Despite Netflix being banned under China’s internet censorship laws, the streaming service landed Yanxi Palace: Princess Adventures, a spinoff of/sequel to China’s smash-hit 2018 series Story of Yanxi Palace. The original series debuted on China’s iQiyi platform, chronicling Wei Yingluo’s ascent from lower-class woman to wife of Emperor Qianlong over a whopping soap-operaesque 70 episodes. Princess Adventures is the relatively trim six-episode story focusing on their teenage daughter.
YANXI PALACE PRINCESS ADVENTURES: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: An overhead shot of birds soaring over the sprawling imperial palace grounds.
The Gist: In the opening scene, Princess Zhaohua (Wang Herun) turns her nose up at every silk gown presented to her by her parade of servants, ordering one to be beaten for daring to offer a dress with the vile and thoroughly disagreeable color green in it. She’s pampered. She’s entitled. She’s spoiled. She’s hotheaded. She’s nasty. She orders punishments like you or I would casually snack on Extra Toasty Cheez-Its — canings, slappings, smackings, whippings, spankings, nipple-twistings, wet-willyings, holding-down of heads and fartings, all kinds of assorted cruelties. She’s 15 years old, which sort of explains it. But most teenage girls wouldn’t indulge such extremes if given such power, would they? (Don’t answer that.)
This behavior is described by supporting characters as being “willful” — which translates to either being mean or having a mind of her own, two things 18th-century Chinese women were not encouraged to be. Zhaohua meets her betrothed, a handsome Mongolian fellow named Prince Chaoyong (Wang Yuwei), who refuses the marriage, probably because reputation precedes her like a foul odor. “You have a vicious heart,” he says, inspiring her to be very, very, very, very, very, very willful. This puts her parents, Yingluo and Qianlong (respectively Wu Jinyan and Nie Yuan, reprising their roles from Story of Yanxi Palace), in a tough spot, because they may have to order the death of this dude for spurning the inevitably crappy marriage to their shitty daughter.
Two other characters wind their way into this plot like worms in a bait can: Princess Siwan (Xu Xiaonuo), a lesser princess, is the frequent object of Zhaohua’s rancor — but Siwan might also be scheming to catch the eye of Prince Chaoyong (even though he may be executed for not marrying Zhaohua? I’m confused). And Fuk’anggan (Wang Yizhe) is a palace guard who seeks to befriend Zhaohua by giving her advice, specifically, how to make Chaoyong fall in love with her, apparently so she can treat the guy like manure forever. But Fuk’anggan is embroiled in a palace scandal, and when the Emperor orders him to be lashed a squillion times (so that’s where she learned it!), Zhaohua shows she has a teensy smidgen of empathy, encouraging her father to have mercy.
Our Take: One episode into Princess Adventures and it’s easy to see why the original Yanxi Palace was so popular — the costumes and sets are gorgeous, the characters are vivid and the plots are addictively soapy. It’s kind of a Chinese version of The Queen or Downton Abbey, boasting the attention to detail and dramatic intrigue (more heavily intriguing intrigue is teased in upcoming episodes) of the better period dramas. This episode isn’t that eventful, but it spends a lot of time building character and setting; it sets up Zhaohua for redemption and/or comeuppance (honestly, most likely the former), which would surely be satisfying.
Sex and Skin: We see nary a bare ankle or neck.
Parting Shot: A closeup of Zhaohua with a look of concern on her face shows that she may have a scant trace of a sliver of a soul in her tiny, tiny little heart.
Sleeper Star: The palace is staffed with many eunuchs. Let’s hear it for the eunuchs! And be thankful they’re out of fashion for non-medical reasons!
Most Pilot-y Line: “You must not act willfully in front of him,” is Yingluo’s advice to her daughter, who, as expected, chooses not to heed it. One gets the feeling she takes heed to nothing but her own desires, for better or worse.
Our Call: STREAM IT. It looks good, and is well-written and -conceived. Newcomers can drop right into Princess Stories and not be lost in Yanxi Palace — and likely be coerced into watching the original series. As for existing fans who’ve watched all 70 episodes — they’ve been in for a pound, so what’s another penny?