May All Taboos Be Shattered: A Review of Season One of "Heaven Official's Blessing"
This was one of the series I was looking forward to watching once I came back from Japan. I watched it in two ways: first, I watched the original Mandarin language dub on Netflix, then once I finally subscribed to Crunchyroll again, I watched the English language dub by Funimation.
I've never watched donghua before so I was excited to give this a try. Plus, I'm a fan of M/M romances and I'd heard so much hype about the Heaven Official's Blessing novels (known as Tiān Guān Cì Fú by the author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu). The story is a fantasy romance with angry spirits and magic...my cup of tea.
Banished to the mortal realm to exorcise ghosts, a deity must reckon with a demon and soon uncovers a dark secret behind the heavenly gods.
Story: Xie Lian, former prince of the kingdom of Xianle, died at a young age and ascended to Heaven. Due to unfortunate circumstances, he'd been banished from heaven a few times and sent to the secular world to do heroic deeds. In the current story, he's sent to Earth to investigate an angry ghost that has been kidnapping new brides on a lonely mountain. In the second half of the donghua, he goes to an ancient desert kingdom to retrieve the antidote from a snake's poison, and uncovers a conspiracy among his fellow deities there. During his adventures, he encounters the charismatic ghost Hua Cheng, who is drawn to Xie Lian, and he accompanies Xie Lian on his journey as the youth San Lang.
Characters: With most fantasies, there are a sizeable cast of characters, so I'm only focusing on the major players in this show.
Xie Lian (played by Jiang Guangtao/Howard Wang) is an interesting character because he's ascended to Heaven three different times, all the while being such a kind person who cares for the people and wishes to help them. He has a long past (he's over 800 years old) and you gradually learn about him through the course of the series. In his prime, he was the prince of Xianle and a gorgeous figure (I still find him gorgeous, to be honest. This series depicts the leads beautifully). He doesn't discriminate or hold prejudice to people of different ranks or backgrounds, despite hierarchy being very much a thing in this story. He's a gentle figure filled with mystery and I want to know more about him!
Hua Cheng (played by Ma Zhengyang/James Cheek) is a really enigmatic figure because we first hear of him through secondhand information: he's one of the most powerful ghosts in existence, one of the Four Great Calamities, known as the Crimson Rain Sought Flower. We first see Hua Cheng appear on the mountain to Xie Lian during the episodes where the brides are being stolen by a ghost...Hua Cheng escorts Xie Lian to safety in a very dramatically animated way.
Hua Cheng only appears as himself a couple times in the first season, keeping a charming and mysterious aura around him. For the larger part of the series, he takes the form of the youth San Lang. And, he's still charming!
Can you tell Hua Cheng is my favorite character? And we really don't know anything about him yet. There are flashbacks to Xie Lian and a young boy wearing bandages over his eye, so we are to assume he and Hua Cheng are the same person somehow...but we only get bits and pieces of information like this. So, it makes him absolutely an intriguing character.
NAN FENG and FU YAO
I've put these two characters together because they're pretty inseparable as Xie Lian's helpers assigned to him in the mortal realm. Nan Feng (played by Wen Sen/Phil Song) and Fu Yao (played by Hu Liangwei/Lucien Dodge) constantly bicker and also seem annoyed to be working with Xie Lian, although they are totally loyal to him and, as their titles suggest, helpful. I don't know much more about them beyond their roles as assistants, but they provide some fun comedy relief.
Ling Wen (played by Huang Ying/Wendee Lee) is a civil goddess in the Heavenly Court and often provides information and assignments to the gods. She is the one who informed Xie Lian of his destruction of parts of the Heavenly Realm when he ascended for the third time; she is the one who tasked him with returning to Earth to investigate the missing brides. She is a helpful dispatcher of information who seems overworked and tired all the time, but very kind.
Animation: The settings are lovingly depicted, and I think the characters (especially the leads) are gorgeous. The opening sequence is particularly beautiful.
Voice Acting: The Chinese voice casts and English voice casts were both talented. I think Xie Lian's voice actors did a good job of capturing Xie Lian's gentleness, and Hua Cheng sounds charming and flirty at times (especially in English...I loved it whenever Hua Cheng playfully said, "I dabble.")
Low Points of the Season: I probably should've talked about this under animation, but there is some funky CGI that doesn't match well with the hand-drawn animation...in terms of story and characterization, I really couldn't find anything major about the show to mention here.
High Points of the Season: I just love watching the visual cues that show Hua Cheng/San Lang's devotion to Xie Lian. The gazes! And then the acts of kindness, like painting the picture in the shrine, or sucking out poison from his hand!
Final Thoughts: The animated series has me intrigued enough about Xie Lian and Hua Cheng that I went ahead and bought all of the available books of Heaven Official's Blessing because I'm too impatient to wait for season two. But there's no word on when this is coming out yet. I'm definitely intrigued by the characters and want to see their relationships unfold. I just have to hold tight until the next season!