‘The King’s Woman’ Review: Watch It for the Aesthetics

The King's Woman

Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.

The King’s Woman (Chinese title: 秦时丽人明月心) was one of my favorite dramas to rewatch back when it first aired in 2017, if only for the actors and the costumes. 

Set in the Warring States period of China, the drama follows Gongsun Li, a fictional concubine of the King of Qin State, and her contributions to eventual historical events. After identifying her as the girl who saved him from certain death when they were children, Ying Zheng falls in love with Gongsun Li and poisons her childhood sweetheart, Jing Ke, in order to entrap and secure her for his harem. Gongsun Li slowly develops feelings for Ying Zheng even as she defies and tries to stave off the worst of his tyrannical nature.

The King’s Woman is a story about Stockholm syndrome, manipulation, abuse, and, eventually, heartbreak. I think it’s one worth watching, but it’s not without some major flaws…

A+ Cinnamon Tography and Aesthetics

Let’s start with some positives. This drama looks amazing. The production designer, art director, the costume department, etc. went all out. I’d not seen a Chinese period drama with better costumes and set designs since The Empress of China. I love everything every character in this series wore. The clothes are mind-blowing and well worth watching forty-eight episodes for.

What’s more, this is one of the best directed Chinese dramas I’ve seen so far. There are no weird camera angles, no amateur special effects, and very little awkward choreography to take you out of the story. Every action and effect was framed perfectly. The remarkable cinematography was a breath of fresh air back in 2017.

Stockholm Syndrome Passing as Romance

Dilraba Dilmurat and Vin Zhang’s insane chemistry aside…

You really have to go into The King’s Woman ready to buy into the romanticism of the whole situation between Gongsun Li and Ying Zheng because the moment you pull back and look at it from a more sobering perspective, the magic ceases to work.

This drama goes out of its way to depict pre-Qin Shi Huang Ying Zheng as a tragic figure who’s simultaneously the cause of his own misfortunes and a victim of his personal faults. You can see at the beginning that even in his cruelty, he has good intentions. But on some level, he doesn’t understand what that means or why people are so resistant to his good will. He was a child of abuse who, consciously and not, revisits his own pain on others a thousandfold.

What’s interesting is the way the narrative sides with him. As he thinks of himself as a victim, so does the drama cast him as such. It feels like we’re supposed to be in Gongsun Li’s shoes, seeing him through her eyes. This, of course, makes their relationship easier to swallow, even though we all know better. (The fact that Vin Zhang is handsome AF helps a lot too.) 

Nevertheless, I felt very uneasy about the moments of tenderness, playfulness, and affection between Gongsun Li and Ying Zheng, especially given how resistant she is to him from the start. I mean, did she really forget how he threatened to abort her child, separated her baby from her right after childbirth, and tried to kill her martial brothers?

One moment later in the drama got to me particularly. In episodes 40/41, Ying Zheng goes on a killing spree of all his childhood tormentors, and instead of being horrified by this senseless mass murdering, Gongsun Li coddles and comforts him because he is… sad? After he killed a whole neighborhood of people? Like, boohoo, honey, he’s sad? The people he killed are dead! How the hell is that remotely acceptable to her?

She clearly knows what kind of a person he was, but the mental gymnastics she does to make excuses for him is frustrating.

Lastly, I think this whole trope of a male love interest falling in love with the female lead because she was nice to him for like five minutes when they were children is so trite. However, given that Ying Zheng’s a mega-creep whose relationship with Gongsun Li predicates on her developing Stockholm syndrome, it kind of works here.

One-Note Characters

Honestly, I wasn’t as resistant to Gongsun Li and Ying Zheng’s relationship as I could’ve been. The drama did a lot of work brushing aside all the troubling bits. Compounded with this following flaw, rooting for the main couple was a no-brainer: Jing Ke sucks.

No, not as a person. As a character. For all that he has to work with—the martial arts talent, a handsome actor, a tragic love lost, a destiny unfulfilled—he comes off incredibly one-noted. He’s straight up uninteresting, which is just about the worst thing a main character can be. 

This isn’t unique to him, unfortunately. Most of the characters in The King’s Woman have very little personalities to speak of. Instead, they’re relegated to playing cookie cutter roles that each serves one or two functions in the plot. I feel like the only developed character, aside from Ying Zheng and Gongsun Li, is Lu Buwei, who’s the only one with a personal agenda complicated and interesting enough. Sadly, he’s criminally unexplored and underutilized as a villain. 

Plot and Pacing Issues

This drama is very slow. I found myself wishing I could watch it on 2x speed without ruining everything else about the experience. Instead I resorted to “skimming” i.e. skipping seconds at a time and only watching in full what felt like crucial scenes in an effort to make the story move along faster. To tell the truth, I did not missed much. This is definitely a drama you can stream in the background as you do other things.

There are also a number of minor Dumb Plot moments I picked up. For instance, there’s a scene in episode 5 where Gongsun Li stabs a soldier through the hand for five full seconds before his subordinates even react. Like, they did not move or flinch until she begins to flee. It’s stupidly convenient.

Another example: In episode 27, the Crown Prince of Yan sends Gongsun Li a secret message asking her to smuggle him out of Qin State. But while he does the smart thing and communicates it via a code, he also “helpfully” circled his entire hidden message for her in red ink.

Crown Prince of Yan's secret message in The King's Woman

What do I even say?

Other Nitpicks and Questions

  • Why does Chengjiao wear his hair in the Chu style? Was he a political hostage of Chu State?
  • That Godfather reference in episode 1 is hilarious and so out of place
  • Ying Zheng’s eyebrows are impeccable (Not nitpicking, I just appreciate his eyebrows)
  • Couldn’t Gongsun Li have avoided the whole ordeal had she just done her hair a different way after her wanted poster came out? 
  • Why does she keep getting stabbed in the armpits? 

Final Rating and Recommendations

The King’s Woman as a story isn’t executed to its fullest potentials. While I wouldn’t be as harsh as to describe the dialogue, plot, and characters as bland, they felt muted and secondary to the non-story elements of the production: the costumes, the set designs, the general aesthetic. There are Wuxia, harem, politics, and war plot threads in this drama, none of which are done well. The “romance” is riddled with problems.

On the other hand, the cinematography and camera work are incredible. The crew went all out for the set designs and costumes, which are easily some of the best work I’ve seen for Asian period dramas, and kept me coming back to this series over and over again. 

Not to mention, I can stare at Dilraba Dilmurat and Vin Zhang all day, and I’m sure I’m not alone; there are worse ways to pass time than watching two of the most beautiful people in the world together on screen, mediocre storytelling or not.  

My Rating: 6/10

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