A Smile is Beautiful (微微一笑很倾城) aka Love O2O and some other variations of how smiles can be beautiful and alluring, is the Chinese drama that took mainland China by storm this summer. I saw countless ads for it in the Beijing subway stations when I visited this past summer, just before it started airing. I’m probably part of the minority here, but A Smile is Beautiful fell far short of my expectations. I found it to be beautiful but bland and boring, a series that watches more like an extremely long commercial (and no one wants to watch a commercial for hours) than the compelling drama it should’ve been.
The show does some things well, but its greatest downfall is that it’s incredibly forgettable. I started watching this drama mainly because I needed some more Yang Yang after Whirlwind Girl, but I’m not even a Yang Yang fan anymore after this.
The premise of the show makes it seem modern and potentially interesting: boy meets girl in a video game, and start a romance that eventually translates offline and into the real world. The video game they both play has some wuxia elements, so there are suggestions that we could get some cool wuxia scenes as well. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what we get.
Before I get to everything I didn’t like, let’s start off with the good: the romance in the drama and the lack of drama in the romance. Wei Wei (Zheng Shuang) and Xiao Nai (Yang Yang) have a mostly healthy relationship, one rarely seen in dramas. The two have complete trust in each other, and we don’t have to deal with petty jealousies or misunderstandings. That isn’t to say there aren’t romantic rivals and plots against their relationship, but they are so ineffectual it’s almost laughable, and you can hardly call it drama.
But it’s also the lack of drama (really, just the lack of plot) that I have issue with. All the “problems” that arise over the course of the series–the so-called “plot”–are all non-issues or about characters I don’t care about. Each problem is just an opportunity to show how perfect and all-seeing Xiao Nai is as he defeats them easily without even batting an eye. He is infallible, treated like a god by his peers and his girlfriend. Ugh.
To have two such perfect characters is boring. Imperfection does not have to mean melodrama, but it’s nice to see some flaws so that the characters we see are relatable and seem human. Wei Wei and Xiao Nai just seem like two incredibly ideal, unbelievable people. What’s even more frustrating is that Wei Wei is clearly a very capable, intelligent woman in her own right, yet the moment Xiao Nai appears, all she does is idolize and fawn over him, not in the same way that his little fans at school do, but internally. He can do no wrong, and when she does find out about problems and tries to help, all her worrying and attempts are for nothing because the all-seeing Xiao Nai has already dealt with the problem. She could’ve had her own productive career, but instead she just works at his company.
I wouldn’t call the Wei Wei-Xiao Nai relationship completely healthy because he is incredibly presumptuous and dominates their relationship in many ways. He beckons, she follows. They have a healthy relationship by drama standards, but not by normal standards. What we really have is the modern day tale of a prince and princess where the prince just does no wrong and whisks the princess off her feet at every turn.
My real issue with this drama, though, is mainly a non-issue: I just don’t care much for the drama at all. It’s boring and forgettable, and I don’t have much of an opinion about it because I couldn’t form an emotional connection with the characters or story. The later episodes in the series seem to try to be “slice of life” and show the little everyday things in friendships and relationships, but it felt like a lot of product placement and lacked the charm that slice-of-life dramas usually have. Instead I felt like I was watching a reality show about rich and famous young people.
One thing in the drama I found very interesting and was a bit surprised to see (and wish could have been fleshed out more, although I think it will be a while before we see it enter mainstream Chinese television) was the relationship between KO and Hao Mei. KO is a line cook and secret superstar hacker who challenges Xiao Nai and loses, and as a result of his loss is hired into Xiao Nai’s startup. He and Hao Mei have a sometimes awkward, sometimes cute relationship that has homoerotic undertones (was I the only one getting this?) and they end the series in a cohabitation situation in which KO volunteers to cook, clean, and do laundry for Hao Mei in exchange for shelter. Asian dramas tend to be full of bromance and the female equivalent (sistermance?) but Hao Mei and KO’s relationship seem quite different than the relationships between Hao Mei, Xiao Nai, and the rest of their roommate/startup-starting bro friends. Perhaps I’m just reading too much into it, but it seemed very obvious to me and I was very surprised to see something like this on mainstream Chinese TV, but it was also a nice thing to see and hopefully means progress for LGBT rights and acceptance in Chinese society.
The posters are pretty, the advertisements are big, the viewership is large, and national/international hype is huge, but A Smile is Beautiful is a drama you can probably skip.