‘The Sword and the Brocade’ Review: Lackluster Story With a Soul

The Sword and the Brocade

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

One of the few great things The Sword and the Brocade (Chinese title: 锦心似玉) has going for it is its gorgeous takes on Ming Dynasty fashion, particularly the women’s. This is one of those dramas that you watch for the costumes and aesthetics as much as, if not more than, the story. A good thing too, as the things the actual story does right are far and few.

The Sword and the Brocade Synopsis

Taking place in the Ming Dynasty, we follow Luo Shiyi and her marriage to Xu Lingyi, the Marquis of Yongping. An illegitimate daughter of the Luo family, Shiyi-niang and her concubine mother suffer abuse and ridicule in the hands of Madam Luo, the official wife. After a prolonged banishment from home, during which she becomes a skilled seamstress, she and her mother are called to return. She soon finds out that her older sister, the Marchioness of Yongping, is dying, and wants one of her younger sisters to take her place as the next marchioness. Shiyi-niang is subsequently chosen. 

Not wanting to lose her independence, Shiyi-niang attempts to escape with her mother, but their plan backfires when her mother is murdered under mysterious circumstances. With the only clue leading to the Marquis’ manor, she marries the Xu Lingyi to find her mother’s killer. Along the way, she deals with his various concubines who want her gone, a stern mother-in-law who’s biased against her from the start, and external harms from the Ou family—all the while struggling to maintain her individuality and passion in a society that allows upper class married women to be nothing more than home stewardesses.

The Highlight: Luo Shiyi and Xu Lingyi’s Relationship

Individually, Seven Tan and Wallace Chung are fine in their roles as Luo Shiyi and Xu Lingyi. Together, they have very little natural chemistry.

That was my initial observation from the first couple of episodes, an assessment I still stand by. It’s hard to say if it’s the sanitized nature of their characters’ interactions, the mediocre script they had to work with, or a combination of both, but Luo Shiyi and Xu Lingyi’s relationship comes off far more lackluster than I anticipated.

What Luo Shiyi and Xu Lingyi lack in passion, they make up for the fact that we’re watching two people who actually act like mature adults grow into a relationship, albeit as a part of an unexceptional bigger story. Luo Shiyi is a clear-headed main character who knows herself and stands by her priorities in life. Meanwhile, Xu Lingyi is just about one of the most understanding and caring male leads you could ask for. 

That is not to say that this couple has no issues. On top of misunderstandings stemming from their less-than-ideal circumstances (Xu Lingyi is one of Luo Shiyi’s most obvious murder suspects; and Luo Shiyi is Xu Lingyi’s late wife’s younger sisters… can you say awkward?), our male lead is, for the lack of a better term, emotionally stunt. For a good chunk of the drama, he comes off as a cold, unaffectionate man to the detriment of not just his relationship with Luo Shiyi, but all of his concubines, even though he’s anything but in reality.

I’m not selling them short by saying that the development of their relationship is the best thing about The Sword and the Brocade, a drama filled with courtyard bickering that occasionally segues into a rather important but vague political conflict. Because the rest of the story? Kind of blows.

Recycled Harem Intrigue Tropes

If you’re the kind of viewer that enjoys dramas about infighting wives, you’ll love The Sword and the Brocade. It’s packed with every recyclable plot possible. 

You have Luo Shiyi, a whip-smart female lead whom her husband comes to treasure above all else. You have Qiao Lianfang, a love rival who never had a chance, and whose penchant for foul play is only hampered by her own stupidity. You have a genuinely smart concubine with evil motives in Madam Qin. Then you have a frustratingly stubborn mother-in-law who serves as a better villain than the actual Big Bad of the story.

Misunderstandings and sabotages abound, but Luo Shiyi saves the day over and over again. At one of her lowest points, she gets relegated to doing manual labor. Xu Lingyi plays the male lead to perfection by taking her side at every occasion. The concubines retaliate at the development of their love either out of jealousy or fear for their own position. Yada, yada, the same old…

Basically, there’s very little originality in the story, but that’s not always a bad thing, if it’s what you’re looking for.

It’s All So Vague

This drama has a major problem of relying on audience preconceptions of certain tropes to connect the dots, or skimming on details altogether.

The Luo family? Vague as fuck. Old Master Luo is barely half a character. He serves one function and one function only—to be the vague cowardly father of the female lead who relies on his daughter’s marriage for his career prospects. 

Madam Luo is a little better off in that she has a bit more agency and her greatest wish is more clear cut, but miss me with that half-baked backstory between her and Concubine Yang in episode 33. That scene, by the way, is the perfect example of how this drama attempts to deliver climatic confrontations with very little established context to back them up over and over again.

Luo Shiyi’s older brother? A nice guy and a cookie cutter character.

This problem gets worse when you look at the Ou family’s main political beef with Xu Lingyi. The real history of haijin (AKA the sea ban) during the Ming Dynasty sounds fascinating, but the most The Sword and the Brocade could afford for what’s arguably the main driver of the central conflict was “lift sea ban good, keep sea ban bad.” I’m not asking for a historical reenactment or anything, but the complete lack of nuance and effort this drama made is laughable.

This kind of vagueness even bleeds into the main couple’s relationship. While it’s clear by the middle of the story that Xu Lingyi is hopelessly in love with his new wife, the drama doesn’t quite show when or why he fell in love. Is there something particular about Luo Shiyi that strikes a cord with him? Is it love at first sight? Has he been attracted to her from the start, but only let his feelings through once he’s sure he can trust her? If it’s gradual, is there a moment that he realizes it’s love and not maritally obligated respect like it was with her older sister? We don’t know, and we really should.

A Cop Out Ending

The ending is ridiculously bad. 

To be honest, I skipped most of Xu Lingyi’s scenes in the last two episodes because the drama never bothered to properly invest in his storyline with the sea ban and the Ou family, so I could not bring myself to care. 

Here’s how stupid it got though: In episode 44, Shiyi explains with a rock hidden in the shadow of a candle that by going where it’s most dangerous, her husband will have the best chance at survival. The episode wasted a lot of screen time on her getting the message to her sister, yet the drama never established if she’s even capable of communicating this plan to her husband. This could’ve easily been resolved with a quick line from her brother about writing Xu Lingyi a message, or a five second shot of Xu Lingyi reading a message, but the lack of both made it seem like Shiyi did all of that for nothing.

I’m not even going to comment on the fade-to-black execution scene. It’s lazy storytelling, plain and simple.

Other Thoughts

  • Did the Luo family seriously name their illegitimate daughters after numbers??
  • Shiyi’s eventual reconciliation with her second sister is nice
  • Ou Yanxing barely qualifies as a second male lead, and I don’t care enough for him to go into a rant about why
  • I love how in sync and in love Ou Lixing is with his wife, even though they’re both evil and borderline psychopathic
  • Whoever was in charge of the background/incidental music did an awful job. Almost none of the dramatic scenes fit what’s playing, and sometimes, the music gets so loud that you can’t hear the dialogue
  • Was I the only person who thought Hupo’s sister was going to be Shiyi’s mentor?

Final Rating and Recommendations

The Sword and the Brocade is pleasant as a visual and lackluster as a story, but the few good choices it got right makes the drama compelling enough that you want to see it through to the end.

This drama is especially worth your while if you enjoy the dynamics and infighting between wives, concubines, and mother-in-laws. Audiences who love mature, level-headed main leads would also have a good time. Stay away if you’re looking for originality.

My Rating: 6.5/10

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