Fog swirls over a bridge in 1920s Tianjin. A well-dressed young man is fleeing a group of ruffians. He runs onto the bridge. He’s trapped. He jumps into the river. He struggles underwater, trapped by some seaweed. A long-faced man appears in front of him, upside down.
The next day Ding Mao, son of the Head of the Chamber of Commerce, wakes up in a brothel. The mistress of the house offers to send the bill to his residence as “everyone knows who you are.” Ding Mao doesn’t know Guo Deyou, his saviour and spender of his loose change, who’s conveniently disappeared. But Guo Deyou is the Little River God, an expert freediver.
This all happens in the first 5 minutes. To say that Tientsin Mystic 河神 (hé shén) takes you along for a ride is an understatement.
Tientsin 天津, now romanised as Tianjin (Tiānjīn), is today one of the big four cities with municipality status (the others being Shanghai, Chongqing and Beijing). Its unique location at the mouth of the Yellow Sea makes it an area of strategic importance. During the Second Opium War, Great Britain and France captured the Taku Forts and in 1858 forced on the Chinese the Treaty of Tientsin. This opened the city to the West, with America, Russia, Japan, Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary also establishing concessions there.
Tientsin Mystic takes place in what you might call the “roaring 20s” of China. The Republic was finding its feet, the foreign powers had relaxed their grip, World War One was over and the city was experiencing something akin to stability, growth and normality.
But such a heavenly state of affairs could not last. The river ceremony did not deliver the intended result. One of the divers retrieves a corpse, the body of the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce! His son Ding Mao scurries down to the pier and breaks through the police cordon. He has just returned from Germany where he studied forensic science. Unable to control himself, he threatens to dissect his father on the docks then and there.
Guo Deyou, having reluctantly left his leaking bath, swaggers down the stairs to the wharf. The police cordon struggles to hold back the cheering mob, pressing close to get a sight of the ‘Little River God’, as Guo Deyou is affectionally known as.
Reporter Xiao Lanlan primes her camera, hoping for the scoop that will finally give her the recognition as a journalist she longs for. But Inspector Fu Laiyong attempts to put his mark on proceedings, bossing her away to make up for his ineffectual attempts to exert any other meaningful authority.
Lǐ xiàn 李现 (Guo Deyou), Wáng Zǐxuán 王紫璇 (Gu Ying), Zhāng Míng’ēn 张铭恩 (Ding Mao) and Chen Yumi (Xiao Lanlan) are the stars of the show. After appearing on the pier in the first episode, Lanlan fades from view for a while, later reappearing as Gu Ying’s love interest. The four main characters have an undeniable chemistry, especially Deyou and Ying as reluctant childhood sweethearts. Are their childlike flirtations a prelude to anything more meaningful?
The supporting cast is just as strong. Wěi Qīng 苇青 as Zhāng Shénpó 张神婆, Ying’s mother, sets herself up for all sorts of teasing from Deyou, while Ying struggles to break free from her maternal control. Táng Yǐnuò 唐以诺 as Inspector Fù Láiyǒng 付来勇, is a scene stealer with his manufactured histrionics and determination to do as little work as possible while claiming all the credit.
And there’s the unforgettable Old River God, Deyou’s Master, who’s dry wit very much captures the spirit of the show. Regretfully I can’t find the actor’s name and I’ve searched Baidu too.
Tientsin Mystic’s opening credits whet the appetite for the creative craziness to come. The title sequence is a pastiche of chéngyǔ 成语 (sayings) spoken by the main characters against a backdrop of dreamlike images flickering in and out of vision, while violins portend doom over a 3/4 beat. Pretty cool.
The soundtrack is professional and varied. The cinematography is creative, lovingly filmed, each shot pregnant with meaning. There is suspense, mystery and action.
How many shows can boast a chase scene in 1920s Tianjin involving pallbearers ferrying a coffin through crowded market streets?
The set design is rich in detail. Feast your eyes on all the specimens in Ding Mao’s makeshift forensic laboratory. Explore the confining rooms of an opium den, infiltrate the headquarters of an ancient evil gang, or sit on the stairs of the pier and watch the light of the moon shimmer on the lake.
The good news is Season 2 is now playing on iQiYi. The bad news: the departure of Li Xian. Season 1 ended on such a poignant note it is hard to believe it can continue without the Guo Deyou we know.
I’ll keep an eye on Netflix for the arrival of Season 2. Or now that my Mandarin is semi-decent, maybe there’s an Asian streaming service I can watch it on.
Tientsin Mystic is dope, and maybe, for once, the English title is better than the original. But bow down to the River God.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Drops a mark for the investigation in the opium den, one of the few times the writers took the easy way out, having the team escape by trashing the place. Apart from that, brilliant, mystical, humorous, flamboyant, ambitious and very re-watchable.
Warning: Tientsin Mystic contains a couple of disturbing scenes. One, early in the series, involves a grisly premeditated murder. Later we are treated to a zombie molestation – it may have been this that attracted the temporary ire of the censors.