A Look at Fall 2009's Taiwanese Dramas
First off, the casts. Autumn's Concerto stars Vanness Wu, most famous as a member of now-defunct boyband F4 and for his role in Meteor Garden, and Ady An, best known for her role in the The Outsiders. This will be Vanness' first serious leading role - while he has co-starred in many successful dramas, his only previous leading role was in the rather awful Peach Girl, but he has steadily shown himself capable of good acting and has a widespread fanbase made up of many different ages, which latter asset is perhaps not as true of the leads of his rival dramas.
Momo Love is headed by Jiro Wang, hugely popular as a member of boyband Fahrenheit and for his roles in dramas such as KO One and Hana Kimi, and Cyndi Wang, well-known pop singer who won hearts all over Taiwan for her adorable performance in 2006's Smiling Pasta. Jiro enjoys immense popularity and is also quite a good actor, but with his drama with Rainie Yang (ToGetHer) out earlier this year, viewers may be tired of his face. And while Cyndi is challenging Rainie Yang's status as the drama sweetheart queen, Rainie has a much longer and more successful drama career to fall back on.
Hi My Sweetheart stars Show Luo and Rainie Yang, both performers who have huge popularity as both singers and actors, though Show, like Jiro, is only now solidifying his status as a lead instead of a co-star - for both singers-turned-actors this will be their third drama as the lead. With all three dramas boasting star-studded casts, it's Vanness Wu against Jiro Wang against Show Luo as far as male leads go, and Ady An against Cyndi Wang against Rainie Yang as far as female leads.
Cast: Vanness Wu, Ady An Story: Ren Guang Xi (Vanness Wu) is skating through life on looks and his mother's wealth. A university law student, he spends his time seducing girls instead of attending classes, making bets with his friends on how many hours it will take him to get close to each one.
Estranged from his mother, he has refused to care about anyone since his father died at a young age. That is until he meets Liang Mu Cheng (Ady An), the new bento seller at his school canteen and the latest target of his friends' bets. Mu Cheng is completely uninterested in the loudmouthed rebel, but as circumstances draw them together, a powerful connection springs up between them. Tragedy quickly separates them however, and when Guang Xi returns six years later, he has lost his memory, and only a haunting piano melody remains of his memories of Mu Cheng.
My take: With Vanness Wu and Ady An at the helm, Autumn's Concerto already had a lot going for it, and wonder of wonders, the story thus far lives up to the talent going into it. Beautifully filmed and acted, it's by turns funny, poignant, and bittersweet, but always swooningly romantic. A mix of darkness and light, amazingly good acting, and a superb love story, it is thus far an outstanding Taiwanese drama.
Apart from a few hiccups in the writing/pace (the comedic elements of the first half hour were a bit awkward, and episode 3 was not nearly as strong as the previous episodes, though thankfully it recovered in episode 4), Autumn's Concerto is very well-written, and the interactions between its leads, Guang Xi and Mu Cheng, are spot-on. The character development of Mu Cheng, a sweet-tempered bento seller with a threatening stepfather who faces life's trials with quiet dignity and steely courage, and Guang Xi, a cocky rebel who lives on the edge as a way to distance himself from a painful past, is particularly good. The lead actors, moreover, have delicate, pitch-perfect chemistry (finally, a drama which actually puts Vanness' acting skills to use!).
If you liked...Mars, The Outsiders, or Meteor Garden, you will probably enjoy this drama.
She is given everything she could want (and some things she doesn't) by her wealthy, successful siblings, but the one thing she is lacking is freedom. When she meets Shi Lang(Jiro Wang), an even-tempered, reserved student at a neighboring college, she almost instantly falls for him. What she doesn't know however is that every time an unfortunate male around her begins to develop romantic feelings for her, her brothers quickly investigate him, measure him against their impossible regime of requirements, reject him, and bully and threaten him until he gives up and moves away. Will love enable Tao Hua to break out of her gilded cage? And will Shi Lang fall for her in return and fight for her?
My take: You know, Momo Love is surprisingly adorable. And by that I don't mean that it's cute and cutesy and frenetically over the top in the way many Taiwanese dramas are, though it certainly has elements of that, but that it is genuinely rather lovely, with some nicely framed emotional depth grounding the admittedly over-the top story (it based on a manga, after all:). The character of Tao Hua, a sheltered rich girl, could so easily have come across as annoyingly privileged or passive, but Cyndi Wang, who is perfectly cast, brings to the character a delicate vulnerability, a lonely, fragile quality which is very compelling, and she and Jiro have a quietly intense chemistry which lights up and grounds the drama.
If you liked...Smiling Pasta or ToGetHer you will probably enjoy this drama.
Hi My Sweetheart
Cast: Show Luo, Rainie Yang Story: I had an odd feeling of deja vu when I first watched Hi My Sweetheart, because in some ways the story is very similar to Momo Love, only gender reversed (it's the guy who's overprotected here). The only son of a wealthy, deceased father, Xue Hai (Show Luo) is raised by his two older sisters, the eldest of whom is now the head of the family and extremely overprotective. Desperate to escape his enclosed world, Xue Hai manages to convince his sister to let him go away to college in Shanghai, but his joy is short-lived when his sister decides to come with him.
Once there, Xue Hai's innocence and overt dorkiness quickly make him the target of bullying, from which he is rescued by Chen Bao Zhu (Rainie Yang), the "bad girl" of the school who is as assertive as he is meek. The two forge a unique bond and Bao Zhu becomes Xue Hai's first love. But when Bao Zhu moves back to Taiwan, a misunderstanding causes Xue Hai to believe that Bao Zhu abandoned him, and he transforms into a hunk in order to get revenge.
In Summary...In the ratings wars thus far, Autumn's Concerto started out strong and stayed that way. Momo Love debuted later and was unable to pull in audiences. Hi My Sweetheart, a higher-profile effort than Momo Love, hoped to do better, but its first three episodes have also been soundly defeated by Autumn's Concerto, which looks to maintain a steady and effortless lead.
What is interesting about this current drama line-up is that while on the one hand all three dramas fall in the same general category of straightforward romance, they run the gamut of sub-genres within that genre. Autumn's Concerto is a bittersweet, tragic romance (in that, it has many tragic elements, though given that its alternate title is Next Stop Happiness, I'm not going to bet on an unhappy ending), Momo Love is a fluffy comedy with underlying themes of melancholy and emotional suffering, and Hi My Sweetheart is overtly, ridiculously comedic in true twdrama fashion, but promises some depth in the future.
Moreover, as wildly different as Momo Love and Autumn's Concerto are - Momo Love is more sweet, more comedic, while Autumn's Concerto is higher-concept and darker, on a wholly different level - what I've found interesting is that there's an odd thread of lovely lyricism, a delicate thread of wistfulness/melancholy - paired with beautiful cinematography and music - which runs through both dramas. And while Autumn's Concerto is in principle the better drama - it attempts for more and therefore it achieves more - it is Momo Love that I choose to watch first.
I would really have to recommend both, and on a side note mention that either or both make an excellent counterpart to Kdrama You're Beautiful - I'm watching all three and finding my drama needs quite satisfied. Ironically, the fate of Momo Love as far as ratings go reminds me of the fate of You're Beautiful - both are lovely in and of themselves (just for the record, You're Beautiful is better), but neither really stood a chance against the high-profile hits that debuted earlier and won audience's hearts - Autumn's Concerto and Iris, respectively.