In late 1997 or early 1998 I was invited to manage the Hercules & Xena programming track at Atlanta’s Dragon*Con. I ran the track for 2 years before changing to launch the Tolkien and Middle-earth programming track. One of the downsides of managing a programming track for a large convention is that you don’t get to see much of the convention. One of the upsides of the job is that you’re never bored.
You do get to meet a lot of people. If I was lucky, I’d get to have dinner with some of my guests. I may not have been great company depending on when the meals occurred. I remember walking over to Bicentennial Park with Robert Trevor (Salmoneus on Hercules and Xena) and his partner. I was exhausted and kind of zombie-like. He was very gracious and relaxed. I nearly fell asleep while we were talking.
I had dinner with Steven Sears (Executive Producer for Xena) a couple of times. And I was able to have a few short conversations with Karl Urban. When John Rhys-Davies was our guest I was able to speak with him for all of about 30 seconds. He was so devoted to the fans that he took time away from his family to appear at the convention. His 1-hour talk in our programming room was one of the last sessions for our part of the convention. People were standing around the sides of the room and out in the hallway for him. The room was very warm and he wore a jacket the whole time he was there. He also stood the entire time.
Science Fiction Conventions are About Fans, Not Actors
It might be hard for someone who has grown up on the Comic Cons and Dragon*Cons to think these conventions aren’t about the actors and shows. But that’s not what they were supposed to be about.
If you spend any time at a science fiction convention, you should spend time meeting other fans. I remember hearing about a security guard at a small convention I attended who was stunned to learn there were “people just like me”. That’s what the experience is supposed to be about – realizing you’re not alone in your love of fictional worlds. That’s probably not so important today as it was 30 – 40 years ago. There was a time when people who talked about these things eventually found themselves abandoned in the corner at friends’ parties.
One of my most memorable convention dinner conversations wasn’t with actors or writers. I went down to the lobby of the Marriott Hotel to get some dinner while I was taking a break from the Hercules and Xena track. If you planned your room schedule right, you could shut it down for an hour while your main guests were in one of the big halls. But it’s hard to find a table between 5 PM and 7 PM during these conventions. So I asked two guys if I could join them.
They of course saw my staff badge and asked about what I was doing for the convention. Almost as soon as I said “Hercules” they began commenting on the show. They weren’t enthusiastic fans by any means, but their objections had nothing to do with the story-telling, the acting, the settings, etc.
How Genres Meet and Blend through Fan Experiences
These guys were devoted fans of the Hong Kong-style martial arts movie genre. They knew Sam Raimi was a fan of those movies, too, and that’s why Hercules and Xena had characters flying through the air, doing back flips, and fighting in completely un-Greek-like style. Honestly, if the shows had stuck to historical fighting styles, fans probably would have gotten tired of seeing hoplites standing in long lines and shouting at each other.
Hokey martial arts fights were one of the things that made the shows fun. But people who had been watching the films for years were a bit put off by the cheesiness of the shows. My two dinner hosts for the evening told me more things about the genre than I’ll ever remember. It was lot to take in. I eventually watched a few movies based on our conversation. I remember they were especially fond of The Bride with White Hair.
Of course, most Chinese action movies and TV shows are not wuxia or “Hong King-style” martial arts extravaganzas. But the genre is popular with audiences around the world. The first time you see a character go flying from tree to tree or roof to roof, you’re inclined to think, “wtf is that all about?” You don’t see Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal flying through the sky in their martial arts movies. America martial arts films are rather tame. I think that’s why Hercules and Xena were so popular. They dispensed with the pseudo-realism of “real” martial arts drama and injected some of the fun elements of Chinese-style film-making into the process.
But it’s a mistake to judge wuxia (“martial heroes”) films and shows by American derivatives. Sam Raimi and his partners had to be tongue-in-cheek about the martial arts. People used to joke about seeing Lucy Lawless’ sports shorts when she went whipping around a bamboo pole. In fact, the use of bamboo in shows that were supposedly set in ancient Greece made everything seem totally unreal.
Many wuxia productions take the martial arts more seriously. In their fantasy worlds (and movie gong fu is all fantasy), the characters are often dead-pan serious right up until they go whooshing off into the sky. The audience expects to see everyone act as if the 1-against-an-army super gong fu master is just an average, everyday super warrior. They create a super-realism for the impossible.
These movies and shows lead to fans discussing different styles of martial arts in great detail. I couldn’t tell the difference between Tiger and Snake style if I had to. I know Preying Mantis does something funky with the hands. Well, depending on whether you’re watching a comedy or a drama.
What I took away from those years was a healthy skepticism of film and movie martial arts. It was interesting to watch from time to time, but I didn’t get into it. I’ll probably never dedicate a blog to the genre.
But Wait, There’s More …
So I’ve got an Amazon Prime membership. We use it as much as possible, either buying things online or getting discounts at Whole Foods. But I also binge watch a few shows through Amazon. Their library is extensive but probably not as extensive as Netflix’s library. Amazon has its own productions, and I’m patiently waiting for The Lord of the Rings on Prime show (or whatever they’ll call it).
But if you’re already paying for a Prime membership you might as well browse what they have to offer for streaming video. I do recommend Carnival Row for Orlando Bloom fans. And if you like a good tongue-in-cheek fantasy comedy, Good Omens is a must. But one of the annoying things about Prime Video is that they’ll let you watch a show for “free” and then start charging for it.
I’m currently unable to watch the best seasons of Doctor Who, for example, because I’m too cheap (I mean, frugal) to pay for them. But I can watch all the Stargate SG-1 I can handle. 10 years’ worth.
Every couple of months I browse Amazon’s library of shows and movies for something new. Earlier this year they kept suggesting The Longest Day in Chang’An. I wasn’t interested at first. It looked like a historical movie (it’s a 44-hour TV show, but I wasn’t paying attention). In fact, I was looking for The Great Wall starring Matt Damon. I know this movie is considered a failure but I liked the cheesiness – and the blend of science fiction (aliens from space) with fantasy (just about everything else).
The Longest Day in Chang’An Blows You Away
When I finally bowed to the inevitable, I fell in love with The Longest Day in Chang’An. I loved it so much I reviewed it in the SF-Fandom forums. I had too many things to say about the show even to summarize them here. But the show was a hit among American fans, many of whom compared it to Assassin’s Creed (the game). I also compared it to steampunk because of the way they used historically plausible (or accurate) technology to emulate modern systems and technology.
Some reviews of this show warn you not to judge other wuxia shows by this one. The Longest Day in Chang’An is different. Maybe it’s even experimental.
It’s a page-turner, to be sure, if you get hooked on the story. What sets it apart, though, is that it completely eschews traditional flying-through-the-air fantasy martial arts. Jiayin Lei and other actors perform some amazing stunts. There are even some roof-top chases. But the actors (or stunt actors) don’t use wires. They’re not using magical gong fu, they’re just exerting themselves physically, much like Daniel Craig in a James Bond movie or Tom Cruise in a Mission: Impossible movie.
The story itself (based on a popular novel) is compelling. You can never be quite sure of who the good and bad guys are. The usual transparency of character motivations is veiled over with innuendo. There are surprise revelations every few episodes.
American audiences familiar with 24 will make undeniable comparisons to that show, but look beyond the similarities and you’ll see something unique even to Chinese film and TV drama. It’s a kind of realism that is refreshing and engaging. The director played with camera angles, followed different characters’ perspectives in an intimate style, and found ways to make almost everyone sympathetic in some small way.
Rumors on the Internet imply that the show is a veiled criticism of the current Beijing government. I don’t know enough about China’s culture and politics to have an opinion on that. But it does have a strong moral message that is common to all the serious wuxia dramas I’ve watched. Many of the characters struggle with their devotion to duty and their moral convictions, as well as their darker impulses.
This is a very tough show to follow, and if it’s your first introduction to Chinese action dramas, you may be disappointed with almost everything else. A lot of movies take inspiration from Journey To the West, which is an interesting story but unless you just love the Monkey King you may be disappointed by the cheesiness of many of those productions. Jet Li’s portrayal of the Monkey King in The Forbidden Kingdom is cool but a bit more serious than you’ll find in many Chinese movies.
You may enjoy Donny Yen’s portrayal of the Monkey King in The Monkey King: Havoc In Heaven’s Palace, but it’s a very different style. The character appeals to children as much as to adults, and many movies in which the Monkey King appears are made for family or young audiences.
The Amazing Detective Di Renjie Is Entertaining
If I had to go back and do it over, I would watch this show first, before watching The Longest Day in Chang’An. But I didn’t discover this series until after I’d gotten hooked on Chang’An. As some reviewers warned, you won’t find another show like it (until another is made).
But if you go back about a decade, you’ll find The Amazing Detective Di Renjie. I watched seasons 2 and 3 on Amazon Prime. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find the other seasons there, but eventually found them on YouTube. I haven’t had time to catch up on the other seasons.
Di Renjie was a real Chinese official who lived more than 1,000 years ago. Whether he was a detective of any kind is anyone’s guess, but he did conduct imperial investigations. And he served under Wu Zetian, China’s only female ruler.
Chinese writers turned Di Renjie into an amazing detective and historical hero sometime in the 1700s, and he has appeared in many novels and short stories since then. Sherlock Holmes is the closest western character I can think of to compare to Di Renjie. Of course, there is also Hercule Poirot, but I think Holmes is a bit more like Di Renjie.
There have been several television shows and many movies about this character. The Amazing Detective Di Renjie was produced in 5 seasons, spaced 2 years apart, beginning in 2004. Guanhua Liang stars as Di Renjie, sometimes Prime Minister of China, and super-amazing detective.
Each season is between 40 and 50 episodes long. Di Renjie travels around China, or visits nearby kingdoms, uncovering massive plots that threaten the existence of the empire. The plots are completely over the top. This is not imperial palace intrigue soap opera by any means.
Zhuohan Wu plays (General) Li Yuanfang and he is both the action-star of the show and the heart-throb. As one of China’s greatest masters of gong fu, Yuanfang goes flying through the air and faces off with unbelievable numbers of opponents. The martial arts are integral to the show’s premise, which feels like a hybrid of Murder, She Wrote and James Bond. You know China is in big trouble when Di Renjie stops by to say “hello” to his friends.
You can read my full review of seasons 2 and 3 in the SF-Fandom forums. As I understand it, this series is not representative of the character as it’s usually portrayed in what I guess we could call the Di Renjie genre. He is often played by younger actors. Andy Lau stars in a series of Detective Dee movies that may be more representative of what Chinese audiences are used to.
I haven’t watched any of these other movies but the trailers give me the impression they emphasize the special effects and fantasy martial arts. They use modern film-making technology to create blockbuster-like cinematic experiences.
The Guanhua Liang show is much more restrained. It’s got it’s fantasy moments, even some CGI effects (low-budget by today’s standards), but the story is compelling because the characters are so well-played and interesting.
These Shows Have One Thing in Common
Although many scenes were obviously filmed on soundstages, both shows feature a lot of outdoor locations. The Longest Day in Chang’An built one of the largest movie sets in history. They literally built a small city to film in.
There are fewer outdoor sets in the Amazing Di Renjie shows and it’s kind of obvous when they reuse certain buildings for government offices in various cities. Most casual viewers won’t mind. The show does a good job of blending different geographical backgrounds into the stories. You might be in the desert for some scenes, in a thick forest for others, on a river, or traveling through mountains.
The viewer becomes intimately familiar with parts of Chang’an as the characters go back and forth. By the time you’ve watched the entire show, you should have a feel for both how large the city is and about where things are taking place.
Although many episodes of The Amazing Detective Di Renjie feature scenes in the city of Luoyang, it’s not a consistent backdrop to all the stories. Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t get to explore the city with the characters. But you’ll see many different venues as the stories unfold.
The outdoor action should appeal to fans of American-style shows where characters visit different planets. The action scenes compare well to the space battles and explosions of American TV shows, in my opinion. As long as you’re drawn into the story, you’ll enjoy both the action sequences and the exchanges between the characters.
Other Major Differences between the Shows
If you like detective shows, murder mysteries, and such, you probably won’t mind the long scenes where people explain things in the Di Renjie shows. There are relatively few of these scenes in The Longest Day in Chang’An by comparison.
These summation scenes are necessary because the stories are so long. Key characters need to recap events that happened several episodes prior or the audience will get lost. Both shows also use flashbacks, but in different ways.
If you are bored by characters rattling off events and guessing at motivations, you may skip over those scenes in the Di Renjie show. I think that would be a mistake, but there were a couple of times where I felt things were just dragging. Overall I still think it’s a great show and the pacing is excellent. But neither of these dramas tells a simple story.
A James Bond movie looks like a kid story compared to these productions, but remember they’re running 40-50 episodes per season. They have much more time to develop their plots and characters.
The Longest Day in Chang’An has one major plot. The entire show is about 1 story – how 1 critical day unfolds in China’s capital city.
The Amazing Detective Di Renjie seasons each tell several stories. They are not as episodic as American detective dramas but they don’t occupy the full seasons.
I think both shows will appeal to many western science fiction and fantasy fans. Don’t expect Stargate SG-1 or Game of Thrones. But neither are these shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
They don’t fit into a western definition of genre. Each show has its own footprint. They’re worth exploring if you’re looking for something new to watch and you’re tired of the gritty, unrealistic everyone-is-evil-and-kills-everyone-else cable fare from America. I think American science fiction and fantasy TV has gone too far into the dark and gritty side of stories. It’s too dystopian.
What these two shows give the audience is a reason to feel good. The good guys may lose some friends along the way but they’ll win out over the bad guys in the end. There are still altruistic heroes on television, people who aren’t plotting for their own rise to power. They are not necessarily Davids fighting Goliaths, but they are challenged and threatened and if you follow the stories long enough you’ll care what happens to the characters.