“Curfew is temporarily suspended in Chang’an. Anyone, no matter where you come from, could get in the city after only one security check. Once you get in, you are allowed to commute between different places inside the city within the next 12 hours,” an officer announces on top of the city gate of Chang’an, modern day Xi’an. It is the Lantern Festival in Tang dynasty China, the fifteenth day of the first month in the Chinese lunar calendar. It is an exuberant celebration when people indulge themselves by gazing at the moon or lanterns, and playing with fireworks.
That’s how the hit TV show, The Longest Day in Chang’an, starts — a delicate movie-class long-take, depicting the lives of female entertainers (like Japanese Geishas), peddlers, tradesmen, servants, western travelers, poets and assassins in disguise at this prime time in Chinese history. Each episode opens with refined details, indicating a certain time period of the day with a giant sundial, an ancient method of recording time according to the shadow caused by the sun.
According to the director Cao, he wanted to display the prosperity of the Tang dynasty, bringing a wholistic view of what people were dealing with in their daily lives back then, whether it’s work, entertainment or socializing. However, under the openness and abundance of the nation there are hidden shadows and currents. It was the best of times, but it was also the worst of times.
The Tang dynasty has been an inspirational treasure trove for several renowned Chinese directors, with historical fantasy films like Legend of the Demon Cat by Chen Kaigebased on Yoneyama Mineo’s Samana Kukai, as well as Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark all set in that historical period. Both have garnered decent box office records.
See also: Remembering Tang Dynasty, China’s Cradle of Innovation
The Longest Day in Chang’an also adopts one of the most in vogue TV genres – double detectives. Just like Sherlock Holmes and Waston, the show has two protagonists with completely different characters. One, an experienced and bohemian anti-hero detective who was recently released from prison and is aware of shady secrets behind the prosperity of his nation. Another is a prodigy with a historical prototype of a genius emperor’s counselor. Together they go on to solve a case within a time span of 12 hours. Despite movie-class artistic design, the half ancient and half literary lines are mingled with phrases that one would expect to hear in a more Korean melodrama, like “For most men their behavior doesn’t match their words, I hope you are not one of them.” To be fair, the show does it in a pretty sarcastic and self-aware way.
The series, released on Youku, has received a rating of 8.6 on Chinese top rating website Douban.com, which is flooded with picky young film nerds. It is safe to say a large number of young fans are drawn to the show by its exemplary cast, featuring Lei Jiayin, known for his role in the Chinese comedy “Guns and Roses,” and Jackson Yee, of Chinese boy band TFBoys.
Jackson Yee with his angular yet frosty facial features and temperament, is a perfect choice for the role of the prodigy emperor’s counselor, who is portrayed in the original novel, The Longest Day in Chang’an as a young man with “a round and small face, with unfaded temperament of youthhood. There already appears three light wrinkles upon his eyebrows, which is perhaps a result of too much contemplation over things.” The actor, who was just 17 at the time of filming the TV series, already displays better acting skills than most pretty but dull faces in idol dramas.
It is also worth mentioning that the author of the original novel has achieved huge success previously through several web shows including Mystery of Antiques. Apart from his abundant knowledge of history, he also knows how to make the story more enticing. He once shared in a documentary about this show, “I think Chang’an is one of the most glamorous ancient cities in China. People from all over the world come and gather in this place. The greatest charm of this culture actually lies in the lives of ordinary people hidden under the prosperous facade.”