Tang Dynasty thriller draws comparisons with US action drama 24 for its daylong timeline, suspenseful plot and high production values
It is the Lantern Festival, a time when people take to the streets at night to celebrate. But, as the capital faces an imminent enemy attack, the entire city depends on a criminal on death row to save the day.
This is the plot of the current hit thriller series The Longest Day in Chang'an, which stars young singer-actor Yi Yangqianxi, actor Lei Jiayin and Beninese-American actor Djimon Hounsou.
Set in Chang'an, today's Xi'an and capital of Shaanxi province, during the heyday of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the series depicts the events of a single day divided into 12 periods according to the traditional Chinese zodiac.
The show has been compared by viewers to the US action drama series 24, not just due to its daylong format, but also for its suspenseful storyline and high-end production values.
The show has been streaming on Youku since June 27, and 20 out of its 48 total episodes have aired as of Thursday.
In the most recent weekly list released on Wednesday by Sina TV, a Sina Weibo account covering TV content, the show ranked first for both its online popularity and number of total views, while Yi was cited as the most influential actor in an ongoing TV show for his performance as protagonist Li Bi.
On popular review site Douban, the show reaped a rating of 8.6 out of 10 by more than 134,000 viewers, with nearly half of them awarding it full marks.
Many reviews laud the show for its historical accuracy, from the costumes down to the sets.
The top review on Douban by Shanshui Yanhua, which received over 7,000 likes, says: "The detailed depiction of the city of Chang'an alone deserves a five-star rating. It is a historical show made with deep sincerity."
The beginning of the first episode uses a long take to set the scene of the ancient capital during a festive occasion, drawing the viewer down into the ancient streets of Chang'an to walk among the children, street vendors and officials.
According to director Cao Dun, the shooting process was very demanding due to the number of extras. With between 300 to 1,500 actors taking part on any given day, the preparation required to direct them was enormous.
He says that although the film set was not 100 percent historically accurate, the crew spared no effort in trying to recreate the distinctive flavor of the Tang Dynasty, from the way people talked to the smallest details of their everyday life.
"All the costumes used in the show, whether for the protagonists or the extras, were made by the team－none of them were rented. We wove and dyed a lot of the cloth and printed the patterns ourselves," Cao says.
Ma Boyong, the author of the original novel, says that he endeavored to give a faithful account of the era by doing a lot of background reading and research, consulting with historical experts and going on field trips to historical sites.
However, even he was amazed by the meticulous attention to detail that the director and his team put into the production. For instance, he did not think the team would actually design an entire visual encryption system for sending signals between the watchtowers.
"I feel some of the designs turned out to be better than I initially envisioned. When I was writing the book, I would leave the audience enough room to use their imagination. But the director gave the sets an exquisite presentation using his unique visual language," Ma says to China Daily.
Yu Gengzhe, historian and professor at Shaanxi Normal University, says on Weibo: "The costumes, makeup and props for this show are commendable. Although there are some flaws, the crew has worked very hard and already excelled themselves."
Negative audience reviews about the show mainly center around the show's plot development and the use of ancient prose in conversations that some found obscure.
Born and raised in Xi'an, director Cao Dun says he used some of the most characteristic elements of the city in the show, such as Mount Li and the local street food. This has had a dramatic effect on the city and generated increasing public interest in the city and its culture.
According to a report released by Youku on Thursday, online bookings of tickets to tourist destinations in Xi'an on travel agency Fliggy have shown an increase of 27 percent compared to the same time last week.
The report, drawing on statistics from online food delivery platform Ele.me, says that the online orders in Beijing of water basin mutton, a typical Shaanxi dish that appears in the show, have already enjoyed a surge in popularity.
Starting from July, the show has also been launched as paid content on several overseas streaming platforms, including YouTube, Amazon Prime and Viki.
On Amazon US, one of the top reviews by user Nathan L. says the show is very well executed: "The details put in as well as the professionalism of the crew are superb."
The show now has a rating of 4.9 out of 5 stars on the streaming platform, with viewers pleading for more episodes and complete set of subtitles in both English and Chinese.