The Legend of Shen Li

A sugar hit that never quite fills you up

The Legend of Shen Li is a Xianxia (Chinese mythology/fairytale) that recently finished airing on local and international streaming platforms. More than 2 billion (yes, you read that right!) people tuned in to watch the long awaited second collaboration between Zhao Li Ying and Li Geng Xin since their global success of Princess Agents in 2017.


In a Nutshell


Zhao Li Ying plays the titular character Shen Li, a formidable and fearless General of the Immortal realm army. Her military prowess earned her the title of Lord Bi Cang and she is revered by everyone in the immortal realm. But being still female, she is forced into a political marriage with a playboy from the Heavenly realm. She gets injured while trying to escape and falls to the mortal world as a phoenix, her spirit animal form. She ends up in a marketplace for hungry peasants and is mistakenly sold as a chicken. She is bought by a seemingly carefree and aloof man, Xing Yun, played by Li Geng Xin, who surprisingly doesn’t turn her into a tasty meal, but instead nurses her back to health. As the most powerful warrior in the immortal realm, she finds her predicament and doting care by this mere mortal humiliating and embarrassing. As Shen Li starts to appreciate his kindness and the simple pleasures of earthly life, she begins to develop feelings for her mortal saviour.


Xing Yun, is actually Xing Zhi, the last surviving Ancient God who restored order to the 3 realms (Heaven, immortal and mortal) millennials ago. Lonely and depressed, he chooses to be reborn as a mortal to experience earthly life. He initially finds Shen Li’s predicament amusing, but also feels sorry for the poor lass. As he continues to bond with her, he begins to fall in love; something which is strictly forbidden for an Ancient God (Why you ask? Because Chinese mythology says so …).

As a sinister force threatens to disrupt the harmony of the 3 realms, Shen Li and Xing Zhi have to choose between their forbidden love and carrying out their duty to protect the 3 realms.


The Highlights


  • I will save you time: Episodes 22 – 30 are the best, followed by episode 1 – 3.  Watch the other episodes if you have nothing else productive to do.
  • The best executed episodes (see above) involve the mortal realm where Shen Li and Xing Zhi have the freedom to be themselves and just enjoy each other’s company. The cinematography, lighting, costumes, use of natural landscapes, and poignant soundtrack all make their mundane tasks so beautiful and give purpose to the simple surroundings. ZLY and LGX have less dialogue but this is where their acting skills shine, as they are able to sum up Shen Li and Xing Zhi’s raw and organic relationship with each other through subtle facial expressions and gestures. 
  • Beautiful costumes and loved all the outfits Shen Li wears! 
  • Loved the soundtrack and songs which perfectly captured the grandeur, passion and intensity of Shen Li as the warrior phoenix (the phoenix is the King of all birds in Chinese culture). The “Battle hymn of Bi Cang” will get you fired up to do anything! 
  • When used judiciously, the special effects/CGI were actually pretty good. Will definitely try and rewatch some of the episodes (especially ep 23 which was epic!!) on a big good quality TV screen. 
  • The script stays faithful to its original novel “Accompanying the Phoenix”

The Lowlights 

  • 39 episodes is too long for a drama that is based on a simple and predictable Xianxia story. The result is inconsistent quality of episodes where some were well done (see above), some were mediocre, and others just so boring/nonsensical that I tuned out completely. 
  • We all know ZLY and LGX can act! But unfortunately, the blinding bright colour palates and ridiculous smoothing filters meant ZLY was stuck in a dead-pan expression and LGX with a permanent look of constipation for most of the immortal / heavenly realm scenes, with a few sprinkles of brilliance when the script demanded it. 
  • Some of the kissing scenes were really awkward and cringey to watch. I am not sure if it was the ill-placed camera angles or terrible lighting, but one particular “hot and daring” scene (pretty sure you know which one …) looked like an amateur video cobbled together by a horny teenager in their bedroom. 
  • Some episodes were purely a bombardment of CGI and special effects with not much going on in the plot or character development to warrant such sensory overload. Special effects are meant to support and create the right atmosphere for the story, not serve as a tool to mask the lack of good writing or interesting characters. 
  • I felt like I needed a PhD in Chinese Mythology to understand how all the 3 realms interacted and the concept of rebirth/reincarnation and all the associated mythical animals and spirits. Reading the novel helps a bit. But the lack of world building means some pre-requisite knowledge of the Xianxia genre would help to understand some plotlines. Of course, one can always choose to turn brain off and just watch the show.
  • Too much use of internal monologuing. Urgh … might as well read the novel instead!


The Verdict


This drama is like eating nothing but sweets all day - you get a nice big sugar hit, but at the end of the day still feel dissatisfied and rather empty inside. 


6.5/10 – watchable but nothing groundbreaking