Stand By Me (2021) Early Impressions

It seems an unlikely title for a period drama roughly located during the Tang dynasty as it references both a popular 1960s US song and a 1986 film of the same name. Despite the seeming lack of panache, the new title isn’t without foundation once the story gets going and gets going it does.

The original title (just in case anyone’s interested) was Dream of Chang’an and it was supposed to be a fictionalized account of the tumultuous reign of Emperor Wuzong aka Li Yan who was known for his persecution of Buddhist monks. Because of its rather lax interpretation of history, the production team did a bit of fiddling to line up with censorship requirements. So Tang became Xing, Chang’an became Heng’an and Li Yan is now a rather more sympathetic if morose Qi Yan. Dream of Chang’an is now The Emperor’s Song aka Stand By Me.

Qi Yan played by the super talented Cheng Yi, is an unerringly fascinating male lead who is essentially under the thumb of his godfather, a eunuch Qiu Ziliang, the real power behind the royal court. Qi Yan, also a skilled martial artist and archer is kept under house arrest and is under constant surveillance lest he misbehaves. The job of keeping him on a tight leash goes to Qiu Yanzhi, the eunuch’s adopted daughter whose visits ensure that the young figurehead knows his place.

The young emperor, more in name than in reality, is deeply frustrated and desperately lonely. To some he is a mystery, to others he is a usurper to the throne and collaborator with the enemy. To others he’s a walking target. There’s nothing easy about playing the long game but play it he must even if he’s very much a solo act. However, Qiu Ziliang can’t rest easy because he suspects that the intelligent and gifted young emperor can’t be satisfied with quietly playing second fiddle puppet for the rest of his reign.

Eight years earlier there was a failed attempt to dislodge the powerbase of the eunuch that involved the former emperor and his key supporters. A bloody clean-up ensued as a result. The storyline highlights continuing reverberations from this event where those who survived the clean-up are somehow engaged in an elaborate revenge against the emperor for his perceived involvement at the time.

Qi Yan’s not too unexpected love interest is the new Purple Bureau’s sword bearer Cheng Ruoyu. The Purple Bureau is an army consisting of women established by a former female emperor. Cheng Ruoyu is essentially the emperor’s bodyguard although the wonderful irony is that his pugilistic abilities are clearly better than hers. However, Qi Yan doesn’t have many people he can trust but Yu’er with her cheerful, frank disposition soon wins her way to his heart. It’s right out of the romance playbook but for some reason, even in an arena of relentless conspiracies, plotting and scheming, it seems like the most natural thing in the world that these two people should be drawn to each other. In many ways she’s a walking anachronism but it works. Her adaptability and loyalty is exactly what is needed for the lonely emperor who understandably has chronic trust issues. Even her impulsive nature works in her favour as she unhesitatingly, unwaveringly devotes herself to the inscrutable inner workings of the emperor. It isn’t a one-way street either because Qi Yan inadvertently has to shield her from the worst of the enemies’ machinations even if it means putting himself in jeopardy.

Cheng Yi is a standout and his versatility never fails to impress. I am especially enjoying the smug bad boy persona that he falls into when he toys with the people around him. His chemistry with Zhang Yuxi is excellent. Despite the disparity in status their romance makes a lot more sense than it should although the show is not without the obligatory cheesy rom com moments in those very early episodes. Rumours soon fly around that the new sword bearer has gained the emperor’s favour and he may even confer her the status of consort in due course. Her uncle, Qi Yan’s personal eunuch, is only too pleased at the prospect. Since this is a C drama the road to true love will be rocky and hazardous, paved straight to hell. Before these two can be together and left in peace, they will have to jump through plenty of hoops.

Both leads are fairly new to me. I tried watching The Promise of Chang’an but immediately gave up after hearing about the ending. I’ve never seen Love and Redemption either. Xianxia’s not my cup of tea. They are supported by a very competent cast. Han Dong I know from Under the Power. He plays Prince Guang, Qi Yan’s uncle. Lulu Xuan is the highly intelligent frenemy Qiu Yanzhi who has a shared past with both the emperor and his sword bearer. The big bad here is the intractable Qiu Ziliang, the evil eunuch by Mickey He with the appropriate styling to boot. The man practically screams villain.

What’s also great is that the drama airs everyday of the week which means there’s no long waiting periods. The subs have definitely improved over the course of the past week. Production values are adequate though nothing amazing. What immediately struck me was how much this so-called palace drama felt like a wuxia one because this young emperor is very hands on and there are plenty of fight scenes that he’s in the middle of. On the downside the show suffers from all the usual editing issues that beset C dramas but it’s nothing unbearable.

In short I am very taken with this and it only seems to get better with every episode. It’s not going to raise the bar on the genre or break new ground but it’s a very decent way to waste about 90 minutes each weekday and on the weekends.