You know how, when you stumble on something so exciting and amazing that you just can’t help but tell your friends about it, even if it means going off on a tangent? This is that time, you guys.
Basically, it doesn’t matter if you don’t usually watch dramas from China, or if you don’t usually watch period dramas, or if you don’t usually watch long dramas. This drama is, objectively speaking, so splendid and magnificent that if you don’t check it out, you’d be missing out. Big Time.
Not even exaggerating, by the way.
OST ALBUM: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
Here’s the OST album, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.
A TOUCH OF BACKGROUND
If you’ve known me for a while, or if you’ve poked around this blog a bit, you would probably know that I watch Korean dramas almost exclusively. It’s partly habit, partly soft spot, and partly the excellent production values that kdramas tend to serve up. Coz I do like pretty things, as you very likely know. 😉
Still, I like to keep an open mind, and when something that’s not within my usual wheelhouse gets a lot of buzz, the curious cat in me can’t help but want to see for myself what the fuss is about.
That’s what happened here. I first became intrigued when my Twitter feed began flooding with spazz over this show. And then my dear friend Eleanor (who loves this show with a passion) posted a few MVs that made me sit up and pay serious attention. Everything looked so gorgeous that I just had to check this out for myself. And boy, am I glad I did.
ON A META LEVEL: WHAT I LOVED
I consider Nirvana In Fire such a marvel in its construction that I just have to pause and give credit where it’s due, before talking about anything else.
1. The polish
The production values of this show are so high that it often feels more gloriously cinematic than modestly small screen.
Everything is carefully, lovingly, beautifully shot, and it is a literal feast for the senses. From the amazing landscapes, to the loving camera angles and every meticulously-framed shot, to every deliberate, painstaking detail in set, costume and background music, everything is precisely, just-so perfect.
Thanks to all of these elements coming together so flawlessly, this drama world feels immersively, wonderfully real. This, despite being set in a very different time and place than my drama sensibilities are used to. I consistently felt like I was transported into another world; a world that felt whole and complete in all of its magnificent, fine detail.
2. The acting
The cast is a sprawling one, as befits the scale of the story, and from the principal characters to the secondary characters, to even the small, incidental characters, every single one is well-acted.
Our principal cast does a tremendous job of bringing their characters to life, and even the baddies are excellently and believably portrayed. Layered and nuanced from the big moments to the quiet, subtle ones, every major character is delivered with an admirable level of mastery and commitment.
Additionally, I must give a shout-out to the casting. It’s spot on, in almost every instance. As a small example, among the secondary characters, I’m particularly taken with the casting for Marquis Yan. Wang Jin Song possesses a keenly shrewd and bright gaze befitting his character’s intelligence, and his lean, sprightly build is a perfect match for his character’s context of having spent years living simply and praying in the temple.
Really good, when you put it all together.
3. The writing
As excellent as the production values and acting are, the writing is truly the star of this entire show. Mad, mad props to Hai Yan, who not only wrote the original novel, but also penned the script for this show.
Scale & detail
The thing that stands out the most to me, writing-wise, is how much detail is maintained despite the immense scale of the story. There are multiple threads, big and small, that get introduced at various junctures of our story. As with many dramas of this scale, some of the smaller threads appear to fade out partway through the show.
Unlike many other dramas, however, here, the smaller threads are not forgotten, and are consistently brought back to the fore – sometimes much, much later – to add to the narrative in a meaningful way. That shows just how much thought and care was put into the construct of our story.
Another major stand-out, is just how brilliant the writing is. I have literally never been this engrossed by political intrigue, ever. Neither can I remember being this impressed by the intricate plotting that goes into creating narrative twists and turns that make total cohesive sense on hindsight, but which appear so impossible and baffling in the moment. There’s nothing quite like having complete trust that your writer knows exactly where she’s going and just buckling in for the ride, and Hai Yan had me edge-of-my-seat spellbound.
I love that almost all of our main characters are whip-smart, whether they’re male or female, good guys or bad guys. It makes for such sharp dialogue, and watching the characters outwit and out-maneuver one another in conversations was consistently like watching resolute flint meet unbending steel. I could almost literally see the sparks fly.
On top of how clever and comprehensive the writing is, the language used is poetic and very beautiful.
A fair amount of the poetry is lost in translation, but even if you can’t understand Chinese, the subbers have done a really solid job of bringing forth as much of the original meaning as possible, without creating unwieldy lines and sentences.
This is one of those rare times when I find myself being grateful for all those years of Mandarin lessons that I suffered through. I realized that I was able to understand and appreciate a lot of the poetry in the dialogue, and – at the risk of sounding hokey – I must say it did stir in me a new-found appreciation for what is technically my motherland.
Despite its very specific context, Nirvana In Fire remains accessible because of its themes. Righteousness, justice, loyalty and love are universal values that we can all identify with, and these themes resonated with me all series long.
Truth be told, I had to really stop and think about it, when I asked myself what flaws this show has. In the grand scheme of things, these are itty-bitty minor quibbles in a literal ocean of goodies. Still, here they are, just for the record.
1. Episode cliffhangers
While Show did serve up some good cliffhangers, generally speaking, they mostly felt like non-cliffhangers, to be honest. Often, the episodes seemed to end while smack in the middle of a scene, and the so-called cliffhangers often felt random, as a result.
2. A small section of drag
Once Show settles into its rhythm, it feels engaging and quite gripping most of the way through. In fact, things get more and more exciting, the deeper we get into the show. However, I must admit that there is a small spot of drag at around episode 30, that lasts for a few episodes. Happily, the drag is momentary, and Show picks up its pace in a brisk way right after.
Because China is a huge country, with each province often having its own accent, dubbing is used to achieve a consistently pure rendition of the Mandarin that is spoken.
While I must say that the result is very pleasing and melodious to the ears (Mandarin has never sounded more gorgeous to me than in this show, to be honest), I was rather distracted by how the characters’ lip movements sometimes didn’t sync with the sounds that were supposedly coming out of their mouths.
MY FAVORITE THINGS IN THE SHOW
There is so much to love in this show that it’s literally impossible to talk about everything and everyone. Here’s the loving spotlight on just my absolute favorites.
1. Hu Ge as Mei Changsu / Su Zhe / Lin Shu
Hu Ge is flat-out brilliant as our main character Mei Changsu (also known as Su Zhe, and who also harbors a secret identity as Lin Shu).
A character with multiple identities, Mei Changsu is a man with many secrets. Add on the fact that Mei Changu is also a very frail and sickly person, and it’s pretty much a given that Hu Ge had to play him fairly subdued all the way through. What blows me away, is that in spite of having to deliver Mei Changsu as a mysterious and unreadable character, Hu Ge manages to imbue Mei Changsu with subtle layers and nuances, amid the restraint.
Every shift in his gaze, and every minute inflection of his voice, takes on rich layers of meaning. Those deeper layers may or may not be accessible to the audience at the time, but the sense of depth and dimension is always present, and Mei Changsu very much feels like a real, living, breathing (and extraordinarily brilliant) person.
Much as I admire Mei Changsu for his laser-sharp insights and uncanny ability to analyze people and situations, sometimes with very little available information, and much as I love his playful side when he teases his friends (his cheeky smile is adorable!), I must say that the times I felt for him the most, were when he allowed his emotions to rise to the surface.
Like when Princess Nihuang (Liu Tao) recognizes him and cries in his arms, his tears flow so freely, and his delicately frail hands hold her so tentatively, that my heart ached for him, for having to suppress himself so much.
Or when Consort Jing (Liu Min Tao) confirms his identity and weeps for all that he’s suffered. Despite remaining mostly stoic, his emotional upheaval is clear to see in his gaze and slight twitches in his brow. The sadness in his gaze, mirrored only by the same sadness in his voice, coupled with his quiet, pleading, growing desperation for his aunt to keep his identity a secret, is altogether completely heartwrenching. That he has to conceal his true self and restrain his true feelings this much, while digging deep for more strength to gird those around him, broke my heart.
Restrained angst never looked more tragically beautiful than on Mei Changsu, truly.
2. Wang Kai as Prince Jing / Jingyan
Wang Kai does an excellent delivery of the upright, courageous, strong and unrelentingly straightforward Jingyan, who is by design a much less complicated character compared to Mei Changsu, but no less important.
By turn a commanding warrior, a regal prince, a loving son, and a fiercely loyal friend, Wang Kai inhabits each facet of Jingyan’s character in a lovely, believable way. Whether he’s being determinedly stoic, or giving in to his hot-headed streak, or giving voice to his deepest emotions (and what a lovely voice he has), Wang Kai makes Jingyan an empathetic, relatable and likable character.
Major props to Wang Kai, for making it so easy to believe Jingyan, and root for him, from start to finish.
There are many things that I appreciate about Jingyan – his upright character, for one, and his strength and prowess on the battlefield, for another – but if I had to pick just one thing about him that I esteem the most, it’s his unhesitating, unwavering loyalty.
Consistently, we see that he deeply misses his friend Xiao Shu, and treasures every single item that he associates with Xiao Shu’s memory. When Mei Changsu ventures to touch Xiao Shu’s bow (which, really, is his own), Jingyan’s reaction is visceral and aggressively protective. No one can touch Xiao Shu’s bow, it’s that precious.
Later in the series, when Jingyan is advised against bringing up the Chiyan case, for fear of jeopardizing his standing for the throne, Jingyan reacts with a swift, instinctive anger. It’s more than a quest for justice. It’s a quest for justice, for Xiao Shu, for Xiao Shu’s family, for his fellow Chiyan soldiers, who’d lost their lives. Jingyan’s clearly driven by much more than justice in and for itself. For him, it’s a deeply personal thing, that he feels down to his bones. He’s ready to throw away his quest for the throne, if it means that he can obtain that justice for those that he cares about. And I really hafta admire him for that.
3. The bromance
Oh, the bromance. You guys know that I love a solid bromance – even better if it’s of the intense, emotionally potent variety – and this show does not disappoint.
Pretty much every which way you look in this show, there’s a bit of bromance lurking nearby, and I love it. From the emperor and his eunuch (Ding Yong Dai and Tan Xi He), to Jingrui and Yujin (Cheng Hao Feng and Guo Xiao Ran), to Mei Changsu and Fei Liu (Wu Lei), there’s a whole lotta strong male affection going on in the show; a fact that I dig very much.
Hands-down the most compelling bromance of them all, though, is the one between Jingyan and Mei Changsu.
The hook for me, with this bromance, is two-fold.
The first layer, is just how much these two men mean to each other. Like I mentioned earlier, Jingyan deeply treasures every single thing that he has, that he can associate with Xiao Shu. It’s clear that he thinks of his dear friend with a deep sense of longing, and it was heartbreaking to see him even break down in tears in front of his mother, for missing Xiao Shu.
Over on Mei Changsu’s side, we know that Jingyan also means the world to him, even if Jingyan has no idea. The very reason he’s even in the capital as Mei Changsu, is to put Jingyan on the throne. Yes, it’s largely to do with obtaining justice for his family and for his Chiyan troops, but it also has a lot to do with allowing Jingyan to reach his fullest potential, and be the kind of emperor that the kingdom needs. Every time Jingyan speaks wistfully of his friend Xiao Shu, we can see from Mei Changsu’s rueful, melancholic gaze that he misses Jingyan just as much as Jingyan misses him. Which, tears.
The bromantic connection between them is so emotionally potent that I was completely mesmerized.
The second layer, is the star-crossed fact that Jingyan has no idea that his Xiao Shu, whom he longs for so deeply, is right there in front of him. As Jingyan progressively picks up on clues that connect Mei Changsu to Xiao Shu, the will-he-or-won’t-he-find-out of it all, is downright cracky goodness.
While I found the layered double meanings quite delicious in the season that Jingyan didn’t know Mei Changsu’s true identity, I also eagerly looked forward to them finally being able to speak to each other as the besties that they truly are.
I really wanted them to hug it out properly, so much, and rooted for these two with the whole of my fangirl heart, all series long.
There are a lot more things that I love in this show, but in the interest of (relative) brevity, I’m selecting just a handful of my favorites for the quick spotlight.
Chen Long as Commander Meng
Commander Meng is seriously one of my favorite characters in the entire show. So strong, straightforward and loyal, and yet, just a touch slower than his unreasonably brilliant friends; poor Commander Meng often comes across as a little dim, purely by association.
I admire him for his courage and leadership on the battlefield, and love-love-love him for his gruff but wholehearted love for his friend Mei Changsu. A dorky, lionhearted sweetie-pie of the best kind.
Wu Lei as Fei Liu
Fei Liu is the most adorable fighting puppy there ever was. I love that he’s so adept at effortlessly kicking ass as a martial arts savant, while being endearingly and poutingly childlike in every other way.
In particular, I love his hearts-in-eyes, puppy-like loyalty to Mei Changsu. He’s always got Mei Changsu’s back, whether it’s warranted or not. And his dismissive “hmph!”s whenever he gets peeved became one of my favorite things in the show.
With the show’s strong emphasis on bromance, and with so much political plotline to cover, the romance is very understated in this show. Still, what we do get is very poignant and sweet. I very much appreciate the unwavering nature of this OTP’s love for each other, as well as the pure nature of that love.
[SPOILER] Once Nihuang understands that Mei Changsu needs to focus all his energy on his quest and can promise her nothing, she makes no demands on him whatsoever, and simply supports him in every way that she can. She doesn’t even know the full extent of his illness, or how long he has to live, but simply because she senses just how much his goal means to him, she supports him without question. Despite this loveline mostly being in the background, that pureness of her love moved me in a very real way, all the way to the end. [END SPOILER]
Liu Min Tao as Consort Jing
Ahh, Consort Jing. Such grace and wisdom. Contrasted against all the rest of the whining, scheming concubines, Consort Jing is a breath of fresh air, and I loved watching her forward her cause without ever losing her subtlety or her dignity. It pleased me very much, that Consort Jing got more and more screen time as the show progressed.
Tan Xi He as Chief Eunuch Gao Zhan
Chief Eunuch Gao Zhan totally snuck up on me; the more I saw of him, the more I liked him. From giggling with the emperor, to fussing over him like a mother hen, to shrewdly and subtly keeping the cranky, reckless emperor in line, Gao Zhan does it all. He is, in a word, awesome. And cute, too.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
What a thoughtful, thought-provoking ending, that managed to move my heart, break it, and fill it, all at the same time.
In the lead-up to Lin Shu going to battle, I was moved by his quiet determination to avail himself for his country, yet I also felt the deep reluctance and distress of those near and dear to him. In particular, the conversation between Jingyan and Xiao Shu on the rooftop tugged at my heartstrings. Jingyan’s tearful, choked-up desperation that his friend not endanger himself, contrasted against Xiao Shu’s gentle understanding and his quiet firmness, was touching to witness. Yet, in that moment, despite their opposing words, both men are on the same page and have the same painful understanding; this is the only choice available to them.
It’s heartbreaking that Jingyan and Nihuang and everyone else is left behind after Xiao Shu’s death, but how moving – and how apt, really – that Xiao Shu essentially gets to finally be himself again, and live as himself again. Not as a sickly, frail strategist, but once again a warrior on the battlefield, using his talents and his passion to protect his people and his country.
Augh, that is such a gut-wrenching, yet poignantly fulfilling arc for our main character. Not only does Xiao Shu finally see the justice that he’s sought for so long, but he gets to really live, as himself, one last time.
That Nihuang understands his desire so deeply, so much so that she would not only yield to his wishes but support him, in spite of her misgivings and worries, says a lot about her love for him. As understated as their loveline is throughout the show, I did choke up at their goodbye scene. Each being strong for the other, while knowing that it’s likely the last time they would see each other. Sob.
In the end, I absolutely love that Jingyan names the new army in memory of his dear friend. After years of having his name associated with treason, Lin Shu is now a name that’s not only clean, but highly esteemed. How very poetic and fitting. This truly is the highest honor that Jingyan can accord Xiao Shu, and I loved that dual demonstration of righteousness and loyalty in one.
At the same time, I love that the name Jingyan chooses for the new army draws from both of Xiao Shu’s identities. What a perfect expression of how Jingyan accepts, embraces and honors every part of his dear friend, and not only the Xiao Shu of the past. So perfect.
Plus, with this army now bearing his name, I almost feel like Xiao Shu’s still with Jingyan, in spirit. Now that’s a thought that I really, really like.
What a breathless, breathtaking journey. Equal parts brilliant and satisfying, and executed with such meticulous, fine care, Nirvana In Fire is definitely a drama for the record books.
I never would’ve imagined in a million years, that I would be writing about a Chinese drama in this space. After all, this is a blog about Korean dramas, and I hardly watch anything but Korean dramas. Will this be the first of many Chinese dramas reviewed on this site? Are we witnessing the beginnings of a C-wave that will sweep the world like the K-wave has? It’s hard to say.
One thing I will say, though.
China, you’ve got my attention. This has been nothing short of amazing, and I sincerely hope that you’ll amaze me again. <3
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A masterpiece that is epic, spectacular, gripping, and thoroughly moving. A must-see.
FINAL GRADE: A++