The Long Ballad (2021) Early Impressions

Sometime last year I caught the trailer for this and at the time I had a vague sense that this was something that I might take a peek at time permitting. However, with the bucketloads of C dramas dumped endlessly at the latter part of 2020, all thought of it had fallen into the ether. But thanks (or no thanks) to the algorithms of You Tube, it popped up on my recommended feed recently and curiosity about Wu Lei's transition into adult roles got the better of me. I mentioned it to the other half (who is a huge fan the first Nirvana of Fire) and we were soon intrigued. The plot also has the advantage of being set in one of my favourite periods in Chinese history -- the Tang dynasty -- roughly during the reign of Emperor Taizong. We knew almost nothing about the plot and I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable the watch was in spite of the occasional eye roll.

Wu Lei aka Leo Wu who is best known for his role as the adorable Fei Liu in the first Nirvana in Fire co-stars in this action adventure adaptation of a popular manhua about a sassy princess on the run after the entire massacre of her family. The titular princess, Li Changge is played by the exotically beautiful Dilraba Dilmurat. Wu Lei is Ashile Sun, the adopted son of the Eastern Turkic Khan and is sent as a scout into Tang to find out the political happenings. The two with the usual missteps are destined for romance whatever obstacles are thrown their way.

On a personal note the biggest surprise is how well the pairing works despite the much talked about age gap between the leads. The brewing chemistry is palpable despite the brief encounters that they have in these early days. It’s not exactly love at first sight from either side but it doesn’t take long before Sun becomes intrigued by this free spirit when their paths cross.

Changge is out for the blood of Li Shimin, her uncle and usurper of her father’s position as Crown Prince. His ascension is a result of the rough and tumble of palace politics and to put it brutally, the best man won. Very much a case of politics as usual. Changge doesn’t quite see it that way especially when her mother is seemingly an innocent casualty of the fray. However it’s not clear to me at least that the late consort was murdered because Li Shimin seem to have more than a brotherly interest in her. Suicide is a real possibility because the woman certainly had an inking of what was coming and she was eager to send her daughter out of the eastern palace.

Few shows are perfect and I’m sure there’s plenty that one can complain about but the one that niggles is Changge’s revenge agenda. It feels more like a plot device than anything based on substance. I’m hardly one to speak against revenge schemes but this one feels so obviously like a plot device to get Changge out of the capital and thrust her into adventures. There’s something inherently challenging about assassinating a member of the royal family… suicidal even but you’d think as someone who is supposedly intelligent and trained in strategic arts, she’d be more circumspect and play the long game. Moreover, there's very little of this ongoing revenge trajectory that makes pragmatic sense to me.

When I brought this up elsewhere someone said that it's all part and parcel of her growth arc. I don’t dispute that and it didn't escape me but I got a bit nonplussed hearing her praised for her intelligence one minute and then doing something else to cause more problems not just for herself but for others around her. What’s the hurry? But there's little doubt that she’s written precisely to be the protagonist embarking on a hero's journey.

Luckily for Li Changge, she cross paths with the mysterious Ashile Sun who helps her out of various scrapes. Wu Lei's performance is impressive here. Only 21 and he’s pulling out all the stops as the elegant, masculine male lead carrying the gravitas of a young man who has had to grow up a lot faster than most. Right now he and his character are the main reason why I’m absorbed with the drama. While Changge is supposed to be the lead character, Sun has my heart. To be fair, Dilraba is good here too. Probably the best I’ve ever seen from her since her Pretty Huizhen days.

It probably goes against the tide to say this but I’m honestly less enthusiastic about the secondary romance. Nonetheless I can see why it excites many because it’s very much your everyday rom com trope at play. A tsundere scumbag of a male thawing out for the love of candy girl who happens to be a princess. Yeah I get it but neither character does anything for me right now. This is not any criticism of the actor. As far as Hao Du is concerned, it makes sense for his character to be in this story. From a storytelling side of things, however, the Leyan character doesn't really need to be there. At least that's the feeling I'm getting from these first 8 episodes.

Despite all that I appreciate the attempts at keeping things at a high degree of historical accuracy: Tang’s tenuous relationship with the Eastern Turkic Khaganate. The precariousness of border towns and potential for them to turn into instant battlegrounds. The parallel internal political struggles within both countries. Li Shimin, Changge’s doting uncle who later ascends the throne as the highly respected Emperor Taizong is also given full and fair treatment here. He's really not the "bad guy" and certainly a man of his time. There are villains in the piece but Li Shimin isn't depicted as one of them.

The other important element that is in the show's favour is the pacing. It moves along very nicely and it doesn't take long before Changge is dodging soldiers and out of the capital Chang'an.

At this point this drama is unlikely to unseat You are My Hero for this year's C drama top spot but despite its flaws, I'm more invested in the romance here already than The Sword and the Brocade. For some reason the Tan Songyun and Wallace Chung combo didn't light any fires for me. Despite being competently made, there was something about the writing/directing that made the female lead a very bland and occasionally unlikeable individual.