The first episode is intense & gripping, pulling you into the story immediately. The first thing that you would notice is the high-quality cinematography of the series, with attention to details on the background, making the series very realistic. The narrow aisle of the city, with the canal is definitely a different view compared to the normal ancient series with wide street. It is almost like you are watching a movie.
Persecution of the Informers
All the lead characters are introduced in the first episodes with the father-daughter informant as the centre-piece. The informant who is meeting Baili Hong Yi, run into Wu Si Yue (an Internal Guard who is protecting the princess in the city) while escaping the assassins. In her attempt to protect them, she clashes with the assassins and an observer, Gao Bing Zhu, who assisted her in silence. As the plot unravel, we are introduced to Gao Bing Zhu’s dogged pursuit of clues to the death of his brothers in arm, occurring 5 years ago during the assassination attempt of Crown Prince.
Baili Hong Yi, an official in government assisting in Construction Department, is insistent to help the informant. At the same time, his father is worried for his safety due to his direct & blunt character which may rile up other government officials. Hence, he arranges a marriage with Liu Ran of the Liu Family.
Illegal Copper Coin Minting
Further investigation leads Gao Bing Zhu to Lord Bai Li, who is assassinated on the day of Hong Yi’s marriage. Thrown together, Bing Zhu and Hong Yi have to rely on each other to follow through the clues to find the real killer. The plot further thickens with clues pointing towards an operation of illegal minting of copper coins, seemingly controlled by the current head of Liu Family – Lord Liu, Liu Ran’s uncle. During the confrontation, Lord Liu commits suicide, extinguishing clues.
As the investigations continue with very little clues, Bing Zhu is recruited as an agent of Intelligence Services under Lord Chu (Prince Dong Quan) as his option while Hong Yi retraces the illegal minting of copper coins to other clues.
Manuscript for Elixir Pills or Explosives?
The clues on the case in minting copper coins surprises Hong Yi as the culprit seems to be looking for specific minerals. The clues subsequently lead to a manuscript seemingly linked to the Crown Prince who is obsessed with making elixir pills. What is wrong with the royalties and nobles of ancient kingdoms, who are always looking for immortality? 😀
As they trace the recipes for elixir to the sect of Four Season, Hong Yi and wife Liu Ran are captured by the Taoist priest. Hong Yi inadvertently provides key ingredient to the Taoist priest’s trial & error to successfully make the elixir pill. Both are then rescued by Bing Zhu & Si Yue. In Bing Zhu & Si Yue’s pursuit of the Taoist priest, both are trapped upon the explosion (which is defined as Thunder pill) set off by the Taoist priest. Lord Wu (Wu Si Yue’s brother) does all he could to rescue both in the entrapped cave, successfully rescuing both but his own health takes great beating.
Attempted Assassination at Lighting Ceremony
At this juncture, all parties realise the Thunder pill is the key clues, pointing towards an attempt to spoil the up-coming lighting ceremony. Once again, the Four Season Sect is one step ahead of both the Intelligence Service and Palace Guards. While all the efforts are expanded to ensure the safety of the Empress at the lighting ceremony, the Four Season Sect sets the granary storing grains on fire, setting the whole city in chaos.
Along the chaos, the lead characters are betrayed by their loved ones:
- Hong Yi surprisingly finds out that his brother (Baili Kuan Ren) who is thought to be dead, is actually the Lord of Spring, heading a branch of the Four Season Sect.
- Wu Si Yue and her brother, is betrayed by Li Bei Qi, their close confidant and bodyguard.
Upon the destruction of the granary, Luoyang is beset with lack of food, creating panic in the capital. Lord Chu of the Intelligence Services is attacked & critically injured, while Lord Wu is requested to temporarily take over to combine the resources in Intelligence Services and Palace Guard to manage the situation.
The Villain Behind the Mask
When Baili Kuan Ren is captured, it is revealed that he is actually working for the Head of Four Season Sect – Lord Wu! The main plot is driven by revenge for family for the cruel treatment, with an ambition to revolt. The character is so good at hiding his deep intent, manipulating others & giving excuses to achieve his own ambitions. I believe he manages to even deceive himself on his own actions.
Colourful, Intensive Characters Driven by Individual Needs
Huang Xuan portrays Gao Bing Zhu very well, showcasing his acting prowess. Previously a city guard, he feels extremely guilty when his brothers in arms died in his attempt to save the Crown Prince during an assassination attempt. In the next few years, he spent all his time following through clues to find the real killers.
The character feels deeply, with deep empathy and principles. However, he seems cold on the exterior and keeps a distance, mainly as he is always misunderstood by the officials and his grave experiences probably keeping him on his toes. For someone going through such experiences, for him to maintain his principles & sense of righteousness is difficult.
Wu Si Yue is probably attracted to his sense of righteousness, falling right into his embrace. It is Si Yue’s brother, Lord Wu You Jue (Head of Inner Palace Guard) who sees through his sister’s heart. The brother – sister pair is also very interesting as Lord Wu is always protective of his sister even though he is sickly. I last watched Victoria Song Qian’s acting in Ice Fantasy, but her portrayal herewith is a little muted.
The interaction of Gao Bing Zhu and Baili Hong Yi is also a highlight. As different as day and night – one born with privileges, the other born to suffer. They share similarity in personality, one-tracked pursuit of their conviction. Their first encounter full of suspicion & doubt, replaced over time with trust as Bing Zhu saves the more naïve Hong Yi’s lives many times in the big bad world.
Baili Hong Yi’s character is also interesting. Talented, innovative, intelligent & dedicated to his pursuit of architecture & construction, he is surprisingly a food connoisseur too. Someone who pays attention to details, but lacking the social grace and emotions of a young male. Wang Yi Bo is able to carry his aloofness & intelligence, preserving his passion in specific situation.
His interaction with Liu Ran (who is portrayed by Song Yi) is very interesting. Originally, I do not really like Liu Ran’s character – who seems to be head-strong & demanding, always calling Hong Yi’s name. She is obviously smitten with the Baili Hong Yi. However, her character grows on me as she is actually persistent and knows exactly what she wants. Her dedication towards Hong Yi is representative of the traditional love, but her persistence actually grow on Hong Yi as both of them crosses path more. In later part of the series, her character becomes the rock to support Hong Yi in his own struggle to understand his brother’s betrayal.
Titbits #1 Song Yi stars as the mischievous but cruel assassin in The Disguiser in 2015, alongside Hu Ge as his side-kick!
One character I really like is Lord Wu You Jue, Wu Si Yue’s brother. Such a great brother, but hounded by his own weak & deteriorating health. A great balancing – his loyalty to the Empress, his responsibility as the Head of Palace Guard, his love for his only remaining family member Si Yue. And every single time – it is always his love for his sister that drives his final decision-making.
Hence, it is a major surprise that he is the villain behind all the plots. And such a great villain! The drive for his resentment towards the Empress is deep-rooted, but he has employed patience for so long and mastered the concept of hiding behind a frail health. Behind his evil plots, he is really a family man who loves his parents and sister. I can so empathise with hatred and his need for revenge. Although his choice is unfair to others, his resentment comes from unfair treatment to him and his family.
Link to Real History
Luoyang has been an ancient capital city of many Chinese dynasty over the course of history. As the series showcases the backdrop of Empress Wu Zetian’s ruling, that should place the timing around ~ late 7th century to early 8th century. It is really interesting to see how crowded the ancient capital city is, and the construction process of Longmen Grottoes – with the huge use of manual labour. You can almost imagine the city in the olden days, the small canal running along the city and the grottoes being built.
Having been there, Luoyang is a wonder of historic artefacts, accessible via bullet train from Beijing in ~ 4 hours. Link to the interesting places.
Emperor Wu Zetian is portrayed as flexing her power in the series. But it must have been a difficult journey in those days, to survive in a male-dominated society and balancing the personal agenda of the various nobles. Historically, it is almost easy to put the blame of the decline of a country directly to a woman. Hence for Emperor Wu Ze Tian to take the offensive in such situation, it is actually taking control of the situation.
One of the better series in 2021. Gripping, with great development in the plot, always keeping one step ahead of the audience. Character-wise, the leads are interesting but development are a little stunted halfway through. The plots, clues & other characters more than make up for the development of the series thereof.
Although the main couple does not have a good ending, it feels right. The plots get thicker and more complicated at the later stages, pulling you in with all the clues. Romance-wise, I believe the series tried to take a balanced approach to make it interesting for more general audience. But it’s neither here nor there to be focusing on romance, and the thematic focus of the series is really not suitable for such. I would prefer for them to tone down the romance aspect. The ending does seem a little rushed, as it caught me off-guard as it was certainly unexpected.
The series must have a great budget as it is able to bring great cinematography. It’s like watching a movie. The attention to details is amazing! Capturing the essence of a busy ancient capital city, the architecture especially in city centre & construction of grottoes, the internal views of the houses. All tastefully done.
Watch the series for its engaging simple storyline, hidden behind a convoluted story-telling & plot. Enjoy the characters and cinematography. The OSTs are all very nice, especially the ending theme song. Give some slacks to the character development & other small nuances. Then it’s an almost perfect ancient series.