Fans of East Asian romantic dramas – mainly South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Japan – are used to watching shows that go at a deliberate pace and contain genre standards that don’t match up to what we see in the US culture is always helpful when watching an international series. But what if the culture shown on a series is something that you can intellectually rationalize while still feeling emotionally uncomfortable? This is what happened when we watched Rational life.
Opening shot: The Shanghai skyline; a woman answers the phone while driving on a highway.
The essential: Shen Ruoxin (Qin Lan) is in his early 30s and works as a legal consultant for an automotive company. Right now, she’s dealing with a standalone model of her business that caught fire and burned the wife of one of their most influential clients. She tries to make things right with her by bringing him flowers, but also not so gently asks if the car was flooded or if something else happened before the accident.
Rouxin is in a male-dominated field, and while her boss Xu Mingjie (Calvin Li) trusts her, her male colleagues don’t treat her with the respect she deserves. She also wonders if it’s time to break up with her bossy boyfriend, Cui Lixin (Tong Yue), who continues to watch her; they have worked together for years, but they are approaching their three month date anniversary. To add to her stress, her mother, firmly in Lixin’s camp, keeps urging Rouxin to marry before she becomes an old maid.
While buying a fruit basket to give to the accident victim, she literally stumbles upon a young man named Qi Xiao (Dylan Wang); he’s chasing his business partner, who basically took his investment in their online store and decided to move to another city with his boyfriend. She berates him for grabbing his friend and lays out the laws and penalties.
To support his friend Su Yang (Chen Peng Wan Li), Xiao both decides to go to a bar on the roof of the Bund. They happen to be there when Rouxin celebrates the birthday of her friend Ziyang (Bao Wen Jing). Lixin, knowing where they are, surprises Rouxin with flowers and a ring; he thinks that, three months after starting their relationship, they should be engaged. He even put down a down payment on a condo for the two of them. A drunken Xiao approaches, first to yell at Rouxin, then to defend her when she expresses her embarrassment about the whole situation.
When she sees the apartment, she finally gives Lixin a hard blow, feeling that he’s putting too much pressure on her even though they’ve only been dating for three months.
What shows will this remind you of? In many ways Rational life is like This girl, but 50 years later. Both are about a career single woman who is under pressure to get married due to societal norms that fiercely insist that she make her own decisions in life.
Our opinion : What Rational life is pointedly about how Rouxin falls in love with Xiao after he becomes her assistant (he goes for the interview in Episode 2), but also has feelings for her boss, Xu Mingjie. She must decide whether to follow her heart and go with the youngest one she supervises or choose the more “socially correct” choice of her boss. She has to balance that with her desire to be alone, something that is still rare for Chinese women in their 30s, who are considered “leftover women” if they get to this point without getting married.
The drama feels like it’s going to evolve fairly slowly – 34 episodes were dropped on Netflix last week – so a number of episodes may elapse before Rouxin and Xiao develop their relationship, or any more. things start to happen between her and her boss. Even if you are a fan of how romantic dramas like this play out in other East Asian countries like Korea, you can still be lulled into the rhythm of Rational life.
As it stands, the story is a fairly straightforward love triangle, possibly complicated by the families of those involved. We know that Rouxin has a freezing relationship with his mother, and Xiao has a good relationship with his; he draws him complex instructions for things like his new pressure cooker. These factors will weigh on Rouxin; she may even decide to remain single.
Your pleasure to Rational life really depends on how you can put up with the gender issues in China which mostly revolve around the pressure that career women feel to get married and start a family. Yes, these pressures are felt by women in the United States, but the culture in China – and much of that region – still looks at women like Rouxin in a derogatory way, much more harshly than here. As we quoted when we mentioned This girl above, this is going to seem hopelessly old-fashioned to western viewers, but if they watch the show with some knowledge of the culture in 2021, it could make the viewing experience more entertaining.
Gender and skin: Nothing.
Starting shot: Rouxin, relieved after throwing Lixin away, returns home and sees photos of a nebula on her laptop, sent directly from an observatory. She adds color to them and shares them online; then she projects it onto a giant screen and basks in the glow.
Sleeper Star: We enjoyed Tong Yue as Lixin because he pulled off the role of “awkward boyfriend destined to be dumped”, right down to his gestures and manners.
Most pilot line: We’d love to know the full story of Xiao’s online store partner taking his money, but we’re concerned that this story will likely evaporate by the end of Episode 2.
Our call: JUMP. Rational life moves too slowly, and its storyline is too old-fashioned to hold the interest of viewers, even those who enjoy Korean and Asian romantic dramas.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he’s not kidding himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.