The first half of The Longest Day in Chang’an is mesmerising, and has a very meaty setup – Zhang Xiaojing (Lei Jiayin), former police detective (buliangren) and currently a prisoner on death row, is given the near impossible mission of uprooting a terrorist group within twenty four hours. He sacrifices close friends and subordinates and willingly puts himself in mortal danger in order to save the people of Chang’an, yet is easily thrown under the bus by those in power when things get out of control.
While watching the show, I actually found the supporting characters to be more interesting than either Li Bi (Yi Yangqianxi) or Tanqi (Reyizha). The supporting cast in the series have limited screen time, yet all have their own motives and desires. A definite standout is the earnest and loyal detective-turned-spy Lin Xiaoyi (Zheng Wei). His storyline took no more than an episode, but the character development wasa done so well it was hard not to be moved. The strong-willed Ding Tong’er (Wang Sisi) is also a favourite – initially a woman who lived for love, she resolutely decided to become a pawn for Master Ge and cut all ties with her scholar lover after witnessing his true nature.
The costuming, props and sets gave me the impression that I was actually watching the story unfold in Tang Dynasty Chang’an, so kudos to the teams led by art director Yang Zhijia, costume designer Song Tao and makeup artist Zhang Li. I still have my qualms about director Cao Dun after Tribes and Empires, but his attention to detail has temporarily won me over. The BTS documentary revealed that most of the day scenes were filmed with artificial lighting, so the shadows matched the time of day in the episode – now that is dedication. His painstaking attention to detail does cause some minor issues in pacing, where the built-up tension and mystery is suddenly deflated by the sudden transition to festive scenes or scenes with people going about their daily lives. When the hero is still in a life and death situation, it’s pretty obvious I’m not going to be interested in watching a street performance, no matter how beautiful it is or how faithful to history the depiction is.
Initially the small lapses in intensity were easy to ignore, but the various subplots took their own sweet time to converge, and occasionally the characters would take 4 hours to ride from one side of the city to the next, and then only 10 minutes to deliver a message back. The time-constraint didn’t seem to matter anymore as everything was prolonged and the show just completely lost momentum by the end of Season 1 (now Episode 25). That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the first half, because when it was good, it was really good. It’s just unfortunate that the series couldn’t use the condensed-time concept to better effect.