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Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams. - Yeats

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Life Is A Long Quiet River #心居 - long commentary

#LifeIsALongQuietRiver #TongYao #童瑶 #HaiQing #海清 #ZhangSongwen #张颂文 #FengShaofeng #冯绍峰 #JieBing #节冰 #SunAnke #孙安可 #DongQing #董晴 #LuSiyu #陆思宇 #TengHuatao #滕华涛

A COMMENTARY WITH MAJOR SPOILERS (read at your own risk)

(Note: Some of the paragraphs in the first section have portions that are similar to the Spoiler-Free Short Review of the series because they both serve as a synopsis for the series.)

Life is a Long Quiet River (henceforth abbrev as LLQR) is a contemporary series set in Shanghai in the Autumn of 2017. The series is centred around two protagonists played superbly by Tong Yao and Hai Qing, They play a pair of sisters-in-law who are superficially cordial but who actually dislike and mistrust each other privately. At the beginning of the series, the pair will clash over money and the buying of property. This will result in a tragic event which will drive the two of them further apart.

(just a very small selection of the clothes and accessories that Gu Qingyu wears in the series, credits belong to a few people on Weibo)

The two sisters-in-law are both different in circumstances, backgrounds and personalities. Gu Qingyu is a very successful executive in a multinational investment bank. She owns her apartment and is wealthy. Pretty much everything that she wears is from brands like Giorgio Armani, Dior, Chanel etc just to name a few. Even the clothes she lounges in are from luxury brands and she looks effortlessly elegant in them. She's independent, forthright, practical and rational. (Aside: Tong Yao looks stunning in this series.) She can sometimes come across as dispassionate in the way she handles issues even with family members. She can also be acerbic and sarcastic if something displeases her. However, even in her most emotional moments, she handles everything with decorum. While the family relies on Feng Xiaoqin for the running of the day to day affairs, Gu Qingyu is the Gu family’s main column. Her father Gu Shihong, Grandma Gu and her younger twin brother Gu Lei rely on her for all the big family decisions and when they don’t know how to handle Feng Xiaoqin, they call Gu Qingyu for help.

Feng Xiaoqin, on the other hand, doesn't have money of her own. She's a full-time housewife so she and her son Little Tiger depend on Gu Lei for their expenses. She is emotional, short-tempered, abrasive, aggressive and very blunt. However, she is also caring and attentive to the needs of others. Her little nuclear family lives in the Gu family home with Gu Shihong and Grandma Gu. Her younger sister Feng Qianqian also lives with them. It's clear from the beginning that the entire family relies on her to keep things running smoothly. She's like the mother hen to everyone in the family. It's also clear in the opening sequence that after eight years, everyone has already taken her for granted and she's become frustrated by it.


Feng Xiaoqin has lived in Shanghai for over eight years but she feels like she doesn't truly belong. She feels that to gain dignity, respect and acceptance, she will need to get an apartment of her own. So she hatches a series of plans to get an apartment that she has an eye on but that both Gu Lei and she can ill afford. When we first meet her, she is busy trying to get Gu Lei to borrow money from his much wealthier sister. However, Gu Qingyu turns her down, saying that coincidentally, she too wants to buy another apartment. Gu Qingyu can afford to lend them this money, however, she doesn't trust Feng Xiaoqin enough to lend it to her. After she asks Gu Lei privately about it and Gu Lei's reply is that he doesn't really want to buy an apartment, Gu Qingyu decides that she has no reason to lend the couple the money. Feng Xiaoqin is undeterred and will hatch more plans to try and get the money to pay for the deposit on the apartment. This will create conflict in the family, in particular between Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin.
 

THE SETUP


The initial setup seemed to suggest that this would be a typical family drama with duelling sisters-in-law with Feng Xiaoqin being the protagonist and Gu Qingyu the antagonist. Feng Xiaoqin wants dignity and acceptance, not just from within the Gu family but also from society in general. In Feng Xiaoqin’s eyes, owning an apartment of her own would help her attain this dream and the series seemed to suggest that Gu Qingyu is the one standing in Feng Xiaoqin’s way. It’s Gu Qingyu who refused to lend Gu Lei the money, it’s Gu Qingyu who keeps conducting small family meetings with Gu Shihong and Gu Lei, and it’s also Gu Qingyu who advises them to be wary of Feng Xiaoqin’s intentions.

The beginning of the series juxtaposes the two women’s lives by comparing their respective mornings. This not only quite efficiently introduced these women, their personalities and circumstances to us, but it also served to create a fair bit of sympathy for Feng Xiaoqin which was important for her in the beginning. She’s not a native of Shanghai, hence the question of whether she married Gu Lei because she has genuine affection for him or whether she married him to attain a Shanghai “hukou” (household registration) will come up. It’s also one of the reasons for Gu Qingyu’s distrust of Feng Xiaoqin.


Gu Qingyu’s morning is calm and quiet. When we first meet her, she’s in the middle of a morning yoga session in her bright, spotlessly clean and well-organised apartment. She has a domestic helper that helps her with her chores and she gives her instructions in a business-like fashion. She’s decisive and maybe even a little clinical as she casually concludes a recently failed relationship over the phone as though she’s concluding a business contract. She’s celebrated for her success in the company, just earned a huge commission, and is about to buy a luxurious apartment. She’s wealthy and she wears it so beautifully, easily and casually.

Feng Xiaoqin’s morning, in contrast, is harried and busy. She haggles with the people at the wet market, makes sure breakfast is ready, Grandma has her meds and rushes around making sure her flock is ready for school, work and the day. However, although she’s constantly busy and successfully gets everyone ready, no one celebrates that success for her. Feng Xiaoqin is like your typical housewife who’s been picking up after everyone for so long that she no longer remembers her reasons for doing them in the beginning and no one notices her hard work anymore.


Over the years, Feng Xiaoqin has become bitter and feels that the Gu family owes her. Her resentment even spills over in her attitude towards Gu Qingyu. Feng Xiaoqin feels that she’s spoiled and over-protected by the Gu family because she doesn’t help out with the chores when she returns to the family home, even though technically speaking since Gu Qingyu no longer lives there, she’s actually a guest. Gu Qingyu, on the other hand, doesn’t trust her, hence, all the close door meetings exclude Feng Xiaoqin from the family discussions which are often about defending the family against her. These meetings are another source of rancour for Feng Xiaoqin who feels that even after eight years and Little Tiger, the Gu family still treats her as an outsider. These opposing sentiments eventually culminate in a clash that leads to the accident that kills Gu Lei. The immediate events after his death isolate Feng Xiaoqin and in her anger, she lashes out and the first arc climaxes into a really memorable scene between Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin.


Both Tong Yao and Hai Qing were amazing in the scene where Feng Xiaoqin basically accused Gu Qingyu of being the one who was responsible for Gu Lei’s death. Feng Xiaoqin is the more demonstrative and intense character so she came in with no holds barred and Hai Qing ended the scene shaking with raw anger, eyes blazing with undisguised antagonism, barely able to hold her emotions in.


Gu Qingyu, on the other hand, is poised as usual and in control. However, she went from a position of strength to just barely being able to hold on to her emotions too but in a different way. As Feng Xiaoqin yelled at her, Gu Qingyu tried unsuccessfully to defend herself and Tong Yao captured these shifts in Gu Gingyu's thought process and emotions so masterfully. The changes in her face and eyes were subtle and nuanced, transitioning smoothly and realistically from one emotion to another in a matter of seconds. She goes from being commanding to disbelief, to indignation, to self-doubt as she finally clenches her jaw and holds a steady defiant gaze, just barely able to hold on to her self composure.

This powerful scene that was the climax for the first arc, not only perfectly illustrated the differences in their personalities but also the direction this series intended to take. At the end of this emotional exchange, they stop short of getting into an even bigger argument. Instead, Gu Qingyu's father puts a stop to it and they both comply. This pattern will continue for the rest of the series, in the sense that conflicts rarely escalate to a point of no return in LLQR.


PARALLEL STORYLINES


LLQR uses a less commonly utilised narrative structure in Asian drama series to tell its story. It's not as common to have dual protagonists who are on parallel paths and where neither one is the antagonist. It's not as common to see this in dramas because it is not as easy to pull off, especially in Mainland dramas because they tend to be longer which makes maintaining balance and interest harder. While it’s not uncommon to see multiple protagonists in Mainland dramas, their storylines tend to converge much more because they tend to use an ensemble setup where the overall theme that unites these characters is usually the same and clearly stated. In LLQR, Gu Qingyu’s and Feng Xiaoqin’s journeys are mostly quite separate after the first act.  Their storylines only intertwine occasionally with the occasional family visit, the big external family gatherings and when Gu Shihong calls her for advice regarding Feng Xiaoqin.  Parts of their storyline will also intersect because they have a close mutual friend in Zhan Xiang.

The first arc of the series led many viewers into believing that Feng Xiaoqin is the protagonist and that the aloof and high-handed Gu Qingyu is the antagonist. Even though we do see the softer and more irrational side of Gu Qingyu with regard to her emotional attachment to an unfulfilled romance in her teenage years, it is still her conflict with Feng Xiaoqin which is the climax of the first arc. However, the series shifts gears soon after the climactic scene at the end of the first arc. All the separate members of the family deal with their pain and grief in different ways but they learn to move on eventually. Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin’s narratives become even more parallel and they both drive the overall narrative together. 

In the subsequent episodes after the First Act, Gu Qingyu will become even more defined as a character and viewers will get more insights into her makeup and personality which will in turn not only overturn some of the preconceived ideas created in the first arc but will also create greater empathy for her. It becomes clear that Gu Qingyu isn’t the antagonist and it’s clear too that they aren’t each other's antagonists either because neither of them is trying to prevent the other from attaining their goals. When their stories do intersect, conflict is either minimal or dealt with without too much drama. It's because the series doesn't want to pit the two protagonists against each other. This series isn’t about class struggle or the battle between the haves and the have-nots, nor is it about good versus evil. Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin aren’t enemies, they just don’t view the world the same way.  This is part of the reason why their storylines are mostly parallel, it's not just to compare the duo in order to make meaning but it's also to ensure that the potential for conflict is minimised.


As the series progresses, viewers will come to see that although they are very different, they also have many similarities.  They both have very similar value systems. They are both very hard working and they both value love and the bonds that tie which is why even though their families can cause them heartache, hurt and anger, ultimately both women will choose to minimise conflict to protect those whom they feel are closest to them. It's just that their perspectives, their methods and their attitudes differ because they don’t have similar backgrounds or past experiences which is why they are unable to understand each other. 


PLAYING WITH EXPECTATIONS


The series first set itself up to seemingly be a family melodrama about fraught family dynamics and undercurrents of discontent waiting to erupt like a geyser. However, after the first act, few moments, if any at all, escalate to the level of melodrama. Most viewers probably expected Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin to cross swords more spectacularly after the dramatic confrontation they had after Gu Lei’s death but they didn't.



Early into the Second Act, the series reveals why Gu Qingyu doesn’t trust Feng Xiaoqin and it’s not simply a matter of prejudice. Gu Qingyu actually has a good reason not to trust Feng Xiaoqin. While Gu Qingyu loves her brother dearly, she’s also well aware of his shortcomings and she knows that most women won’t consider him a price catch. So Gu Qingyu being Gu Qingyu had hired a private investigator to look into Feng Xiaoqin’s background when she was dating Gu Lei. She discovered that Feng Xiaoqin has a son Feng Danian from a previous relationship that she kept hidden from Gu Lei. Just as she was about to tell Gu Lei this piece of information, Gu Lei tells her that Feng Xiaoqin was pregnant with his child and that he intended to marry her. As a result of that, Gu Qingyu decided not to tell Gu Lei. This piece of information is like a timebomb and viewers kept wondering when Gu Qingyu would use this piece of information to “defeat” Feng Xiaoqin, especially after Feng Danian arrived in Shanghai and turned out to be a disrespectful young punk. However, Gu Qingyu doesn’t do what most audiences expected her to do with this piece of information at all.


By setting up and then subverting what viewers expected, the series guides viewers into experiencing what many of the main characters in LLQR experience. In life, there are many moments when we don’t get what we expect or what we think we should get. It’s not just the opening arc or the information on Feng Danian that does that. At various points in the series, viewers will be led into thinking that certain events will happen. For example, there is another memorable scene 2/3s in when Zhan Xiang brings Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin together to work on the business proposal for the old folks centre. Gu Qingyu’s attitude towards Feng Xiaoqin will visibly soften and as the evening progresses, they begin to join forces to tease Zhan Xiang. From this moment on, both characters' attitudes toward each other become more positive and viewers are led into believing that these two protagonists will begin to work closely together soon. However, except for this business proposal, they don’t work together again.



LLQR constantly builds up this kind of anticipation, just like it did with its opening act and scenes like the one described above, and then it doesn't give the viewer the expected or desired payload. Just like the characters in the series, we are constantly led into imposing our expectations on the series and just like the characters in the series, we don’t get what we expect or desire. Almost everyone in this series had expectations they were trying to impose on others and, perhaps, even on the city they live in. A large number of these demands, both conscious and unconscious ones, were not met. Even when people work very hard, they don’t always get their desired or deserved outcomes. And sometimes the “bad guys” don’t get retribution and the innocent don’t get the happy endings they deserve either. This is reflected in real life. Life doesn’t always go the way we think it should.


Family dynamics are also depicted realistically unlike how it often is in typical melodramatic family dramas. I think Chinese viewers, at least, should be familiar with the big family dinners and all the uncomfortable questions and undercurrents that come with them. Everyone meets and is just merely superficially cordial. It's exactly like how Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin interact in the first episode of LLQR, the subtle glances and changes in expression from both actresses illustrate what they really feel about each other at the birthday dinner. The scene just after Gu Qingyu leaves to go home also shows Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin exchanging pleasantries but once both of them turn to leave, their true feelings are immediately expressed on their faces. Gu family dinners with the extended family reflect that kind of superficial pleasantries. While there are occasional flashpoints, huge arguments between family members are rare in this series. Instead, a lot of the discontent and unhappiness are left simmering underneath and for the sake of maintaining family ties, a lot of these feelings are not articulated or are said in private. Even if they are articulated at the family dinners, a lot of it is made up of jibes and sarcasm which doesn’t lead to any kind of dramatic blow-up at all.


There is another memorable scene in the last arc of the story in Ep33. This involves a misunderstanding between Feng Danian, Feng Qianqian and some other older members of the Gu family. Like the confrontation between Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin near the end of Act 1 in the series, after the scene climaxes and Gu Shihong attempts to soothe everyone's feelings, the scene ends quietly with no melodrama which is very much in keeping with the tone of the series. Once again no one wants to escalate things to the point of no return. There are disagreements, misunderstandings, smouldering discontent, whispered complaints, unspoken dissatisfaction, openly angry accusations, veiled understated allegations, quiet threats, betrayals, disappoints, barbed comments and sarcasm but there is no “vengeance is mine” moment and no elaborate plot to destroy anyone’s life.

This sense of realism runs throughout the series. Except for minor characters, all of the main characters and the more important support characters are complex and flawed and aren't always nice, but they are not bad people. The characters in LLQR are very human. A few of them will even do despicable things but the series doesn't want to make any grand statements of morality. The series takes some pains not to make moral judgements of its characters even if viewers themselves will inevitably take sides. Instead, they concentrate on them as fallible human beings and although viewers may never like these characters, we can understand how their weakness and circumstances make them susceptible to making mistakes in their lives. A lot of these characters mirror people we see in real life. A lot of the events also mirror events we see in real life.


Conflicts in LLQR are less about the conflicts themselves and more about the human experience. Conflict doesn't take centre stage and is merely a byproduct of the messiness of human relationships and families. What we have in LLQR are relationships that heal over time and in a quiet understated fashion. Misunderstandings and presumptions take almost the entire series to be resolved or are never clearly resolved. It’s quite a realistic way to portray conflict, especially the conflict between family members or people who care about each other. Oftentimes, people just bite their tongues and don’t express their displeasure because they don’t want to argue with their family or friends. And many times in real life, especially after huge arguments, people don’t apologise outrightly. Instead, after some time has passed, they may do something or give something and if this kindness is accepted, it means that both parties have decided to take a step forward to reconciliation.


THE STRENGTH OF THE CAST


By taking this approach, LLQR needed their cast to be very strong. Even though they are helped by a narrative which did keep the viewers guessing when or if certain things might transpire; with few big dramatic scenes, dual protagonists whose paths only intertwine occasionally and a host of deeply flawed characters, the cast needed to make sure that they not only held the viewer's attention but also create an emotional connection with their characters. And this cast really delivered; the main characters were excellent and many of the supporting cast were also very good.


Hai Qing had one of the more outwardly demonstrative characters but she also successfully mixed in subtle inner turmoil under her abrasive external front. She has a few memorable scenes with Tong Yao where their changing attitudes towards each other feel so natural. They still feel like essentially the same people just that their attitudes toward each other have softened. She also has a very memorable scene with Zhan Xiang where she expresses her feelings for him and he feigns ignorance. Both of them were really good there. Feng Qiaoqin and Zhan Xiang are the most unrestrained of the main characters in the series so they both can go bigger and they do when they need to but in this scene, they both held it back just enough.


Zhang Songwen was also extremely likeable as Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin’s mutual friend. Zhan Xiang's cheery exterior is a front for a much softer core. Zhang Songwen has some very memorable scenes with both Hai Qing and Tong Yao. The trio managed to create a different kind of chemistry between the two different relationships. Zhang Songwen managed to play the jester part of Zhan Xiang without making him annoying. He never lets his Zhang Xiang go so over the top that the softer, more sensitive side of his character feels ill at ease with his external boisterousness and flashiness. This is why it’s not hard to believe that his bragging and swaggering are partly bravado, a way for him to protect the gentle core of his personality.


Although Feng Shaofeng is a special guest star, he has a significant amount of screen time and is one of the main characters in the story.  Life and fate have not been kind to Shi Yuan. Until he met Gu Qingyu again, his life seemed devoid of light. Feng Shaofeng’s Shi Yuan does feel downtrodden and just quietly trying to get by in life. He will gain in stature by the time the series ends and his transformation feels very natural because Feng Shaofeng doesn't overplay it, Shi Yuan's basic nature is still evident even at the end. He also played Shi Yuan very sympathetically.  Although excessive pride and a lack of self-esteem would create many problems for himself, his family and also come between him and Gu Qingyu, it was difficult not to feel for him to some extent. 


Tong Yao’s Gu Qingyu was particularly fascinating because she was a mixture of so many contradictions, yet somehow she managed to make them gel into a very convincing whole. Gu Qingyu can be imperious yet yielding, bold yet demure, serious yet impish, mature yet child-like, perceptive yet self-deluded, rational yet impulsive, pragmatic yet romantic, blunt yet diplomatic, suspicious yet trusting, mean yet kind, and strong yet vulnerable. Yet, somehow these contractions do not feel compartmentalised and they can blend to give us a very believable, fully realised human being. This credit has to go to Tong Yao for making it work. Once again, like in The Rebel and Nothing But Thirty, Tong Yao is tasked with a character who is not too outwardly demonstrative. She’s become quite adept at nuanced acting and takes care never to overplay any one characteristic of this character by too much; it's always just enough so that you get the sense that all these contradictory emotions and characteristics can exist in Gu Qingyu.


All four main actors had a lot of chemistry together which made watching them quite delightful. The chemistry between all of them was so good that viewers are left rooting for certain resolutions even though realistically speaking, they were probably all bad ideas. For example Gu Qingyu and Shi Yuan’s relationship. They were both no longer the wide-eyed young innocents when they first met as teenagers, yet viewers can’t help but want them to work out because they just had so much chemistry. Zhan Xiang’s chemistry with both Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin was also really good even though it was different. His friendship with both women had different dynamics but worked so well that viewers were relatively split about whether he should end up with one or the other or no one at all.


The supporting cast was also exceptional and had various moments and scenes in the series where they shined. Veteran actors like Jie Bing, Yao Anlian and Wu Mian etc were all reliably good. Even though his screen time wasn’t that much, Yao Yiqi was very likeable as Gu Lei. He had this teddy bear affability that made it difficult to dislike him even though given his lack of ambition, it's not hard to understand why Feng Xiaoqin would feel frustrated with him.

Lu Siyu's Gu Xin was aimless, weak and selfish. Although it’s not explicitly stated, he probably married Dong Qing’s Ge Yue because she came from a rich and influential family. He spent a great deal of the latter half of the series thinking about other women and one of them is Feng Qianqian (Sun Anke). Although both of them would make a series of unwise decisions, they were able to play up the humanness of their characters so that while few viewers will like or agree with them, some may be able to understand and empathise with them. Both actors have some scenes where that were particularly memorable. Sun Anke was particularly good in Ep33, in the scene where in order to protect Feng Danian, she confessed that the ring belonged to her. As for Lu Siyu, in Ep35 after Ge Yue leaves after visiting Gu Xin in prison and his regret is palpable as he weeps after it finally struck him just how much he has lost.


Ge Yue was probably the most innocent and easiest character to sympathise with in the series. Dong Qing handled Ge Yue’s transformation from a cheerful and protected young woman to a mature young woman who has strength enough to make some important decisions in her life very well. She had one very memorable scene in the series; the moment when she gets visual confirmation that Gu Xin and Feng Qianqian were having an affair was so heartbreaking.


MISSTEPS


Unfortunately, this series isn’t without a few issues. Sometimes it felt like the script was so worried that viewers would not be able to empathise with the seemingly materialistic and covetous Feng Xiaoqin from Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2, that from the first 1/3 of the 2nd Act forward it tried too hard to emphasise her good points. After Gu Lei's death, we will see her working hard and struggling as she transition from becoming a full-time housewife into a working mother. It was interesting in the beginning because it touched on the downside of the the “hukou” system and difficulties food delivery workers and women in the food delivery service face. However, after too many episodes of Feng Xiaoqin struggling as a food delivery rider, it started to feel repetitive. Similarly, we see scene after scene after scene emphasising her kindness toward and her ability to connect with the elderly that it began to feel like they were trying to make her a saint. Seeing scene after scene of her struggling and her selflessness began to feel like her storyline was bordering on melodrama at times which felt a little jarring since the overall tone of LLQR isn’t melodramatic. Regrettably, it made Feng Xiaoqin a less interesting character and her storyline began to feel like a typical story of a misunderstood person from the lower rungs of society who rises above her circumstances.

The Feng family have their own bias and preconceived ideas of members of the Gu family too. It’s not just Gu Qingyu and the Gu family that were prejudiced, the Feng family was too, especially with regard to both Gu Qingyu and Gu Shihong. Feng and her family tended to always see themselves as victims  which affected their self-esteem and the ways they interacted with others. While they do play up these issues with her sister Feng Qianqian, they tend to underplay these flaws in Feng Xiaoqin. It’s likely that Feng Xiaoqin’s obsession with getting validation and dignity also influenced Feng Qianqian who took things too far. However, even though she does have some misgivings about her preoccupation with Shanghai and the apartment, the script barely touches on it and only strongly implied it once, in a scene in Ep35 when Gu Qingyu offers Feng Xiaoqin a house.


Downplaying Feng Xiaoqin’s flaws diluted the potential for complexity in this character which was a pity. Her character was more interesting in the beginning when we weren’t sure if she was a money-grubbing daughter-in-law or a bullied housewife. In the beginning, she could be unreasonable, stubborn and reactionary, and she became more passive-aggressive after Act 1 which made some of her actions harder to read in the beginning, hence more interesting. In the beginning, there are moments when she'll clash with members of the Gu family and then reveal another side to her friends and her sister. However, by the middle to the final arc of the series, much of the complexity of this character is reduced by what appeared to be the series' determination to play her up like some kind of heroine.

Also because Feng Xiaoqin is a more unrestrained and open character, her motivations, her decision making and her emotions are often quite easy to understand. She either has scenes where her expressions are quite easy to read or she will openly talk about them with her sister, her friend and Zhan Xiang. Even the motivation for hiding the secret about Feng Danian isn’t hard to understand. It’s a pity that the script chose to try and overplay the positive side of her nature too much. It even got to a point where it seemed like several characters felt it was necessary to voice out her good points that it felt forced.


Ironically, this also made Gu Qingyu the more interesting and enigmatic character by far. She's not just a character that's full of paradox as detailed above but also a character that needs a little more work from the viewers to understand better.

In the first arc of the series, the script purposely hid a piece of information from the audience. Gu Qingyu is holding on to a secret that will change the audience's perception of her. This was quite a nice twist because it added a dimension to her that viewers did not previously know. Viewers were further kept interested in how this secret will surface and what would happen should it surface. Interestingly, with Gu Qingyu, many of the details we get about her personality and her journey aren’t laid out in an easy way for viewers to understand. With Gu Qingyu, we get scenes of the way she handles situations in her life, especially at work, or we are told in passing about things that she had done or experienced and from there viewers will then need to extrapolte what it means for Gu Qingyu as a character. Right till the very end of the series, viewers are not told clearly what Gu Qingyu’s motivations for several actions are. The information is implied and it’s up to the audience to make meaning of it.


Also because Gu Qingyu and Shi Yuan were more reticent characters, their relationship was more interesting because they were particularly careful around each other and many things were left unsaid and up to viewers to deduce. 

 

For example, the beautiful reunion scene between Gu Qingyu and Shi Yuan in Ep3. The music, editing and direction were really nice too. The silent moment just after they were introduced to each other and right before their “hellos” allowed both Tong Yao and Feng Shaofeng to use their expressions alone to show the complexity and the differences in their emotions in this momentous moment.  The two have not seen each other in years and no longer recognise each other.  After the housing agent introduces them, as the music plays and they slowly realise who each other is, Feng Shaofeng surprise and the faint beginnings of a smile give way to regret and sadness as he realises the awkwardness of the situation. Tong Yao's surprise turns into a gentle gaze that holds steady as she quickly pulls back a smile so that she doesn't show too much obvious delight.  Feng Shaofeng looks away and struggles before he manages to say "hello".  Tong Yao who hasn't stopped looking directly at him, blinks back her emotions, and feels like she wants to say more before settling for a breathy "hello".  What a lovely scene, just like that, with just two "hellos" viewers knowing so much about them.  Gu Qingyu's overwhelming confidence and Shi Yuan's hesitancy in the progress of the relationship are foreshadowed at this moment. The rest of this scene is also really lovely and is well written, well-paced and well performed.  There is so much left unsaid in this scene but so much meaning is implied.  

This scene set the tone of their relationship till the very end.  Much of what they feel is implied and left unsaid. It doesn't matter if its moments of anger, sadness or happiness; much of how they communicated between themselves and the audience is left unspoken and has to be inferred.  It made their relationship at times beautifully understated and at times that lack of communication regrettable but it also made their relationship absorbing at all times.


There was also a lot of potential for conflict in this relationship, especially since Shi Yuan's mother (played wonderfully well by Wu Mian) was quite difficult to get along with and it was clear the couple had several issues that they had yet to iron out. Their relationship was a complicated one and it was  compounded by the couple's inability to let go of the past. Both of them were married to a past image of each other and were consumed by the unfulfilled promise of a future that could have been if life had allowed their teenage selves to remain together. It really helped that Tong Yao and Feng Shaofeng had a lot of chemistry together which made watching their slowly disintegrating marriage so achingly sad. All this added to making Gu Qingyu's storyline the more interesting one in the second half of the series because by this time Feng Xiaoqin's story kept revolving around the same issues.

Perhaps the series in trying to continue juxtaposing our two protagonists was trying to show Feng Xiaoqin working hard at becoming financially independent while showing Gu Qingyu working hard at building a relationship.  I'm just not sure it worked that well because Feng Xiaoqin's story, and perhaps even Feng Xiaoqin herself, wasn't compelling enough in the middle of the series.

Parts of the final few episodes for LLQR also felt a little rushed. Some scenes like Feng Xiaoqin and Grandma Gu’s scene in the hospital felt weird because we never get the sense that their relationship had become so close that Feng Xiaoqin would feel comfortable enough to ask a pretty sensitive question about the greviences in extended family. It also felt strange that Grandma Gu would feel comfortable enough to tell her the reasons for some of the underlying tensions in the Gu extended family.



Similarly, the scene near the end in Ep35vwhere Gu Qingyu and Feng Xiaoqin finally have a proper heart to heart talk lacks a proper lead-up. It’s a really nice scene and again perfectly played by both actresses.  It's an important scene because the two sisters-in-law finally do open up to each other and reveal their inner thoughts to each other. The way Gu Qingyu answered Feng Xiaoqin when she asked her what she thought of her was nicely done. Gu Qingyu answered in the most Gu Qingyu of ways. Instead of telling Feng Xiaoqin what she thinks, with a smile, she asked Feng Xiaoqin “What do you think?” 


What Gu Qingyu does with the secret regarding Feng Danian is one of the reasons why I liked this character so much. While her motivation for hiding the secret from Gu Lei isn’t hard to understand, what made Gu Qingyu interesting and kept viewers guessing to the end was what she was going to do with this secret. What was unexpected was that Gu Qingyu never used this secret as a weapon but instead used it as an olive branch. By telling Feng Xiaoqin in Ep35 that she had known about Feng Danian for a very long time and by also telling her that she intends to keep this a secret between the two of them, she was effectively binding both of them together as true “sisters”, the kind who would look out for each other. This scene was such a great scene and Tong Yao and Hai Qing were both stellar in this scene. Both of them were so nuanced. It’s such a pity that there wasn't much of a follow-up to this scene which lessened its impact because getting to this point feels a abrupt.


CONCLUSION



This series isn't for everyone because it doesn't follow the conventions of most family dramas or maybe even most Asian dramas which might frustrate some viewers, especially those who like dramas with less ambiguity and a more cautionary tone. LLQR is a slice of life drama disguised as a family melodrama. Its method of guiding the viewer into constructing their own narratives in their minds only for the series’ narrative to go in an unexpected way is a bold but risky move but it’s also what sets this series apart from the rest. This method coupled with an excellent cast helped this series that has very few major conflicts create anticipation and emotion in viewers, keeping us engaged and emotionally involved till the end.

LLQR takes both its English titles and Chinese titles seriously. They didn’t pick this English title on a whim. They mean to accentuate the idea that life is a “long quiet river”. As its English title suggests LLQR series has a quiet unhurried pace with little melodrama. Gu Qingyu’s monologue at the end of the series also aptly summarises the theme of the series. The series is a reflection of life and suggests that in life, there is suffering, grief, pain and sadness but also love, happiness, joy, success and growth and, while there is the occasional stone in the water, humans still move on quietly and bravely, continually experiencing the ebb and flow of life as we seek to find a place for ourselves in the world that we live in. Each of us will need to discover for ourselves what kind of person we are, what our sense of identity is and our place in the world. When asked about the Chinese title "心居“, Tong Yao mentioned in more than one interview that the "心" in "心居" refers to "心灵" which suggests that LLQR is a series about each person's soul finding their place in the world. And all our main characters have to discover for themselves the makeup of their soul and where their soul exists is where they are at peace with themselves. While all our characters have changed and grown by the end of the series, the resolution isn't 100% conclusive for them because even as viewers bid them farewell, life for them, as it is for us in the real world, is a river that flows continuously.


LLQR is a story about people, in particular people who were born in Shanghai or who adopt Shanghai as their home or who desire to make Shanghai their home. All the characters who are linked to both of the two protagonists, whether it's family or friends, are from different strata of society in Shanghai and are at different points of growth in their lives and all of them are part of this tapestry that makes up this city of Shanghai. However, although the series is about Shanghai and the people who live in the city, the essence of the series is universal. People with similar doubts, similar perceptions of life, similar methods, similar desires, similar weaknesses etc exist all over the world. This makes LLQR more than a series about people in Shanghai, its story about the individual's journey of self-discovery, the complexity of humans, human relationships, familial ties and the human experience can resonate with all of us. This universal theme, the realistic thread throughout the series and the stellar performances from the cast help make LLQR a good series and well worth watching.

If you made it so far, I thank you for reading all of it. As usual, I welcome any discussions as long as we keep it civil. I might still write another post on LLQR. If I manage to write it, it will centre on Gu Qingyu, a character that I liked very much, and Tong Yao's interpretation of this character because I think she had a very strong understanding of this character. However given my track record, don't expect it anytime soon. 😅

(For links to interviews & other reviews of Tong Yao's work, please CLICK ME)

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