Mini-Review: The first five minutes of Serenade of Peaceful Joy is all substance but no serenade

Beautifully designed, written, and acted, Serenade of Peaceful Joy is unfortunately held back by poor directing that leaves way too much work for the audience.

I have so many thoughts about Serenade of Peaceful Joy aka Held in the Lonely Castle that I feel like I need multiple posts to cover even the first few episodes, so here is the first one focusing on the very first five minutes of the drama.

What a well-written opening scene that begs for better directing and editing. Even in this short opening, scriptwriter Zhu Zhu shows her ambitions to create dramatic effects while trying to showcase the uniqueness of the rule of reason that marked Emperor Renzong’s rule in what’s essentially a bioepic of the emperor. Unfortunately, Zhu Zhu’s epic is constrained by Zhang Kaizhou’s directing (or lack thereof). I have no idea what is going in his mind in some of the creative decisions.

The drama opens with the frazzled wet nurse of the Emperor Renzong hurrying through the Palace. Immediately we get that something is up. The scene cuts to the emperor finishing up a calligraphy piece of the “Classic of Filial Piety“, and then asking her to come in. We see that the wet nurse is scared by this meeting, and the Emperor Renzong turns abruptly. What’s this meeting about and why is she so scared while he so calm? The tension builds and both the nurse and the audience expects anger or blame, but all we hear is a soft-spoken question: “What do you think of my calligraphy?”

The wet nurse and the audience are both caught by surprise. The wet nurse is slightly relieved but still tremoring, and responds with standard praise. The tension that had built up hangs in the air as she responds. The emperor now reveals what he means by the question, now more forcefully but still not really blaming his nurse: “Calligraphy is a reflection of the soul. Although in my youth, my skills are not as good as they are now, I wrote these words of filial duty with earnest. Now that my father has passed away, tell me, my wet nurse, am I fulfilling my filial duty to my true mother?”

It’s a brilliant way to draw out his main point by playing with the audience’s expectations while showing the audience that the Emperor Renzong is not like your usual emperor. He won’t immediately bestow anger upon others. Instead, he is introspective and bound by his learnings and moral code. It also draws out his lifelong struggle with fulfilling his duties to his own family versus the empire.

What follows is a suspenseful interaction as the wet nurse tries to avoid the question and the growing increasingly angry until the anger turns into anguish and frustration – “You are someone whom I trust so much, but even you have to lie to me.”. The scene culminates with the emperor throwing something at the ground.

In one short scene, the script is able to show the characteristics of the young emperor while setting up the story. We learn that he cares about his responsibilities and blames himself for not being able to fulfill them, that he is a scholarly emperor who tries to use words to resolve conflicts, that he is kind and practices self-restraint as to not misplace anger even in his worst moments, and that he is just learning now that his true mother is not the one who sits beside his throne. It also sets up the repeating theme of how although he rules over everyone, Emperor Renzong is also ruled by everyone, including those who are the closest to him. It’s also a foreshadowing of how even those closest to him will bound him to the chains of propriety. In the change in tone of the emperor’s words, Zhu Zhu prepares an emotional rollercoaster with built-in suspense, surprise, relief, and more tension, anger, anguish, and frustration.

Unfortunately, that’s not how Zhang Kaizhou filmed it. When the script is building up suspense, the music is a weirdly tragic symphony that abruptly cuts off mid-way. In moments of surprise, there is no close-up of a change in facial expressions or a sudden change of music. In moments of fear, the actress for the wet nurse shows only the faintest of quivers, but no change in the speed of reaction and speech. As tension and anger build up again, there is no crescendo or speeding up of music that stops abruptly ends on the emperor throwing something, only two poorly timed “duhhh”. In moments of increasing anger, there is no change of pacing or words for the Emperor, only a slightly raised voice. As a result, all these feelings are muted in the actual show.

Further, not only was it never explicitly mentioned that the Emperor Renzong was writing Classic of Filial Piety, but the key character for filial duty also wasn’t given a zoomed-in close-up. Instead, the screen focuses on him writing a filler word following that for filial duty. Human eyes follow what moves, and I had to rewind back to see what he wrote when I heard him mention his writings. The Classic of Filial Piety is then discussed at length in a later scene without it ever being explicitly stated that it was what he was writing earlier. How is a casual viewer on TV suppose to have caught that? Why is Zhang Kaizhou filming key plot points as if they were Easter eggs?

The script made it so easy for the first five minutes to be enticing, but the poor shots, editing, and music does not do this script any justice. A good director should guide the audience into noticing important things and feeling what the characters are feeling. Serenade of Peaceful Joy has so many important plot points and emotional moments, but Zhang Kaizhou showcased few of them, leaving the audience alone in their quest to find the gems in the story by themselves.

The drama starring Wang Kai, Jiang Shuying, Ren Min, Bian Cheng, Yang Le, Yu Entai, airs two episodes on Sundays – Thursdays and one episode on Fridays and Saturdays. It’s available with English subs on WeTV, on Youtube here, and Viki here.

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