] in China the only thing you ever see on screen is really chaste kisses … and here’s how strict/PG everything is … I was super excited to see the hero actually hug the heroine in sympathy. (Like generally in other shows other than a kiss or two the most meaningful contact is a gripped sleeve or *gasp* clasped hands.) So a comfort hug was nice to see. I also deeply enjoyed the scenes between the hero and heroine when she’s forced to be a courtesan due to her circumstances, because they get to be more affectionate than would normally be allowed. (They’re acting to throw off the villain … but it’s not all acting on the part of the hero. And he says so!) There are also a few “I love you I’m so happy to see you” hugs. Well, two. Still – it’s actually a big deal.

I also have to shout out the largely unsung (or at least not sufficiently celebrated) characters of Song Jun, Yao Gui, and Shi Xiao Xiao. (I just rewatched that one scene three times in a row and ugly cried each time.)

I’d actually thought the series was 40 episodes for some reason, so I think in part that’s why I felt so cheated by the ending. I thought we had more after 34, and didn’t even consider as I was watching how rushed/”botched” things were. Aside from the “let’s throw the kitchen sink in/at it” aspect … I felt the development of the relationship was really good, as was the lead actors’ chemistry. Seriously – the way the hero’s face softens when he looks at the heroine – his eyes light up and sparkle … it’s darling.

A lot of the plot is really engaging – there are twists and turns that are totally unexpected, so you’re always engaged. There are a LOT of really well written scenes too, as well as touching lines. At times things get very emotional – I found myself crying at scenes I’d already watched, and some I’ve watched over and over and over already. And seriously the “we live or die together” in episode 31 had me hugging myself. First for the lovely sentiment, but also because they FINALLY AND ACTUALLY SAID IT OUT LOUD.

I can definitely see The Autumn Ballad becoming one of my future go-to rewatch series.

You can start watching it on Youtube with English subtitles. I think they do a good job with them here.

🤦🏻‍♀️ ETA: I forgot the “new beginnings” part of this … so … the heroine escapes death a few times – as does the hero. (A few times they escape death together… <3) The other times are spoilers so I won’t go into detail, but there are definitely huge “new life begins” or “begin again” moments.