Romance, Language, and Romantic Heroes
A la claire fontaine by Shang Wenjie (from The Painted Veil soundtrack)
Jane Austen’s stories occupy a good part of my romance narrative knowledge; I’ve read all the books, own both the ’95 and ’05 versions of Pride and Prejudice and watch them dutifully once a year, and have chosen who my favorite heroine is (well, are: Catherine Morland for her charm and familiarity, Lizzie Bennet for her wit, Elinor Dashwood for her commonsense, and Anne Eliot because she’s the absolute best and deserves all the love). I suspect it’s the same for most Austen fans. But when it comes to the men we’re much more specific. The most popular Austen man is Mr. Darcy, of whom we’ve had countless drama iterations. My favorite Austen man is Northanger Abbey’s Mr. Tilney, with his teasing and reading and gentle remonstrance; the closest we’ve come to him is Kim Boong Do, and maybe Choi Han Gyul when he thought Go Eun Chan was his hyung. All of which is to say that I have a tendency of identifying romantic leads according to Austen’s heroes. And Li Da Ren is Mr. “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more” Knightley.
I didn’t realize this about him until Ding Li Wei comes back into You Qing’s life. We hear about him from the very beginning of the show, and we know that he’s her last boyfriend, someone she was very much in love with despite Da Ren’s misgivings, who left her brokenhearted. When Li Wei comes back he’s suave and flirtatious, all smooth words and heartfelt entreaties, parrying each one of You Qing’s objections to his advances with some perfectly stated acknowledgment of his past mistakes and reassurance of his current devotion. The thing about Ding Li Wei is that he says everything a romantic lead is supposed to say. Usually in dramas, even without the promotional material, we can tell who the second lead is–he’s too kind, too longing, too hesitant, too considerate of the heroine’s wants, when what’s rewarded is forwardness and confidence. Ding Li Wei is the latter.
Anatomy of a Scene
Ding Li Wei’s relationship with language was crystalized for me in episode 10: it’s the episode where Da Ren decides to transfer to a position in Singapore, and in response to this upcoming change in her life You Qing wears a wig without telling anyone, letting everyone think she’s cut off her hair. Most people react with surprise, and Daren, naturally, thinks she looks great and secretly moons over how beautiful she is, but Ding Li Wei is outraged. When she texts him a picture with her new wig he freaks out, immediately calling her back and demanding how she could make such a decision without first consulting him. His logic is that she is his girlfriend, an extension of him, and as such he should have say in her appearance. You Qing is, of course, offended and angry. What’s striking about this is that You Qing wasn’t thinking about him at all when she got that wig. He reacts as if it’s a personal affront to him, but I feel that if he hadn’t reacted so violently You Qing would have teased him for a bit and then told him that she hadn’t really gotten a haircut–just as she does with Da Ren.
Later on in the episode, after an awkward dinner with Li Wei and his boss, You Qing approaches him and asks that they consider their future together. She insists that they come to a mutual understanding about important things, like her continuing to work even after they’ve had children. Li Wei answers her with, “Yes. When you’re the one who has to agree to something, we have to discuss it, but regarding your hairstyle, I have no right to interfere.” This is after You Qing has explained to him that his wanting to control what she does with her appearance makes it seem like he considers her a possession, and not her own person–not to mention it’s a classic example of false equivalency. You Qing, in response, shakes her head and walks away. But Li Wei grabs her arm and tells her, “You have really changed a lot. You have changed till I have no other way except to love you even more. …Everything, I will listen to you.” It sounds like an act of capitulation. It’s the exact same way he expressed himself before, when he handed his passport over to You Qing and told her that she could have his freedom. It reminds me of “Rip Van Winkle,” and how one interpretation of it is of man escaping the suffocating grip of domesticity and women. It’s as if in loving You Qing, Li Wei feels as though he’s giving something up, as though he’s lost a battle to her and now, exhausted, is giving in. You Qing interrupts him to explain that she’s not trying to tame him or subdue him, that what she wants isn’t his total obedience and acquiescence, but he places a finger on her lips and continues, “Except for one thing, I will not give in. No matter where you go, you must take me along. Because I can’t live in a city without you.” And then he kisses her. Music plays, and You Qing is appeased. Read that over again. It’s like something out of a Harlequin romance.
If it weren’t for Da Ren overhearing this exchange, I wouldn’t have focused on it so. I would have accepted it at face value, as Li Wei showing that he’s willing to change and that he’s wildly in love with You Qing. But Da Ren does overhear, and when You Qing comes in he tells her that he’s learned something from Li Wei. He finally understands the “fluttering,” the “moment” You Qing had explained she looks for in romance, what she’d experienced when Nic had swooped in with an umbrella under the rain, saving her from embarrassment in front of her ex Henry and his new girlfriend Lala. Then he uses Ding Li Wei’s body language, and he leans into You Qing, bringing one arm up to the wall next to her face, crowding her so that all she can see is his face, and he repeats that ridiculously smooth line, that swoon-worthy, leading-man line: “I can’t live in a city without you.” It’s a contrast working on three levels: first, that Da Ren is imitating Li Wei; second, that he’s mocking the seeming earnestness with which Li Wei had said those words; and third, that Da Ren is saying these words jokingly, but in actuality they describe his feelings for You Qing perfectly (though figuratively). What Hsu Yu Ting (the writer) does is show us the absurdity of the words while simultaneously achieving their romantic resonance–by having Da Ren so closely mimic Li Wei we at once have a total deconstruction of all those romantic lines that leave us swooning and a perfect realization of them. It’s at once reality and fantasy, critique and fulfillment. It’s jarring, and it works well; we basically have our cake and eat it, too.
Da Ren is joking when he says that line, but meanwhile he’s moving to Singapore. The whole time he and You Qing are standing at the bottom of the stairs up to her room, with her family downstairs and Ding Li Wei having just left outside, and they’re sharing this little space, shrouded in shadow. You Qing is holding her purse up in front of her, almost as if she’s protecting herself–and she is: from embarrassment that Da Ren overheard her and Li Wei, from embarrassment at facing him when she chose to go to Li Wei’s dinner instead of the going away party her family was throwing for him, and from the ever-present possibility of falling in love with him, which she could so easily do–and her wig is falling in front of her eyes and he says those stupid words to her and the scene comes together to work on another level: Li Wei says the words to her sincerely, Da Ren says them in jest, and she has spent the entire episode trying to change, because she doesn’t know how to live in a city without Da Ren.
When Da Ren says that he learns something from Li Wei, what he’s pointing out is the way Li Wei fills the role of the leading man so well. The looks, the job, the money, the attitude–he has it all. You know how in Queen In Hyun’s Man we have a typical arrogant man, only he’s the second lead? It’s the same here, only ITWY doesn’t play it for laughs. It takes Li Wei seriously, to the point that the term “second lead” doesn’t even really apply. “Second lead” is for when the route has already been neatly traced, but In Time With You manages to transcend form while still exploring familiar romance tropes. Ding Li Wei isn’t just filling up space, he’s not just there to function as an impediment to the OTP; he is a real contender for You Qing’s heart. The consequences of another romantic failure for a woman at her age, and with the same man at that, loom over their rekindled romance: her mother warns her about how detrimental it will be to her personally and how she’ll be seen in society; her boss and her high school friend are devastated by divorce; her mother tells her that it’s not just once that she’ll have to give in to Li Wei, but over and over and over again; her friends warn her when they see Li Wei somewhere, and she has to suffer the awkwardness of explaining they’re actually back together. What I find frightening is that You Qing is a heroine sophisticated enough to realize when Li Wei is objectifying her, a heroine who is so unflinching in her own self worth that she has no problem standing up to him, and yet she is in love with Li Wei, and she cannot see the abusive nature of some of his actions. She is, like many things in this drama, very real. I can imagine her ending up with Li Wei, I see reflections of their relationship in the real world, and when You Qing leaves him, it’s not simply because he’s the second lead.
In episode 6, You Qing wears a red dress with white polka dots. It’s the episode where Da Ren breaks up with Maggie and finally admits aloud that he’s in love with You Qing. It’s also the episode in which You Qing becomes aware of Ding Li Wei’s return, and he continually badgers her to meet with him. She entertains the idea, wanting to show up before him looking her best so that she might have the satisfaction of seeing him regret what he’d let go. His presence is immediately and thoroughly disruptive: she’s paranoid about when she’ll meet him and what he’ll think of her, and she and Da Ren have a huge fight over it because he interprets her reaction as still having feelings for him. In parallel to her struggles with Li Wei’s return, You Qing loses her boss’s wedding ring and frets over returning it to her. It would take her five years to be able to save enough money to pay her boss back the value of the ring. She eventually finds it, and when she returns it to her, her boss tells her that it’s not a wedding ring at all, but a ring she bought for herself after her divorce as a symbol of her bravery for continuing on her own. You Qing is inspired by this, and wants a ring of her own to represent her bravery and independence. When she goes to the jewelry store she finds the ring she wants is much too expensive, but she keeps hope that she’ll be able to get it some day.
At the end of the episode You Qing dons the red polka dotted dress and walks down the streets of Taipei, revisiting her old relationship with Li Wei: here is when he lied to her about a woman he was cheating on her with; here is when he avoided her questions by kissing her. As she realizes what she could be returning to if she were to return to Li Wei, she gets a text from Da Ren reassuring her of her beauty and telling her all he wants for her is her happiness–as she’s revisiting a past in which someone lied to her and made her feel lesser than, Da Ren pulls her back to the present and makes her feel treasured.
You Qing then visits the ring she’d coveted and parts with it, telling it that she will never be able to afford it, and that her future spouse probably won’t either. As she says goodbye to her fantasy, Da Ren arrives. He’s taken the rest of the day off from work and come to her because she said she had something important to get from him: she opens her arms wide, smiling, and they hug. They go out to dinner, and meanwhile Ding Li Wei waits for her. She never goes. She stands him up.
So You Qing wears this dress when she chooses Da Ren over Li Wei, when she chooses reality over fantasy.
In episode 10, You Qing wears the very same dress again: she wears it to work, where her boss offers her the opportunity to transfer to Singapore. It would be a promotion, but it would also mean that she’d get to be in the same city as Da Ren. She decides to ask Li Wei if he’d be willing to let her go there for two years, and he strikes her down. She explains that she wants to challenge herself professionally, and Li Wei condescendingly and unhelpfully says that he’ll help her get a new job, or “open up a shop for her,” if that’s what she wants. They go back and forth until You Qing is reduced to tears, something she had just that afternoon told Nic would be impossible for her to do, and she tells him, “I know I’m very selfish. I want you, but I want myself, too.” The difference between this scene and the ones she revisited in episode 6 is wide: here You Qing is humbled, desperate, not angry and accusatory. She’s basically begging Li Wei. He finally agrees to her spending 3 months away from him, down from 2 years. The scene is like a capsule view of what Li Wei does to her in their relationship–he whittles away at her, pounding and pounding until she gives in to him, until she sees herself as the worst type of person, someone who’s greedy and selfish and asks for too much, and then he swoops in and gives her one one hundredth of what she’d wanted, and makes it seem like he’s giving her the world. What we witness is what Da Ren had accused her of–of changing to fit the image the man she’s dating wants of her.
Afterward they go to Da Ren’s last send off, which she had convinced him to let her go to by pointing out that she’d chosen him over Da Ren the night before, when her parents were saying goodbye to him. So in episode 6, while wearing the red polka dotted dress, she chooses Da Ren, but in episode 10, she chooses Li Wei. And when she has an opportunity to choose Da Ren again (by going to Singapore) she asks Li Wei first, when back in episode 8 she’d said that she would choose Da Ren over him every time.
At the party, a drunk and distraught Maggie reveals to You Qing that Da Ren is in love with her, has been in love with her for fourteen years, and that that’s the reason they broke up. Da Ren broke up with Maggie in episode 6, when You Qing first wore the dress, and she learns about his love for her here, in that dress. You Qing is disbelieving, but it turns her world upside down. She gets drunk, Da Ren cries and she pretends not to see, and the episode ends with her thinking, “At this moment, everything has completely changed.”
In episode 11 You Qing is the ultimate coward, and she admits this to herself. She goes to the airport still wearing the same dress, but hides from Da Ren. She watches him leave without saying a word to him, and just as she’d bidden farewell to her ring, she apologizes to Da Ren for not being courageous enough to meet him face to face, and states that friendship is stronger and lasts longer than love. The ring was a fantasy for her and she realized it as such, and now she thinks of any romance she may want with Da Ren as a fantasy, and she lets it go in favor of what she already has, what reality hasn’t taken from her, their friendship.
Da Ren goes to Singapore, the first time he’s left home, even though his biggest wish (other than being with You Qing, hahaha) is to travel. At home in Taipei he has a map of the world on his wall on his marked with postcards from travelers thanking him for making their traveling better. It mirrors his relationship with You Qing, in a way, because just as he’s full of wanderlust but is rooted at home, he’s full of romantic love for You Qing but doesn’t tell her. Da Ren is characterized by longing and self-denial. When he gets to Singapore he has another map, only instead of on a wall in the home he grew up in, it’s on a window overlooking the city, and on it he draws a line from Taiwan to Singapore and states that he’s beginning a new phase in his life. He goes to get the beer he and You Qing always drink, and while he says “Dear You Qing,” which is You Qing’s refrain to him throughout the entire series (mirroring Uncle Bai’s play about the lifelong pen pals), he does not call her.
It’s the beginning of a long spell of no communication between the two, and it seems as though what Da Ren’s younger sister had said is coming to pass: either he and You Qing would become lovers, or they would drift apart.
After Da Ren says he’s starting a new phase, we transition to You Qing, who in a voiceover over a montage says she’s continuing with the same old life. This after an episode where she claimed what she wanted was change, an episode where to symbolize/catalyze that change she buys a wig and lets her friends, family, and boyfriend think she’s cut her hair, an episode where she fought with Li Wei twice about her desire to change (her hair and the opportunity to move up in her company and work in Singapore), an episode that ended with her saying that everything’s changed. This need for change was a response to Da Ren’s moving to Singapore. You Qing had been prepping herself for a life with her best friend in another city, for life with no Da Ren to turn to when she was feeling down or had exciting news. And now all of a sudden she no longer wants change. She wants everything to stay exactly the same. But everything has changed, because now she has a knowledge she didn’t have before—that Da Ren loves her. And that knowledge in turn makes her confront her own feelings for him—more revelatory knowledge. Nic explains to her that she would be in love with Da Ren, if she wasn’t trying so damn hard not to love him. But possession is the beginning of loss; friendship lasts longer than love; and we’re dealing with two cowards. And so in answer to this new knowledge she rejects change, because this change is too much, the possibility of failure that could come from this change if she were to pursue it is too much for her to bear, and she chooses to stay the same.
The last image in the montage is of You Qing in her wig wearing a black dress with white polka dots. The symbol of change in a montage of stultification. It’s a tableau of ultimate confusion and dissonance.
The morning after Da Ren’s party, the morning of his departure, You Qing wakes up and she’s wearing that same dress. She goes to the airport in it but doesn’t say goodbye to Da Ren face-to-face, and then she goes in to work wearing it, tells her boss she won’t be going to Singapore, that she’s turning down the promotion. This means that she slept in the dress. This is You Qing, who works in the fashion industry, who’s always impeccably dressed and wears a different outfit for work each day. She hasn’t changed out of her clothes for over a day. It’s illustrative of the huge disruption in her life. And this disruption, this horrible change masquerading as no change at all, spills over into the rest of her life. At work she is unfocused and unaccountably rude to the woman who takes over the position she turned down out of fear. And wears the same dress for two days straight.
Romance, Language, and Romantic Heroes Redux
Li Wei causes You Qing to feel the fluttering with which she identifies being in love, but the other person who does this is Nic, and he was explicitly performing a role. He was acting for You Qing, putting on a show to reel her in, and after You Qing finds out she watches a Korean drama and imagines Nic as the leading man and her as the heroine.
In episode 11 You Qing is feeling uneasy about giving up the opportunity to move up in her job and work in Singapore, and after a fight, Li Wei tries to comfort her. She’s upset that her boss, who favors her, gave the higher position to another woman in the company who she isn’t very close with, a woman who’d gossiped about her back towards the beginning of the show. This isn’t really what she’s upset about, or rather, it’s not the only or most pressing thing that’s upsetting her. The reason she doesn’t like this woman hasn’t anything to do with what she’s said about her, but has everything to do with her doing something You Qing wasn’t willing to. You Qing gave up that job, but she still sees it as hers. It’s like me when I say “Go ahead and have the last piece of pizza,” and then the whole time the other person is eating it I have a stank look on my face. After all, You Qing is someone who forgives: Nic manipulated and lied to her, but they become good friends; she’s friends with her exes and even with her exes fiances. So this dislike of her colleague is out of the norm for her. And, of course, this in itself is a deflection from what’s really troubling her, that Da Ren loves her romantically and that she may feel the same for him—which is certainly not something she can tell Ding Li Wei. His answer to her distress is for her to quit her job. He says she should go on vacation for the rest of her life, and that he’ll pay her salary. It’s the same rhetoric he used in episode 10, when he told her that he would open up a shop for her, and when he gave more importance to his work in the business world over her work in the domestic fashion industry. Again and again, makes it clear that because of his financial success, You Qing’s having a job is more of a lark on her part than anything, and an indulgence on his. Because she is an extension of him–“how could you cut your hair without telling me!”–there is no need for her to work diligently, no need for her to suffer through the indignations of the public sphere.
It’s brilliant, because it’s a continuation of his smooth talk, of his saying words that are supposed to be romantic, words that are traditionally romantic, but when taken in context of whatever conversation he and You Qing are having, are awful. “I can’t live in a city without you.” So seductive, with how vulnerable it makes him seem, and how it casts You Qing as someone who’s so loved and wanted. What he says now are the same seductive words, words that are supposed to assure You Qing of the (financial) protection she’ll find with him. But this isn’t a Cinderella story: You Qing isn’t a Cinderella character–in fact she lends people money–nor does she want to be. In episode 6 You Qing wanted to get a ring that would represent her independence, but narratively the ring works differently. She couldn’t afford it, and she mused that neither could her future husband, but Ding Lei Wei probably can. He gets her a diamond ring, and when he fits it on her finger, it falls off because it’s too big. Da Ren, meanwhile, cuts out a ring he drew on some paper and presents it to You Qing. The ring from episode 6 is a symbol of You Qing’s non-Cinderella identity, a symbol of the fantasy of romance that Ding Li Wei offers her but which she rejects.
LI Wei and You Qing fight (again): she comes home late from a dinner with her boss, and he’s upset with her for it. He accuses her of being a workaholic and caring more about her work than about him. He says he puts up with her competitiveness and obstinacy, qualities about her even his boss had noticed. He tells her all he wants is for her to have the weekends off and to come home in time for dinner, like normal people. It all sounds fairly reasonable despite his atrocious word choice, until you compare his words to You Qing’s interactions with Da Ren’s mother in the same episode. Mama Li calls You Qing to change a light bulb for her and confesses that she waited a long time to do so because she knows how busy You Qing is and she didn’t want to disturb her over something so trivial. But You Qing answers her with, “Even if I’m busy I still have time to change a light bulb!” The thing is, You Qing makes time for the people important in her life. Each time a friend needs help she comes to their aid. In the first episode she postponed her birthday dinner with Da Ren so she could help one of her sale girls–a subordinate colleague, not a friend!–deliver her baby. Dut Ding Li Wei doesn’t see that. He has demands. He has expectations. He wants Yu Qing to fill those expectations. It’s like he has this ready idea of what he wants, and You Qing just needs to fit into that–it’s not just that Li Wei weaves a fantasy for You Qing, he weaves one for himself, too, with You Qing as the woman he saves from the financial difficulties of life. Romance with him is not about coming together and meshing, acting and reacting, changing according to the situation, and growing together. Romance with him is a set of standards and rules–expectations–to adhere to. It’s like You Qing is a stock character for him, and he could replace her with any other woman and say the exact same things to her. He’s reading from a script. That’s why he needs a crisis for You Qing to agree to marry him. Every other time he’s asked her she’s delayed an answer, but then he’s in a plane crash, and in her fear for his life and her guilt for not telling him she would choose him over her job and her loneliness in having Da Ren move, she says yes, she’ll marry him.
During the scene where ding Li Wei tries to comfort her, You Qing is wearing a black dress with white polka dots. She’s sitting on the couch at her home with Li Wei at her back, and as he blathers on about her quitting her job, she tunes him out and imagines Da Ren sitting across from her and saying the exact right words that would make her feel better.
Ding Li Wei doesn’t actually know how to speak with You Qing. Everything out of his mouth is this pastiche of romance, totally divorced from who You Qing actually is. He says things to her that should work in a romance, that would normally work for a leading man saving his Candy-girl heroine (*cough* what I expect we’ll be seeing in Heirs *cough*) but it doesn’t work here. He would be John Willoughby or George Wickham, but he isn’t clever enough to tailor his words to You Qing.