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Telling the Chinese Story
Resonating period drama breaks barriers to find a rapt audience outside China
By Sherry Qin  ·  2019-07-28  ·   Source: NO.31 AUGUST 1, 2019

A still from The Longest Day in Chang'an (FILE)

'A new milestone for Chinese drama, this is on par with Netflix, Amazon original works," wrote a fan on U.S.-based video streaming website Viki after watching the Chinese historical drama The Longest Day in Chang'an.

The TV series, which was launched on Chinese online platform Youku on June 27, became a hit this summer. From July 1, it has been put on partnering streaming platforms and TV networks in Japan, Malaysia, Viet Nam and Brunei. YouTube, Amazon and Viki are also offering the program to their paid subscribers based in North America and South America, the first time a Chinese series was released as paid content abroad simultaneously.

"I was amazed by the overseas audience's passion for this show," Cao Dun, director of The Longest Day in Chang'an, told Beijing Review. "I was worried that they wouldn't understand the complicated political structure of the Tang Dynasty (618-907)."

In reality, the show is prompting foreign audiences to research Tang history to better understand the plot.

A poster of The Longest Day in Chang'an (FILE)

Ancient version of 24?

The Longest Day in Chang'an is set in Chang'an, the most prosperous and diverse city in the world during the Tang Dynasty, today known as Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province in northwest China. It tells the story of a pair of detectives cracking a terrorist conspiracy within 24 hours.

One of them is a 23-year-old prodigy in charge of the anti-terror bureau directly under the emperor, the other is an anti-hero prisoner and former imperial police officer who is released for a day to fight against a planned terrorist attack on the emperor and the whole city on the Lantern Festival. Fast-paced and weaving plots, this thrilling TV series with action-packed shots and a race against time sets itself apart from the often dragging and romance-centered Chinese costume dramas. This new mode of story-telling, akin to the Hollywood style, has received wide acclaim both domestically and internationally.

However, the director strives to not make a Chinese version of 24, a popular U.S. action drama, which also uses the same time span of 24 hours. "We embedded Chinese philosophy, traditional poetry and historical inventions into the plot. These elements make it distinct from the American show," Cao said.

The setting of diversified civilization in the Tang Dynasty and the tension maintained throughout the thriller together produce an interesting chemistry, making the series stand out in a stream of Chinese costume dramas that are being shown abroad this year, including Legend of Yunxi and The Rise of Phoenixes, two Chinese TV shows based on popular online fiction.

However, Cao admits that the cinematography is still not comparable to the more mature productions in the West. "TV series in the West, always streamed in different seasons, give the production team more time to refine the details," he told Beijing Review. "The success of The Longest Day in Chang'an despite that shows that beauty is a universal language crossing borders."

Cao Dun, director of The Longest Day in Chang'an, speaks to Beijing Review in Beijing on July 24 (WEI YAO)

A day in Chang'an

When two floats of performers compete against each other and the most celebrated diva in Chang'an steps out to perform, the young Chang'an girls packed in the parade are no different from today's idol-chasing fans. Except they wear flowing high-waisted dresses in vivid colors and delicate hair ornaments. Being extras they don't have any lines, yet they have individual features and hairstyles. Cao gives painstaking care to the nameless and ordinary people who lived in Chang'an.

"The only protagonist of this show is Chang'an: It's not just a concept but home to thousands of people, including the two detectives," Cao said. "The ordinary people are as entitled to this city as the two detectives."

His goal is to recreate a day in Chang'an, an epitome of the most flourishing time in China's history. Striving to show details as much historically accurate as possible, he and his team took seven months to set up the scenes and design the props before they started shooting. From the armor of the patrol to special ancient clocks to measure time, all the props can be traced in historical records and were handmade for this drama, according to the director.

"It is a tribute to China's tradition and a cultural journey back to this great period," a viewer on Viki wrote.

The first episode starts with a long shot following entertainers, traders, food vendors and disguised assassins in an open-door market and the story begins to unfold gradually. Cao, who was a cinematographer himself, sets the tone for the entire story in the first few seconds. "I wanted to give the audience the impression that Chang'an is an open and diverse city," he said.

Despite the crisis looming, known to only a few, it is an ordinary day for Chang'aners. The two detectives' investigation is only one thread of the story. Based on the novel with the same name by Ma Boyong, Cao seeks to portray a vivid and inclusive Chang'an, which is also his hometown.

Chinese story on camera

Chinese movie directors and playwrights have long been searching for ways to break the cultural barrier and tell Chinese stories to the world. The success of The Longest Day in Chang'an proves that the distinct culture in ancient China is not an obstruction but a bridge to connect with foreign audiences. Modern viewers can still identify with the philosophy and values woven into the story.

Cao thinks Chinese TV dramas telling stories of court love and palace politics are outdated and distanced from the audience's life. Only when the characters are nuanced and humanized can the story be empathetic and touching. In The Longest Day in Chang'an, every little figure is given enough space to flesh out his or her character. Telling stories of ordinary Chinese people that resonate with the audience might be the way to communicate with the world.

"The Longest Day in Chang'an is a step in my plan to tell Chinese stories to the world," Cao said. "After depicting the splendor of the Tang Dynasty, I am looking into several scripts that tell stories of today's China."

His ambition is to differentiate Chinese drama from the TV shows in the rest of the world.

"I don't want to imitate any country's production. Chinese drama has to build upon our rich culture and Chinese people's everyday life," Cao said.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to dingying@bjreview.com

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