In the 80s-90s, Hong Kong production house, TVB (Television Broadcasts Limited), reigned supreme on Asian screens as Cdrama productions and the majority of Asian drama companies like ATV couldn’t compete with Hong Kong productions at the time. Kdrama was not yet known internationally, not until early 2000s when Winter Sonata initiated the first Hallyu wave in Japan (I know this because my mother was obsessed). Years later, another wave sprung. And with it, the phrase Second Lead Syndrome (SLS) came into existence. To add more drama, writers created a perfect boy next door - the flawless man - which fans couldn’t help but swoon over, one who was more preferable than the main lead for the heroine. (ex. Jealousy Incarnate, She was Pretty, The Heirs, Boys Over Flowers).
When I was young, I watched dramas for the main characters. Whether the story ended in tragedy or happiness, it was always about the couple that lead the story, the One True Pair (OTP) as most writers would make us believe. Recently though, I realized my attention was no longer focused on the leads within the tale. Dramas with perfect OTPs no longer held my interest because they could be considered “redundant” and “boring” according to modern perspective.
A girlfriend of mine said that most authors act as stepmothers to their second leads. Chances are, second leads often die tragically as sacrificial lambs or are left with hanging plot. The very reason why we have fanfiction for the unsatisfied viewers who want to give justice to these seemingly forsaken characters. We want to bring attention to the couples that were not highlighted. The second couples whose stories were so enrapturing, chemistry so undeniably passionate that one couldn’t help but ignore the lead couple altogether. Our romantic selves always awaited the moment of the second couple’s appearance.
This week, I want to bring focus to one tragic ending. I’ve been following their journey despite being aware of the tragic path looming on the horizon. I could’ve stopped watching like I’ve told myself to countless times. The main lead couple in the drama was just not my cup of tea. Yet I could not escape. The second pair was what kept me involved in the drama no matter what may come.
Legend of Dugu
Their Story: Yuwen Hu first met Dugu Banruo at the Buddhist temple when she prayed for the health and success of her family. But, unbeknownst to him, her greatest wish was to be married to the future King of the Northern Zhou. The moment Yuwen Hu set eyes on the eldest daughter of his nemesis, General Dugu Xin, he was captured by her alluring beauty, undeniable strength and, most of all, her passion to become Queen of the Nation.
To have Dugu was to have the world.
Some viewers may not know that the maternal bloodline of Dugu’s clan ran through the veins of the Northern Zhou, then the short-lived Sui, and later Tang dynasties.
The prophesized imperial destiny, in fact, came into fruition for not just one, but all three of the Dugu sisters, children of the Minister of Northern Zhou -- eldest Dugu Banruo (Empress Mingjing of Northern Zhou), 2nd eldest Dugu Mantuo (Empress Yuanzhen of Tang), and the youngest Dugu Qieluo (Empress Wenxian of Sui) -- all three held the title of Empress.
They were the famous daughters of General Dugu, who all reigned as Empress through their spouse or child, in the three different dynasties -- a feat unheard of.
From the beginning, Dugu Banruo was never one to stray from her determined path that would lead her to becoming Empress. While Yuwen Hu also never ceased or hid his intention to conquer the world, he offered to give her all the powers he possessed. But Dugu Banruo, the level headed Dugu daughter, would rather play it safe. Marrying Yuwen Yu, who would most likely be in line for the throne, was the easiest way. With Yuwen Hu’s support, her ambition was solidified. But her intended was neither strong nor wise, not even man enough to protect her.
Worse than a weakling, Yuwen Yu was simply a coward: one who couldn’t even react like a normal newly wedded husband would when his cousin Yuwen Hu crashed his wedding night -- determined to possess the new bride. It was Banruo who had to tell Yuwen Hu off because no one could ruin her plan. She forced Yuwen Hu to leave by dragging her husband to their wedding bed -- knowing full well her actions would break her former lover’s heart.
But a jealous lover is never to be trifled with. And so, the consequence ensued. Since fate had other ideas for those who believed they could control their own destiny, it didn’t take long for tragedy to strike the Dugu family. To save her beloved youngest sister, Banruo would do anything, thus offering herself as a sacrifice to the now-enemy/ex-lover.
Dugu Banruo was not a simple woman of her time. Initially horrified to be carrying Yuwen Hu’s child, she realized advantage was on her side and used her silver lining from that fateful night of her sacrifice, her love child, as a bargaining chip to reach the throne. Strong-willed and manipulative, she convinced Yuwen Hu to help her husband gain the throne, so that their love child could be the legitimate future King of the Northern Zhou.
Yuwen Hu on the other hand, was ruthless when it came to taking revenge on the man who had married his love. With the power of the army and the court itself, his only rival was General Dugu. Although Yuwen Hu cared for no other than Banruo, his hunger for power overshadowed his actions. His relentless fight for the power of the Northern Zhou led to the death of Banruo’s Father, General Dugu Xin. His continued poisoning of Yuwen Yu, his beloved’s husband, to gain the throne was no surprise either.
But everything had a price, for no evil deed goes unpunished. His ambition eventually lead to his lover’s death. She, too, was poisoned by his loyalists, who saw her as his weakness -- one that they couldn’t afford. They weren’t wrong. Yuwen Hu’s love for Banruo made him pull back his forces and change his well-laid plans on many occasions to appease the woman he could never deny. It was no secret to these unfortunate souls that Dugu Banruo had strung him along. She knew she could always use herself to put a pause on his plans. The fearless Queen even pulled a dagger on her lover on several occasions when he tried to do her family harm.
Even with her last breath, Dugu Banrou performed her duties with the utmost care. She tried to sway her former lover for leniency -- a man who was known to have none. Dressed in all her Empress glory, she wanted him to see her as who she truly was, the Queen of the nation, the love of his life, the woman who dared to tell him no -- but who was now pleading for mercy for her loved ones. Banruo continued to beg him to not bring harm to her sisters as well as her weak husband.
Yuwen Hu held her in his embrace, as her labored breaths signified she couldn’t hold on much longer. The foolish man that he was, he still asked the one question the answer to which he needed to know -- whom did she love more, him or her husband? Like their wayward courtship, Dugu Banruo took her last breath at that exact moment, right before she could muster the strength to answer him.
Yuwen Hu did show leniency towards his beloved’s family -- but a jealous man could never show mercy to the one whom he believed had stolen the other half of his soul. Because from even beyond the grave, Dugu Banrou would never be his. Investitured with the title of the Empress of Northern Zhou, she would never share the same tomb with him.
Dugu Banruo - Some may not like her, because she was power hungry. But all that stemmed from her responsibilities to her clan. Men who are hungry for power are the same; why not a woman? There are many stories of Empresses who did everything within their power, even succumbing to unsavory means to keep their clan above others. It was their responsibility, their destiny. In an era when women were viewed as property, who could blame these women for grasping the chance to make a difference, for making their existence significant?
Banruo was the eldest sister, the most intelligent, calculative, and responsible. Yet her life was cut short due to the fate she chose. She was torn apart as a daughter of a powerful general, sister of Dugu Qieluo (Empress Wenxian of Sui), wife of an incompetent Emperor, and the lover of the man whom she could only use for her ambition to secure her clan’s future.
Due to her status, Dugu Banruo was one of those complicated people who can change the tide of the war and Ady An did an amazing job of bringing this character to life. In fact, the actress turned down other leading roles for playing the more "complex” character in this drama. Yet her presence was so strong, so overpowering, her story became magnified to the nth degree. There were moments where she was fierce, a lioness who would take down anyone who threatened her pride. Other times her weakness was shown to no other but him, the one person she tried to keep her vulnerabilities from. The viewers, including myself, couldn’t help but ignore all the other characters as we watched this strong but conflicted female character who stole the show.
Yuwen Hu - Forever the villain in dramas, again and again…
This historic figure was on a par with Cao Cao -- manipulative, intelligent and treacherous. He was the shadow king, the power behind the crown. As the Grand Preceptor of the Northern Zhou, Yuwen Hu was the most senior ranked official of the court -- the one who decided who may rule the nation. It depended on his seemingly unpredictable, yet actually calculative mood.
Legend of Dugu finally brought this character to viewers in the most vulnerable, unimaginably relatable form. He wasn’t just a shadow king, but a man who had feelings and weaknesses. An iron man with the most basic human desire. His weakness was the one woman he could never possess. Because she too was as passionate as he was; his better half, his nemesis. Because she, as much as him, wanted to control her destiny in an era when it was impossible for her gender.
I first watched Jeremy Tsui in The Virtuous Queen of Wu. He was a second lead supporting cast member. But nothing had prepared me for his role in Legend of Dugu. Not only was he well-casted, he made the villain of the drama remarkable, memorable. We felt his anguish, his fears, his helplessness even when he was capable of causing all misery and destruction all around. He was real. He was human. Despite his evil deeds, he was relatable. Even with all the powers he possessed, all those limitless powers, he was lost as he gazed upon his hidden love child for the first time, knowing his end was near.
Honorable Mention: Yuwen Yu
Nothing brings more sorrow to a wife than a husband who is emotionally weak. Yuwen Yu was that kind of man. He needed her more than Banruo needed him, and that was what lead to both their downfalls. He shouldn’t have become King, but he did. It was frustrating to watch an incompetent King, who, with all the support he had by his side, still couldn’t stand up to the man who wanted to steal his wife.