Have you ever wondered why there are so many TV series about Emperors who excelled in war and conquest but so few about those in times of peace? It’s easy to feel the burst of adrenaline in conquest and the suffering caused by war, but how do you get the audience to feel peace or economic prosperity? There’s no moment to declare “victory” in peace nor “winning” in the economy (unless you have a five-year plan).
This is perhaps why the ruler of one of the most economically and culturally prosperous reigns in Chinese history- – the Emperor Renzong of Song – has never been depicted as a main character before. Director Zhang Kaizhou and scriptwriter Zhu Zhu tackle this difficult subject with varying success in Serenade of Peaceful Joy (formerly Held in the Closed Castle).
The series has two main focuses – there’s the palace drama with plenty of creative liberties, and then the court drama that feels like a dramatized documentary. The family of the narrator for the original story, the eunuch Huaiji, connects the two to the outside world to occasionally show how small choices in the palace can have huge ripple effects in the real world.
From the costumes tailored by historians to the number of philosophical, moral, and policy debates in the show, the show seems to have done a lot of homework. Yet while the script succeeds in depicting the philosophical and artistic landscape of the reign, it leaves it to the viewers to try and tie the landscape to the humans who created them. These are brilliant, fascinating people but seem to lack any personality outside their philosophical debates. Compared to films like Midnight in Paris that makes well-known historical figures immediately recognizable in a few minutes, Serenade takes episodes to draw out their philosophy but fails to make all but a few characters pop out.
The drama certainly has its high points. Many of the court discussions and occasionally palace drama are thought-provoking, with many of the views raised being applicable to our current world. For example, the Song court deals with a plague very earlier on in the drama, and it’s interesting to see how the policies of the Song dynasty that have in many ways been extended to how the Chinese government dealt with COVID-19 today. And the drama doesn’t just have regurgitations of the philosophical debates by the characters themselves, but original viewpoints that draw from the characters’ philosophy.
Yet it’s very hard to feel drawn to the characters themselves. The writers rarely try to humanize them by giving them a life outside the court. We’re rarely given sufficient back story of those characters. How do their personalities and backgrounds shape their belief systems and guide their reactions to each of the personal issues that arose in the show?
The same flaw exists in the palace drama. There is little coherency in the characters and nothing to tell us what drives or shapes them. We’re told the Empress wants to be a good Empress, but why? What need does she have that’s fulfilled by this role? What in the Emperor makes her drawn to him? How did these two needs meet to drive her actions? Similarly, while Empress Zhang could’ve been a wonderfully tragic figure driven to paranoia in the closed palace walls, all we see is the paranoia without any explanation. Unlike the court drama that holds up by its interesting policy debates, the palace drama completely falls apart, with only the original novel’s Princess Huirou – Huaiji line being coherent.
You can see the ambitions in the script, with a clear opening, conclusion, and overall structure that is very well written out, but unfortunately it’s stuffed with a mixed bag in between.Zhang Kaizhou’s flaws are also completely exposed in the series.
A simple comparison of this can be seen in director Huang Wei’s treatment of Wang Kai’s character in Like a Flowing River. Both uses the first two episodes to tell a mini-version of the character’s overarching character arch, but whereas Huang Wei builds up the story so well that they are definitely the best two episodes of the whole show and feels like a mini-film, Zhang Kaizhou falls flat with negative directing and editing that is often worse than just have one camera that shot the whole episode.
Take one example. One common theme in the drama is that characters are often trying to do what they see as correct due to their own experiences. A simple technique is to first show one side of the story, and then do an unveiling of the other side. Not only will this cause tension by having the audience chose sides initially, but it also makes the unveiling more satisfying when the truth comes out.
Zhang Kaizhou instead chose to do the exact opposite and shows every thought process in real-time. A scene of Emperor Renzong blaming the Empress Liu E for her own ambitions is cut with one of the Empress Liu E explaining herself. It’s clear the script wrote the two scenes separately, but he chose to edit them. What results is that there is absolutely no one to root for at any point and each scene is just depressing.
Even worse, the cuts are abrupt and break up pacing. I remember listening to an interview where Wang Kai was talking about how The Disguiser‘s director Li Xue would tell them what other scenes are being cut with the scene they’re filming to make sure the pacing and tension of the two matched. This was clearly not done at all by Zhang Kaizhou. Every scene where he cuts two scenes together have zero coordination and feels like two random scenes cut together.
Zhang Kaizhou’s inability to coach actors is also very apparent in the drama. Wang Kai and Yu En’tai’s line-reading are sublime, but the rest of the cast often wavers in their lines. A special shout out to 28-year-old Chu Junchen as Sima Guang, who gives a top ten performance in Sima Guang over many much more experienced actors. Despite being the youngest main actress of the group, Ren Min’s raw acting really shines through over all actresses (minus Wu Yue’s guest starring role). Unfortunately, there are many moments where minor character feel like they’re just reciting the lines, and some where even the main ensemble seem out of it.
Serenade of Peaceful Joy is such a difficult drama to watch and evaluate because the good parts are so good, but the bad parts are so bad, and everything in between is thrown in. There are moments of brilliant discussions and sublime acting, but also characters and plots and acting that simply don’t make sense. The best example I’ve read to describe it is that it’s a fish with bones and you have to decide whether ridding the fish of the bones to get to the meat is worth it for you.
The drama is directed by Zhang Kaizhou, written by Zhu Zhu, and stars Wang Kai, Jiang Shuying, Ren Min, Bian Cheng, Yu Entai, and Yang Le. You can watch it on Youtube with English subtitles here.