Nirvana in Fire [defies weird translated title to be decent Chinese historical drama]

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Nirvana in Fire [not sure what the Chinese title is, but don’t try directly translating anything from Chinese, you’ll end up with weird results] was the most popular Mainland drama in 2015, even the most popular of the last 10 years if you believe the hype machine, which I didn’t mostly cos the only other Mainland drama I know is the one where Fan Bing Bing became the Empress of China.

What’s it about?

The plot’s hard to layout as there are so many characters [you’ll be lost in the first few episodes. In fact, in Hong Kong most people are still lost after 35 episodes, which has led to terrible ratings and a desperate attempt by TVB to get it over and done with as fast as possible, mainly by showing double episodes on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s all pretty sad as a] it’s a good drama and really not that hard to follow if you pay attention, and b] the average audience for TVB has been revealed to be either braindead or only half-watching.]

Those were long brackets.

Basically, the story’s set around 500AD, I don’t know the official name for this period, but it was after the Three Kingdoms and before the Sui/Tang dynasties, and generally is an underexposed era for historical dramas. Basically, China was split in half [north and south] and those regions were further split into mini-kingdoms. The one in the drama is made-up but they talk about the Wei, which was real, and the other big kingdom at that time was the Jin, either northern or southern, I’m not sure.

I actually like dramas that are set in unfamiliar periods, though to be honest most periods of Chinese history are pretty unfamiliar to me. I know the vague details, but not the specific player names or the majority of main events/rebellions/coups etc.

Nirvana in Fire focuses on a main character, Mei Chengsu, the leader of the Jiangzou Alliance [basically a bunch of criminals, rebels and outlaws, kind of like Mance Rayder and the wildlings in Game of Thrones], who travels to the capital to make an unfavoured prince the next Emperor. He does this through manipulation and meticulous planning, sometimes unbelievably meticulous as every small character seems to be one of his spies and no one else realises it.

Secretly, and this is revealed early on so not really a spoiler, he’s the son of a general who was labelled a traitor by the current Emperor 13 years earlier and massacred.  Actually, the Emperor was just going by what he was told by others, so it’s not completely his fault, and he’s suspicious by nature so he’s not a hard guy to manipulate.

I love the Emperor’s expressions in this, especially his ‘suspicion face’. I heard the actor’s been praised in forums for the naturalism of his performance, which is true in the calm moments of the drama, but if they’re talking about the plot twist court scenes then he’s about as naturalistic as Jon Voigt in Anaconda.

Anyway, somehow, Mei Chengsu escaped from the massacre, got poisoned, found a wise young man with the cure, took the cure and, as a side effect, got a new face so he could come to the capital 13 years later and no one would know he was really the son of a traitor.

Like I said, pretty much everyone is working for him, or on his side, and he chooses his childhood friend, Prince Jing, a stubborn warrior type who doesn’t know that it’s really his friend, to be the next leader of the kingdom. However, there are two other princes in the way, one already designated as the crown prince and the other trying to scheme his way there, so it’s gonna take exactly 54 episodes and the reveal of a secret bad guy to accomplish his mission.

Get it done!

The amazing thing about Chinese and HK TV productions is the speed in which they get it all done. Each episode of Nirvana in Fire is around 45 minutes long, there are 54 of them in total, and the whole thing was filmed in four and a half months.

Ten episodes of Game of Thrones takes around the same amount of time, maybe longer, I’m not sure.

How the hell do they do it so fast?

I guess there aren’t many takes or rehearsal time, and they do reuse a lot of the same sets, but some of the scenes are 20 minutes of pure dialogue. I don’t know how the actors/actresses remember it all, but somehow they do, they get it done.

The dialogue is a step up from TVB dramas too, which isn’t exactly hard. The characters are clearly defined, and quite distinctive, which helps, but they also don’t waffle on about random things or personal philosophies like the characters in the average TVB drama. E.g. relationships are like biscuits, they break if you shove them in your mouth, but if you nibble them gently and work on them, they prosper. This is real dialogue from a TVB drama showing right now. Only it’s worse than that cos the actor keeps talking, same analogy, for another 3-4 minutes.

In Nirvana in Fire, everything is geared around either the plot or the characters, what they would want at that point in the story or how they would react.

The acting’s a lot better too, especially Prince Yu [the scheming prince], Prince Jing [the stubborn one] and Commander Meng. The main character [son of the general, now referred to as Mei Chengsu or the unicorn Scholar] is okay, he looks almost preternatural, but he doesn’t do much with his face and is pretty much on the same setting for most of the drama. I suppose it’s in character, he’s meant to be inscrutable, and you do see flashes of other emotions, but he’s a bit too perfect and bland for most of the story. There aren’t many moments where you get the feeling he’s lost control cos he never really does. Similar to Sherlock Holmes in a way, but he doesn’t have the weirdness of Holmes to make him stand out. Or the heroin addiction [he has a frail body, which adds some irony, but it doesn’t stem from his character like the heroin addiction does with Holmes]. In essence, he’s just a master tactician, with a flawless plan, so the most interesting part orbits around his plans and how exactly he’ll come out on top at the end of it all. Or how he’ll make Prince Jing come out on top.

The two main princes have better roles as they’re both very flawed and have much more of a chance to show some range. Prince Jing is often trying to keep a lid on his temper and his disgust for all the schemers around him, including ambivalent feelings about Mei Chengsu, the guy who is supposed to be helping him but also seems to be willing to sacrifice people to get to the top [it turns out he isn’t really, which is a shame as it would’ve given him a flaw and made the audience unsure about rooting for him].

Prince Yu is arrogant and believes he is always the smartest guy in the room, which is only really true when that room happens to contain Commander Meng. Poor Meng, he’s really not that bright, though he is the 2nd strongest fighter in the kingdom…which doesn’t actually make much sense if he’s thick as kung fu isn’t just a physical battle, it’s strategic too, like a game of chess with the body e.g. you have to know which moves to use and when and what the opponent will do and how to react and trick them and many other aspects. Obviously, I don’t know kung fu, but this is what Jin Yong novels have taught me. Maybe Meng just trained a lot and has a natural instinct for it, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just in the script. Maybe he’s pretending to be dumb. I’m probably being too harsh, he’s not that stupid, just a bit like Watson to Mei Chengsu’s Holmes.

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There are two parts in the story that showcase probably its best features, in terms of plot and character.

The first is strategy, shown at its peak when the Unicorn Scholar [Mei Chengsu -Unicorn Scholar is his nickname, if that wasn’t clear] comes up against the main bad guy, who is holding a friend of Prince Jing in his prison. It’s an attempted trap by the bad guy, designed to lure Prince Jing into a rescue bid that would incriminate him and lead to a loss of favour with the Emperor, perhaps even exile or execution.

So, the Unicorn Scholar has to get the guy out of the prison without involving Prince Jing directly, or himself, all with the knowledge that it’s a trap and the bad guy is also an accomplished schemer.

The premise for strategy is laid out before the plan is revealed: know your own strength, know your enemy, predict his moves, make your own moves unpredictable.

The resolution isn’t incredible in itself: the Unicorn Scholar knows the guy in the prison has been moved, fakes an attack on the prison, makes the bad guy paranoid and tricks him into leading them to the real location of the prisoner.  The part that works the best is the idea that the bad guy would’ve succeeded if he’d kept the prisoner where he was originally held, but he was too clever, he tried to trick the Unicorn Scholar without realising that the Unicorn Scholar had assessed his opponent’s character and, crucially, not underestimated him. The bad guy performed a deception only on one level, whereas the Unicorn Scholar performed on not two, but three levels, as it turns out that his intention was not only to rescue the prisoner but to make it look like the bad guy had in fact kidnapped his own prisoner in an attempt to frame Prince Jing. Sounds complicated, but it works well in the drama cos it comes across as so simple: the Unicorn Scholar basically followed the philosophy of the art of war, whereas the bad guy assumed he was up against someone who’d never read that book.

The second part of the plot that make this drama stand out is the culture of Imperial Chinese courts.  As far as I know, despite some surface differences e.g. role of Buddhism/Daoism, family elites, authoritarian leaders, all Chinese dynasties except the Yuan [Mongolian] were relatively similar in the basic way they worked i.e. hierarchy, exams to determine officials and their ranking, obedience of rituals, filial sons, good governance etc. Of course, there were many Emperors who were flat out psychos, it was inevitable, but generally the idea was that they were the son of Heaven and it was both their privilege and responsibility to run the country. Most dynasties fell when the country was run badly, and were replaced by the next group, therefore they didn’t actually believe the Emperor himself was the son of God or divine, but they believed he had been put in that position as a divine act. You could call it fate, I guess, and you wouldn’t be far off.

I’m pretty sure that’s right, but I’m no expert, so if the Chinese really did think each Emperor was like a God then please correct me.

Back to the rituals…

In Imperial courts, due to the ideas of Confucius, I think, rituals were given great importance, so in this drama you get them discussing the right way for the prince to touch the Empress when giving her a cup at the new year festival. Should it be with his left or right hand, should he bow, how low should he bow, should he wear purple or black etc.?

It’s really interesting for anyone not Chinese to see this side of history as it seems so trivial and…actually, I don’t know why there was such importance given to rituals, I think I read the reason somewhere, but I’ve forgotten. Maybe a link to the past? To previous Emperors?

I’m really not sure

but in the story it plays a big part, as a lot of the schemes from The Unicorn Scholar focus on little details, which lead to punishments and loss of power/favour for the princes, or a rise in position for Prince Jing. It turns it into a game that I don’t know the rules to and can barely understand, but like any game, once you figure out how it’s played, it becomes more interesting to watch.

It’s similar to Game of Thrones in this way, as each character is only as strong as his flaws allow him/her to be and the story manages to stay quite consistent. I mean, there are not many moments where you think there’s no way that character would’ve done that, or how the fuck did he get away with that?

Another cultural aspect is the treatment of women.

Oh to be an Emperor. You have a wife and a small palace full of concubines, and you can choose which one you want to sleep with each night without offending anyone. It’s definitely a system thought up by a man, possibly Michael Douglas, and the only role the woman has is to battle other women for the Emperor’s favour and hopefully one day rise to the very top and become Empress or Empress Dowager [the Queen Mum, basically].

So, the scheming of the princes is matched by the scheming in the harem, with plots sometimes interlinking with each other, which is a nice touch. The only character who rises above this is Lady Jing, a decent person who refuses to scheme and actually has a heart. I’m not sure if it was an interesting role for the actress to play, there aren’t many edges to her, but it matches her son and you really believe he is the decent person he is due to her influence.

Xia Dong, student of the main bad guy, has a heart too, as does Princess NiHuang [?], but they’re not in it much.

Any others?

Nope.

All the other female characters are two-faced bitches, basically, which sadly seemed to be historically accurate and unavoidable, you either adapt and scheme or get poisoned as soon as the Emperor spends more than a few nights with you.

Obviously it’s tough for historical dramas to align with the modern position of women in society, the best they can do is to give the female characters as much agency as possible within the imperial prison they find themselves in, and perhaps not to let them fall in love with the Emperor, who is a bit of a dick in this.

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The only negatives I can think of are the same things most westerners will struggle with when watching any Asian drama.

i] The slow motion walking of the main character

ii] the incessant playing of the theme through most scenes, especially the more melodramatic ones.

iii] the insipid melodrama

It’s the same for South Korean dramas, they’re hugely popular, but if you’re not used to the style of the above three points, you’re gonna think it’s all a bit shit.

Yeah, it’s not subtle, and I wish they wouldn’t play the theme so much, but after 2-3 episodes you adapt and the strength of Asian dramas is also the strength of martial arts fiction, the plot is good and you want to know what happens next, and, sometimes the ending is a let down, but in this one it’s actually quite good. I won’t say why, but it feels consistent and doesn’t cheat the characters of their agency or who they were in the previous 53 episodes.

Though the poison changing his face to that of a different person is a bit of a stretch, and very convenient as without it, the plot just wouldn’t have worked.

By that I mean, the Unicorn Scholar wouldn’t have lasted one day in the capital if everyone knew that he was really a traitor.

So, the face change thing is acceptable, cos it’s established right at the beginning what’s happened to him.

Anything else?

The action scenes, especially the battle scene late on where the Emperor, Mei Chengsu and friends are surrounded by enemies while on the spring hunt, are wildly inconsistent, and come off really badly compared to the strategy scene with the guy in the prison that I talked about a few paragraphs above.

In short, Mei Chengsu says some strategy, the next scene enacts the strategy, it works, Mei Chengsu says another bit of strategy, it’s enacted, it works, all in the space of around 10 minutes.

It’s way too fast, and when the enemy finally attacks the hunting lodge they’re in, the camera starts switching between random soldier POV, like Gladiator or Saving Private Ryan, and more detached shots from a distance. It just doesn’t look good, perhaps due to lack of time giving to the director, or lack of cash for better cameras.

Could be both, as battle scenes in Chinese films have been done really well, so maybe the rushed production is a big factor.

I don’t really know

I just wish they had allocated more time to the characters planning strategy, the tension before battles, the chaos of battle etc. I’m guessing the director was a very frustrated person when he did this episode and if he wasn’t, if that battle is exactly what he pictured in his head then he isn’t a very good director in the first place.

Ah, my wife has just told me the version I’m watching has been badly edited by TVB [Hong Kong TV channel] as they’re trying to finish the drama as soon as possible cos the ratings are terrible and next week they’ve got a new drama starting

a ghost drama, starring two pensioners who can’t act

and Wu Ding Yan

who is better than this surely.

Maybe it’s cos she won an acting award for her last drama, where she played a ghost?

Maybe she just does whatever script they put in front of her

though that’s probably not true either as I heard they don’t even start with a script, they

just make it up as they go

sometimes even re-using dialogue and plot from previous dramas

no wonder it all seems the same.

Apparently the action scene in the original version of Nirvana in Fire had more space between fighting, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for the hunting lodge battle

even though the handheld camera bits were still terrible.

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