Let me preface this review by saying for the record, that The Longest Day in Chang’an is widely praised and loved, and is a bona fide hit with audiences in and out of China. In fact, a number of you have shared with me how much you love this show. And with good reason; Show is very, very solid, which I’ll talk about shortly.
Let me also say, that personally, my experience of watching this show felt akin to a very ordinary girl trying to date, understand, and make a relationship work with, an intellectual, aloof, highbrow, take-me-or-leave-me sort of guy. It’s the kind of thing that I’ve seen work out lots of times on my rom-com drama screen, but.. this didn’t quite pan out the same way for me, unfortunately. From start to finish, it felt like a fair amount of work to me, spending quality time with this show, and try as I might, this never blossomed into true love, sadly.
Still, this might blossom into true love for you?
WHAT IT’S ABOUT
The city of Chang’an is under threat of a terrorist attack on the day of the Lantern Festival, and Taoist priest Li Bi (Jackson Yee), who is chief of the city’s Peacekeeper Corp, enlists the help of death-row prisoner Zhang Xiaojing (Lei Jiayin) to investigate and stop the attack.
Show can get very action-packed, with lots of killing and fighting and injuries. Also, there are so many characters that it can be hard to keep track. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that this is an excellent production, but it’s also not a show for everyone.
STUFF I LIKED
Show is pretty sprawling, at 48 episodes, so it would be a pretty big undertaking, to try to talk about everything and every character. Given my pretty neutral feelings about the show as a whole, and because our story is so convoluted, I’m deliberately opting to highlight only a few characters in this review. This will make things simpler for me, and also, ensure that we avoid having too many spoilers in this review. So if I missed out any of your favorites, I apologize. Do feel free to share your favorites in the comments though, to help round out this review. 🙂
The technical excellence is exceptional
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Show’s technical excellence is its biggest strength; every episode feels like a mini movie, both in terms of quality and execution. And with good reason too, since this is reportedly the most expensive Chinese drama made to-date, with an extensive amount of attention to detail, in reproducing makeup, costuming and architecture true to the era. The production also spent 7 months building the drama set, which is so large-scale, intricate and detailed that it’s quite a sight to behold.
In terms of execution, Show totally lives up to its cinematic reputation. Right away in episode 1, you can see that it’s very well made, and every little detail has been given a lot of thought; every camera angle, every transition, carefully mapped out and seamlessly executed. The use of the crane shot throughout an action scene made me feel like I was right there in the thick of the action, just barely avoiding getting dragged into the fray.
I’m no expert on cinematography, but to my eyes, everything in this drama looks deliberate and thoughtful in its angles, framing, lighting and composition. In particular, the lighting is done very artfully, I thought. In episode 7, the scene where Li Bi goes to see the Right Counsellor (Yin Zhusheng), is an example. His face is shown, half in the shadow, and half bathed in light. The contrast is very beautiful, but there’s also a moodiness to the shot, and it made me wonder if Show was saying something about Li Bi standing in a position to make a choice between darkness and light, in that moment.
Last but not least, I wanted to mention that the action sequences in this show are very to-the-point and efficient. No flourishes or fancy poseur stuff; only quick and deadly moves. It feels very movie-like to my eyes in that way, too.
Overall, the handling and execution is top-notch and very impressive, and is worthy of a look, all on its own merit.
The acting is very solid
The entire cast does a sound job of delivering their various characters.
From key characters to supporting characters to side characters, every one is deftly portrayed, which is always an excellent thing, in any ensemble cast. There were admittedly a couple of occasions where I felt certain characters were delivered a smidge more theatrical and OTT than necessary, but this wasn’t a big damper on my watch.
In particular, I wanted to mention that I didn’t even realize that Jackson Yee is technically an idol-actor, hailing from popular boy band TFBoys. That’s very impressive, because to my eyes, Jackson Yee held his own, even when sharing the screen with co-star Lei Jiayin, who is much more experienced and mature. Yet, it didn’t feel like Jackson was being overshadowed by Lei Jiayin’s screen presence; he pulled his own weight and then some, and I’m suitably impressed.
Lei Jiayin as Zhang Xiaojing
My hairdresser Ah Wei, who’s from China, tells me that Lei Jiayin’s always been the manly man type, but I’ve only ever seen Lei Jiayin play beta males, in C-drama The First Half Of My Life and C-movie How Long Will I Love U, so seeing him play alpha male Zhang Xiaojing was quite the mind-bender, for me.
Lei Jiayin is, in a word, spectacular as Zhang Xiaojing.
From jaded and weary, to determined and stubborn, to powerful and aggressive, Lei Jiayin portrays all of Zhang Xiaojing’s facets so well. When Zhang Xiaojing is urgently barking out orders, and growling at the people around him, he looks formidable, and is so commanding and riveting that I couldn’t look anywhere else on my screen. And when he’s speaking kindly to someone, he feels like the most gentle, warm-hearted person you could imagine. Lei Jiayin is completely believable at any point of the spectrum, and it’s quite remarkable.
Additionally, it looks to me like Lei Jiayin did a lot of his own stunts, none of which look at all easy. So much respect.
I honestly don’t think I will ever look at Lei Jiayin the same way again. Wow.
E2. Even though our antihero is a convicted criminal, and professes not to follow any rules when he does things, we get indications of his respect for humanity. The way he bows to the dead man and tell him that he’s worked hard; the way he drags the bystander out from under the horse to save his life; these little moments give me a sense that our antihero is someone with compassion.
E6. The unwavering, to-the-death loyalty that Zhang Xiaojing’s men have for him, even after he’s spent so much time in jail and is, legally, a dead man walking, is completely moving, and also, very intriguing. I want to see how he led them, before he ended up in jail. Is he really the bad man that he makes himself out to be? I find that hard to believe, for the kind of loyalty and sacrifice that he inspires.
E10. Lei Jiayin is showing more range than I’ve ever seen from him, and it’s impressive. When Zhang Xiaojing is rampaging with fury, it feels like there might be literal fire coming out of his eyes. But when Zhang Xiaojing speaks kindly, he looks like the most trustworthy person in the world.
When he spoke to Commander Cui (Cai Lu) to ask him the details of the runaways, I was impressed with how he managed to get Commander Cui to trust him, even though they are far from being on good terms.
E12. It’s interesting that Zhang Xiaojing can just make people talk, by asking them questions. In the beginning of the episode, he asks Commander Cui why he stayed in Chang’an, and Commander Cui grudgingly tells him the whole story. Then later, when the failed beggar assassin comes to, and is leading Zhang Xiaojing to the place he believes his client is, he tells Zhang Xiaojing all about himself, just because Zhang Xiaojing asked.
E13. Zhang Xiaojing is impressive. First, he’s so skilled that he’s managed to pin down woman warrior Yu Chang (Li Yuan), who’s been shown to be lightning fast and ruthlessly lethal. Second, in the midst of their breakneck-speed sparring, he’s able to notice the coins hanging on her wrist, and connect that to the woman that he saw on Huaiyuan Street, taking the map off the body of the suspect. Quite spectacular, all around.
E25. You reap what you sow. Zhang Xiaojing’s long history of being a good and admirable leader comes into play often, to help him. This episode, the sleuth-hounds who are supposed to treat him as an enemy make an exception and bow to salute him instead. And when they receive the order to kill him on sight, they look the other way instead. That speaks of just how much Zhang Xiaojing has affected them before this point.
E26. Wow. The sleuth-hounds, who are supposed to treat Zhang Xiaojing as an enemy, not only acknowledge him and look the other way, they spring into action to save him, when they realize he’s in danger. I’m trying to wrap my brain around the fact that they gathered their resources to help him escape, persuade him not to trade his life for his work, and then promptly die for him, while buying him time. This basically means that they see his life as more worthy than their own, literally. They love and respect him so much, in spite of what’s happened in terms of him betraying one of their own, that they readily give up their lives in order to preserve his. That’s mind-bogglingly profound. What an impact he must have had, on each of them.
E28. Once again, Zhang Xiaojing’s casual kindness saves him. His by-the-way conversations with the prostitute from before, where he shows interest in her life and future as a person, end up saving him. Ge Lao (Djimon Hounsou) happens to give her the power to decide Zhang Xiaojing’s fate, and she spares him, while giving him what he needs, to get the information he wants.
E29. Zhang Xiaojing is a man who values friendship. When he hears that Xu Bin (Zhao Wei) is dead, he asks Xu Hezi (Qu Shanshan), the performer who rescues him, to light a lantern in Xu Bin’s name. This, when he’s on the run and has an entire city to save. I find that touching.
The investigation squad
This isn’t a big part of the story, and it also doesn’t remain a constant through our narrative because of changing circumstances, but for a season, Zhang Xiaojing, Li Bi, Xu Bin and Tan Qi (Reyizha Alimjan) work together as a team to solve the case.
I really liked watching them work together, each bringing their strengths to the table and sharing clues, information and insights. They feel a bit like a ragtag team that’s been hastily formed under dire circumstances, and yet, their strengths and intellects mesh so well, that I couldn’t help wishing for more scenes of them together.
There are surprise lashings of romance
I fully expected this show to be devoid of romance, because who has time for romance when the entire city is at stake, right? But, at around the episode 10 mark, Show starts amping up the sparks between Zhang Xiaojing and Tan Qi, and I have to admit, it’s a heady addition to the mix.
For a loveline that spans all of one day, I have to say that Show does a nice job making the feelings between Zhang Xiaojing and Tan Qi feel real and important, even in the midst of much more pressing, life-and-death matters. Importantly, I didn’t feel like this loveline overshadowed the main narrative arc, nor did I feel like it took up too much real estate in our story. In this sense, I felt that Show managed a very good balance.
I have to admit, I didn’t see this loveline coming at all, but once it was on my screen, I found that Lei Jiayin and Reyizha Alimjan share a solid amount of sparky chemistry, and I enjoyed their loveline very much indeed.
Here’s a quick spotlight on my favorite highlights of this almost-couple.
E10. Zhang Xiaojing’s offhanded remarks to Tan Qi.. are those considered flirtatious, I wonder? He doesn’t seem like the flirtatious sort. Maybe more like, he understands people, and he knows that this is one way to provoke her into talking?
E13. It’s interesting how Tan Qi can’t even figure out for herself, why she would agree to carry out the errand that Zhang Xiaojing requested of her. I guess he’s getting to her, in spite of her reservations.
E18. Zhang Xiaojing recognizes Tan Qi in disguise immediately, which is quite impressive, considering she’s wearing a ton of makeup and a veil, and dressed in clothes that she usually never wears. And to think that in the moment, he’d still have the wherewithal to tease her flirtatiously that she looks good. Ha. He’s such an unfaltering rascal.
E19. The simmering chemistry between Zhang Xiaojing and Tan Qi is becoming more and more apparent. Zhang Xiaojing believes she was speaking the truth, when she claimed that she’d fallen in love with him and wanted to run away with him. Honestly though, Zhang Xiaojing does have a kind of arrogant melty sort of effect. And the way he picked up Tan Qi to carry her, because she had danced on hot coals to save him, was quite gallant. His remark, that bad-tempered women with a soft heart were the best, was just cheeky icing on the cake.
E20. The forced proximity in the confession booth; the murmured exchange; Zhang Xiaojing leaning in to Tan Qi and finally kissing her, quickly and decisively. It’s a bit unexpected and also, a bit dizzying, because his lips leave hers as swiftly as they touch, and then he’s pinning the head priest against the wall. Woah.
E21. I’m surprised at the way the mutual feelings between Zhang Xiaojing and Tan Qi are given time and spotlight. I mean, in a life-or-death situation like this, where assassins could leap through your window at any time, they actually have pockets of time where they talk about meaningful things.
This episode, their feelings for each other come out into the open and are finally acknowledged by both sides. When Zhang Xiaojing remarked that Tan Qi would become a grumpy old lady, because the man she loved was only able to spend a day with her, I felt that. It was such a piercing statement, because it’s true. After this day, Zhang Xiaojing is due back on death row, and that sucks.
Tan Qi’s quiet confession, with the hint of tears in her eyes, that after meeting Zhang Xiaojing, Chang’an looked to her to be a better and more interesting place, is a big deal. She’d found life to be increasingly meaningless, and here appears a man who makes her believe in the good of humanity again. When she said that she simply wanted the good person to have a good outcome, I felt that too. And so did Zhang Xiaojing. The way he gazed at her in that moment, transfixed, said so much. It felt like the first time in a long time, that he’d heard someone refer to him as a good person, and it moved him so much, that he could only express his wonder at her as, “you looked pretty.”
I don’t know where this burgeoning relationship will go, or if it even has a place to go, given Zhang Xiaojing’s death sentence, but I already feel like these two people’s lives would be made so much better, with the other person in it. It’s like they’re able to read and feed each other’s souls.
E25. The feelings between Zhang Xiaojing and Tan Qi are becoming more apparent. When faced with danger, Zhang Xiaojing sends her on a mission to get to Li Bi, to get her to leave. She leaves, but instead of looking for Li Bi, she seeks help for Zhang Xiaojing. Zhang Xiaojing is right; he is more important to her than Li Bi. And, the way he mumble-growls it, from the back of his throat, for her ears only, as he leans in towards her, is sexy, I have to admit.
Li Yuan as Yu Chang
No disrespect to the other characters in our ensemble, but I just had to give a shout-out to Li Yuan as badass warrior Yu Chang. I have never seen another character like her in a drama. I couldn’t help but admire her toughness, her swag, and her ninja-like lethal fight skillz.
Yu Chang is alarmingly relentless when it comes to fighting, but she’s also endlessly tenderhearted towards Long Bo (Zhou Yiwei). Too fierce for words, and yet, so soft and vulnerable, at the same time. Simply fascinating. Plus, she rocks that buzz cut, so gloriously.
STUFF I LIKED LESS: THE STORYTELLING
I’ve come to realize that the way a show is written is really important to me, and no amount of shiny production values or fantastic acting can make up for perceived weaknesses in the writing. I say perceived, because my beefs with the writing could be entirely personal.
For the record, there are legions of fans of this show, who are of the opinion that the writing in this show is stellar. This is just my opinion, for what it’s worth.
What I liked better
First, let’s start with what I did like about the writing.
I like that things get exciting pretty early in the watch, and everything feels immediately intriguing. I felt engaged quite quickly, and that’s definitely a plus. I mean, I didn’t know what was going on half the time, because everything felt fast-paced and fragmented, but given that this was early in my watch, I felt content to let Show tell me its story.
I also appreciate that throughout our story, no single character is written to be completely good or evil. Even the best characters are flawed, and even the so-called baddies have their own logic, reasoning and principles. Because of this, our characters come across as real people, rather than angels or monsters. I liked that.
What I didn’t like so much
Here’s a quickish look at the ways I felt the writing dragged the show down. Some had more overall impact than others, but essentially, these things came together to make this show a harder watch than I’d hoped for.
1. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up
I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a show best watched as a marathon, when you’re not feeling mentally fatigued.
I found that it was hard to keep up with the details of the story, particularly if I didn’t watch this show regularly. Even at an episode a day, I often found myself confused over who had done what, and where we were in the story, because we would sometimes spend large chunks of screen time in flashback. When it was earlier in my watch, I also found myself confused over who was who, because of the large number of characters, most of whom were nameless in the beginning.
I also found that when I was tired, it was extra hard to keep track of the happenings within our story because everything seemed fragmented and mysterious and serious. And even when I wasn’t tired, in Show’s late stretch, I found myself struggling somewhat, to keep track of who was behind what.
[SPOILER] For example, in episode 44, I just had to assume that the men pretending to be acting under the crown prince’s orders to assassinate the emperor, were sent by the Right Counsellor, because the various groups of soldiers looked similar in their armor, and I couldn’t really tell who was who. [END SPOILER]
That said, maybe it’s just me. I admittedly didn’t watch this with a hawk-eyed lens, and maybe if I had, I might’ve had a better handle on everything.
2. Commander Yao’s characterization [SPOILERS]
At the episode 14 mark, Commander Yao (Lu Fangsheng) is shown to be a duplicitous character, which I felt suitably blindsided by. I didn’t have a problem with this, however.
My problem was, after this point, we see Commander Yao basically flip-flopping between being one of the good guys and one of the bad guys. On paper, that sounds interesting, but in execution, I found it odd and inconsistent.
Basically, one minute, Commander Yao would seem like his previous good, normal self, and another minute, he would appear evil again. He seems good-hearted at his core, like when he risks his life to save Tan Qi, but he also vacillates in his expressed loyalties. And sometimes, weirdly, when he’s alone, he shows dark, nefarious expressions.
I found this all quite jarring and strange, possibly because Commander Yao always looked like he was either of an extreme: really good and honest, or really dark and evil. There didn’t seem to be a middle, conflicted ground with him, which made him feel more like a split-personality caricature, than a genuinely struggling individual. I didn’t like that very much.
3. Context is withheld for a long time
This one’s a biggie, for me.
Y’all know how I always say that context is everything, right? Well, Show withholds context from its viewers, for a longgg time. Basically, character motivations remain unclear until around the episode 39 point. Given that our story lasts for 48 episodes, that’s an extremely long time to keep one’s audience guessing.
Overall, it did feel like Show knew what it wanted to do, it’s just that it wanted to take its own sweet time doing it. As a viewer, I felt like Show was keeping a heckuva lot from me, which felt fine in the beginning, but by the episode 30 or so mark, where I was already approaching Show’s final stretch, I felt like there was still so much Show was keeping from me, that I kind of resented it.
Once Show revealed more about the motivations of various characters and their backstories, at around episode 39, I found my interest perk up significantly.
If you’re ok to be kept in the dark about character motivations until very late in the game, though, then this won’t be a problem for you like it was for me.
4. Not enough payoff, for a good portion of the time
In my personal opinion, Show served up way more dramatic tension than actual thrills, and this was a drag, for me. This, to me, was Show’s biggest shortcoming.
I think this show’s main problem is a great deal of tension and build-up, but with very little payoff, as a general rule. I feel like this show just isn’t exciting enough, for what it’s supposed to be. Instead of feeling tautly paced and thrilling, it feels dragged down by too many detours into flashbacks. I found myself losing interest in the middle-to-late stretch, and having to will myself into continuing with my watch, while constantly having to remind myself of where we are in the main story, outside of the flashbacks.
With the sometimes lengthy flashbacks and the relatively short episodes, it sometimes feels like not a lot happens in real time, in an episode. That feels weird, for a show with this premise.
In terms of actual progress on the case, most of the time, it feels like we are inching forward at best, and going in circles at worst. Each episode, quite often, it feels like nothing much happens. It simply felt like Show was stretching the tension thinner and thinner, over longer and longer periods of time, without that tension actually resulting in actual onscreen excitement. I found this tiring and frustrating.
As an aside, it didn’t help that Show also feels a bit high-brow, in its pitching. Sometimes, when I lost interest or zoned out at political conversations, I felt as if Show would’ve mocked me for my inferior taste, ha.
Again, if your appetite for dramatic tension is greater than mine, you might not have the same issues as I did.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
To be brutally honest, this ending was just ok, for me.
I guess after so much long drawn-out dramatic tension, the ending just didn’t live up to the mental hype that the tension created in my head. I mean, after all that teasing and atmospheric strain spanning so many episodes, it would’ve taken something quite spectacular to meet my expectations. And what we get is much more understated, which I’m.. ok with, but which doesn’t blow me away so much so that I’d write home about it.
Let’s back up a bit.
I am rather underwhelmed by how Xiao Gui dies, in episode 46. He doesn’t achieve what he set out to achieve, which was revenge for his Eighth Squad brothers; he doesn’t kill the emperor; he does cause the emperor and Zhang Xiaojing to see more of the dirty underside to the politics and ways of the so-called Great Tang, but honestly, I don’t get why he decided to go out to meet the soldiers in a sure suicide mission. He didn’t even really fight. He just stood there and yelled, and they were on him with all their weapons, when he’d barely drawn his swords.
Also, the reason that he gave for saving the emperor, is because the emperor was to be a good ruler and therefore the people out there aren’t worthy of killing him? That feels like a fairly sudden change of mind, since he’d been talking about killing the emperor himself, just minutes before.
And then, we learn that the person behind it all, was Xu Bin; that unlike his humble persona, he really did have ambition, and came up with this meticulous scheme, in order to prove his worth, and also, to open the emperor’s eyes to how awfully dirty the ways of the Great Tang were.
Hm. I’m honestly not sure how well this would sit, narratively, if I were to rewatch this show and stack up all of Xu Bin’s actions versus his hidden mission. I mean, this would mean that in episode 16, he’d allowed himself to be almost killed by the messenger who was a mole of the wolven squad. Flip that over, and it means that the mole almost killed – and he really did intend to kill Xu Bin – the mastermind orchestrating everything. That seems rather messed up, to me.
I don’t enjoy this show enough to want to rewatch it, but I have a niggling suspicion that if I were to rewatch it knowing what I know about Xu Bin being the overall mastermind, that I would struggle to accept more than a few plot points.
In the end, the emperor is saved, Zhang Xiaojing declines any reward, and the crown prince makes peace with his father, pledging to assist him to achieve his vision for the Great Tang.
Apparent time-skip later, Li Bi leaves the city for the mountain for some reflection, discipline and meditation, in hopes that he will be as firm in his resolve, and as doubt-free as Zhang Xiaojing, while Zhang Xiaojing leaves despite being given the position of vice commander-in-chief. He pledges to return if Chang’an is ever in danger again. And just when we think that Tan Qi will leave with Zhang Xiaojing, since she declines to leave with Li Bi, she informs them both, that she is planning to enter the palace to serve Yan Tai Zhen, in hopes that with that proximity to the emperor will afford her the opportunity to offer the emperor advice.
Zhang Xiaojing gruffly says a quick goodbye, “后会有期,” which, directly translated, indicates that they will have a chance to meet again. The parting shot also implies a degree of comfort and hope. Tan Qi gazes on his departing figure, and muses, “Chang’an’s sun is truly beautiful.”
So much for any small hope that I might have had, for Tan Qi and Zhang Xiaojing to actually begin a new life together. But their mutual love, appreciation, and respect for the path that the other person has chosen, is clear – and quite beautiful – to see. Plus, Show does leave things open for a possible future, so there’s that.
Overall, it’s a rather bittersweet, poignant, understated ending for a story that was fraught with conspiracy, scheming and subterfuge. Was this the kind of ending that I’d expected? No, not really. I guess I’d expected something a lot more explosive, given the nature of most of our story. But, Show does give me several things that I’d wanted: Zhang Xiaojing is pardoned for his crime and is able to walk away a free man; the case is solved and Show tells us exactly who did what; the longest day in Chang’an is finally over, and there is peace again, for the people of Chang’an. That’s not bad at all, when you put it that way.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Magnificent in scale and production values; a bit less magnificent on the storytelling front.
FINAL GRADE: B+