As we’ve reported over the last few months, quite a few Chinese films have been pulled from major international film festivals or abruptly cancelled before hitting domestic theaters, with “market needs” or “technical difficulties” typically given as a dubious explanation. During this bleak stretch for the Chinese film industry, TV and web series have filled the entertainment gap, despite some obstacles. Now that June has passed and the “costume drama ban” announced in March has fallen away, dozens of costume series — some based on actual history, some fantasy — have burst onto the scene (and screens) this summer.
Among the currently airing series, The Longest Day in Chang’an — a co-production between streaming giant Youku, Liu Bai Entertainment and Yuyue Film Company — has emerged as the audience favorite. The show’s success is due to the surprisingly good acting skills of TFBoy Jackson Yee, an intense storyline adapted from historic novelist Ma Boyong’s popular original text, and a higher public awareness of the manners and fashions of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), during which the story takes place.
The 48-episode series is set in the Tang capital of Chang’an (known today as Xi’an), during the most prosperous and cosmopolitan period in China’s imperial history. The plot revolves around imprisoned former detective Zhang Xiaojing (played by Lei Jiayin) and Taoist priest Li Bi (played by Yee), who team up to stop a terrorist attack on the city on the eve of Lantern Festival.
Yee is best known as a member of China’s most popular boy band, TFBoys, and has nearly 75.8 million followers on Weibo. But the 18-year-old pop star has been admitted to the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing — the most prestigious acting school in China — and seems ready to prove himself as something more than just a teenage idol.
Within his band, Yee comes off as slightly brooding and relatively calm as compared to the other TFBoys. His more experienced co-stars on The Longest Day in Chang’an have credited Yee for his “maturity.” Cast member Zhou Yiwei said in a behind-the-scenes documentary that he “would barely remember that Yee is only 17 years-old if no one reminded me.” Lead actress Rayza said, “there’s a lot in his eyes,” and co-lead Lei Jiayin predicted that “Yee has a limitless future.”
Yee also acted in film drama Better Days, which was cancelled three days before it’s scheduled June 27 release due to a stated failure to meet “market pre-assessments.” So fans hungry to get a load of the TFBoy’s acting chops have been flocking to The Longest Day to make their own assessment.
Lei Jiayin, a popular actor famous for his down-to-earth personality and sense of humor, practiced martial arts for the series, and reportedly did 95% of his character’s action scenes on his own. Lei was hospitalized four times during filming, performing life-risking stunts in several scenes. “I thought this might be my last work,” Lei told The Beijing Youth Daily. But his risk-taking has paid off; fans of the show have taken to calling the series “Assassin’s Creed: Chang’an” on social media.
Djimon Hounsou (Amistad, Blood Diamond, Guardians of the Galaxy) stars in the series as well, playing “Lord of Dungeon” Ge Lao. Given the 2% expat and diplomat population in Chang’an at the time — actually larger than the proportion of foreigners in Shanghai or Beijing today — Hounsou’s appearance can be seen as historically plausible.
Since the series started airing, there have been numerous discussions sparked by the series that move beyond the show itself, reflecting its audience’s increasing curiosity towards the Tang Dynasty. Weibo account Voice of Taoism has taken advantage of this rise in interest by introducing the religious figures portrayed in The Longest Day in Chang’an. Netizens have also taken an interest in the special “Crossed-Hand Gesture” used as a respectful greeting during the period:
And the trendy makeup and clothing style — or hanfu — of the show’s Tang beauties have prompted makeup tutorials on Weibo:
Director Cao Dun is from Xi’an, and is dedicated to present a day in Chang’an’s history with as much historically accurate detail as possible. “Chang’an is the main character of the show, which consists of everybody [in the city],” Cao told China Film Report in an interview last week.
Now halfway through it’s 48-episode run, The Longest Day in Chang’an is holding on to a rating of 8.6 out of 10 on film review site Douban, rated so far by over 146,000 picky users. If you want to see what all the buzz is about, the series is also streaming on Amazon Prime.
Cover photo: Lei Jiayin (Youku)
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