Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Fierce Wife: Series Review


My most recent marathon drama was 2011's Taiwan hit, The Fierce Wife. I've long wanted to watch it because of its obvious similarities to one of my favorite series, Queen of Reversals (which interestingly aired at almost the same time), with the second-chance story of a woman finding happiness after divorce. QOR still holds the superior spot in my heart, but as far as dramas go I can completely understand TFW's popular appeal. It tells a far more realistic story of a relationship falling apart and of the repercussions, both for the original marriage and the affair. Overall, TFW features an intelligent script, impressive acting on all fronts, and a cast of multidimensional, likable characters across the board.


Admittedly, I watched much of it out of love for Chris Wang's second lead male, who is pretty much the equivalent of Gu Yong Shik  in QOR, as the younger, head-over-heels chaebol who ultimately wins the girl. Seriously, he was adorable, and was the single light of hope during some of the darker moments in this drama.

Plot (Minor spoilers)



TFW begins with Sonia Sui's Xie An Zhen and Jame Wen's Wen Rui Fan still in a happy marriage, where she's a stay-at-home mom to their daughter and he works at a major cosmetic company. One day, her mom asks if she can temporarily let her cousin stay with them. That cousin, Amanda Zhu's Wei En, of course becomes the interloper, who slowly captures Rui Fan's heart and ultimately destroys the marriage. Along the way, An Zhen meets and becomes friends with Chris Wang's Lan Tian Wei, who steadily goes from hardly any scenes to being a major part of the later episodes.



The one thing that frustrated me was how long we had to wait for the inevitable divorce portion. The early-late teen episodes were truly painful to sit through, because by that point An Zhen is still pathetically trying to cling on to her sham of a marriage. It really illustrates the vast social differences in Asia, because as understandable as wanting to hold on to your family is, there should come a point when you cede defeat and decide to move on. In this case though, An Zhen is literally forced to sign the divorce papers, and I still doubt that she would ever have done that had Rui Fan not resorted to physical force. Where's the fierceness that I was promised would be in the wife?

I was also angry with her friends and her mom through that whole portion. They kept trying to encourage her to weather things through, even as Rui Fan's behavior became more and more deplorable. Seriously, the guy slept with her cousin on her bed! And they still want her to take him back? The level of lowness she hit in this phase of the series made me a bit skeptical of her transformation shortly afterwards.



The transformation itself felt completely incongruous with the story when it came about. It was given almost no prelude; she suddenly decides its ok to live with Tian Wei for a month so that he can pull a Pygmalion on her. With that type of premise, why weren't we shown more of the natural hijinks that come with living together? Instead, we get a set of montages that show her slowly picking up the skills to becoming an elegant lady. That part marked a shift in the drama from realism to dramatic fodder, which even went so far as to have her become a sudden TV star.



Despite my qualms with the realism, I do like the way they handled Tian Wei's arc, as he goes from consoling friend and supporter of her marriage to having a one-sided crush and eventually becoming her new love interest. My favorite scenes were some of their hilarious, witty yet heartfelt earlier interactions, with him pretending to be a poor insurance salesman.


As mentioned, it was the hope to see more of him that kept me glued to the drama, and in that sense the show delivered. He steadily gained more and more screentime in line with his importance in An Zhen's life. I even liked his past connection with Wei En, and his relationship with his mom which was weird but cute. It was nice to have a dramaland mother who's supportive of everything, and she was definitely a surprising star player.



Wei En's arc conflicted me, because while I liked the ending to it, I was not a fan of the extremes the writer put her character through on the path to get there. I actually wanted Wei En and Rui Fan to find happiness together, largely because I felt terrible for Rui Fan the whole way through. But I guess by principle the writer couldn't exactly have them be happy together after all the crap they put An Zhen through. Thus, it seems like she just threw out the idea to make Wei En crazy. The saving grace of this is that Amanda Zhu played her beautifully, with a raw edge even from the beginning that made this arc at least feel believable.

Ending Thoughts



While QOR received the interesting 12-episode extension to build out the leading lady's love line with the second lead, TFW ended things on a more ambiguous note. But I still enjoyed it, because her final scene with Rui Fan made it clear that she had finally reached a point where she could depend on herself and turn away from her husband.



Similarly, the fact that the drama chooses to end with her reaching out a hand to Tian Wei makes it clear that she decided to give him a chance, and will likely build a happy future with him. Even though they didn't so much as kiss, I felt completely satisfied at the end. Note that I'm choosing not to count the movie, which I'll review separately. 



Tian Wei's self-discovery trek in the last episode was beautifully played, and a nice way to parallel both his and her growth as characters - her to finally move on from Rui Fan, and him to stretch his boundaries before finding his way back to her. The final book signing scene is probably my favorite part of the whole series, and a bittersweet cap on the journey for both of their characters.



Wei En's choice to leave Rui Fan and raise her son alone was a fitting close to their journey. I liked that they were willing to give her far more depth than just being a 2-D bitch, and even chose to redeem her at the end. She had issues, which went an extreme way, but ultimately her character was more than just a plot tool. In fact, I loved that TFW made everyone feel real, with individual psyches leading up to actions and eventual consequences and regrets.



On the other hand, Tian Wei was literally written as a Mr. Perfect with almost zero flaws. He also gets the traditional heart-softening treatment as his affections warm up to the heroine, which was sweet but not exactly believable. But I suppose we needed him as a respite from the pain, and I'm not complaining.

Tone & OST



The slice-of-life realism to both the characters and the story is what initially drew me in, and kept me going even through the frustrating middle segment of this series. Most times when you watch dramas, it's clear that you're watching fictional characters, who say and do things with little resemblance to real life. But TFW was quite the opposite - it had its unbelievable plot points, but it presented fully fleshed characters that weren't ever just talking heads. The interactions and dialog, especially between Rui Fan and An Zhen, were incredibly reminiscent of a real couple, and actually made me recall couples I know. The falling out of the relationship was truly well-done, without feeling rushed or forced.

Additionally, I love the small details that really illustrate how seriously they took the realism - for example, in one scene Rui Xuan is about to get into An Zhen's car, and the first time she tries to open the passenger side, the car door is locked. I know, small point, but it gave the show an unscripted feel that was refreshing.


While QOR managed to stay lighthearted even through the depths of its original relationship's failure, TFW was often dark and almost strenuous to watch. It took all of its characters to frightening low points, including near-manic levels of depression that were truly painful to observe. It helps that all three of the main actors were phenomenal and really poured themselves into the characters. There was some levity, notably from Tian Wei, Rui Xuan and her husband, which were a welcome break from the bleak moments.

The OST is also among the best I've heard in a while. The opening song (which also closed out the series) Wu Tian Ji Nian (五天幾年) by Freya Lin is just gorgeous, though I admit it wasn't until that final book-signing ending when I realized how much I loved it.



The other song I loved was the one that played only around Tian Wei, the cheery and lovely Warm Heart by Yu Ke Wei.


I wonder why Taiwan doesn't choose to go less campy and more realistic more often with its dramas. Its clear from this and ITWY that there's a big audience out there for relatable fare without the eccentricities and odd-ball humor of traditional Taiwan dramas.

Characters Review

Xie An Zhen



Sonia truly was outstanding in this role, capturing the vulnerabilities of the initially timid An Zhen as well as the soft confidence of the later An Zhen. I was originally skeptical of how the model-gorgeous Sonia could play a rumpled housewife, but she managed to so purely capture the character that her looks became irrelevant.

My main qualms here are with the character herself, who was honestly a bit too white bread bland for my tastes. She was literally a perfect person, with absolutely no character flaws. The ideal Asian woman, with compassion, forgiveness, loyalty to her family, and someone who always does the right thing. I get that the writer wanted to make sure everyone could root for her, but I could have done with a bit more dimension, like a slight temper or an odd quirk. She had none, so it made for a rather boring romance. Additionally, she stays timid for far too long. Suffice to say it was deathly frustrating to watch her at points, and made me want her to grow a backbone as a character, which at least she sort have does (while remaining perfect).

Li Wei En 



As mentioned above, I don't like how they wrote her off as a crazy bitch in later half of the series, even if it was interesting to watch. I never really disliked her as a character, because it was clear that she was more than just a story antagonist. She was honestly conflicted in the beginning, and the relationship was more Rui Fan's fault than her own as she tried to leave multiple times.

Wen Rui Fan



Despite on paper being the most despicable of the bunch, Rui Fan was the one that roused my sympathy the most. James Wen plays Rui Fan with such sensitivity, conflict, and compassion that I couldn't once really dislike him (even when he did some pretty severe stuff). Watching his self-destruction was truly heart-wrenching, and for that reason I'd originally hoped for him to gain happiness with Wei En. I guess his story was told almost as a warning to all potential cheating husbands, in that he sacrificed everything for the other woman and ended up with nothing.



I'm not sure how Taiwan society really is, but I was a bit annoyed at how his employment was literally tied to his marriage status. Is it really that close-minded a society? Yes, he was a jerk to his wife, but why are they linking his personal life with his professional one? I'm sure in the States you could sue for that type of discrimination, but apparently you just have to suck it up in Taiwan. I found that a tad unbelievable, because in the real-world when your husband has an affair he's not likely to literally lose his shirt for it (despite how much some wives would like that). So the consequences felt false to me, and I ended up feeling more badly than angry at his character.

Lan Tian Wei



There's no question that I loved him, but of course that's not to say he was perfect. Chris Wang hasn't ever caught my eye before, and I wouldn't say he's conventionally attractive, but he definitely had charisma in spades with the character. His acting was the weakest of the main set, and came off a bit recited, but that too slowly grew on me.


One of my favorite moments was when An Zhen calls him Broccoli and he proceeds to sheepishly pat his hair. I love that the show made his ridiculously high hairdo a running joke, and somehow sweetly transformed it to a nickname that reminded him of her.

He Ai Lin



It's always fun when we get a great frenemy dynamic, and He Ai Lin definitely shined at this. Just like with all the characters in the show, what you see at the start isn't what you ultimately get. Ai Lin is manipulative and bitchy, but then we get moments revealing her inner vulnerabilities. I like that she wasn't afraid to tell An Zhen what was what, and it's sweet that the ladies were ultimately able to grow into bantering friends. However, I hated how she went out with such a whimper, going for a conveniently timed foreign marriage and move.

Rui Xuan and her husband



I normally don't like caricature characters, but somehow these two grew on me. This is likely because the series as a whole needed them to balance out the seriousness, and because they were just funny characters. Admittedly, they were also the most 2-D of the character cast, but that's inevitable.



Overall, I think this is a series worth watching, but if you do make sure to prepare yourself for a rather exhausting experience. It's much more relationship-destruction than redemption focused, although both are relatively well-written pieces.




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