Autumn fades into winter, and on the screen emerges a grand and emotionally intense historical drama. Directed by Zhou Jingtao and Zou Xi, "A Journey to Love" stars Liu Shishi and Liu Yuning. While road dramas and martial arts dramas are common, it is rare to see them successfully combined. Especially when creating an original script without the reference of a novel, it is not an easy task to construct a world outside the palace, in the realm of rivers and lakes.
"A Journey to Love" premiered on November 28, 2023, stunning audiences with its fast-paced plot and fresh character designs. This drama tells the story of Ren Ruyi (Ren Xin), the former left envoy of the Zhu Yi Guard who fakes his death and infiltrates the city of Wudu. There, she unexpectedly meets Ning Yuanzhou, once the deputy hall master of the Liudao Hall. Ning Yuanzhou, who returned from the battlefield, only wants to live a secluded life in the countryside.
In order to prove his innocence to his former colleagues and return to the Liudao Hall as a savior of the nation, he gathers a group of people, including Yu Shi San, Yuan Lu, Qian Zhao, and Sun Lang, to escort Princess Yangying, disguised as a man, on her diplomatic mission. Ren Ruyi, in pursuit of the truth behind the death of his benefactor, Empress Zhaojie, forms a partnership with Ning Yuanzhou and joins the others on their journey to Andu. This group of people forms a temporary team, embarking on an unknown adventure on the road.
It carries a sense of patriotism and ambition for the people, without lingering solely on the grandeur of the palace. It features fluid martial arts scenes and the gratification of revenge, yet it does not solely focus on the conflicts of the martial world. It weaves intricate romantic entanglements and injects them with a touch of modern consciousness.
"A Journey to Love" is like a polyhedron warrior in the world of historical dramas. It begins with the turbulent relationships and wars of the nation, radiating the intrigue of the court and leading to the interesting stories of the long journey on the road, gradually unfolding a vivid depiction of various lives. Adventure, love, action - audiences of different tastes can find satisfaction in it.
Shuttling between the palace and the martial world
In the backdrop of a chaotic era with struggles among various countries, the relationships between characters in the drama are intricate and complex. "A Journey to Love" introduces more than twenty main characters in the first six episodes. The plot mainly revolves around two opposing intelligence agencies. Andu Zhu Yi Guard is predominantly composed of fierce and resolute women, while Wudou Liudao Hall gathers men with intelligence, martial arts, and medical expertise. Ren Ruyi and Ning Yuanzhou are both outstanding individuals among them.
Ren Ruyi was sold to Andu at a young age and served as the left envoy of the Zhu Yi Guard. Later, she was framed during the assassination case of Empress Zhaojie and barely escaped with her life, fleeing to Wudou. Highly skilled in disguise, she moves swiftly like the wind. In the opening scene, she poses as a pure dancer, deceiving her colleagues. She is not truly tamed by the Zhu Yi Guard but possesses a strong sense of self. After being wronged by the organization, she decisively leaves, resembling a solitary leopard that does not strike easily.
By twist of fate, this leopard encounters an equally formidable opponent. Ning Yuanzhou matches Ren Ruyi in talent and strength. If placed in the world of online literature, these two would be considered the most popular power couple setting. Despite their exceptional abilities and martial prowess, Ning Yuanzhou and Ren Ruyi unfortunately become discarded pawns in the power struggle within the organization. Both of them need to redefine their lives.
The earliest definition of "Xia" (knight-errant) mainly referred to a group of wanderers, assassins, and knights-errant. In the first two episodes, Ren Ruyi and Ning Yuanzhou embody the strong classical "Xia" spirit.
Ren Ruyi and his colleague, Linglong, have not known each other for long, but they are willing to risk their lives for each other because of Linglong's caring promise. Ning Yuanzhou initially decided not to return to the Six Dao Hall, but due to his reluctance to see his Tian Dao brothers carry the burden of treason, he decides to cooperate with the Prime Minister again and form a rescue team. Beneath their seemingly unfeeling exteriors, they possess true chivalry and compassion, advocating for using force to eliminate evil and achieve simple justice outside the confines of the court.
The unexpected encounter and ensuing struggle between Ren Ruyi and Ning Yuanzhou, as well as their leadership, lead the audience back and forth between the court, the military camp, and the mountains, enabling us to understand the power division between the two countries, the operational methods of the intelligence agency, and those who manipulate and stir up turmoil through intelligence operations. The Dan Yang King, the Queen, and the Prime Minister, who covet royal power, and the cunning concubine and the young general, all harbor hidden motives... Although the first six episodes have many characters and complex storylines, the plot is presented in an orderly manner.
The creators have adeptly crafted the dialogue of the characters, conveying effective information while also creating memorable points. In the first few episodes, the most impressive aspect is the members of the Guan Shan rescue team, each of whom establishes their own image upon their introduction.
For instance, Yuanluo, despite being in the lowest position, is kind, cheerful, and pure. When he appears holding a thunderbolt bomb, he tragically becomes a prisoner, but within a few minutes, his pure nature and talent for weapons are clearly conveyed. The introduction of numerous characters implies a polyphonic narrative and intricate relationships, which will undoubtedly be reflected in the subsequent plot.
Infused with modern ideas within the classic framework
In traditional martial arts dramas, the women of the martial world are both tender-hearted and rational, pursuing both vengeance and love fearlessly. The most typical examples are Huang Rong and Mu Nianci from "The Legend of the Condor Heroes." Huang Rong was an uncontrollable little enchantress before meeting Guo Jing, but willingly became his wise helper afterwards. Mu Nianci was a heroic figure before meeting Yang Kang, but turned into a reluctant love-struck woman after falling in love with him.
In recent years, female characters in period dramas have often possessed strong agency and self-awareness. Love is no longer their sole focus, but rather a part of their personal charm and growth. The female characters in "A Journey to Love" build upon this foundation and bring something new. They all have clear goals and do not shy away from expressing their inner desires. The most unique among them is Ren Ruyi, dressed in a red robe. She not only seeks justice and truth but also unreasonably desires a child. Xiao Yan, played by Chen Dulun, portrays the Empress of Wudou, who desires even greater power and shows no fear in front of the court officials.
Yang Ying, played by He Landou, is the most delicate and innocent character in the early episodes, and her transformation is the most evident. From going to war for her own selfish reasons to taking on the responsibility of putting an end to the war, her identity undergoes a change, and her mind continues to grow and mature.
Based on this development, Yang Ying is likely to quickly transform from being a burden to becoming the intellectual backbone of the rescue team. Prior to the premiere of the series, the characterizations of the intelligent master and the cool assassin created high expectations for the romantic storyline in "A Journey to Love." From the first few episodes, it is apparent that the romance in this drama is taking an unconventional route.
The entanglement between Ren Ruyi and Ning Yuanzhou is well-seasoned and unconventional. Both individuals have dedicated their youth to their respective organizations, only to be abandoned by their superiors.
They are then thrust back into the turmoil of their homeland due to their promises to friends and debts to acquaintances. In an environment where anyone could become an enemy, neither of them dares to easily reveal their true feelings. Ren Ruyi, who was raised as an assassin since childhood, adeptly navigates through various social circles, often charming others but sometimes even confusing herself with her own sincerity.
Having grown up in a spy organization, Ren Ruyi has rarely experienced love. Her only understanding of intimate relationships comes from the words of the Empress Dowager Zhaojie: "Do not easily fall for men, but have your own children." This guidance leads Ren Ruyi to assertively pursue a child with Ning Yuanzhou, which may seem absurd but is nevertheless reasonable. Her obsession with having a child adds an intriguing twist to her relationship with Ning Yuanzhou, blurring the line between friendship and enmity. Through their constant intellectual battles, we can clearly perceive the sprouting of affection.
During their first separation, Ning Yuanzhou appears indifferent to Ren Ruyi's whereabouts, but cannot help but remind her to avoid ambushes. When faced with the flirtatious advances of Shi San, Ning Yuanzhou solemnly reminds him, "Ruyi is our respected comrade. If she has not shown any interest in you, then your every word of love is merely mockery." This concern embodies a gender-based respect and serves as a fresh interpretation of ancient love stories. The woman's assertive desire for a child subtly explores the power dynamics of reproductive rights. It is evident that this silent exploration has only just begun, and the dynamics between the two will continue to evolve.
A road trip narrative blossoming with richness
In recent years, the narrative patterns and elements of period dramas have continuously evolved. Xianxia dramas have transitioned towards intricate love entanglements, while Wuxia dramas have embraced episodic suspenseful stories. In comparison, "A Journey to Love" adopts a larger narrative structure, with a more grounded and realistic main storyline. The purpose of the characters' journey is to cease the conflicts and bring forth a new dawn.
Period dramas rarely employ a road trip structure, primarily due to the fixed settings of sects and royal courts, as well as the slow transportation means of ancient times. However, slowness does not equate to boredom. Just like the rescue team's expedition, spanning vast geographical spaces and assuming flexible undercover identities, greatly enriches the story's possibilities.
In a road trip drama, the process is always more important than the destination. The continuous journey filled with stops and pauses imbues the main storyline with uncertainty. Each member of the talented team possesses their own individual subplots, showcasing the origins of their personalities and talents, as well as the undisclosed secrets behind their backgrounds.
For instance, the awakening of Princess Yangying and Ren Ruyi's quest for Linglong's revenge in the early episodes are worth mentioning as side stories that add depth to the main storyline and contribute to character development. The unexpected twists and turns along the way foreshadow a tumultuous path leading to earth-shattering secrets.
Although the members of the Guanshan team have only spent a short time together, they have already formed a strong bond. This bond is primarily composed of passion and humor. The passion stems from their sense of responsibility as "the greatest heroes, devoted to the country and its people." Ning Yuanzhou and Ren Ruyi's guidance to Yangying demonstrates their unwavering commitment and idealistic aspirations, inspiring not only Yangying but also us viewers.
The humor arises from the team's dynamic, which can be summarized as "serious in important matters, but lighthearted in trivial matters." Such humorous moments not only enhance the individual charm of the characters but also epitomize the camaraderie and warmth of a united team.
After watching six episodes, we have witnessed the brisk pace of the narrative, the harmonious portrayal of the characters, the exquisite production, and the thoughtful incorporation of vibrant period costumes into relatable human experiences. This drama takes us into a world of chivalry and allows us to momentarily forget our worries. It presents us with the dilemmas of familial, romantic, and friendly relationships through fables and comedy, prompting us to engage in a rational game of hypotheticals.
Currently, the arduous journey has only just begun, with many more challenges awaiting the protagonists. Will Ren Ruyi be able to break free from the chaos completely? Will Ning Yuanzhou continue to navigate through danger and successfully escort the princess to safety? Let us continue to follow the drama and find out.