When Shuai Jia Mo, who is obsessed with mathematics, stumbles upon a historical problem in Jinhua County, he's met with multiple obstacles in his attempts to correct the mistake, triggering a tension between various stakeholders. (Source: iQiyi) ~~ Adapted from the novel "Xian Wei Jing Xia De Da Ming" (显微镜下的大明) by Ma Bo Yong (马伯庸). Edit Translation
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Where to Watch Under the Microscope
Cast & Credits
The mountains are high and the emperor is far away 山高皇帝远.Under the Microscope takes a detailed look at some of the ancient financial shenanigans that eventually collapsed a dynasty. It is an adaptation of a documentary written by Ma Boyong based on rare ancient folk archives from the Ming dynasty. The Ming dynasty's demise was in large part due to the inability of the government to properly manage its finances, particularly with respect to tax revenue collection. The mountains are high and the emperor is far away 山高皇帝远/shān gāo huángdì yuǎn; thus local fief lords and officials in remote locations were able to do as they please. Social unrest frequently erupted as a result of local officials' failure to carry out central government directives due to both incompetence and corruption. That is the backdrop against which this ancient tax puzzle cum murder mystery unfolds.
Shuai Jiamo is an orphaned peasant and a math savant. He is known in Renhua county as a simpleton and is probably either Aspergic or mildly autistic. He makes a simple living providing field measurement services. In his spare time, he counts cards for his only friend Feng Baoyu, playboy and scion of the prosperous Feng's Ham Shop. He is obsessed with accuracy and when he discovers discrepancies in land records, he tries to track it down. In the process, he stumbles across a misallocated tax that awakens long-dormant memories of the day his whole life changed. Without considering broader consequences, he obstinately decides it must be made right and single-mindedly sets out to rectify these errors. All sorts of vested interests from fief lords to various county officials are affected and conspire to frustrate him. First they turn Chen Renqing, a wily lawyer whose justice and honour can be bought by the highest bidder, loose on him. They also inflame peasants across all eight counties of Jin'an Prefecture, ensuring that chaos, murder and mayhem ensues.
Zhang Ruoyun steps out of his comfort zone in this role of a character that is not always in the moment and relates to others in a different way. Although he seems to over-act in places, the brilliance in his overall interpretation is how insidiously he plants the seeds of doubt. Is the over-acting deliberate and in character? Is the real Shuai Jiamo the one who chastises Feng Baoyu for not paying more heed to his sums and observes that he will soon have a brother-in-law? Or are the glimpses of cunning, empathy, even wit and humour just inconsistent characterisations? Is Shuai Jiamo really that simple and traumatised or does he have complex hidden motives? His nemesis the shrewd and cynical Chen Renqing certainly believes the latter. Leaving these questions largely unanswered makes this yet another fascinating and memorable characterisation by Zhang Ruoyun. His incredible chemistry with Wang Yang thrills and delights in new ways as their roles here force them to connect across entirely different wavelengths. Wang Yang is always at his best in morally ambiguous roles and delivers a wicked and empathetic performance as this lawyer on a white horse. It is also nice to see the limelight shared by Fei Qiming (Feng Baoyu) and Qi Wei (Feng Biyu), who also deliver hilariously engaging portrayals.
This is a beautifully shot production with a detailed eye that captures the humble, tattered and vivid humanity of the common people and the contrasting texture of their venal overlords. The devil is always in the detail with these kinds of accounting and mathematical puzzles that do not lend themselves well to screen adaptation. But this production creatively and humorously dresses up the inherently dry subject matter and does its best to avoid too much exposition. The plot is well paced and the conspiracy builds to a climax that shook me and left me speechless with my heart in my mouth. The villains are well foreshadowed but the reveal still satisfyingly ties up loose ends. Some bad guys got off too lightly but this is realistic and somewhat dictated by historical fact. This is a superbly well-written and entertaining ancient grassroots story that will appeal to anyone on the lookout for fresh themes and stories. 8.5/10.0.
A Dry Story Based on Actual EventUnder the Microscope is a story adapted from the Silk Case, one of the six cases under Ma Boyong’s historical textbook. The author has also written numerous well-loved novels, among others, Secret of Three Kingdoms, Luoyang, and The Wind Blows from Longxi. Like the other dramas, the mood of this drama is serious albeit with subtle humor. It is a departure from the usual stories of royalty, noblemen and aristocrats, and instead looks microscopically into the issues faced by the commoners during the Ming Dynasty.
The tax and financial system during the Ming era was a very complicated subject, and the story revolves around a tax called the “ren ding sijuan” (silk by head count). Shuai Jiamo (Zhang Ruoyun) accidentally discovers a silk tax entry on the county’s account book with a questionable amount. He deems it erroneous and requests the county official to rectify the error but is told he needs to appeal to higher up. While attempting to do so, he meets all kinds of obstacles, including attempts on his life; someone is trying to prevent him from appealing and digging deeper. Together with his only friend, Feng Baoyu (Fei Qiming), they are determined to get to the bottom of it despite putting themselves in great danger.
Shuai Jiamo is a young mathematical genius with signs of autism. To him, math always tells the truth and he doesn’t allow a speck of inaccuracy in it. Because of his obsession, most people regard him as an idiot, except Feng Baoyu who thinks Shuai Jiamo very special and would do anything for him. Zhang Ruoyun is an incredible actor. As the autistic Shuai Jiamo, he is genuine and very believable.
To readjust the tax amount on the account book, Shuai Jiamo is told to bring his appeal to court. While in court, he meets Cheng Renqing (Wang Yang), a talented but morally and ethically questionable lawyer working for a shadowy character to try to throw Shuai Jiamo’s case out. He has been successful, but Shuai Jiamo and Feng Baoyu do not give up easily despite getting thrown into prison and their life being threatened. Wang Yang is a veteran actor, and has a charismatic aura. With a smirk on his face and a sharp tongue, his performance is on script and has no holes to poke.
All the other actors give a wonderful and believable performance. I particularly love the Magistrate Fang character (Hou Yansong). Seemingly lazy and useless, he turns out to be the hero of the people and the actor Hou Yansong has performed with full marks. I also like the Feng Baoyu character who loves gambling and is a real friend worth having for anyone. Fei Qiming’s portrayal is outstanding, bringing out the essence of the character convincingly.
This is a true story based on a historical event but not a drama for everyone. Some of the characters such as Shuai Jiamo and Cheng Renqing (written differently but with same homophones) were real historical figures. Shuai Jiamo’s obsession in math and in going to court to correct the tax errors can bore many viewers unless one is very interested in the complicated and confusing Chinese bureaucratic and financial system during Ming Dynasty. To add fireworks to a dry story to make it more palatable for entertainment consumption, some ninjas and wuxia sword fights are added. The scene when Cheng Renqing comes to the rescue of Shuai Jiamo and Feng Baoyu in the nick of time on the beheading tables by throwing out two knives is simply hilarious and unreal.
Though at the end of the drama, it seems everyone receives their justifiable rewards or punishments, it doesn’t feel right to me. Despite all the heinous acts by the villains, the ultimate culprit’s punishments seem like just a slap on the wrist compared to what Shuai Jiamo and Feng Baoyu receive for pointing out the problem -- some of the culprit's wealth is confiscated while the good guys are beaten and imprisoned -- this is probably quite realistic.
In the real event, Shuai Jiamo’s and Cheng Renqing’s fates were not as rosy as shown here; they were both sent away in exile for stirring up "trouble". In other words, the best way to deal with any problems at the local level was to punish those who pointed out the problems. As always, the drama depicts the aristocrats are the ones suppressing and stealing from the people, and the government the enhancer and the gestapo police -- a satire of wealth inequality, the world is never fair nor just.
Overall, this is a dry drama based on a real story full of ironies and paradoxes. The acting is very good and the script writing is tight and logical but too bad, as much as I have enjoyed it, the drama doesn’t make a compelling story for most casual viewers.