The Pros & Cons of Empresses in the Palace (U.S. Version)
The Legend of Zhen Huan (LZH), also known as Empresses in the Palace and Hou Gong: Zhen Huan Zhuan, is my all-time favorite period c-drama. I am so obsessed with this show that I wrote reviews for the entire series and am even writing about it three years after it finished airing. 😉 So of course, I had to check out the American version of LZH–better known as Empresses in the Palace. It aired on the HBO network and then was released on Netflix. The new version has a new soundtrack, opening MV, some added scenes, and English subtitles. It also cut down the drama from 76 episodes to 6 episodes. Let’s just say that I have A LOT to say about the U.S.version. 😛
Abridged Version: Time-saver
A lot of people do not want to commit 57 hours of their lives to watch all 76 episodes of LZH. That is understandable and quite frankly, I’m surprised that I even tried LZH considering its crazy length. O_O” Generally I don’t watch many period dramas because they’re so long and I fear that they will be really draggy. So I get where people are coming from. Have no fear, instead of spending 57 hours on LZH, instead you only have to spend 9 hours on Empresses! And you can still get the general gist of the story!
Exposure to the US audience
A lot of people who watched Empresses likely would not have known about it if it was not released on HBO/Netflix. So it’s good that the US version gives American viewers exposure to the show and that it is accessible to a wide audience through Netflix.
Those who saw the full-length version of LZH will know what I’m talking about. There were 2 large watermarks on the upper right and left hand corners of the screen THE ENTIRE TIME! On top of that, there were Chinese hardsubs for all of the dialogue. Here’s an example of the watermarking:
So the great advantage of watching the U.S. version is that I can watch Empresses in all its glory without any extra watermarks or text on the screen. I know, it sounds like a really shallow reason to give props to the U.S. version. >__>” BUT IT’S TRUE…
Abridged version: Lacking in plot & character development, leaves out entire sub-plots, and cuts out 84% of the original scenes!
While it’s great that Empresses offers a shorter option, that is precisely its downfall. Yes, the original show could’ve cut some scenes here and there, especially during the second half. Pacing-wise, the original could’ve been faster. However, the problem is that the new version cuts out WAY too much of the story, thus limiting the character and plot development. It is on fast-forward mode the entire time, meaning that it can’t stop for nothing. It can’t elaborate on the characters’ backstories, nor can it delve too deeply into their motivations. I feel that Empresses gives off the impression that all of the concubines are just fighting with each other so that they can be promoted to a higher rank, be favored by the emperor, and have a luxurious life. No, many of them are fighting 1) to live 2) to protect their families 3) to protect their household (or palace, whatever you want to call it). Each concubine’s status is intertwined with their family’s political clout–and if a concubine makes one wrong move, she could implicate her entire family. Not only that, but the 6-episode format oversimplifies the storyline; the schemes in the harem seemed too easy and not as complex as they were in the original. Hua Fei, the empress, and Ling Rong are all defeated way too easily. The show just whizzes by the antagonists as though they were as easy to defeat as A-B-C.
^Be sure to remember all of these characters’ names in just one episode!
And while the American version is a good way to introduce the story to new viewers, it also makes it harder for them to get situated with the story. For instance, the first episode throws TONS of character introductions one after the other at the viewers, without giving them a chance to gain their bearings. On top of that, there are new phrases, palace customs, places, etc. that they have to keep track of. Viewers cannot remember all of this ASAP within one episode–even with the slower pace in the original, I still had a hard time remembering everyone!
Empresses tries really hard to insinuate things and leave them up to the viewer’s imagination. It assumes that we will just fill in the blanks because everything is “implied” when in fact, it doesn’t leave enough clues/hints for a first-time viewer to get everything that’s going on.
^Hua Fei is unimpressed with the subs.
I was looking forward to watching Empresses because I thought that it would have new and improved subtitles. After all, these translations are professional. Well sadly, the fan subtitles for LZH (on Viki) are better than the professional subs for the American version. I was disappointed by the low quality of the subs and the obvious lack of effort that was put into them. Some of the subs are translated either incorrectly (losing the context & meaning of the original line) or really poorly. The subs lose the nuances of the dialogue, such as the hidden meanings behind the characters’ words. And sometimes the subs skipped entire sentences. Apparently the translators were either too lazy to bother translating every single sentence or they were unaware that they had skipped entire lines (and did not proof-read/edit their work). Erm…
For first-time viewers, and especially for those who need subtitles, the inaccurate subs just make the drama more confusing and harder to understand. For example, the subs give no explanation about the titles/ranks of the concubines. So when Mei Zhuang starts out as Shen Guiren and then becomes Hui Guiren, there is no explanation given for why her title has changed. Or the drama gives no explanation as to why Zhen Huan is sometimes called “Wan Changzai” and not by her full name. Another confusing thing is the weird naming of the characters. The subbers sometimes calls Zhen Huan “Huan” or “Zhen,” Shen Mei Zhuang “Mei,” etc. Apparently when the characters use Zhen Huan’s nickname, “Huan-Er,” there is no indication of it in the subs. Instead it’s just translated to Huan. T_T
The only comforting thing I can tell myself is: At least the show wasn’t dubbed.
One indication of the lack of effort put into the US version is the Netflix episode summaries. They are inaccurate and some of them make no sense at all. Which leads me to think that whoever was writing them had no clue what was going on in the drama.
The idea that Hua Fei is a new consort and that she is going against her brother (Nian Geng Yao, a powerful general) is totally wrong. Hua Fei was originally married to the emperor back when he was a prince as one of his wives. She then became a concubine after the emperor ascended to the throne. There is no way that Hua Fei would go against her brother. It defies logic; Hua Fei’s brother is one of the main sources of her unparalleled power in the harem. Once her brother fell from power, the emperor had no need to keep Hua Fei around.
The concubine Yu Daying tried to poison Zhen Huan, not the emperor. When Yu Daying refused to commit suicide, the emperor’s court officials played no part in forcing her death. Ling Rong (who was ranked Daying at the time) was the one who persuaded the eunuchs to kill Yu Daying.
Hua Fei did not blame Zhen Huan for her own miscarriage. It is impossible for Hua Fei to blame Zhen Huan for her miscarriage because Zhen Huan wasn’t even in the harem when she miscarried! Hua Fei actually blamed Duan Fei (another older concubine) for the miscarriage. The emperor sorta made amends but he wasn’t manipulated or tricked. He and the empress voluntarily gave Hua Fei temporary power over the harem when they left the palace.
I give this description a pass.
*facepalm* Dr. Wen was NOT ordered to castrate himself! And I have no idea where they got the idea that he was ordered to castrate himself because of Ling Rong! Dr. Wen castrated himself on his own will, most likely because he felt guilty for sleeping with Mei Zhuang. Ling Rong had nothing to do with the castration.
I give this a pass.
Draggy & unnecessary scenes of old-Zhen Huan
There are added scenes of old-Zhen Huan (as the empress dowager) wandering around the Forbidden City, looking off deep into space, and reminiscing about her life story. All of these scenes are meant to let Zhen Huan narrate and introduce/end each episode. It’s interesting that we get to see what Zhen Huan looks like in her later days as the empress dowager but overall, I felt like the scenes didn’t serve much of a purpose.
Changed the OST for no reason
OK now I sound like I’m being a LZH purist or something. =_= But really, Empresses has an entirely new soundtrack even though the original OST already fit the drama perfectly. I don’t see why they decided to spend part of their budget on producing a new OST when what they really needed was to put money into quality translations.
Obviously I think there are more cons than pros to the U.S. version of The Legend of Zhen Huan. I don’t want to sound like some overly sensitive obsessed fan that is against any change whatsoever to the original drama. But come on, the least they can do is TRY to make the abridged version accurate in terms of the plot, characters and translations. The final verdict? The US version does not do justice to the original.
To watch or not to watch?
Personally, I’m watching the US version to see how it differs from the original version and to get a refresher on the story. Plus it doesn’t hurt to watch it in sparkly HD on the big screen, eh? For fans who have already seen the drama, I would only recommend watching this if you want to rewatch major parts of the drama. If you’re a new viewer, watch with caution! Don’t trust the subs! And remember that there is always more to the story than the US version is telling you. 😉
Trailer – US Version
When I really think about it, everything that went wrong with Empresses in the Palace seems almost…laughable!?! I actually started laughing while I was reading the inaccurate summaries because they missed the mark so badly. I also got a kick out of the trailer for the HBO version because of the dramatic narration and the following phrase:
“A true story…”
Again, I am under the impression that they had no clue what was going on in the drama.
More Legend of Zhen Huan reads
- The Hairstyles of Legend of Zhen Huan
- The Nail Guards of Legend of Zhen Huan
- The Legend of Zhen Huan – Original Soundtrack
- Chinese Portal – “Empresses in the Palace” receives harsh criticism in North America
You can find full reviews for episodes 1-76 of the Chinese version here.
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended by the use of screencaps.