Beautiful bones that make you cry

An emo show that left me in a sinkhole so deep, I needed to watch five other dramas to get over it.

I made a long list of what I should be covering in my next review, and had initially wanted to use Passion Procrastination as the perfect excuse to, well, watch more dramas. So I started four different new ones, and eventually completed one that was quite unsatisfying. But true to the spirit of procrastination, I’m not writing about that. 

Instead, I’ve decided to dive straight into my favourite Chinese drama of all time, One and Only 《周生如故 zhōu shēng rú gù》. Buckle in, this is going to be a long review. If you’re the type to filter for the ‘Angst’ category when reading fanfiction, you’ll love this.

One and Only, a short period romance about the price of loyalty and honour

With only 24 episodes, One and Only is one of the shorter c-dramas you’ll find on iQIYI and was released in 2021. Adapted from a novel, 《一生一世美人骨 yī shēng yī shì měi rén gǔ》—directly translating into “One life, one lifetime, beautiful bones”—is written by famous author and screenwriter Mo Bao Fei Bao. A prolific writer, many of her works have been adapted for television, most recently The Road Home. She was also the screenwriter behind another famous heart wrenching show, The Scarlet Heart. Basically, her shows are a must-watch for me as they’re likely to be a hit. 

Set in Central State (Zhong Zhou), in an era of warring states, One and Only is a heartbreaking period romance revolving around a young and capable prince, Zhou Sheng Chen played by Ren Jia Lun aka Allen Ren, and a forbidden romance with his youngest disciple, Cui Shiyi played by Bai Lu, a demure and lovable young noble woman from the famous Cui clan. 

While political intrigue is not the focus of the story, it is integral to understanding it. To begin, we need to understand the background and motivations of the main protagonist, Zhou Sheng Chen, also known as the Junior Prince of Nan Cheng. The show starts with an introduction to his life as a formidable and brilliant military commander who rules over Western State (Xi Zhou). For political reasons, he has sworn to never return to the Central State, but remains loyal to the Emperor, his brother. 

Upon learning of his brother’s death, he breaks this rule and returns to the capital, because he’s filial AF. But he commands the most powerful army there is, and people are legit worried that he intends to rebel and take the throne. To allay these fears, Zhou Sheng Chen makes a public and solemn vow to never get married and have children. I guess in ancient China, you can’t possibly have political ambition if you don’t have kids?! Also, with this kind of vow, you know this story is doomed. 

Simultaneously, the story turns to Cui Shiyi, the niece of a powerful nobleman, and a member of the Cui family. The Cui family is known to be tight with the Emperor’s, and due to her family’s highly respected status, Shiyi is betrothed to the crown prince. Shiyi was once a joyful, happy-go-lucky girl, but has become mute due to the traumatic experience of her father abandoning her. In a period of political instability and out of worry for her future, Shiyi’s uncle requests that Zhou Sheng Chen take her in as a disciple, and he agrees. 

Shiyi and Zhou Sheng Chen aren’t that far apart in age, but despite that, they begin (yet another) master and disciple relationship. Zhou Sheng Chen already has ten disciples, all of whom are orphans he’s taken in over his travels and conquests, and they’re all trained to be fighters and military generals. Shiyi becomes his eleventh (which is also Shiyi in Mandarin) disciple, but because of her noble status, she is the only one who doesn’t get trained in any martial arts. This forms some awkwardness in their relationship, and it’s a lot of just Shiyi waiting around while her entire adopted fam goes out to battles all the time. 

I won’t give away the plot, but basically, the story develops around the interactions between Shiyi and Zhou Sheng Chen, their feelings, and the characters around them. What started out as mutual respect, admiration, and care for another soon evolve into something deeper, and yet cannot be acted upon. While they both recognise this, they’re constantly conflicted as they’re bound to their sense of honour, duty, and loyalty, and want only the best for each other. Even after they’ve accepted their fates, life still really screws them over, and that’s all I’d say for now. 

It may be short, but it packs a punch

This drama, although a fairly short one by c-drama standards, pulls some serious weight. Even though I watched it a whole year ago, I still come back to it all the time just to watch clips of it to reminisce that bittersweet feeling. What I would give to suddenly forget about it and experience that feeling of watching it for the first time again. 

The actors on this show are brilliant. Allen Ren, although not very handsome in my opinion, has got what Mark Chao dubbed “plastic surgery” level acting. Mark Chao was the lead in Ten Miles Peach Blossoms aka Eternal Love, now widely regarded as the best C-drama of recent times. When he was first cast for the role, there were vehement protests because people felt he was too ugly to play the character (human beings are so mean), but after the show, Mark Chao acted so well, the fawning was OTT. He has since dubbed this “plastic surgery” level acting, and well, Allen Ren’s got it too. 

In an interview for the show, all the other actors were asked to describe Allen Ren, and they all effusively said “handsome”. I encountered the interview before I completed the show, and I initially found the comment strange because he’s not your conventional pretty boy. But after watching the show, I agree. That said, I’ve watched some of his other shows and I don’t feel as strongly about them, although my mother insists that Under the Power is the best show she’s ever watched. Allen Ren himself said that this scene where he walks up on a snowy day, holding an umbrella, is where he’s mostest handsomest. 

Bai Lu too, was an absolute joy to watch in this show. She starts off as an innocent, cute, young girl and has to evolve her character to be a sensitive, beautiful young woman. More so than Allen Ren, I felt she communicated her joy, longing, and pain in a way that draws a lot of empathy for her character. Bai Lu is known to act in bubbly roles, or independent female characters that are bold and opinionated. Shiyi, although clever, is a lot more reserved, so it was quite refreshing to see Bai Lu in a role like this!

Beyond the two incredible lead actors and their character storylines is also a plethora of side characters. Most of it surrounds the wonderful informal family that Zhou Sheng Chen has created among his disciples, who all lovingly refer to each other as brothers and sisters and mean it in every sense of the word. There’s love, playfulness, care, and respect in their interactions. No toxicity, just pure family love. You can’t help but care for every single one of them and get so invested in their futures. There are also very intriguing characters like Xiao Yan, the crown prince turned monk of a neighbouring state who eventually becomes a loyal friend to Zhou Sheng Chen, and Huan Yu, a brilliant teacher and hermit that helps Zhou Sheng Chen realise his feelings for Shiyi. 

Subtlety is a strong undercurrent in this production. Because the main characters are technically not allowed to fall in love or be together, their affection has to be communicated through—you guessed it—expressive eyes, longing looks, and acts of love rather than proclamations. It’s an irresistible pull: Zhou Sheng Chen, the fierce, stoic commander is actually a softie, and his hard exterior is broken by the demure and innocent Shiyi, who does nothing but patiently wait for him to come home from battle, and is extremely filial to him. 

This show has zero skinship. There isn’t a single scene where the characters kiss or even proclaim their love for one another. Yet, there is absolutely no doubt of how deep this affection is, communicated through these subtle gestures of love. These gifs are really as good as it gets for any on-screen romance action. 

Beautiful show with beautiful bones

If you’re a sucker for cultural and historical references, this show’s got it all. Based in Xi’an, they talk about sites that still exist, and really utilise the traditions of court, man/woman/master/disciple relationships to maximise the storyline. Chinese values and ideals of nobility, honourability, being a gentleman, loyalty and others really play a central role. These provide vulnerability and complexity.

It’s also incredibly poetic in language. There are several key ideas, phrases and play on words that are referenced repeatedly, building a layered story that is wound up with symbolism and meaning. There are two that particularly stuck with me—the first is the reference to an epic called Fu on the Imperial Park, a form of poetry unique to Chinese culture. It’s about imperial life, but the show focused on a specific sentence that alludes to the unsaid affection between the two leads. The second is how Zhou Sheng Chen is described. Widely revered by all, it is said that his bones are beautiful—more so than the emperor’s—and his beautiful bone structures are reflective of his upstanding character. The mandarin word for bone is 骨 gǔ, which also sounds like 故 gù, meaning story. Hence, the show’s Mandarin title is actually 周生如故 zhōu shēng rú gù, which means “Zhou Sheng becomes story”, a play on the characters of his name and the words ‘story’ and ‘bones’. Once again, English titles for these shows really suck. 

The production level on this piece was also of extremely high quality. It is super cinematic, and at many moments I felt like I was watching an art film rather than a c-drama. Snowy winterscapes, dancing candlelight, the direction of this show really triggers the feels. It takes its time to dwell on the scenery to draw out a sense of romance, wonder, but also loneliness. There are also many action-packed martial art fight scenes, and it’s clear that the actors have spared no effort to make it as believable as possible. Particularly there’s an epic battle between Zhou Sheng Chen and Xiao Yan that’s wonderfully shot. The soundtrack is also superb, and even one year on, I still listen to it and silently cry to myself :’) 

As the title of this post suggests, this is a heart-wrenching piece. If you search up any review of it, you’ll see hundreds of comments about how many cried at its ending. The heartache will definitely be there, but it’s well worth it! I’ve left this till the end, but One and Only is actually just part one of two shows, and to get over this heartache, you can watch Forever and Ever 《一生一世 yī shēng yī shì》, which is basically the reincarnation of the two characters in modern times. This one has a much sweeter ending, meant to heal the wounds of their past selves, but I didn’t enjoy it as much. Both dramas were apparently filmed back to back, and the producers released them separately. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that this was to avoid China’s regulations around scripts that talked about reincarnation? If anyone finds out, do share it with me!

And lastly, before you go, here’s a parting video of Allen Ren singing the soundtrack to his character, with lots of wonderful and moving scenes from the show.