With such a grand title and a poster that clearly promises some epic adventures to be had, How could I not be excited about this show?
Official Plot summary from Viki: What would be her most surprising case? Ye Yuan’an (Janice Wu Qian) is the daughter of the Assistant Minister of Revenue during the Tang Dynasty. Somewhat of an amateur sleuth, Ye Yuan’an loves solving mysteries and constantly in competition with Zhao Lanzhi (Zhang Yu Jian), a police officer who is trying to do his job. Yuan’an has the assistance of Mu Le (Zheng Ye Cheng), a young man she took in as a family servant after saving him from danger.
But what will Yuan’an do when she discovers Mu Le’s true identity?
First Impressions: While An Oriental Odyssey 盛唐幻夜 has an overly dramatic opening theme that paints it as a fantasy adventure, the first 3 episodes are an engaging mystery that seems firmly set in the non-magical Tang Dynasty, with some hints towards a larger mystical setting. The show doubles down on its large scope fantasy premise with a beautifully animated creation myth. The myth is about 9 Divine Beads created by the goddess Nuwa to quell nine warring tribes by sealing their powers inside said beads. But centuries later, the beads are found causing strife among humans who want their power. After a flashy and well choreographed fight scene, the mystical objects scatter themselves across China. If a viewer had tuned in late or missed that prologue, I wouldn’t be surprised if they thought that they were watching period drama with some Wuxia flair mixed in.
Thankfully, these opening episodes have me already invested even if the big adventure plot maybe a slow boil. Wu Qian does one hell of a wonderful job playing Yuan’an.
I’m a sucker for kick butt ladies so Yuan’an being a tomboyish, headstrong girl with a strong sense of justice made her a lead I could already get behind. But it’s her brains, not her brawn that made her so enduring to me. She’s able to match wits with Constable Lanzhi and use her cleverness to get in and out of trouble. The character moment that won me over the most was when her servant, Shi Tou, tells her that his girlfriend is falsely accused of murdering a brothel worker named Ru Yue.
Yuan’an goes into her “Justice Cave” (It’s stated that it’s her shed but it looks like a batcave so I couldn’t help myself with the nickname) and gets a James Bond style gadget from a mystery man in dark cloak. And then proceeds to use her martial arts and spider bracelet to bust Shi Tou girlfriend’s out of jail. She even goes so far as hide the woman at her own manor after they fail to escape the city. As a counter balance to that side of her character, Yuan’an does get really great comedy moments where she makes some truly meme worthy facial expressions. I love her bold confidence showcased when she puts her own freedom on the line to work with the constable to find the real murderer.
Which is where the constable, Zhao Lanzhi, comes into the picture.
He technically appears before our heroine, setting up the opium smuggling plot line that serves as the main mystery for these opening episodes. He’s got a very Sherlock Holmes feel, shown by him being correct about a suspected smuggling ship, even thought it has legal papers, because of the ships low waterline is was a great character introduction. But unlike Holmes with his eccentric behaviors, Lanzhi is very by the book. Which at first made him feel a bit boring since I could see his “realizing that true justice is more shades of grey then black and white” plot line coming a mile away. Even after his fantastic meet cute moment with Yuan’an, by carrying her down from a scaffold using a giant red ribbon as a rope, I still hadn’t warmed up to him. But when the show dives into his private life, then he becomes a much richer character. He’s an ex soldier who served with Jiang Ren and Pei Xianya. Jiang Ren is a slave, Pei Wei and Lanzhi are nobles yet become sworn brothers. It’s this class division that adds weight to Lanzhi since he knows just how large the gap between noble, commoner and slave is due to these relationships. With episode 3 seeing one of his sworn brothers brought to justice, I can’t wait to see Lanzhi’s values come into conflict more and more. Zhang Yu Jian plays off Wu Qian’s passionate charm with a natural stoicism that makes him a feel like a constable. It’s when he literally gets to let his hair down and shows more layered emotions off duty that he shows his acting skill.
That social divide plays a huge role in these episodes especially with Mu Le.
He starts out as the odd man out of the cast for me. He’s introduced as a nameless, mute wild man whose forced into slavery at the Qianduan Brothel. Yuan’an saves him from getting a savage caning from his master and he in turn saves her from being trampled to death by her own runaway horse, giving them a very nice meet cute moment while setting them as equals. I was a bit leery when Yuan’an literally buys him from a black market slave auction, since she does it like buying another human being is a totally normal thing to do. I was worried about the power dynamics of the Master/Slave relationship but the show side steps this by having Yuan’an treat him as a person, not property. His character really gets more depth once the mystery hits full steam allowing him to show that’s more then just a strong wild man and he proves to play a huge role in solving part of the murder mystery. Zheng Ye Cheng has the toughest role since his is the most physical and expressive. He only just starts talking at the end of episode 3 so I can’t judge his verbal acting ability just yet. Most of his dialogue has been growls, snarls and pointing at things. I was worried that show would draw out his Tarzan act but since he’s already talking, I hope they can give Mu Le a character now.
I’m being vague about how the opium and the murder of Ru Yue are connected since it is a quite well done mini mystery that gives a decent setup for overarching style of the series. Although, a certain character just flat out telling our trapped heroes who the leader of the smuggling ring is, after revealing that they know Lanzhi is a cop, made them look pretty stupid for a person who ran a crime ring. The subplot of the romance between Princess Minghui and Pei Xianya felt very generic and without a spark between the two. But the way it wraps back around to connect to the main plot felt natural. It just felt like it took a bit too long for the pieces to fit together. The only other major flaw so far is the CGI. My introduction to Chinese dramas was with The Taoism Grandmaster, so I’ve seen my share of cheap CGI. But at the climax of Episode Three, I had to stifle a laugh when a clearly CGI plate and table flew across the screen followed by a very fake looking boat capsizing. And the thing that takes the cake was that it was then directly followed by an odd green screen effect of swimming underwater that was clearly staged. Having these scenes almost back to back killed the tension.
The show also struggles with it’s tone. Since it deals with slavery, murder, drug smuggling and shows the side effects of opium addiction you’d expect a dark, somber tone but the show has some great comedy moments that keeps it from feeling too grim or gritty while still giving a sense of weight to the darker aspects of the plot. Although there were quite a few moments where the scales tipped too far towards comedy or melodrama. The fact that Yuan’an gets over the shock of seeing a pregnant woman threatened to be cut open so a slaver can assure his eager buyers she’ll have a boy in only two scenes was hard to wrap my head around. Or the flashback Lanzhi has about the border war where we see wounded soldiers screaming in agony only to be undercut by an extra who decides to over act to the point that he falls off the gurney. Moments like these nearly took me out of the story. With it’s tone problems I’m worried that once it swings into a magic focused show that it will lose its mystery angle.
-Interesting mystery setup
-Awkward Tonal shifts
An interesting and engaging mystery that’s building towards a magical quest. So far, it’s got me hooked even with it’s tonal struggles.
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