This was bound to happen: Chinese medieval romantic fantasy TV finally got its meta moment with The Romance of Tiger and Rose. The result is a hilarious screwball comedy that manages to have its cake and eat it too. Zhao Lu Si plays Chen Xiao Qian, a geeky screenwriter convinced of her own genius as she sees her lifelong dream of becoming a screenwriter come true when her TV series goes into production. However, the star of the show criticizes her portrayal of love and the character he plays. He calls out the lack of emotional truth in her writing and is especially critical of its sexism – his villainous character is such a stereotypical chauvinist he finds it impossible any right-thinking woman could possibly fall in love with him. He even has the gall to say the scripts read like they're written by someone who's never fallen in love for real before.
The next thing she knows, she wakes up in the world she created, trapped in the body of the Third Princess, a mean girl with a terrible reputation – and supporting character – who gets murdered in the third episode!
Desperate not to die, she has to use her insider knowledge of every plot point to change her fate, and in the process changes the course of the story she originally wrote. She even puts together her own writer's room of playwrights and storytellers to plot what she should do next. Stuck with the villainous prince Han Dong, who was all set to murder her, she throws him for such a loop that he ends up falling in love with her, with the irony that he's played by the actor who called her out on her script's flaws in the first place.
Ding Yu Xi plays Han Dong's initially arrogant unflappability crumbling as he's increasingly bewildered, then enchanted by this Third Princess that he originally intended to poison. One of the funniest sequences has Xiao Qian deciding maybe dying would free her from this fantasy world, so she does everything to make sure she gets poisoned, only for it not to happen. Her waking up and screaming, "NOOOOOOO! I'M STILL ALIVE!" is the pinnacle of screwball comedy. Her not dying sets off a chain reaction of events that alter the entire plot of the series. Han Dong ends up evolving from scheming villain of the series to the romantic hero of Xiao Qian's own story.
"The Romance of Tiger and Rose": Isekai in Action
The Romance of Tiger and Rose is a variation of the Isekai genre in live-action. Isekai is where the main character from our world ends up in a fantasy world they know well and uses their "God Mode" level knowledge of the world and story lore as a cheat code to thrive in that world. This genre was originally established in Japanese visual novels (themselves video games that are really interactive graphic novels where players choose different story paths and outcomes) and light novels. The female variation of Isekai stories often feature the heroine waking up not as the heroine but the villainess supporting character of the story who has to cheat her way out of getting killed, and this Chinese series is a prime example.
It's also the first Chinese show to offer metacommentary on the inherent absurdities of the Chinese medieval fantasy TV show. The meta-ness offers the plot its own escape hatches: every cheesy plot contrivance can be chalked up to the fact that the screenwriter heroine wrote them that way. Xiao Qian is constantly remarking on the insanity of her own plotting as things unfold before her. And there's nothing funnier here than Zhao Lu Si and Ding Yu Xi's "WTF!" faces whenever something nuts happens before their eyes. Zhao Lu Si, a justly popular actress in China, carries the show with impeccable comic timing, proving herself a consummate screwball comedienne.
At 30 episodes, The Romance of Tiger and Rose was one of the most popular Chinese shows of this summer, totaling over 897 million views on Tencent. It's the most self-aware and funniest romantic comedy of the year, from any country.
The Romance of Tiger and Rose can be streamed for free on Rakuten Viki.