The Devil’s Punisher (or The Devil Punisher, according to Netflix, 天巡者 lit. “Skywatcher”) is SET’s latest drama and replaces Lost Romance‘s Sunday night timeslot on TTV! It’s also on Netflix for those of us outside Taiwan. There’s plenty of star power in this drama, with Mike He and Ivy Shao headlining.
This first episode feels like a lot of setup, but I’m already charmed by Ivy Shao. (I guess Mike He’s okay, too.)
Zhong Kui is the Devil Punisher, a legendary figure who hunts down evil in the world with the blessing of the Jade Emperor.
In the modern day, a possessed taxi driver swerves haphazardly down a single-lane road while his passenger pleads with him to stop. He swerves into a mother and child. The mother pushes her child out of the way and is struck, landing in the water. The taxi crashes into a pole. The driver climbs out, unscathed.
A blue-haired woman and black-hatted old man, Zhong Kui’s left and right hand, Xiao Qi (Dewi Chien) and Ah Fu (Chen Bo Zheng), land in a flash of lightning and confront the driver, who is possessed by the demon Wu Qing Yuan. They’re here to bring him to the underworld for wreaking havoc in the human world. The demon tries to run, but Xiao Qi and Ah Fu block his way and they fight.
While they’re fighting, Zhong Kui (Mike He), the Devil Punisher himself, appears in a flash of lightning beside the girl who is crying for her mother. He puts her to sleep with a bit of magic, then zaps to walk on the water and rescue her mother.
Then, he goes to confront the demon, turning Xiao Qi into a sword in order to fight. He knocks the demon out of the human body and eventually manages to capture him in a cell phone-like device in Ah Fu’s hand that reports that their mission is accomplished.
The three walk away and disappear in a cloud of smoke. Once they’re gone, the unconscious humans left behind slowly wake up.
In the underworld, Meng Po 1087 (Ivy Shao) causes a commotion as she sprints through the portal to her counter. There, she brews hot tea for souls that will allow them to forget all of their past suffering before passing through back to the human world. A fellow employee skateboards through, yelling her ID number. He hands her an envelope containing her application for release from service in the underworld. It’s been denied. She sighs with disappointment.
The atrium suddenly turns dark and stormy as Zhong Kui strides through the portal, followed by his left and right hand and their demon prisoner. 1087 frowns at how gloomy it is and brightens up the atrium with a wave of her hand. Zhong Kui pauses in front of her counter and they exchange small smiles.
She tries to hide the rejected application on her counter, but it’s too late. Xiao Qi has noticed. She sneers that 1087 is already trying to get out of being a Meng Po after only a thousand years. 1087 retorts that she just wants to try something different. Xiao Qi responds that she’s been a sword spirit for over 3000 years and has never thought of running away. She and 1087 start bickering. Zhong Kui tries to separate them.
While they’re distracted, Wu Qing Yuan breaks free of the shackles using his own blood. Zhong Kui shields 1087. The demon manages to take possession of Xiao Qi, turning her into her sword form, and starts using her to fight. Zhong Kui manages to knock him back, but then the demon aims for 1087. Zhong Kui teleports and blocks the sword with his own hand. The demon smirks that Zhong Kui has been injured by his own sword, but Zhong Kui pulls the sword out of his hand and attacks the demon again. The demon takes 1087 hostage, threatening to kill her if they don’t let him back into the human world.
Ah Fu helps Zhong Kui distract the demon so he can regain possession of his sword. But the demon drags 1087 toward one of the gates and causes an explosion as he opens a portal. Zhong Kui reaches for her and cries out, “Xiao Bing!”
The demon tries to pull 1087 away with him, but Zhong Kui summons a magical rope to tether him to the underworld and grabs onto 1087 with his other hand. He tells her to hold on, no matter what, but she sees that his other hand has started to bleed from trying to pull her back in. She tells him to let go. He refuses, so she lets go instead, her hand slipping through his.
The demon pulls 1087 through the portal, which closes. Zhong Kui catches all that’s left of her: the piece of her nametag with her ID number.
A woman in red, the Qin Guang King (Amanda Chou), flies in and says that the underworld is closed. No one is allowed in or out. Zhong Kui ignores her and flits toward the gate. She blocks his way — did he not hear her mandate? But all he says is, “She’s very important.” Then he walks past her through the gate.
She watches him go. A moment in the underworld is months in the human world. Does he really think he can catch up to her?
She walks back into the atrium and asks for a report on the number of lost soulswhile glancing disdainfully at Ah Fu and Xiao Qi, who look down.
Three months later in the human world…
Meng Po 1087, now known as Meng Xin Yu, tapes up a barebones hiring flyer for a baker in the window of a bakery. Granny Wu, the bakery owner, seems skeptical that the flyer is enough, but Xin Yu seems to think that it includes all the important bits: room and board included. Her boss asks if she really doesn’t remember her past. Xin Yu has tried, but can’t remember anything. No one has reported her missing to the police, either. She guesses that she’s probably someone that no one would care if she disappeared or died. Granny Wu frowns sadly, but Xin Yu says that she knows if she disappears in the future, at least Granny Wu will look for her.
Granny Wu pats her cheeks and says that she can treat her as family. She finds it quite strange that Xin Yu doesn’t remember anything except for how to make coffee — and she makes coffee quite well. Granny Wu is confident that Xin Yu must have been a coffee master.
Xin Yu chats with some ghosts in the park. She tries to convince one that talking to his kid is a bad idea. Then she tries to convince two others, who were in a car accident that each blame the other for causing, to resolve their issues. But they insist on bickering. She tells them that they’re all unlucky ghosts. They tell her that she’s the one who’s unlucky, and point behind her, where a police officer is ticketing her coffee stand.
She rushes over, pleading with him to let her off, but he’s already told her countless times that she’s not allowed to do business here. She still gets the ticket, and this time, he needs to impound her cart as well.
Later, Xin Yu browses the internet for jobs. Now that she’s lost the coffee cart, she needs to make money somehow. She finds a job posting for a barista and applies.
Li En Xi (Jane Cheng) sells talismans by a temple. She runs low on inventory and calls Xin Yu, telling her to hurry over. Later, she spots a classmate walking with his girlfriend and convinces them to buy some love talismans from her.
Zhong Kui tracks Wu Qing Yuan in the human world and chases him into the temple market. He freezes time for a moment, before the demon can wreak havoc with a customer at En Xi’s stall, and drags the demon to a secluded location to demand some answers. How did he know how to gain control of the Qixin (Seven Star) Sword spirit? How did he know how to damage Naihe Bridge? Before Zhong Kui can get his answers, he’s attacked and disappears.
Xin Yu is about to head out when there’s the sound of a crash from the back alley. She grabs a broom and goes to investigate. Zhong Kui has fallen through a makeshift awning and slowly gets to his feet. She stares curiously down at him and asks if he’s okay. He smiles broadly when he sees her. He’s finally found her.
“Do you know me?” Xin Yu asks. He reaches out toward her and she brings her broom up between them, but he just pulls her forward via broom and wraps her into a hug. Xin Yu is very confused. Zhong Kui notices that he can’t sense any divine energy from her at all, but brushes the thought aside. All that matters is that he found her. And then he faints, pinning her to the ground.
Xin Yu and Granny Wu frown as they watch Zhong Kui, still unconscious, on their couch. Xin Yu wonders who he is. Granny W guesses that, based on his black clothing, he must be a part of the (criminal) underworld and weaves a dramatic backstory about how he’s probably on the run from killers.
Xin Yu is ready to call the police, but Granny Wu stops her. Her son used to be like this and she thinks that it’s best to give him an opportunity to explain himself first. Xin Yu still thinks calling the police is safer. Granny Wu scrambles to stop her. Zhong Kui wakes up.
Xin Yu stands protectively in front of Granny Wu and looks suspiciously at Zhong Kui, who smiles at her and calls her 1087. She asks how he knows her Line number. He’s confused and starts to get up, but she warns him to stay back. She wants to know if he’s a member of the underworld and why he crashed through their rain shelter.
“You don’t remember who I am?” he asks. She looks him up and down. Why would she know him? He frowns.
Granny Wu tells Xin Yu that it looks like he knows who she is. Xin Yu immediately asks him who she is. He frowns even more. She doesn’t remember who she is? He mulls over the situation. There’s something off here — she’s clearly the Meng Po he knew, but she doesn’t have any divine energy and she seems to have lost all her memories. When she asks again who she is, he says he doesn’t know. He mistook her for someone else earlier.
Xin Yu gets in Zhong Kui’s face with a pout. How could he have mistook her for someone else with an adorable face like hers? Granny Wu pulls her out of his face and tries to get her to calm down. They can make him stay for now and figure out the truth later.
Xin Yu suddenly gets a text and her eyes widen as she realizes that she forgot about En Xi. She rushes out the door, saying she’ll be back later, but she needs to deliver some things to En Xi first.
Before she leaves, she asks Zhong Kui for his name and phone number. He tells her his name is Zhong Zheng Nan and is confused about the phone. She says that he can add her on Line instead and tells him her Line ID instead. The only part of what she says that he can understand is the number in her line ID — 1087.
Zhong Kui asks Granny Wu who she is. She tells him to not worry about that for now and goes to pour him a glass of water. When she turns back around, he’s disappeared.
Xiao Qi and Ah Fu try to track Zhong Kui in the human world, but he finds them instead. Ah Fu says that the king is not going to be happy about the recent turn of events with Wang Qing Yuan and Naihe Bridge. There are sure to be severe penalties and the three of them won’t escape unscathed.
The king herself suddenly appears in the doorway and asks if she really seems to have that short of a temper. Ah Fu and Xiao Qi flit to Zhong Kui’s other side, claiming that they’ll “protect him from behind.”
The king gives Zhong Kui an official pass to be in the human world so that they won’t be punished. He guesses that she’s not doing it out of kindness — there must be something else she wants. She tells him to figure out what Wang Qing Yuan’s motives were, in addition to catching him. The demon purposely dragged Meng Po 1087 to the human world in order to lure him to the human world. Isn’t he curious about why?
She reminds him to be careful. She’ll be sad if he gets hurt again. Zhong Kui is still suspicious of her motives, but she claims that she just wants to help them. She transfers all the information they need to Ah Fu’s phone, then reminds them that they’ll need to finish the mission before the planets align. “Don’t miss me too much,” she says with a smile, before disappearing in a red glow of light.
After she’s gone, Ah Fu pulls out phones and wallets for each of them. They’ll be in the human world for an extended period of time this time and will need all the proper identification. There are 53 lost souls they need to catch. He and Xiao Qi have already caught 23 of them. Xiao Qi says that it’ll be difficult to catch Wu Qing Yuan this time because he no longer gives off the aura of the dead. If Meng Po is really with him, then they might never find him.
Zhong Kui says that the Qin Guang King was right. There must be someone powerful behind Wu Qing Yuan who is trying to disrupt the boundary between worlds. He tells them to take care of finding Wu Qing Yuan. He will figure out what to do about Meng Po.
Xin Yu wakes up, frowning at the strange dream she had. En Xi reminds her to dress properly for her interview today at the coffee shop, but then there’s a knock at the door and En Xi rushes her out the balcony. She’s trying to avoid the landlord.
Xin Yu is afraid of heights and struggles down the ladder. She trips and starts to fall off the ladder. Zhong Kui watches them from down the alley and freezes time. He sets Xin Yu gently down on the ground, then teleports a safe distance away as time resumes.
En Xi looks confused to find Xin Yu suddenly on the ground. Xin Yu laughs awkwardly and says that maybe she knows gymnastics, then rushes En Xi away, reminding her that they’re trying to avoid the landlord. Before she goes, she whispers a hurried thank you to the ghosts she assumed helped her land safely.
En Xi tells Xin Yu that their landlord told her he liked her the previous day and was willing to forgive their missing rent if she hooked up with him. Xin Yu is aghast and ready to report him to the nearest police station, but En Xi convinces her not to.
They walk by a busy food truck and Xin Yu waves a greeting to the owner (the uncle from Someday or One Day!). She pauses to help him deal with the wave of customers, including a ghost auntie in line. En Xi frowns slightly when she hears Xin Yu talking to the ghost, not seeing any auntie in line.
Xin Yu and En Xi get some free breakfast from the food truck owner. En Xi marvels at Xin Yu’s ability to get to know everyone on the street in just a few months. Xin Yu says that she just finds other people’s lives so interesting. En Xi is surprised that she would even find her life as a poor student interesting. Xin Yu asks why En Xi would want to go to such an expensive school if she’s so poor. En Xi explains that she wants to become a journalist and is willing to pennypinch for a few years in order to pursue her dream. Xin Yu nods approvingly at the way she’s investing in herself.
A male student, the classmate En Xi sold the talismans to earlier, rides onto campus on his motorcycle. Xin Yu asks who he is. En Xi says that he’s the campus idol, Zhao Jia Jun, and jokes that the girl on his arm is never the same.
En Xi asks Xin Yu about the man she ran into at Granny Wu’s. Does he actually know her? Is he really a member of the underworld? Xin Yu isn’t sure, but she’s determined to figure out the truth. She checks her phone and frowns when she realizes that he hasn’t added her on Line. She decides to drop by Granny Wu’s bakery before her interview. En Xi reminds her to not be late.
Granny Wu sighs over how her bread hasn’t been selling well as she puts out inventory in her bakery. Xin Yu comes in and asks about the man who dropped in yesterday. Granny Wu tells her that he just… disappeared and apologizes for not keeping a good eye on him. Xin Yu frowns but helps Granny Wu open up shop.
Zhong Kui smiles as he watches Xin Yu hand out samples outside Granny Wu’s bakery to attract customers. He’s reminded of the way she used to look, in a life before she was Meng Po.
Xin Yu spots him and drags him into a doorway, out of sight of the street. Aren’t there people trying to kill him? He’s confused. She realizes that he wasn’t injured and there aren’t people after him — he just purposely didn’t add her on Line. But he repeats her Line ID. She frowns and asks why he hasn’t added her if he remembers her ID, but he ignores her and goes into Granny Wu’s bakery instead.
Granny Wu recognizes Zhong Kui and starts lecturing him on how he should find honest work outside of the underworld. He patiently lets her lecture while Xin Yu crosses her arms and nods her support for Granny Wu’s words.
Zhong Kui watches Xin Yu as she heads into the back. Granny Wu catches him looking and smiles. She guesses that Zhong Kui doesn’t actually know Xin Yu — he just likes her.
Zhao Jia Jun sits down in the row in front of En Xi in their shared class and puts his head down to nap. En Xi thinks about Xin Yu’s interview and calls her to try and give her some pointers. But then Zhao Jia Jun’s girlfriend shows up to confront him, upset that he was hanging out with some other girl. En Xi tries to hide her smirk, but then the girl recognizes her as the person who sold them the talismans and calls her a scammer. En Xi doesn’t take the insult lying down, and instead fires back saying that if she were a guy, she wouldn’t pick her either. Xin Yu hears the conversation from the other side of the phone and decides that she should go check things out and make sure En Xi isn’t starting fights.
The girlfriend is about to throw something at En Xi, who braces for impact, when the class’s professor, Professor Lu (Anson Chen), shows up and stops her.
She asks him to deal with En Xi, who sold her a fake talisman. He asks to see it, then uses it to smoothly segue into his lecture, performing a magic trick and then talking about the different forms that talismans and other objects of worship have taken across time and cultures. The key to their power? Belief. He gives the class an assignment and tells them to break up into groups, then calls En Xi, Zhao Jia Jun, and the girlfriend out to speak with him.
Xin Yu follows Zhong Kui out of the bakery. He tells her that she shouldn’t follow him — he has things to do — but he promises to come back for her. Xin Yu calls him narcissistic. She’s not following him; she has her own business to take care of, too. But before she leaves, she remembers to ask him for his phone so she can add him on Line. She sends him a cute sticker. He doesn’t understand what it is, but she explains that this is how all the young people communicate these days. Except he clearly isn’t a young person. She walks away and he smiles after her.
En Xi’s academic dean wants her to transfer out — this isn’t the first time she’s caused trouble — but Professor Lu defends her, saying that there’s nothing wrong with a student taking on work outside of school in order to make money. She hasn’t broken any school rules this time. To En Xi’s surprise, her professor offers to take responsibility of her and guarantees that she won’t break any rules again.
Xin Yu waits on campus for En Xi to leave class. En Xi asks why she’s here — shouldn’t she be at her interview? Xin Yu claims that she’s here to rescue En Xi from whatever trouble she was in, but En Xi tells her to worry about herself and her own job instead.
At night, Xin Yu follows En Xi home, apologizing for unintentionally missing the interview. When they get back to En Xi’s apartment, all of her things are out on the street. En Xi is upset that she got kicked out after missing only a month’s rent payment. Xin Yu is confused because she gave En Xi the money she made from her coffee cart. En Xi pauses, then responds that the money isn’t nearly enough. Besides, her lease was only for one person and the landlord didn’t like that she was secretly harboring a guest. And now Xin Yu didn’t even go to her job interview.
En Xi says that she’ll withdraw some of her tuition savings so they can put down a deposit on a new place. Xin Yu protests — what will En Xi do about school? En Xi cynically responds that it doesn’t matter because people are always trying to mess with her at school anyway. There’s no point in thinking about the next few years when it’s unclear if they’ll make it through the next few days.
Xin Yu’s phone chimes with a bunch of notifications. She opens Line to find that Zhong Kui has sent her a bunch of stickers with no other context.
En Xi and Xin Yu get a cheap hotel for the night. They’re walking down a dark hallway toward their room when Xin Yu jumps and asks if they really have to stay here. There’s a ghost at the end of the hallway glaring at them. As they approach the ghost, Xin Yu tries to get the ghost to leave. En Xi asks what she’s doing and she pretends that she’s just making idle noises for fun. To Xin Yu’s surprise, the ghost suddenly flits away. She doesn’t realize that it’s because Zhong Kui is behind her.
En Xi knocks on the door of their new hotel room to announce herself to the ghosts — it’s her method of dealing with them. All it does is draw all the ghosts in the hallway out of their rooms, and Xin Yu freezes. But Zhong Kui pops his head out behind Xin Yu and the ghosts slip away. Xin Yu smiles to herself, thinking she’s the one who made them all go away.
When they go inside the room, Xin Yu sighs. Three of the ghosts she chatted with in the park are sitting at the folding table, playing mahjong and refusing to leave until they’ve played all their rounds. Xin Yu tries to get them to leave, promising to help them out in the future, while En Xi asks what she’s doing. Xin Yu tries to reassure En Xi that she knows how to cast a spell to drive out ghosts, while the ghosts smirk to themselves behind her.
Xin Yu sits En Xi down on the bed and tells her to close her eyes. Then she pulls some talismans out of her bag and turns around to find the three ghosts hovering around En Xi. Xin Yu taps each one of them with a different talisman and they disappear.
Xin Yu tells En Xi that it’s safe to open her eyes now, then sits down next to her and asks what happened earlier at school. En Xi doesn’t want to say. Xin Yu gets a notification and then shrieks excitedly. En Xi’s talisman worked! The coffee shop whose interview she missed is willing to give her another chance. En Xi offers to take tomorrow off so that she can accompany Xin Yu to the interview (just in case she forgets the time and misses it again.)
Xin Yu gets another set of stickers from Zhong Kui. She frowns, confused and annoyed by the spam.
The hotel ghosts kneel in the hallway with their hands over heads in front of Zhong Kui, who sits on a throne. He warns them to wait obediently until the messengers come to take them away.
The next day, Xi En accompanies Xin Yu to her coffee shop interview. To their surprise, the coffee shop owner is Professor Lu. Professor Lu approves of Xin Yu’s coffee and is willing to hire her. She and Xi En look around and notice how empty the coffee shop is, even though it’s a weekend, and wonder if Professor Lu is actually hiring. Professor Lu admits that the coffee shop is just a hobby for him, but he doesn’t want it to close because there’s no one to look after it. He wants to hire Xin Yu, even if it’s not very busy.
Zhao Jia Jun “breaks up” with a girl he was hooking up with but never actually dating and rides off on his motorcycle. Suddenly, he hears a voice asking, “Can you take me home?” He looks around, but there’s no one around. He hears the voice again. Suddenly, he sees in his side mirror the ghostly face of a woman sitting behind him on his motorcycle. He freaks out and crashes. He blearily sits up, then his eyes widen as the ghost woman gets in his face.
I’m not sure if I need all the special effects, but I’m intrigued by what I see so far. All of the usual tropes exist in this rom-com fantasy, but I’m liking the fusion of traditional fantasy elements and roles with a modern day, slick sci-fi feel. This first episode is a lot of set-up: telling us who Zhong Kui is, setting up a long history of his deep feelings for Meng Po, and introducing some sort of nefarious demonic uprising plot arc. It seems like there are still characters to be introduced — Professor Lu is obviously important, but why? — and a lot more story to be told. I won’t have enough of a feel for the show until I see more.
Ivy Shao is instantly lovable as Meng Po / Meng Xin Yu, who seems like a very classic clumsy-but-cheerful rom-com lead. There isn’t much to Zhong Kui yet, but it’s clear that he has a long history with Xin Yu that she doesn’t know about yet — even beyond the obvious Meng Po memories that she’s lost. He called her “Xiao Bing,” but on her transfer application, her name was listed as unknown. He knows who she is, but she doesn’t. Just like every reincarnation story ever? Maybe it’s because I’m watching Love and Redemption right now that this all feels so familiar. But I don’t mind seeing more of Zhong Kui’s watchful protectiveness and inability to master technology.