I started writing this post the next day after I finished Nirvana in Fire aka Lang Ya Bang (瑯琊榜), the epic 54 episode Chinese drama starring Hu Ge, Liu Tao, Wang Kai plus many other fine actors (and actors/directors!) This is technically not a review, it’s more like – some thoughts on the reasons why it is now my favourite drama ever. It took me by surprise as well. I’ve never rated a drama 10/10 and thought 54 episodes is not enough. But there it is.
I’ve tried to remain as spoiler-free as possible. I will mention events that I assume people will expect but not go into details. I will also talk about the ending in a clearly marked section.
If you have read some of my previous posts, you will probably know I’m not a fan of historical dramas, and particularly allergic to Chinese ones. They have a reputation of being long, draggy with stupid endings. To be honest, apart from these reasons, I have the impression that a lot of Chinese historicals these days are just idol dramas in disguise. The posters are photoshopped like crazy until you cannot recognise the actors. The writers use language from modern times. The CGI is useless. There is a lot of money being thrown around but the result is disappointing. (I’m looking at you – Detectives and Doctors)
Funny that I decided to watch Nirvana in Fire because another recent well received Chinese drama – Love me, if you dare was frustrating me to no end. I needed a break from silly romances. (I will say LMIYD would be 500% better without it, but let’s leave that discussion for another day.) Nirvana in Fire received such glowing reviews I thought I’d just try it out.
After 3 episodes I understood why it is rated as highly as it is.
I absolutely love NIF because of the story, the characters and the most important of all, the themes of loyalty, righteousness, determination, brotherhood, justice….
I won’t go through the synopsis (because there are plenty around the web) but one of the words being thrown around is revenge, ala The Count of Monte Cristo style. I have never read or watched The Count of Monte Cristo before but I personally think using revenge to describe this drama is an injustice. For me, ‘revenge’ carries a negative connotation, an element of selfishness. However, NIF was so much more, which I will talk about later.
As a 54 episode drama, NIF never felt draggy. Yes I acknowledge it is a bit of a talk-fest at times, and some people might not like that. Also, there are scome episodes where the storytelling is slower than others. However, the web it weaves is so intricate and complex I finally got my head around all the relationships (I think) when I studied the relationships charts. (Bilingual version / English version / Chinese version) If the episodes are slow, it’s because it needs to build up to a climax later and it is always worth the wait. The most important ‘turning points’ at around episode 20, the mid 30s, the mid 40s (and of course, the ending episodes) are some of the most intense drama-viewing experiences I have ever had. I personally just love dramas where at the end of it, I feel like I went on a journey from zero to some sort of self-actualisation. One I can reflect back on with joy and tears, and one that I’m willing to relive again and again. You know a drama is good when at the end of it, you want to start at episode 1 again.
Of course we have to love (and hate) the characters to fully ‘buy into’ the story. From the heroes Mei Chang Su / Prince Jing / Ni Huang / Fei Liu / General Meng (plus many others) to the villains the Emperor / Xia Jiang / Xie Yu / Prince Yu etc etc, I felt something for these major characters, even the villains. As this is such a complicated (and long) journey, I am allowed to understand each person’s motivations, their background and dare I say, felt sympathy for them even when they were doing such evil deeds. (I’m looking at you, Prince Yu.) The acting is top notch – Hu Ge’s Mei Chang Su is such a difficult character to portray because he is always so calm (with his frail body). A lesser actor will probably look blank and expressionless but Hu Ge showed so much restraint and yet, everytime there is a close up of Mei Chang Su, I can feel his pain and burden. Wang Kai is gaining so much popularity now because his Prince Jing was annoyingly hot headed, impulsive, and yet towards the end he showed his gentleness and maturity around his best friend. One of the only major female characters – Ni Huang (Liu Tao), who unfortunately had such little screentime and disappeared for much of the drama, always caused me heartbreak. Her devotion and determination is so admirable.
There are so many other characters I loved, whether it’s the clueless yet loyal General Meng, the cute puppy that is Fei Liu, the grace and intelligence of Consort Jing, not to mention the noble nature and forgiveness shown by Jing Rui, the playful yet courageous Yu Jin… if I were to talk about them individually this post will be way too long. But all of these characters add to the richness of the story, good or bad, they made the NIF journey a spectacular ride.
I’m just in love with this whole set of posters, the poetry is so poignant and fitting to the story.
But what made NIF a 10/10 for me was its ability to make me think about the themes of loyalty and courage. This drama has been described as ‘a drama with a conscience’ for a reason. To be honest, when I turn on the news nowadays, I see the ugliness and immorality (whether it’s terrorism in Western countries or from China – just think poison milk powder, fake soy sauce, ‘recycled’ tissues) – the greed and disregard of human life shown by some people is despicable. It very much parallels the world at the beginning of NIF, where the Crown Prince and Prince Yu were too busy fighting against each other to care about the people. Even worse, it was the Emperor who allowed it because he did not want another person as powerful as him. He turned a blind eye to both princes’ corruption and greed as long as it fits his own ambitions. He was so consumed by it he executed his own son and refused to admit he was wrong. There is so much darkness and this story provides hope as we watched Mei Chang Su and Prince Jing try to achieve the same goal.
Speaking of Prince Jing, in hindsight, he is probably my favourite character. Yes, that is a very tough call because he annoyed me for the majority of the drama. (Let’s put a disclaimer here.) It helps a lot he is portrayed by the handsome bass cannon (he can read a phonebook to me and I’ll still swoon) that is Wang Kai, but it was Jing Yan’s unwavering determination, righteousness and loyalty which ultimately won me over. Until probably the mid 40s (episodes), the water buffalo (lol) Jing Yan rubbed me in such a wrong way I thought – How can this man ever be an Emperor? He is so stubborn and impulsive! During the Wei Zheng incident, his ridiculous insistence on the rescue made me want to throw bricks at him. I’ve been polluted by reality enough that I believe as a politician, you will have to make sacrifices to achieve a higher goal. Obviously Jing Yan doesn’t feel the same way.
But let me ask a question (if you are over 25) – Who was your best friend when you were 17? Are you still friends with him/her?
Me? We don’t even speak to each other anymore. As many people have said, as you grow older, the lesser friends you have. But yet for Jing Yan, he remained so so loyal to Lin Shu (and of course his older brother) he doesn’t care about clashing with his father and he doesn’t care about money or power. Even if everyone believed the Chi Yan army / Prince Qi were guilty, Jing Yan never deviated from his beliefs. That is what I most admire about him despite his hot headed personality. Not to mention his very late realisation that Mei Chang Su is really, Lin Shu just made Jing Yan look silly. I guess the female intuition (whether it’s Ni Huang or Consort Jing) can be so correct yet unexplainable. But in the end he is able to grow and mature, to think before he acts, to plan before he throws himself headfirst into a brick wall (so to speak). It feels satisfying to know the future is in good hands.
I know I haven’t talked about the most important character that is Mei Chang Su / Lin Shu! If Jing Yan carries the burden of being a leader that Prince Qi will want to see him as, Lin Shu carries the burden of the reputation of the 70,000 Chi Yan soldiers. I said in the beginning how I don’t really want to use ‘revenge’ to sum up this drama because although he spent 13 years planning and scheming (and even had to use his closest friends), he did it for other people. He sacrificed his all for the memory of the Chi Yan army. 赤子之心 (loosely translated – with the purest of heart) is the phrase I’ve seen which describes it perfectly. Lin Shu and Jing Yan had the same goal, but Lin Shu was (a lot) more pragmatic about it. I guess he had gone to hell and back which changes your perspective (to put it lightly). Plus, he is willing to do the dirty work for Jing Yan.
These themes of friendship and loyalty extends to other characters, whether it’s General Meng/Lin Shu, the guys from Jingzhuo Alliance/Lin Shu, Fei Liu/Lin Shu. Lin Chen/Lin Shu and the one which also touched me the most, Jing Rui/Yu Jin + Lin Shu/Jing Yan! If there’s a ‘one true x’ from this drama it’s probably OT6 or 7 or something. Although I think Lin Shu/Jing Yan is the OTP of all LOL. But seriously, the friendship between Jing Rui and Yu Jin is strong as it is (in my head, if Yu Jin was a girl, she was supposed to marry Jing Rui LOL), but they also share a respect and admiration for Su Zhe. All these feels hit me when I saw this.
This flashback was unfortunately not in the drama. There was a scene in the novel where Mei Chang Su and General Meng were reminiscing. Xiao Shu was punished by his father for breaking something of the former Emperor’s. So instead of going to the hunting ground, he had to look after a couple of kids. “At the time, I would rather fight bears alone than look after some noisy boys. Jing Rui was pretty quiet, but that Yu Jin! He kept running around…” So Xiao Shu tied him to a tree! When he was discovered, Prince Jing took the blame…
It’s even more heartbreaking when the official NIF weibo reposted it and wrote – Until the very end, Jing Rui and Yu Jin didn’t know, the Brother Su they respected yet was unpredictable, is the Lin Shu gege from the past who was even crazier and more mischievous than them.
Gosh, I wish there were more flashbacks of the young Lin Shu!
THE ENDING [SPOILERSSSSSSS]
What a perfect ending it was. I hate to keep repeating about how much I love this drama but the ending was so bittersweet yet fitting to the story. I don’t know about you but since the beginning, I’ve always expected Mei Chang Su will die after he achieved his goal. I thought it would be him leaving the Capital and back in Jianghu, he will die quietly in his sleep or something. I didn’t expect him to be back on the battlefield, dying in the way he would’ve lived as Lin Shu, surrounded by his friends who share the same righteousness, loyalty and determination. To be honest, when they started to talk about the unrest around the Kingdom I thought, what the heck? There isn’t enough time for this!? Admittedly that part felt a little rushed but I loved the ending – it made complete sense. Xiao Shu’s promise to Ni Huang (my heart broke a million times), the conversation on the rooftop between Lin Shu and Jing Yan (actually, I loved ALL of their scenes after Jing Yan finally found out Mei Chang Su = Lin Shu), when Ni Huang received the letter, when Jing Yan took away the cloth covering Lin Shu’s plague with the pearl in front of it, when Jing Yan named the new army ‘Chang Lin’ – I cannot rewatch this otherwise I will cry like a baby. I know I’m a little biased on this but combined with Wang Kai’s subtheme, I cannot put into words how deep NIF is engraved in my heart.
[END OF SPOILERSSSSSSS]
How am I going to deal with this emptiness!!?
I’m currently refraining myself from starting from episode 1 again (although I keep rewatching all the Lin Shu/Jing Yan scenes from ep 50 onwards) because I ordered the original novel! Please arrive before the new year but with the holidays I don’t think they will be. 🙁 I haven’t read a Chinese novel in years but I’m also hoping to drag my bf to the NIF madness. 😛 He doesn’t watch Chinese dramas (and the Cantonese dubbing just won’t be the same!) so maybe the novel will be more accessible. But I do want to find out how to pronounce some of the things in Cantonese, like even the title, Lang Ya – I have no idea how to say it? I asked my mum and she doesn’t know either!
I guess the other logical next step is to watch The Disguiser with a lot of the same cast. I saw the first episode but it feels so weird seeing them in a different story, not to mention the storyline is just… nope. I’ll try to finish Love me, if you dare, simply for Wang Kai. 😛 Heck I might even watch a rom-com, although A Touch of Green is released already so that is on my radar.
I’m also thinking about translating a part from the original script which didn’t end up in the drama. Where Jing Yan had his ‘lightbulb’ moment (finally) and a follow up scene about the hazelnut cake. It’s pretty long though, so it will be slow.
But I don’t know how I can watch other dramas from now on. They will feel so mediocre.
And finally… sorry I couldn’t help myself!