It took me a while to finish the latest version of Meteor Garden compared to my previous dramas because let me just state for the record that this is the longest Chinese drama that I have watched and my first mainland drama to complete. However, as I managed to accomplish the seemingly daunting task, I am happy to report that I was not disappointed by this millennial version of the classic manga adaptation. Actually, I’m so full of feelings I don’t know what to do with myself.
Synopsis: Mingde University is ruled by four super popular seniors known as the F4. Dao Ming Si (Dylan Wang) is the heir to one of the biggest conglomerates in the world and a talented stock trader, Huaze Lei (Darren Chen) is a handsome and gifted music major, Meizuo (Connor Liang) is a laid back and creative events specialist, and Ximen (Caesar Wu) is a charming tea expert. One day, the status quo is shattered when a feisty nutrition major named Dong Shanchai (Shen Yue) dares to stand up to Dao Ming Si for his uncaring and disrespectful attitude.
First off, I’m going to divide this review into sections because like I said, it was pretty long and I couldn’t help but go on about some areas I really feel strongly about. The headings help you read through only the parts that interest you. So bear with me and see if you agree.
Meteor Garden 2018 took on the heavy task of reaching the level of the original version and several other iterations from Japan and Korea with this new batch of F4 (Dylan Wang, Darren Chen, Connor Liang and Ceasar Wu). These relative newbies to acting clearly had the looks to pull off their characters but the challenge was for them to really live up to the hype and the iconic performances that made the original F4 the global phenomenon that they became. Rising star Shen Yue rounded up the cast as Dong Shanchai and I must say that this group was able to do justice to the manga and even surpass the original in some aspects.
I liked that this version made sure to develop the individual characters of the F4 members. While it was floated at the beginning that A Si was the leader of F4, the guys pretty much treated each other as equals and as brothers. They had different personalities that complemented each other, and they accepted each others’ flaws without question. They are quick to question each other’s decisions if they feel that there is something off and that, I think is a more realistic version of friendship than anything else. I also liked that from beginning to end, they were there for each other through thick and thin, through happy times and heartbreaks. I appreciate that about this F4. They stick their necks out for each other as naturally as they would have a game of bridge or a cup of tea, even when its not convenient.
There were no henchmen roles in this version, only friends for life despite the rough patches.
I loved Dylan Wang as the new Dao Ming Si. His version of A Si was much more youthful and innocent compared to the previous versions, perhaps because he is the youngest star to take on the role. Sure, this A Si had an overinflated view of himself and his own abilities, but he was sincere and consistent. His love and loyalty to Shanchai were the most stellar aspects of his personality and you can’t help but fall for this guy who was doing his best to win the love of the girl he liked, within the first few episodes. Unfortunately, because he had a rough personality, he was often misunderstood, but that’s mainly because nobody really asks him straight out his side of the story. I also appreciated how his acting improved with each episode. My favorite scene was his emotional breakdown when he thought he would lose Shanchai to Lei. It gave audiences a glimpse at what Dylan Wang can achieve with a bit more practice.
On the flipside, I was so frustrated by how dense the Shanchai character was. Imagine my frustration in the first 30 episodes (yes, you read that right — 30 episodes) when she trusted everyone so easily but failed to give the benefit of the doubt to the one person who gave her every reason to. However, when she finally owned up to her feelings to A Si, the story got 100 x better because of the united front that these two star-crossed lovers presented was formidable even before the great villain that is Dao Ming Feng.
It was weird but while for the most part, I was frustrated by Shanchai because A Si did so much for her and she didn’t reciprocate his feelings quickly enough, I still really wanted them to end up together. When they finally did, I immediately forgot the rough patches that they had and wanted them to have the happy ending that they deserved. Credit to the strong acting and chemistry and amazing acting chops that Dylan Wang and Shen Yue exhibited. They really broke my heart and made me happy alternately.
Because they were young and in love, they presented a relateable view of relationships. They got exhausted and they at times gave up, but they foubd their way back together because their love was strong. The scenes in the last 10 episodes (London arc) were definitely gold, and while I bawled my eyes out a couple of times, it was well worth it.
I loved the character of A Si’s sister Dao Ming Zhuang (Dee Hsu). She stole the scene every time she appeared and she owned it every time.
As much as I loved her, I hated the mother Dao Ming Feng who seemed to appear every three episodes to break any momentum in A Si and Shanchai’s relationship.
Right next to her is Xiaozi, whose motives always seemed ambiguous so I couldn’t really accept her as part of the F4 inner circle. I also loved the supporting characters played by Shanchai’s mom and dad which was a complete departure from the money grabbing original version. These are parents as they should be. Hardworking, supportive and even though they had not much money, they had their daughter’s interest at heart first an foremost. Qinghe and Li Zhen were also cute additions to the cast.
Let me tell you though that I wasn’t a big fan of the Huaze Lei arc in the beginning. Ten episodes of circling with the question of whether or not he liked Shanchai back with that enigmatic personality of his was enough to make me pull out my fair in irritation. And the fact that Shanchai was so invested in him despite A Si’s efforts made me want to punch her in the face.
But I eventually fell in love with the evolution of their relationship and how Lei indirectly explained his feelings for Shanchai when he talked about his love for A Jing. Darren Chen was the perfect foil to Dylan and Shen Yue plus he looked like he directly stepped out of the pages of the manga. I also appreciated his bromance with A Si, which was ironic since he was the love triangle character.
My favorite arcs were (like I mentioned), the London arc and the cooking challenge arc. I loved the pineapple inspired dish presented by Shanchai with the influenence of course of her #1 fan. The mental telepathy thing was super cute.
I liked the fact that the series really took the time to flesh out the Meizuo and Ximen arcs in between Shanchai and Dao Ming Si’s endless challenges. I’m not a big fan of the treatment of Meizuo’s arc though because it felt like the focus was placed more on Zhou Caina when it should have been Meizuo’s journey that they were telling. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Meizuo just got his heart broken but it seemed like they made Caina more of a star than Meizuo.
Ximen and Xiaoyou’s arc was cute too but I felt like it could have benefitted from more scenes to establish Ximen’s growing feelings for Xiaoyou because the attention was divided between Ximen’s history with Xiaogeng and his present non-relationship with Xiaoyou.
Now let’s talk about ad placements. Yup, they weren’t even subtle but after a while, you get numb to it and laugh it off when they appear. Forget timing, you will find these product placements even in the middle of the sweetest moment or the most challenging arc. The most memorable for me was A Zhuang’s abrupt suggestion to their bodyguard to care for his scalp by giving him a bottle of Clear.
There were also missed opportunities like the couple bracelet. I felt like the advertisers should have paid extra to have it featured in the latter episodes when Shanchai and Dao Ming Si were having their hunger strike. How cool would it be to buzz those bracelets to show that they’re thinking of each other beyond closed doors and when while one was almost dying inside and the other is doing the same outside. Everyone would have wanted to have those bracelets.
As far as cinematography is concerned, Meteor Garden really pulled all the stops. The settings were beautiful and clearly established but I wasn’t a big fan of the excessive use of slow motion. There were also a lot of scenes that were drawn out so they could explore different camera angles that they looked a bit awkward off.
There were plenty of inconsistencies and facepalm moments when you really want to analyze each scene. Case in point, the last episode seemed like it was written and directed after the writer and director had an acid trip. It was straight up momentum until A Si’s grand plan was unveiled but what was that wedding? And what was that segment A Si, Shanchai and Huaze Lei laughing like idiots in their hotel room? The last episode was more of a fan service and perhaps part of MG’s commitment to their advertisers.
Despite its flaws, Meteor Garden 2018 was a great series because of the excellent character development and cast. It was definitely better written than the original because it filled the gaps that were missing from the original and it managed to establish its own strength as an individual show and not as a reboot. It didn’t hurt that they used great songs on the soundtrack too.
All in all, the creators of this show succeeded in making it much more than a millennial teeny bopper manga adaptation. They managed to incorporate real-life values like friendship, family, loyalty and love and what it means to be part of F4.
PS . The HuaZe Lei and Dao Ming Si bromance is amazing.
To better appreciate the show though, BINGE it to love it. Its plain and simple.