Actors: Zhao Liying, Zhang HanGenre: Romance, Contemporary
Rating: ★★★★☆ | 4.0/5.0
Rare is the trope I hate more than the “in love with the boss” trope. I make no secret of the fact that I despise emotionally stale male protagonists who can’t do any of their own emotional labour. I hate authors who idealise extreme power differences in a relationship. And most of all, I abhor the Chinese trope of the 霸道总裁. Somehow, though, every winter since its release, I’ve found time to rewatch Boss & Me.
It’s not for the acting, that’s for sure. Zhao Liying is incredibly talented, and her bubbly and sweet Shanshan comes across as genuine and kind, with a heart as big as her appetite. But Zhang Han leaves me cold, like he always does in every drama that isn’t titled Queen of SOP, mostly because he doesn’t know how to move his face, and he has the perfect excuse not to in human iceberg Feng Teng. (No microexpressions? Blank expression? Zero personality? I mean, okay.)
It’s not the story, either, because it’s a fairly standard one. After Shanshan donates blood to Feng Teng’s younger sister Feng Yue during a difficult pregnancy, she comes to his attention, despite not being outstanding at work or particularly competent outside of it. When she begins to eat on the balcony outside his office in order to escape office rumours, he becomes enamored with her optimism and her sweetness, and, not really knowing how to interact with her, orders her to come up and eat lunch with him daily, which of course, only begins to fan the flames of the gossip.
Why! O why! Do I like it so much?
Most superficially, it’s the costuming. It’s gorgeous. Moving on.
There’s also the cavity-inducing sweetness of it, which always makes me feel really cozy and fuzzy in the depths of cold dark singledom (also winter). Moving forward.
What I like best about this drama is that the character interactions and the consequences of people’s actions feel so natural. It’s a highly-produced drama to be sure, but it never feels excessively false. There’s no drama for drama’s sake, no passive aggression treated like a solution to problems or ridiculous theatrics that enable plotlines to drag on for much longer than it should. People act within the realm of reason, they respond within the realm of reason.
There is, for example, a pretty standard love triangle––a childhood friend of Feng Teng’s has been in love with him for twelve years, and their mutual best friend is in love with that childhood friend. But though that friend engages in a lot of underhanded passive aggressive pettiness meant to make Shanshan feel like she’s not good enough to be Feng Teng’s girlfriend, but it doesn’t take long for her bullshit to be called out, not only by Shanshan’s friends, but by her own friends. And when she is called out––fairly early in the drama––she comes to realise that she was pretty horrible, and she owns up responsibility. And she is genuinely a good person who is deserving of love––she’s just invested her feelings in the wrong place for the wrong reasons, and the drama never judges her for it, even if a good portion of the audience seems to.
(That particular plotline did drag on for much longer than I thought it needed to, but it wasn’t done to the point of absurdity, and I did end up liking the way they resolved it.)
I liked the way they resolved Shanshan and Feng Teng’s relationship too. I feel like stories like this tend to emphasise external conflict––the rich, judgemental grandmother doesn’t like this poor girl, or the rich boy’s fiancee shows up, descending from the heavens in a helicopter driven by a male model-slash-security guard, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum, but the tension between Shanshan and Feng Teng is largely internal and largely present from the beginning.
The show is very aware of the very real problems that stem from a seemingly fairytale relationship between an assistant in the financial department and the CEO of a global company. There’s the pressure that Shanshan puts on herself because she thinks she isn’t good enough for Feng Teng, even when there’s no indication that he thinks that. There’s the sense of alienation she feels from her peers, who don’t consider her an equal or a friend in whom they can confide, in part because they think she’ll take whatever they say to Feng Teng, and in part because they feel like they have to suck up to her.
Most most most importantly, though, the show is incredibly aware of the difficult of keeping your work and your personal life separate, and it’s aware of the fact that there is an enormous power difference between Shanshan and Feng Teng. From the beginning, their relationship is founded on that power difference: the company calls her out of bed at midnight to ask her to give blood––and certainly they’re asking and she can refuse, but that’s her boss asking. When he calls her up to eat lunch with him every day, he does so without giving her an option to refuse, without even considering what her colleagues might say and how that might impact her work life, which she genuinely wants to succeed in.
They have to work forward from that point, and the magic of it all is that they do. Even if the initial boss/subordinate relationship was kind of sketchy, once they move beyond that line to become a couple, there really wasn’t the sense that there was one person who held more power in the relationship than the other. And the logic and the reasoning behind Shanshan’s decisions, her insecurities––they come from a place that makes sense. The ultimate resolution of the drama is also really satisfactory, because it really made the relationship equal, not only in theory but in reality.
But honestly, this isn’t a drama I think too deeply about, and it’s not one that I have to think too deeply about precisely because it does these things so well I never feel too troubled by them. I have my reservations about certain moments, certain lines (for example, one particular quite racist moment that felt like it came out of nowhere, where two of the protagonists are suddenly mugged in London by a couple of Black people who are later characterised as being homeless, and this was just somehow acceptable? Okay). But most of the drama doesn’t cause me undue stress.
Even though nothing really happens across 40 episodes, it’s still compulsively watchable and I never get tired of watching, preferably wrapped in a warm blanket with a hot mug of tea and a thousand different snacks around me. (Never, ever watch this drama on an empty stomach. It’s dangerous.)