First, I want to say that despite the clickbait title, The Longest Day in Chang’an is not a swords and dragons fantasy like Game of Thrones. Sorry! But like Game of Thrones, The Longest Day in Chang’an is a kind of genre-buster, more or less upturning every cliche about Chinese historical dramas.
Based on a book written by Mo Boyong, The Longest Day in Chang’an is set in the Tang dynasty, and focuses on the efforts of a royal courtier and a disgraced imperial-army-officer-turned-investigator to prevent a terrorist attack in Chang’an–the capital city–during an important festival.
More than Game of Thrones, the show shares a lot of similarity with that old series 24. The Chinese title means “Twelve Shichen (a unit of time that is equivalent to two hours) in Chang’an”, and episodes are broken up into increments of thirty minutes of the twelve sichen before the terrorists strike.
The premise is exciting enough, but what truly makes this series so compelling and such a huge hit is the combination of the excellent production–the sets are truly incredible, you can almost taste the dust of the streets in your mouth and smell the perfumes of the nobles–and the fact that despite its historical setting, it’s filmed as though it’s a contemporary thriller. It’s truly groundbreaking in a lot of ways because it doesn’t just focus on the psychology and relationships of the characters, but has elements of a procedural as well.
One of the things that gets emphasized is that access to knowledge is deeply intertwined with power, and in this particular case, knowing the entire layout of Chang’an (a huge city that at its peak during the Tang dynasty had around two million inhabitants) gives power to people who have access to it. In this case, it’s royal courtier, Li Bi (steel magnolia Jackson Yi), who has been entrusted by the Crown Prince to investigate a potential terror attack. I really love the scenes where they take out scale models of Chang’an, broken down into squares and tidily sorted into the kinds of shelves you see at commercial bakeries, to see where and how people can move around the city. They also utilize the watchtowers scattered along the city to send messages with drums and coloured panels–it’s just feels so thrilling to watch all of this happen.
It’s strange because clearly, their methods are medieval compared to our communication methods now, but there’s something really captivating watching people using what is advanced technology for their era. I don’t know how to explain it, it just feels so nerve-wracking when people have to rush to extract information from archives and databanks that are in actual libraries.
After Li Bi’s first investigator is murdered, he picks out death-row inmate Zhang Xiaojing (the incredibly intense Lei Jiayin), to help him. Zhang was imprisoned for murdering a group of people, but no one knows exactly what the circumstances were. As Zhang tracks down the terrorists, we learn more about his dark past and how this clearly honourable man was (and continues to be) forced to make terrible decisions and sacrifices in order to get the job done.
What keeps the plot intriguing as well is our gradual discovery of the motivations of the characters–none of them really trust each other (with good reason)–but we don’t really get outright, one-dimensional villains. Everyone is very human and it’s their humanity that often drives them to do awful things. Even Djimon Hounsou’s underground crime lord Ge Lao, is given a backstory that makes his actions understandable.
The interactions between Li Bi and Zhang are really electric, there’s such a great contrast between Li’s cold strategist and Zhang’s hotheaded soldier–who would’ve thought Jackson Yi had it in him to go toe to toe with Lei Jiayin, one of the best actors of his generation? Although I have to say that the varying accents (some actors have theatrical Beijing accents, others have flatter, more neutral accents) are a little odd at first for Putonghua speakers, but you will get used to it fairly quickly.
The Longest Day in Chang’an is now available to stream in several platforms, but here’s the first episode for free on Youtube (turn on CC for English subs).