Material Queen feels like a post-modern fairy tale. It tells a love story by going backwards, where everything will end with finding love, rather than love leading to a journey together. This drama is so brilliantly directed that your eyes feast on the visual splendor of each scene, the camera flowing seamlessly from shot-to-shot. PD Chen Hui Ling is undoubtedly one of the best directors working in Taiwan right now, and being a woman in male-dominated industry and showing such talent makes me love her twice as much.
Part of me was loathe to recap this drama because I want to encourage people to watch it. It needs to be seen more than the story needs to be heard. MQ is a drama that understands its existence in the visual medium and utilizes the storyboard to build a world that seems so faraway yet so palpable. So far I’m truly exhilarated by what I have seen, and can’t wait to watch the drama continue to surprise me.
A male narrator voiceovers in French: Some time ago, on an ordinary night in a typical city, an extraordinary story is about to happen. A little girl is about to lose what she loves most in her life. Perhaps the beginning of this story appears conventional, but it really isn’t a common fairy tale…..
Little Lin Chu Man follows her mom down a dark cobblestone street, asking mom if she really is abandoning her? Mom is impatient to be rid of her and huffs that she never wanted a child anyways, and Chu Man will be better off in an orphanage with food to eat and a roof over her head.
Chu Man cries and her mom tells her to stop sniveling. She needs to learn one cold hard truth today, which is that if they had money, she wouldn’t be in this predicament. So Chu Man needs to grow up well and earn lots of money if she wants to get over what is happening to her today. Mom tells Chu Man to never come find her, because her life will be better off without having to take care of a child.
Chu Man stops crying and just looks at her mom. She wipes her tears and walks into the orphanage with a smile. She asks if this place is bigger than their home, and she will have ice-cream to eat. Mom looks surprised and says yes. Chu Man turns and tells her mom that she ought to leave then. Mom walks away and Chu Man sees what appears to be fireflies lighting up as her mother walks further and further away.
From then on, Chu Man eats, sleeps, and grows up all by herself. She adapts well, never showing any sadness. Sometimes Chu Man will look out the window with wistful expression, as if waiting for something. Chu Man learns to love beautiful shiny things, just like the shiny fireflies that were there when her mom left. One day, she stopped believing in miracles.
One Christmas eve, Chu Man tears the beard off Santa and tells all the kids that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. She’s reprimanded and heads outside to sit on the rooftop balcony. Suddenly a strange man appears next to her, showing her a coin. He asks her to pick which hand holds the coin. She picks correctly then she can have it.
Chu Man is told that she has one chance to pick correctly, and if she does, what she wants most in the world will come true. Chu Man picks incorrectly – there is no coin in that palm. She derides the existence of magic. The man says that making a coin disappear is just chicanery, but the real magic is about awakening what is inside Chu Man’s heart.
He opens the other palm and a firefly flies away. He tells Chu Man that the firefly was what she really wanted. Chu Man says there are no fireflies in the Winter, but she looks up and sees fireflies in the air. The man disappears, leaving Chu Man with one advice: she needs to believe, and then it will come true. If she doesn’t believe she can never find happiness. From now on, unless she truly means it, she will never be able to say I Love You. And a magical journey is about to begin.
Adult Chu Man is a supermodel doing a photoshoot in Paris. She is fully aware of her own beauty and is unafraid to use it. Her rich, much older, and very countrified Mainland Chinese business tycoon boyfriend arrives to try to woo Chu Man back. Chu Man plays hard to get and Chairman Wang lays on the abject apology.
Chu Man finally relents when sugar daddy whips out a giant honking engagement ring and promises that she’s the one he wants forever and ever. Chu Man’s eyes glisten when she sees the bauble. Chairman Wang declares that he loves her. When Chu Man tries to reciprocate, suddenly she burps. All she can say is “me, too.”
Chu Man’s other supermodel colleagues are both envious of her good fortune in landing one of the richest men in China, but also deriding her for selling herself to an old ugly man for money. Chu Man doesn’t believe in miracles like there being a young, rich, and handsome man out there to land. The models gossip about wealthy heir William Norman, who is purportedly in Paris and one of the most sought after bachelors in the world.
Chu Man voiceovers: She has a great life, anything money can buy from her rich boyfriend. She realized early on that the choice was between love or money. In that case, she chooses money. A life without love is simply a life without emotion. But a life without money is a life that one cannot survive. She refuses to live like that.
We see Chu Man create an opportunity to bump into Chairman Wang and lay her honey trap on him. She’s completely transparent, but he’s always completely aware. Buyer and Seller are entering into a bargain with eyes wide open.
Chu Man’s recalls that her teacher taught her to work hard, and she has. Everything she has today she worked hard for. The only thing she doesn’t believe in is miracles. We see Chu Man shopping all over Paris. She would rather have a manmade item like a diamond rather than an I Love You. Love will disappear, cannot be guaranteed or warrantied. So she wants something secure and tangible.
Chu Man and Chairman Wang walk into the Chaumet boutique and check out a diamond bracelet with a romantic superstition tied to it. It can only be put on by the person who truly loves you, and only that person can take it off. Chairman Wang immediately wants to buy it for Chu Man, but she hesitates and makes the excuse that he’s bought so much for her already, she doesn’t need it. Especially when the sales lady emphatically states that the bracelet means lovers united for all of eternity and can never be separated.
Chu Man admires her engagement ring and sighs that her life is perfect, but for the man she is marrying being a complete toad. But she doesn’t believe there is a man out there who is single, handsome, rich, and not a complete nutcase. We see Tsai Jia Hao (Vanness Wu) walk past Chu Man as she stands here admiring her ring.
Chu Man and Chairman Wang head back to the hotel. He tells her to go wash up and he’ll wait for her in bed. She laughs but Chairman Wang does not ask her why she’s happy. Chu Man looks a touch disturbed by his lack of interest in her. After she washes up she walks out to find him fast asleep snoring in bed. Chu Man sighs and heads out. She goes to a bar and sees Jia Hao playing the violin.
She asks for a drink and Jia Hao offers to serve her. The bartender leaves but not before insulting Chu Man (in French) calling her a whore. Chu Man is furious and tries to claw at him, but is restrained by Jia Hao.
She asks him to continue playing the violin, but he tells her that when one is feeling down, listening to such sad songs will only make her feel worse. Chu Man shows him her engagement ring and tells him that she got engaged today. He congratulates her and reminds her that it’s quite late. He treats her to a glass of whisky and tells her to drink it and go home.
Chu Man says her fiancée pursued her all the way to Paris and promised her a wedding of the century with a wedding dress designed by Vera Wang. Jia Hao asks if she’s happy then? Chu Man looks shocked and stammers that of course she’s happy. Jia Hao asks why she’s here right now then?
Jia Hae gives Chu Man two tickets for the Seine River cruise, explaining that it’s the most beautiful way to see Paris. Chu Man wants to pay for the tickets but Jia Hae refuses, saying that she already tipped him more than enough earlier for playing the violin.
Chu Man asks Jia Hao – if one day the person you love suddenly laughed, would you want to know why? He replies of course he would. Chu Man realizes that Chairman Wang doesn’t care how she genuinely feels. Chu Man gets up to leave, asking if he’ll be back here tomorrow. Jia Hao says no, he’s just a student at the Paris Music Academy and moonlights here.
Chu Man suddenly kisses Jia Hao, explaining that she doesn’t like to owe people for anything. Chu Man walks outside, wishing that if only Jia Hao were a rich man. Jia Hao walks outside and we see a limo waiting for him and someone identify him as Mr. William. He’s whisked away.
The next morning Chu Man tries to sneak out of the hotel room and Chairman Wang wakes up and asks to accompany her. She demurs saying all she’s going to do is work. She hands him an itinerary telling him that she ought to go sightseeing in Paris. Chairman Wang notes that Chu Man’s itinerary has him going all around in circles wasting time on travel between spots.
Chu Man says that she wanted him to rest between each spot so that’s why she scheduled it so he’s running all over Paris. On the way to the photoshoot, Peter reminds Chu Man that her next goal is to land the cover of the coveted Japan Airline’s calendar, with all her other models competing with her for the spot.
During the photoshoot, the other girls are gossiping about William Norman, who is purported to be in Paris. Turns out he was adopted by the wealthy Norman family and is of Asian descent. They also discuss that he’s currently a student. Chu Man sees his picture and realizes that the young man she met last night was William Norman. The best part is that Chu Man is wearing a ridiculous couture outfit that looks like a bird cage. And when she toddles off, another model mentions how that bird cage sure can run fast. Mwahahaha.
Jia Hao is performing for his professor in preparing for the upcoming final exam. The professor chides him for playing without heart and not understanding how to express love through his music. The professor thinks Jia Hao just strings notes together without understanding how to turn music into emotions.
Chu Man takes a taxi, after dolling herself up, and heads to the Paris Music Academy to land herself a rich, handsome, young man. Peter calls her and tells her that she’s missing out on landing the cover for the calendar. Chu Man says that you can’t put caviar in front of her and not expect her to chase after it.
Chu Man takes off her engagement ring and uses a dropped bag ruse to jump in front of the car (but you can see how she’s reluctant to toss her Dior bag in front of the car). She pretends to be surprised to see Jia Hao. She claims that she came specifically to see him because he left something with her. She takes out a napkin! Jia Hao looks at her like the freak golddigger she is and says “wow.”
He gives her the napkin from now on, and Chu Man uses this opportunity to mention that she’s ended her engagement to her fiancee. She says her fiancee has another woman on the side. Chu Man pretends that she hurt herself during a fight with her fiancee. Jia Hao wants to buy her a new bag but Chu Man says its a limited edition. She suggests he buy her a meal. She introduces herself as Chu Man, and asks if she can call him William.
Inside the limo, Chu Man asks for something to drink but Jia Hao can’t find the fridge. She asks about his music, and Jia Hao confesses he might not be a student at the Academy for long since his talent doesn’t appear to be all there. Chu Man says he must be very talented. Jia Hao says that he plays music for people all over the place, but no one ever stops to listen to him play.
Chu Man asks Jia Hao to accompany her somewhere and they head to the Seine River. She tells Jia Hao that she’s worked so hard to come here because it’s every woman’s dream to be here. She knows people look down on her, but she doesn’t believe in heaven or hell. The world is a cruel place and she only wants to survive.
They take a river cruise to enjoy the view. Chu Man tells Jia Hao that his life needs to be lived for himself even if no one understands him. If he wants to play the violin, he should do it. Jia Hao tells Chu Man that the woman who just said this nugget of wisdom to him can’t be a shallow person. She replies that she’s just someone looking for real love.
Rather than go out to eat (which is expensive), Jia Hao suggests that they head back the Norman estate and he will cook for her. Chu Man thinks that she’s close to landing her prize since he’s so forward. Jia Hao adorably cooks for Chu Man as she watches him. Suddenly Chairman Wang calls and Chu Man has to go placate him.
She lies that she’s still modeling. He wants to visit her but she tells him to keep touring and to take pictures of every place he goes. Chu Man and Jia Hao dine al fresco. Chu Man asks what other interests he has. He likes the beach so she thinks he has a personal yacht. Jia Hao sees Chu Man fidgeting and suggests he take her shoes off.
They stand up and walk in the garden. Jia Hao takes off his shoes and socks as well as they run around. He thanks her for helping him understand how to take the test tomorrow. He wants to give her a song as his thanks. Jia Hao’s song makes Chu Man remember how her mother left her and growing up in the orphanage. But she smiles as she watches him finish playing.
She asks why he played this song for her. He says she reminds me of the boy in the song, strong and independent, but the real her is like a lost and lonely girl. Chu Man says she didn’t believe in making wishes or believing in miracles. She gets close to Jia Hao and says that she believes in miracles now because she met him.
Chu Man leans in for a kiss and they start making out on the lawn. Making out outside ends up being naked on the bed inside. When Jia Hao wakes up, Chu Man has already left. She left one earring behind for him. The Norman family retainer comes to get Jia Hao and tells him that he needs to leave now since his job is done for today as William’s substitute.
The retainer drops Jia Hao off and hands him an envelope with money. He’s asked to continue to be William’s substitute for the next two days, and then this job is done. What Jia Hao spent on Chu Man today has already been deducted from the salary. Jia Hao asks why William Norman wants him to be his substitute? The retainer says that William is learning to fish and is waiting to catch a fish before he appears.
Chu Man walks back to the hotel, against the gorgeous backdrop of the brightly lit Eiffel tower. Chu Man takes off her one earring, and we see Jia Hae also take out the one earring. Suddenly Chu Man gets a call from Peter, who is warning her that Chairman Wang is looking for her and is already at her hotel room. Chu Man tells Peter to stall for her and she’ll be back in 10 minutes.
Thoughts of Mine:
I’m sorry I couldn’t find an HD torrent of MQ to screencap. This drama is so beautiful to look at, with a clarity and flow to the cinematography that makes your eyes just feel enriched. The story, however simple and straightforward in set-up, moves at a fast and steady pace. There are no wasted scenes, no dawdling for show.
I’ve said this before in my first impressions look at MQ, but I absolutely love and am rooting for Chu Man. She is a well-written character, with her personality laid out clearly with a few key scenes. Jia Hao is currently a foil for her, but I foresee that once their real identities and motives are known to each other, that is when the true sparks will fly between them.
The story is fascinating in its simplicity, yet rich in character nuance. Supermodel-actress Lynn Xiong is breathtaking as our titular material queen, and Vanness Wu starts off shaky but finds his footing as her beau with more heart than money. We’re just getting started, and I think this story has a lot of room to really delve into a meaningful examination of modern beliefs in love versus money, but told in a pseudo-fairy tale way.
This drama really inspires me as a piece of art. It’s not innovative, doing something new and novel. Rather it aspires to do something well and do it with genuine effort. You can see the detail that went into the set and costume design. You can see all the intricate touches lingering in every corner of every frame. The lighting is magnificent, illuminating or darkening the story just right each time. I feel swept away when I watch it, which is why I know that I’m seeing something special right before my eyes. MQ’s low ratings bedamned, this is one quality drama.