Without giving anything of substance away, this is one of those dramas that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish for what it appeared to be but the resolution completely transformed my perspective and understanding of what it was. Initially from the brief synopsis that I'd read, I was given the impression that this was an X-Files style drama dealing with paranormal activities but it turned out actually to be an old-fashioned detective drama in which Agatha Christie meets Sherlock Holmes meets Salvador Dali. It's a great production and boasts an assortment of colourful characters from the leads down to the supporting acts. The Republican era backdrop works exceedingly well particularly as the costumes, props and sets reflect the early Agatha Christie period perfectly. Christie's first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles was published after the first world war.
In many ways this drama works somewhat like a Sherlock Holmes story or a series of Sherlock Holmes stories. The role of Holmes and Watson alternates between two characters, Jiang Shuo and Qin Yiheng. At the start of the show, we are introduced to Jiang Shou (Neo Hou) who is found by his mentor Bu Yan. Jiang Shou has lost his memories but he has a really handy skill that allows him to make a living, he can read minds. Or I should say, he can transport himself into a person's subconscious and find out things about them. It's an asset in any investigation of a crime especially when the suspect or witness is unusually recalcitrant. Jiang Shuo and his shifu Bu Yan live in a compound with a troupe of entertainers. Their living quarters is one of the show's key set pieces and their companions often become embroiled in Jiang Shuo's investigations. The other half of this partnership is the cool-headed psychiatrist Qin Yiheng, who is played by Liu Dongqin who is no stranger to playing sleuths or doctors. I like him better here than in the second iteration of the Dr Qin Medical Examiner franchise. As a psychiatrist specializing in reading micro-expressions, Yiheng is quickly drawn to Jiang Shuo as they both travel/teleport into the psyche of individuals. Of the two of them he is normally the more calm and astute investigator. Yiheng has more of an interest solving crimes than getting involved with the family business despite the emotional arm-pulling by his brother. He is also the second son of a local business magnate which is an important part of his identity throughout the show because it involves the mysterious disappearance of his father.
Inadvertently entangled with them is the local warlord's daughter Yuan Muqing (Bambi Zhu) who "moonlights" as a local constable while officially being enrolled in a private girls' school. It's not long before she and Jiang Shuo develop romantic feelings for each other. It's not a romance that I needed but it wasn't one that I was averse to. Compared to other crime shows, she's actually one of the better unnecessary female love interests. They don't bicker much thankfully and yes... she does get clingy (even that makes sense) but as a whole she does have her uses.
Another regular feature of the show is the official head cop, Bai Kai who is a taciturn but respected leader. Jiang Shuo nicknames him "bai kai shui" which means plain water. Yes, on the surface he seems to be a bit of a colourless character at first and the butt of some of the show's humour but as the show develops he becomes the greatest supporter of the unofficial detectives. He is effectively Inspector Lestrade without the ego.
The format of the show sees our detectives chasing clues provided by an enigmatic figure known as Liu Zhi. Liu Zhi is, in essence, the story's Moriarty figure. He is the consummate shadowy puppetmaster, lurking in the background pulling strings and using individuals who hold grievances to commit crimes all around the city. The master criminal wants a piece of Jiang Shuo for reasons not known initially and he uses these cases or "games", as he calls them to draw the latter into a web of conspiracy and corruption.
By far, my favourite part of the show (apart from the individual case arcs all wonderfully integrated in the bigger storyline) would be the developing friendship between the two men. From the time when they first meet to the last, their loyalty to each other and camaraderie is pleasing. Their personalities complement each other well as they learn to work together in life-threatening situations.
The male leads especially are rather good in their respective roles but as a whole the entire cast are very well put together to give an immersive experience.
Early on I mentioned Salvador Dali and this is why. When the two men teleport into a person's psyche, the art design of those sets are a delightful mix of surrealism, a little expressionism and art deco. I love the thought and the effort given to that aspect of the drama. Each set was intriguing always keeping the viewer on their toes wondering what's round the corner. There was one case that featured clocks ... and I'm obsessed with timepieces anyway... and the visuals for that one was especially stunning in my mind.
There's no doubt that it's a clever show and the conclusion made me think just that little bit more about the whole thing than I otherwise would have. It's a drama that I wouldn't mind revisiting down the track just to see what new things I missed the first time around.