Despite having been on winter break for the past ten days, I’ve neglected this blog badly. Simply because life has been busy. I’ve been helping out with the family business since the holidays are our busiest, and on my days off I’ve been running many errands. In between working, getting things done (like Christmas shopping, visiting the optometrist, renewing my driver’s license, etc), and just having finished an academic semester, I also have not felt that motivated to read. And, subsequently, I haven’t been inspired to blog. Of course, (I know I keep saying this but) I promise I’ll get back to comments and bookish related posts before my winter break ends if not very soon. However, for now, aside from this small update, all I can offer is sharing my most recent non-bookish obsession that has taken over my life as of late.
A few weeks ago, I posted a quasi review of Princess Weiyoung, a Chinese historical drama that was extremely compelling and entertaining but not necessarily flawless for its jarring plot holes, sometimes awkward acting, and repetitive storyline. Soon after completing that one, I moved onto yet another lengthy period drama also set during the Southern and Northern dynasties called Nirvana in Fire. What reservations I had with Princess Weiyoung were completely absent with the latter.
To not give too much away, Nirvana in Fire is a story about a man’s quest of revenge and his path on clearing his family’s name of crimes they did not commit as well as secretly help his childhood friend, an unfavored prince, become emperor. Though this one line synopsis suggests that this series is quite simple, straightforward and uncomplicated it certainly was not.
Nirvana in Fire has been called “China’s Game of Thrones” for the vast recognition its received since airing in late 2015; it reached commercial and critical success with its positive ratings and viewership numbers (exceeding 10 million views by the second day!). Despite its popularity, I’ve put this title off because there are fifty four 45 minute episodes, which is a great commitment to juggle with school-especially since I was already watching Princess Weiyoung at the time. So once my break began, I knew it was about time to marathon this series. And, gosh, Nirvana in Fire went beyond my expectations and absolutely blew me away.
Because my thoughts are still too muddled from having just finished this brilliant series a few days ago, I thought it’d be best if I conducted this review as a list to keep me more organized. (In hindsight, I think I was a gushing mess with my last drama review. Oh well.) So, here are…
Ten reasons why this epic series is worth your time
1. The intricate writing
My favorite aspect of this show is the meticulous, well written storyline. The story itself is adapted from a Chinese novel with the same name written by Hai Yan. The fact that the author wrote the script for this show himself* probably explains why this rendition was a success for fans of the original novel. The intricate plotting and political maneuvering were executed perfectly. I pretty much watched with rapt attention on the edge of my seat the entire way through because the events and twists were totally unpredictable (and sometimes utterly shocking). Even though NiF is a long series, there also didn’t seem to be any filler scenes/episodes and the plot rarely dragged for me. All the small backstories and subplots seemed to have a greater purpose and contributed to the overall plot. And unlike most Asian dramas, the careful consideration and time put into the writing led to absolutely no plot holes to my relief. Even the dialogue was memorable; I actually paused at certain scenes to jot down some important quotes.
Edit 5/23/17: I didn’t realize that there were two authors that go by Hai Yan. I had mistaken the author of Nirvana in Fire to be the male one, but someone corrected me in the comments that she is actually female. Thanks fc!
2. Characters that possess depth and undergo massive development
Coupled with the exceptional storyline is the infinite use of multidimensional, nuanced characters. The directors and producers took advantage of the 54 episodes by allowing the viewers to get to know members of the cast through backstories (using as few flashbacks as possible, thankfully) and subplots within subplots (that all had some relevance to each other in some way); this forced viewers to become connected to the characters (and hence the show) on a more emotional level.
(Let’s also praise that the side characters aren’t just cast aside after they’re introduced; we get significant follow up and growth with them as well.)
By the finale, I got increasingly attached to several characters, but I’ll settle with only discussing two (and later another two) that left a deep impression on me lest this review going over 5K words.
Mei Changsu/Su Zhe/Lin Shu
NiF‘s main hero is Mei Changsu, a character that is so complex that he never failed to surprise me with his words and actions throughout the series. He lives a double life where a part of him is left hidden. His real self is Lin Shu, a young, once invincible army commander that lost everything over a decade ago when the Chiyan army was betrayed by their own country.
Since I managed to survive, I will not waste my life.
After that fateful event, Lin Shu survived and was saved by the master of Langya Hall, Lin Chen. After the treatment he received, it left Lin Shu in a weakened state with an altered appearance. So much changed that “even family that grew up and raised him would not be able to recognize him.” For 12 years, he created the Jiang Zuo Alliance and became the chief of the pugilistic world under the alias Mei Changsu (MCS from now on in this post). So when the fight for the royal throne between the powerful Crown Prince and ruthless Prince Yu becomes more prominent, MCS decides it is the right time to make his return to the royal capital, Jin Ling, in his changed guise, posing as the skilled strategist and tactician, Su Zhe, to secretly help his best friend, the unfavored Prince Yu, become the next emperor of Da Liang.
…this pair of hands used to bend bows and tame horses. But now it can only hide in the dark and stir the pot.
To say that this character’s presence pulled at my heartstrings was a total understatement. He was in so much irreparable pain physically and emotionally that it was was painful to watch as viewers saw that his health and body was deteriorating as his plan took motion and the episodes progressed. Hu Ge, the actor playing MCS, did an extremely exceptional job portraying such a tormented character. (More on the acting later though.)
Jingyan, for me, after the re-trial of the case, it is the end. But for you, it is only the beginning.
I also admired MCS because his character epitomizes human dedication and sacrifice. His loyalty and heroic actions for Da Liang (from restoring his family’s innocence to supporting Prince Jing’s position as next in line for not only his own goal but for the country’s best interest in mind) were laudable.
I am still Lin Shu. Even though 12 years have passed, I am still the young marshal of Chiyan Army, Lin Shu! I want to return, return to Chiyan’s battlefield. I want to return! For that is the place where I belong!
And even to the end, I was relieved that even with his transformation, MCS never lost his youthful, heroic heart. He said he would perform all the “dirty deeds” for Prince Jing, but in my opinion he never became a despicable character that succumbed to becoming evil. It may have appeared like he used people as “chess pieces” but he really did everything with the utmost care and consideration. So, despite the unbreakable facade, he was never anyone but Lin Shu all along. :’)
Plus, a sassy, blunt Mei Changsu is priceless. I hate to compare but I’m going to say it anyway; MCS gives me Sherlock vibes in terms of attitude, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
I’ve seen many strategists, and everything they did was the most evil and shameless. The cold arrows that they sent out could not be blocked by the strongest people. My brother, my last friend they all died form this conspiracy. I cannot allow them to see me become a ruthless person.
While watching the drama I would have undoubtedly said MCS was my favorite character, but having had some time to reflect I now would probably chose Prince Jing instead. His character is so honest, pure, and righteous. The fact that he values loyalty, friendship, and emotions above all during a time when so many corrupt individuals around him were concerned with wealth and power makes him fit to be the upstanding king his father isn’t and a hero like Mei Changsu/Lin Shu and his brother, the late crown prince, Prince Qi.
It also takes a lot of courage to remain true to oneself, and no matter the circumstances his utmost priority was to stay devoted to Prince Qi (his older brother and role model growing up), Lin Shu (his bff), and the lost souls of the Chiyan army. He’d rather give up his life if that meant not using or betraying the people he loved. Jingyan’s continual sincerity, sensitivity, and fierce loyalty to the people close to him is why I grew to love his character. (All the “Prince Jing missing his bff, Lin Shu” scenes gave me all the feels. T_T )
I also appreciated that the writer chose to balance his inherent goodness with his impulsive, stubborn, and reckless behavior. I mean, in the real world no one is perfect and a fictional character shouldn’t be exempt from this reality.
And here’s a further analysis of Jingyan’s character. I stumbled across this via Tumblr and found it so spot-on and articulate that I had to share it. (Me linking this is kind of some sort of inception since this blogger got part of these theories from yet another NiF fan, which the former mentions before she precedes with her post.)
“Throughout the show JY has never asked anything for himself. All his actions, be it fighting for the crown, saving Wei Zheng, fighting for the task of the drought disaster relief, they were all done for someone else. For Lin Shu, for Jingyu, for Chiyan, for the ordinary innocent folks of his country. The only time he made a selfish request was the last time he saw Xiao Shu, where he asked him to return to him after the war and watch him rebuild the kingdom. And we know that it is a request that would never be fulfilled.
The writer also addressed some drama critics complaint of Jingyan’s arc lacking growth or a twist like normal drama writing does. Jingyan has definitely grown throughout the show, from being rash and needing MCS’s guidance and assistance in every plan, to the final plot to get the Emperor agree to rejudging the case, where he has everything under his control and carefully planned, and letting MCS just sit back and chill. Look at that growth.
A discussion of the difference between Jingyan = dumb vs Jingyan refusal to give in to doing what everyone thinks is the ‘smart’ thing knowing what the consequences are. It is a beautiful character flaw (and strength) of him and it is a shame to reduce it to JY = dumb.
The third point also reminds me of an important theme in the series which the general cfandom and even the creators have acknowledged. Despite the fact that it is a show about betrayal, scheming and revenge, the core values which the series really treasures are very romantic and idealistic. A lot of characters, from Jingyan, Jingrui, Yujin, Liyang to even MCS himself, you can notice a common theme of keeping a sense of almost childlike innocence “赤子之心” and refusing to give in your moral compasses even in face of the pressure and cruelity of the world. It is a little rebellion against what a lot of people has accepted about being ‘realistic’.”
I’m using “strong” with quotation marks because not all were badass because they kicked butt literally. Some presented intellectual and emotional strength.
Of these women my favorite was probably between the lead female role, Princess Nihuang, and Gong Yu. Not only do I respect her physical strength and quick wit, but also her selfless love for her country and Lin Shu. She regards Mei Chang Su enough to not obstruct him from his ultimate goal. Instead, she’s a constant support by his side in all of his endeavors even if she knows the outcomes means that they will not be together. Also, viewers finally, with Princess Nihuang, got a female character that did not get jealous when their man was around other women. All the potential jealousy plots and love polygons were out the window. Phew.
Of the “older” cast, Consort Jing was a constant pillar that helped me keep my sanity in times when there was so much injustice and unfair treatment to the good characters in the palace. Her voice of reason and calm attitude grounded Prince Jing and it was nice that she never succumbed to the evil side like her conniving “sisters” (aka the emperor’s other wives). It was refreshing that the good could actually prevail and win over evil. Her character and rise in status was proof of this. I also liked that Consort Jing had some equally as kind sisters as well though; in this saga not all of the emperor’s wives and children were concerned over winning the throne. So there weren’t many catfights between the consorts for the most part. Instead, the battle of the throne relied more on the political maneuvering between the men outside the Inner Palace, which is a lot more interesting than women poisoning other women in my opinion. Lastly, isn’t it interesting that Consort Jing is a female physician? Though, she was never adequately revered amid the royal women it was still nice to see a woman in medicine that early in time.
I also really liked Xia Dong because she could care less of what the men thought of her. Whether that be in moments like the scene above or when she encountered the men of the Xuan Jing Bureau.
4. The superb acting
Even before I started to watch NiF I was already acquainted with most of the prominent actors and actresses that starred in this, and knew they would deliver. NiF showcased some the best, consistent acting I’ve seen in a period drama in a while. In my last post with Princess Weiyoung, I lamented that some of the acting was quite awkward and sometimes too dramatic. I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency to have over-exaggerated acting (or sometimes underacting) in a lot of Chinese period dramas. This wasn’t the case with NiF though.
Aside from Hai Yan actually writing the dialogue and script, It may have helped that some of these actors probably read the book and/or did some research on the novel before they immersed themselves into their roles.
I know Hu Ge read the book prior to production, which he said helped him with getting to MCS’s character. think a lot of his fans urged him to take this role not only because of their love for the book and the actor but because there’s some uncanny parallelism between Hu Ge’s personal life and MCS’s. And I have to admit, of all the actors, I was looking forward to Hu Ge’s performance the most since I’ve watched a lot of his dramas (some of them like Legend of the Condor Heroes (2008) being my favorite). Plus, I was slightly let down with his last subdued, calm character in a historical setting, Mo Xun in Sound of the Desert (2014). He certainly redeemed himself and displayed his full acting prowess with the role of MCS.
One episode in, and I was already enamored by the beautiful scenery. Some shots were literally desktop wallpaper worthy.
And I knew this show was a high budget production because of the (overall) well done CGI effects and by the way it was filmed so expertly to get the best angles.
Also, to further emphasize and showcase the actors’ acting abilities there aren’t many cuts in a scene, instead the camera pans out for a few seconds for viewers to focus in on the actors’ expressions and breathtaking scenery. I love that the camera stays long enough for viewers to see the minute and what would normally be negligible changes in expression on the actor(esse)s’ faces.
Sidenote, but I also found it fascinating that the 54 episodes only covers a span of 2 years, usually there’s a greater timespan than this for these period dramas.
The romance The bromance
In fact, in many people’s eyes, when he [Lin Shu] returned to the Capital, he had changed into a completely different person. But, in my heart, he has always and will always be the most radiant boy of Jinling City. With an unchanging pure heart that will never perish.
Being the hopeless romantic that I am, it’s no surprise that I more than adored the romance even if it did merely exist as a minor subplot. (Minor subplot meaning it only comprised for like 2% of the story.) The romance is one of the slowest of slow burns and there really is never any progress. Seeing as I heard that the original story in the novel didn’t have a romance to begin with, the lack of romance didn’t bother me. But whenever the gentle romance between Mei Chang Su and Princess Nihuang did make it onscreen, the small gestures they’d make were tender and beautiful in an understated way. Happy sigh.
However, the friendship dynamics were in the main spotlight and A+++.
Mei Chang Su: People can only be betrayed by friends, enemies would never have the chance to.
Prince Jing: This I believe. But you should know, people return in kind what they receive.
Like the viewers that hadn’t read the book, I was increasingly perplexed by MCS and Prince Jing’s initial relationship because of their seemingly clash in philosophies and personalities. However, as more is revealed about the past, I realized the great invisible bond between the two, and came to fully support their camaraderie. Maybe as much as General Commander Meng Zhi, hehe. (He was aboard the MCS and PrinceJing ship even before the viewers were aware it existed; I’m convinced he’s a total fanboy of the pair.)
7. The other unforgettable relationships between the supporting roles
Just behind the bromance between MCS and Prince Jing would probably be MCS and Li Chen, for me. And I can’t not mention the family atmosphere I get when MCS, Li Chen, and Fei Liu are united, too. MCS is like a big brother (and even sometimes fatherly) figure towards Fei Liu; and Li Chen is the playful parent that the kid never listens to, haha. I also lived off of the banter between Fei Liu and Meng Zhi, because their encounters are always hilarious. Of course, the brotherly love and concern Mu Qing has for Nihuang was too adorable. And I also adored Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin’s friendship.
But there are many, many more memorable platonic relationships in this due to the show’s sprawling cast and long duration, but you need to watch the drama for yourself to catch them all.
8. The comedic relief
A lot of the humor is related to how the characters interact with each other. I won’t elaborate (because this post is already long enough as it is) but even though NiF is a deep, thought provoking drama for the heavy politics, scheming, and revenge plot there are many funny scenes such as this one.
9. The pugilistic world and intense action scenes
I know, people flying in the air and all totally defies physics, and it’s highly improbable that it ever happened. However, I’ve always been entertained by the martial arts in period/wuxia shows. And NiF didn’t deny me any of this guilty pleasure.
Of course, with a story centered around revenge and betrayal, there’s a lot of bloodshed. I’m also not going to talk about this since you can watch the show for yourself to see the gory details.
10. The everlasting themes
Last but certainly not least are the numerous motifs that the drama imparts with the viewers. I’ve mentioned once before that, for me, what separates a good drama from an extraordinary one is one that makes me feel on emotional and intellectual levels for the values it focuses on and shares. NiF relays many. Dedication, loyalty, brotherhood, sacrifice, courage, justice, righteousness being the ones that come to mind. Again, you need to watch this drama to see how these values enfold and are incorporated within the story.
This series is so flawless in both its execution and storytelling that it rivals with other Chinese historical/period/wuxia classics such as Legend of the Condor Heroes, Journey to the West, My Fair Princess, Chinese Paladin, Scarlet Heart, etc. Nirvana in Fire is truly special and the praise it’s gotten is completely well deserved.
In fact, I can easily say that this is one of the best dramas I’ve ever watched. The plot is so intricately woven so that there are no plot holes, and the script is extremely well written. The characters are A+, and the production value for this must have went through the roof. The soundtrack is pretty much art. More importantly, the story and values I learned and were reminded of are going to linger with me for a long while; I’m going to buy a copy of this with Vietnamese dubtitles for my birthday. I usually watch all my dramas on online sites with English subtitles (and occasionally Viet subs) but when one is truly exceptional I must have a physical copy.
As for the finale… being the emotional ball that I am I weeped uncontrollably when I finished this. Like all Chinese period dramas, the ending was nothing short of melancholy but I was mostly sad because I wasn’t ready to part with this drama. (Speaking of the ending, there is actually an alternate ending, which you can watch here if you’ve completed the show*. And I noticed that someone wrote a perfect comment saying, “the other ending makes the story strong. But this ending makes me feel better.” I couldn’t have agreed with that user more, haha.)
Edit 5/23/17: Someone corrected me in the comments (thanks fc!) saying that the director didn’t intend for that video to be an alternate ending but rather just a compilation of cut scenes. However it gives me comfort to think of it as an alternate ending so I’m going to, personally, still view the video that way. Just know it isn’t official as how I originally thought.
Anyways. Gosh, I am still in complete awe by how epic this series is. My only regret is not having watched this sooner. This was a drama that moved me to tears, made me chuckle more than once, swoon a few times, reconsider my thoughts on friendship, and contemplate life in a different light. I was promised an epic journey, and a beautiful saga it was. So, don’t delay watching if you think this is up your alley. And make this a priority on your “to be watched” list.
(The only thing to be wary of is that the first few episodes are a bit slow and confusing because it’s setting up the story. But as more characters are introduced and the overall plot is established, the politics and story aren’t hard to follow.)
Sigh. I may have cried a little as I was drafting this post. It took a long time and was pretty intense to write. And I think I used like 3% of my WP media. But whatever. It was worth it to vent my fangirl feels. 😄
As always, thank you so much for reading (even if it was just skimming this incredibly long post-I think I even outdid my usual prolix self this time) and until next time! Also, I hope that you all had a safe and warm Christmas with your loved ones yesterday. Talk to you guys in 2017. ❤