I am mostly into Korean drama. But once in a while, I indulge myself in Chinese drama. I am not going to lie. I have always been wanting to watch a TV series with Dilraba Dilmurat as the main actress. She has unique facial features that make her look Asian but not Chinese (she is actually of Uyghur ethnicity). Should you watch 49 episodes of The Long Ballad (~37 hours)? Part 1 is a spoiler-free review. Part 2 has spoilers.
Set in the Tang dynasty, Princess Li Changge (played by Dilraba, also hence the drama title) escaped the Palace and the capital due to court politics. She faked death, disguised as a man, and promised herself to return one day and seek revenge against the new emperor. What follows was a series of life-changing events for her and the main cast.
There is a good amount of plot and acting brilliance that would make you fall in love with the series. I cried at a number of scenes, was awed at some of the very clever plot tweaks, loved some of the military strategies, and I mostly binge-watched the entire 49 episodes in just a few days.
There are also moments of very good cinematic whereby you witness a vast size of armies in conflict. The cinematic also at times supplements with the comic-drawn scenes, which tell a pretty good story (where the root of the series belongs).
I particularly love the character development. Each main character grows into a different person. There are moments of heroism and sacrifice, intrigue and danger. The main difference between Korean and Chinese drama is that Chinese writers don’t seem to hesitate to kill off characters. That makes Chinese drama very memorable.
The Long Ballad is not without its flaws. In my mind, the entire series is roughly divided into 5 chapters. The first chapter was great. The second chapter is amazing. The plots are so clever. You would get to love the characters (even the villains). The problem is, this drama peaked too soon. From the scale of physical and emotional conflict to the cleverness of plot tweaks, nothing follows can compete with the second chapter. This drama also has a number of glaring plot holes that made me shake my head.
I like the concept of Central Plain versus Grassland versus Desert tribes. The story backdrop could have been so much more powerful had the final chapter been the climax of all. What a missed opportunity.
While some have great acting, most are average or one-dimensional. Personally, I think Dilraba acts well, but not exceptional. But her physical attractiveness and the exceptional heroic plot opportunities make up for it. I do enjoy watching Zhao Lusi played as Princess Li Leyan (cousin of Princess Li Changge) and she has acted in The Romance of Tiger and Rose, one of my favorite dramas.
All in all, an enjoyable watch that I don’t regret watching.
Warning: Spoilers follow.
Spoilers & Interesting Observations
Following is a list of observations I have made while watching the drama, which made me face-palmed or in awe. If you have watched this drama, you should be able to relate.
- Arrows, so many arrows to the chest. When the first arrow shot at Princess Li Changge’s chest while she was hanging by the broken bridge, I gasped. While saved by Ashile Sun (refer to as Li Changge’s lover from now on), one of the division leaders from Grassland, she insisted to pull the arrow out of her chest by herself (because she was disguised as a man, which at that point in time, her soon-to-be lover already knew that she was a girl). And she did! Cut to the defense tower where she stood when Ashile Sun lay siege to the city she attempted to defend, an arrow again shot to her chest! She fell, but got up, and pulled the arrow out, which boosted the soldiers’ morale. She survived, once again! Not one man in the series could do what she did. Cut to her on a horseback chased by a group of armed Grassland people. Someone on a horseback behind her shot an arrow that went through her chest and saved her the hassle of her pulling the arrow out from her chest this time. She fell from her horse and was saved by a swordmaster and an old doctor. Once again, she survived! Cut to one of the palaces, an assassin shot an arrow at Li Changge’s lover who at that time was sitting next to the princess. It seems like a heavy injury but her lover survived! Cut to yet another palace, a Grassland soldier shot an arrow at Li Changge’s maid, also one of her best friends, and the maid died in Li Changge’s arm (technically speaking, the maid died in her lover’s arm shortly after). There are so many arrows to the chests. So dramatic. I really thought that the maid would survive looking at the pattern. Well played, scriptwriter.
- People have super healing power. I would have thought that when one gets shot at, in the chest, even when the arrow misses the heart, there must be some serious injuries, be it to the lung or the rib cage. But no, both Li Changge and Ashile Sun are able to get by fine the next day. Princess Leyan’s lover was beaten to a pulp while trying to win the wedding competition. The next day, he recovered and went on helping others with farming! A general was tortured in Grassland with cuts all over his body. It was a failed attempt to escape and in his final hour, he could still fight like a healthy warrior against a group of mobs. Ancient people were strong indeed.
- How powerful is Princess Li Changge? Now, this bugs me a lot. Li Changge led men into battle against a horde of Grassland army. She literally slaughtered a lot of them as Commander Li (granted she was wearing armor … but still, many characters in armor died in the series). Yet, later on, she and her lover who is equally strong struggled to fight off a small group of rebels inside a temple, needing the help of Tang’s soldiers (with arrows). And there is one Chinese official whom she was really terrified. She nearly got killed by him one time. Who is he? The one that was beaten to a pulp above.
- How powerful is Ashile Sun (Changge’s lover)? Cut to the scenes when Ashile Sun faced the evil princess alone. Sure, he had chains on his hands and feet but I reckon he could still fight. Mind you, he was on a death sentence soon to be executed. Surely, he could take down an unarmed evil princess with zero martial art skill? Ashile Sun was the most powerful leader in Grassland, worshiped as God of War. Yet, he didn’t even put up a fight at all, ready to embrace death. Really? He must have known that help was coming 🙂
- Those kissing scenes are so lame. I know Chinese drama is not well-known for kissing scenes. But I have not seen anything this lame at all. When the main characters Li Changge and Ashile Sun finally kissed, the entire scene was blurred. Blurred! What was in focus was two green birds kissing each other at different angles in front of them, in close-up! When princess Li Leyan kissed her lover at her wedding, the scene froze, turned into a black and white comic book style drawing, with the lips still an inch away … what?! The only legit kissing scenes in this draw are the ones between Li Changge’s maid and her lover. They are still bad compared to Korean drama. But at least, the lips touched.
- Where did that palace come from? I often think that the Grassland tribes stayed in tents on the grassland. When the evil princess took over the Grassland tribes, she decided to move the capital back to town. Now, it wasn’t clear to me if the town belonged to the Grassland people (more like the previous dynasty’s I suppose) or the Tang dynasty. But it appeared to me that the evil Chinese princess from the previous dynasty who married the Khan’s (plural) in the Grassland still have a well-maintained palace for her to move back to whenever she wanted. Mind you, she hasn’t moved out of Grassland in the last 30 years. Surely, the Tang royal families wouldn’t let the royal families from the previous dynasty still occupy a palace? Or was the town already taken over by the Grassland people? If so, it wasn’t at all clear to me.
- Finding people in the Central Plain can be so hard and so easy at the same time. Many episodes I have spent watching characters trying to look for Princess Li Leyan and Princess Li Changge, only to see these characters narrowly miss each other. Many times I have seen Li Changge found by characters out of nowhere. It can be so confusing at times.
- Oh wait, what did I just see or not see? There was a scene where one brother mourned the death of another brother. It was an interior of a tent. The brother poured wine into a small cup, just when he was about to pour the wine onto the floor in memory of his lost brother (who did not die), there was a close-up scene of the cup, as the wine hit the wooden floor in slow motion, the wine splashed at the back of very dramatic music score. The camera zoomed out and wait, where was the wooden floor? All I could see what a thick rug inside the tent where he sat, the rug where the wine would have landed. Cut to the scene of Princess Leyan’s wedding. Her lover’s dad was dying so they wanted a small wedding, with just the two of them and their dads. In the end, the emperor (the princess’s dad) was not in the scene and there was no explanation whatsoever. Did the actor who acted as the emperor take a medical leave that day? Or something lost in translation?
- Missing scene? There is no closure on the recovered Great Khan. It would have been a moving scene to witness the reunion of Great Khan and his adopted son Ashile Sun. What a missed opportunity.
- The parallelism is brilliant. Towards the end of the series saw an emergence of a subplot. A princess of the previous dynasty married into Grassland executed a plan 30 years in the making to seek revenge. In one of the ending scenes, standing face-to-face with the evil princess was princess Li Changge. Two princesses separated by one generation experienced similar family pain, one took the path of revenge while one didn’t. The contrast cannot be more impactful, an answer to what-if Li Changge took a different path. In the end, make peace, not war.