Oh, look, it’s me. Back at it with another C-drama rec. Guardian is a show that’s been on my radar for a while; I’ve been seeing it pop up on my Tumblr dash for the past few years, and it was definitely on my list of shows to watch. After the last two dramas I watched were… shall we say… not quite what I’d hoped for, I thought I’d go for one that figured to be a better bet. (And I was right!)
Like previous recommendations Word of Honor and Legend of Fei, Guardian is based on a novel by Priest (and I have definitely jotted down their other works slated for live-action adaptations because I have loved all of these an inhuman amount). It is essentially the story of an immortal being and the reincarnation of his dead lover. And they solve crimes.
OK, it’s a little more involved than that, but that is the basic gist, although as the show goes on you realize that even the basic premise isn’t quite as basic as it seems.
On a planet much like Earth, there are three races: the native humans, the shapeshifting Yashou, and the superpowered Dixing who live deep underground. Ten thousand years ago there was a war when a faction of Dixing rebelled and was subsequently crushed by all three races uniting. Shen Wei (Zhu Yilong) is a hero of that war, and as a Dixing, he should be living underground. However, he’s ventured topside in order to track down the four Sacred Items that have mysteriously vanished. While acting as his alter ego – a university professor – he encounters Zhao Yunlan (Bai Yu), the Special Investigations chief who bears a striking resemblance to Shen Wei’s long-dead partner.
The biggest draw of Guardian for me is the relationship between Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan. Due to Chinese laws about the depiction of same-sex relationships on television, the romantic relationship is conveyed mostly through subtext. (Although I’m not sure how anyone could watch some of these scenes and think that these two are anything other than in love with each other. Like technically it’s subtext but then, not really. But I digress.) They’re able to convey a lot in a little – simple hand touches, longing glances, even just the way they sit next to each other.
You can definitely tell how different their relationship to each other is by observing how they interact with others. Zhao Yunlan is single, something that gets brought up repeatedly, and he’s not an overly flirtatious guy… except with Shen Wei. (I don’t understand how, like, a man kissing another man is against the law but Bai Yu can basically fellate a lollipop like that. It’s indecent.) Likewise, Shen Wei is a very reserved, closed-off character to virtually everyone but Zhao Yunlan. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he’s hiding a bunch of stuff from him, but he is decidedly more open with his emotions with Zhao Yunlan than he is with anyone else.
I don’t think words can adequately convey just how amazing this relationship is – the softness, the protectiveness, the pining, the admiration. On their own, they are by far the most multi-faceted, nuanced characters on Guardian, but these two shine so much when they are together that it basically overpowers literally everything else. Zhu Yilong and Bai Yu have fantastic chemistry; they ooze yearning and intensity, especially Zhu Yilong, who of course is portraying a man who has waited millennia to be reunited with this person.
The supporting cast does quite well, and though the focus is obviously on Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei, every member of the team gets the chance to shine. There are character-focused episodes and flashbacks, and they all grow and change as the series goes on. The developing friendship between Guo Changcheng and Chu Shuzhi is quite compelling. (It also has the potential to be read romantically, and not having read the book, I don’t know if it’s supposed to be.) Zhu Hong is a fantastic character, but her years-long one-sided crush on Zhao Yunlan stunts her a bit; she is much better once she starts to move past those feelings. Wang Zheng and Sang Zan, despite their fairly epic tragic backstory, are sadly underutilized and deserved better.
The plot of Guardian is interesting, but overall pretty weak. I absolutely love the idea of three separate societies managing to coexist on this planet, but the motivations of the primary villain don’t really make a whole lot of sense. And considering how much damage he ultimately ends up causing, he’s woefully underdeveloped as an antagonist. We don’t meet him, even unofficially, until more than halfway through the series – up until that point he has underlings carrying out his plans. (And they’re not that great, either.) There are mentions of a boss, so you know someone is pulling the strings, but they have more than 20 episodes to lay the groundwork and wasted the opportunity.
Most of the earlier episodes rely on a case-of-the-week format, and it’s only after a few cases that you realize they are all connected. The cases are almost laughably easy to solve, but that’s because it’s not about them individually, it’s about the evil plot as a whole. (Some of them are better than others, like the one where Zhao Yunlan is sort of stuck in a video game and the one where everyone’s personalities get reversed.) Truthfully, I could have bought the evil plot better if the villains had a little more depth to them. The pacing can be uneven as well, with some scenes stretching on for too long while others cut away too quickly.
The special effects are a little hokey, though I can’t really fault them for that. The thing that kept tripping me up, however, is the audio. There are a number of times when the audio switches from the actual voices to dubbing, sometimes even in the middle of a line. It sounds extremely unprofessional to hear such drastically different voices come out of the same character’s mouth.
Permit me a moment to gush about the action scenes; it’s not a particularly action-heavy show, with some episodes featuring fight scenes more than others, but there are a few moments that required me to compose myself for a few minutes before I could continue. For starters, Shen Wei competently dispatching bad guys with a sword while wearing a three-piece suit just does things to me. But there is also one point where Zhao Yunlan shoots someone behind him without even turning around and that gave me such strong Levi Ackerman vibes I was overcome.
I am a huge fan of the Guardian soundtrack, particularly the opening theme, which is just spectacular. Both the opening and ending songs help convey the tone of the show, despite how drastically different they are. The opening song is like a battle song, a call to arms, a vow that they will fight to the end. The ending song evokes a more bittersweet feeling, a sentimentality that lingers long after someone is gone from your life. (I really love how the ending credits feature behind-the-scenes moments. They did something similar with Super Star Academy.)
Also, fair warning, the ending broke me in a way that many other shows have failed to do. It’s not really a sad ending, but it’s not quite a happy ending, either. It’s both bittersweet and optimistic… and I immediately rushed to AO3 to heal my shattered soul with the soothing balm of fanfiction.
Basically, is Guardian the best-written show in the world? No. But I can stomach bad writing as long as I care enough about the characters and I care so much about these people. I read a lot of fic, but I don’t read fic for every show that I watch, and honestly, I’ve been reading almost entirely WangXian fic for the past like eighteen months, so a ship that can tear me away from that is one to be reckoned with.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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