We have heard of Strange Tales of Liao Zhai often enough, but never before Strange Tales from Tang Dynasty. The series follow two main leads who became unlikely close friends & compatriots – Lu Ling Feng (Head of Imperial Army) and Su Wu Ming (Sheriff of Chang An & disciple of the famous Di Ren Jie). As they cross path and investigates various unnatural cases, often linked with strange unnatural incidents. The backdrop of the story is during the Tang Dynasty’s Emperor Ruizong, with the royal battle between Li Longji (Crown Prince) and his aunt Princess Taiping.
Lu Ling Feng & Su Wu Ming first meet in the capital city of Chang An, whereby Lu Ling Feng is the trusted aide of the Crown Prince as the Head of Imperial Army while Su Wu Ming has been summoned back to the capital city to investigate a special case of black tea. They did not get on a good footing as they cross path in their investigations. Su Wu Ming is implied to be the aide to Princess Taiping.
Lu Ling Feng, being the younger chap, is a little more naïve, stubborn & inflexible – often bring with him prejudices in his investigations. Meanwhile Su Wu Ming slowly proves himself to have superior investigation skillsets with a more open perspectives & keen observations.
Muse #1 : Although I did feel like rooting for the more principled & straight forward Lu Ling Feng, there are times that I also felt that he is too inflexible and unable to rationally analyse the situation calmly. It is precisely because of such weakness that he ends up being demoted. On the other hand, Su Wu Ming has proven himself to have keen observations with great flexibility to assess the situation and an extremely glib tongue, with great skillsets in stakeholder management (often using diplomatic method to calm the situation & people in order to ensure a smoother investigation).
Case of Missing Bride & Link to the Drug of Chang An City Black Tea
As the recent cases of missing brides while on their journey to their husband’s home involves a lot of young brides, Su Wu Ming commences investigations only to find it linked with bigger plots. The missing brides lead to the key official Yuan Lai who pretends to be the masked warrior who bleeds the brides to death and using their blood to make the black tea, infusing with drugs. The case of the black tea is even linked to the Empress Wu Ze Tian – whereby the case is used as a political tool via rumour mongering to slander the empress.
During the investigations, Ministry of Personnel Pei Yuan & her daughter Pei Xi Jun are also involved. Xi Jun finds herself attracted to Lu Ling Feng, in the process making friends with Su Wu Ming and a drunken medical practitioner Old Fei. The group of 4, with the addition of a young bodyguard of Xi Jun travel together to make up an uncanny team.
Although the cases in the capital city have been solved, it also brings doubt to the loyalty of the Lu Ling Feng and Su Wu Ming towards their sponsors, being the Crown Prince and Empress Wu respectively. Both are stripped of title and sent out of the capital city.
Muse #2 : The complicated plots & intentions of those in the royal court & palace are difficult to decipher. Loyalty is even more difficult to assess when you have sponsors such as the Crown Prince and Princess Taiping who will not bat an eyelid in punishing officers working for them without the full picture.
Su Wu Ming is sent to Nanzhou to be an official, but takes pity on Lu Ling Feng by helping him to get on his feet.
Strange Tales in Nanzhou from Mistaken Identity of Triplets, to the Dogged Scholarly Pursuits of Friendship Crossing to the Netherworld and Affairs at the Confucius Temple
On the way to Nanzhou, Lu Ling Feng and Su Wu Ming takes cover at a temporary shelter @ Gantong Post during an on-coming storm only to be facing a strange station master Shi Ba. Tenants at the shelter are slaughtered, leading the investigation to Shi Ba who conducted the murder with the assistance of snakes. The case is further complicated when the murders continue even after Shi Ba has been imprisoned. Subsequent investigation finds Shi Ba to have been one of three triplet brothers. Catching one Shi Ba (literally meaning 18) still leaves Shi Liu (aka 16) and Shi Qi (aka 17) to be doing the murders.
Muse #3 : The triplets’ early childhood are traumatic to start with, but their different paths & reactions also reveal different personality of the brothers. Although all 3 brothers still have tragic life.
Upon reaching Nanzhou, the now two fast friends face more strange incidents of sudden death of famous (and healthy) scholars. The investigation peels down the ugly truth of people’s intent & almost irrational thoughts, whereby one of the scholars is found to be the murderer. The reason of murder is hysterically unbelievable – that the murder scholar thought he is dying and he would like his good friends (the other 3 scholars) to accompany him to the netherworld and continues their pursuit of scholarly interest be in chess, music, painting or poems.
Muse #4 : A murder intent is born solely to ensure accompaniment of friendship & brotherhood through the netherworld shows how the fear of loneliness brings the worst delusions in a person.
When the wife of scholar Dugu Xia Shu goes missing, the main suspect points towards Dugu Xia Shu who seems to be edgy, nervous and jumpy. When the investigation leads towards an affair with another scholar, the case takes a sharp turn to reveal a totally delusional caretaker (Ji Xiang) of a Confucius Temple whereby the scholar study. Ji Xiang was a criminal in his past but tries to turn over a new leaf as he uses all his ill-gotten monies to set up the Confucius Temple. When Dugu Xia Shu arrives to seek shelter for study, Ji Xiang finds himself falling in love with learning. However, his greed manifests in the weirdest method – his determination to be a scholarly official through the imperial examination or recommendations.
Muse #5 : Greed manifests in different ways. Ji Xiang as a former criminal with no family background has zero opportunity to be a legitimate officer. The discrimination in social hierarchy is obviously unfair, but Ji Xiang’s dogged pursuit of a scholarly official position blinds him & leads him towards a path that results in menace to others.
The Cult, Flower Poison & The Sky-Scraping Tower
When Lu Ling Feng is sent to Ning county to be the official, he encounters whole villages that prays & listens to the God of Tuo. The God of Tuo is finally revealed to be one of the officials pretending to be the God in order to control the villages. Herewith is also where Su Wu Ming meets his love interest, Li Ying Tao the daughter of an impostor official.
Muse #6 : An impostor official has performed good deeds throughout his office while a true official elected by the government is out to take advantage of the villagers. At the end of the day, the intent of the individual will determine the course of action.
When ladies in the city encounters flesh eating poison aka flesh-eating poison upon using the powder on the face, the investigation leads to the previous Sui dynasty and a special herb. Subsequently, the two leads are taken for a ride by the remnants of Sui Dynasty who pits the Crown Prince against the Grand Princess. The nephew and aunt are saved by Lu Ling Feng and Su Wu Ming at the nick of time. At the same time, it is also revealed that the Grand Princess suspects Lu Ling Feng to be her long-lost illegitimate son. Although Lu Ling Feng harbours hatred for the Princess’ deeds in murdering his father’s clans, he has mellowed under the advices of Su Wu Ming.
Muse #7 : Although the doubt sowed throughout results in the Crown Prince and Princess Taiping being wary of each other, at death’s door, both are willing to give up their own lives to save the others. Perhaps a little rainbow to support that blood is thicker than water, at least in the series. In real life, the historical records seem to imply the political fight between nephew and aunt pushes towards Princess Taiping’s suicide.
As the leads and their sponsors head back to the capital, the focus is redirected towards the grand opening of great architecture in the Sky-Scraping Tower – a 33-floor pagoda-like tower showcasing the great architecture of the Tang dynasty. This leads to the murder of the architect, and during attempted murder of the Crown Prince during the opening of the Tower. The case leads to the Great Sass, an illusionist skilled in face-changing art who has been impersonating official Wang Yuan Tong for the past 12 years. The confrontation with the Emperor during the grand opening is a bit of a let-down, as Sass is painted as a genius villain but seems to be so easily defeated.
Muse #8 : The last case manages to provide significant interest on the advanced engineering and architecture even in the historical past. The human mind does have a lot of imaginations, which spurs these advancements in various areas. I could not find any articles on the authencity of the Sky-Scraping Tower though, as it would be interesting to see whether a 33-level tower does exist during the 7th century.
Muse #9 : There is also a lot of introduction to illusionists and magicians in the last case, which also showcases the link of uses of engineering to trick the eyes of the audience.
Muse #10 : The backdrop of the series is Tang Dynasty during the political turmoil and royal fight between Crown Prince Li Long Ji and Princess Taiping. Of the series depicting this period, Steven Ma as Crown Prince and Alice Chan as Princess Taiping performances are the most unforgettable in the Deep in the Realm of Conscience.
The series end on a light note, with Lu Ling Feng being promoted as an Imperial Judge while Su Wu Ming is sent as an official to a town.
At 36 episodes, the series is slowly-paced. Although most of the cases are interesting on their own, and I do like the progression of the relationship of the 2 main leads, the investigative series does seem to drag.
There is great focus on the brotherhood of the 2 leads – Su Wu Ming and Lu Ling Feng. Almost like a wise older brother guiding the hot-blooded younger brother. It is lovely to see the change in Lu Ling Feng as he goes through the hardship and realises his own potential. As Su Wu Ming describes Lu Ling Feng, although he seems to be arrogant at the beginning he is also a kind and sincere person. Which leads to Su Wu Ming providing the avenue to Lu Ling Feng to be Di Ren Jie’s disciples (posthumous) – something that Lu Ling Feng has always wanted since his younger days.
Acting-wise, I think both actors are not that great. Su Wu Ming’s character sometimes overact in his capacity while Lu Ling Feng’s character at specific times gives this very “constipated” look when he is in agony. The surprise is actually Gallen Lo acting as the Emperor as I could not recognise him until at the later stage.
In the romance area – the series paired off the two leads with the respective love interests but unfortunately both does not sizzle. Almost non-existent. It was a bit of a disappointment that the team especially on Old Fei (as the medical expert) and Pei Xi Jun (as the artist able to draw accurate portraits) did not feature more prominently at the later stages. It is as if they faded into the background, only brought up at the end to tie the loose end.
Watch it for the novelty of the cases, but probably not a good idea to have too high an expectation.