Flash Review: The Rise Of Phoenixes [China]

They say that sometimes, the journey is more important than the destination. I’d say that this is true, of this show.

The Rise of Phoenixes is (apparently) quite well-known for its less than ideal ending. That’s why I was reluctant to start this one, too. I mean, who in their right minds would watch a 70-episode show, knowing that it’s unlikely to end well, right?

But bittt assured me that I would fall in love with Chen Kun after watching this show, and that made me quite curious. I’m always ready to be a swooned-out fangirl, eh? Ha. So I dipped my toes into episode 1, became intrigued quite quickly, and then I got properly sucked in. By the time I hit narrative rough spots, I was attached enough to Show’s positives, to keep on going.

In this review, I’m going to attempt to lay it all out for you, so that you can decide whether this one would be worthwhile for you, too.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

Ning Yi (Chen Kun) is the 6th prince of the Tiansheng empire, and has spent years being imprisoned in Zongzheng Temple for a crime he did not commit. Upon his release, he’s viewed with suspicion by his royal brothers, as potential competition for the throne. The emperor (Ni Dahong) grants Ning Yi a betrothal to the daughter (Xu Ge) of Colonel Qiu (Lu Yong), but the family does not consider this a favorable match, and tries to secretly switch the bride to Feng Zhiwei (Ni Ni), who is Colonel Qiu’s niece.

OST INSTRUMENTALS: FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE

I really like this instrumental track from the OST, and I found this video that basically plays it on loop. I thought it’d make a nice accompaniment to this review, so here it is, in case you’d like to listen to it while you read the review.

STUFF I LIKED

1. Show is polished and pretty to look at.

Show is expensively produced, and it shows. From the costumes, to the sets, to the lighting and the music, everything feels luxurious and lush. There’s a sense of spaciousness about everything, and our characters feel like they’re living in an actual world with real buildings, rather than on a drama set.

Given the fact that a good number of our characters are royalty, this lavish, well-appointed feel is very much in line with our story.

In particular, I wanted to give this loom in the screenshot below a shout-out; it’s so large, and it actually appears to be authentic and functioning.

2. Our story reminds me a little bit of Nirvana in Fire

..but with potential romance in the mix.

With Ning Yi seeking justice for a brother wrongfully accused of treason, while assisted by a strategist, this does give me some nice Nirvana in Fire vibes. And you guys know how much I loved NIF (hint: A Lot). At the same time, our story has strong lashings of romance, and I can’t deny that this romantic arc was a big hook for me. I do enjoy a good romance, after all.

With these two main arcs combined, this show kinda feels like a more melodramatic cousin of NIF, with lots of high emotion replacing the restraint of NIF. This is a combination I liked a lot.

3. The acting is generally very solid, with some stand-outs.

I found Chen Kun and Ni Ni especially outstanding, which I’ll talk more about later.

4. When Show delivers spots of raw emotion, it is excellent at it.

I kinda wish we’d had more of these emotional scenes, but I think part of what makes these emotional scenes land so well, is the context of continuous restraint that the earlier episodes create. That continuous tamped down emotion, masked by even-keeled decorum, elevates the emotional scenes with the contrast, and the release, much like a bow, long held taut finally being loosed, creates that emotional explosiveness and heft that Show does so well.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Spotlight on Episode 43

The scene in the prison, where Zhiwei asks to be held by her mother (Liu Mintao), unable to hold the tears back, is so heart-wrenching. How awful, to be faced with certain, impending death, knowing that these are the last moments you’ll spend with your mother, with whom you’ve been estranged for so long.

Ni Ni is fantastic; she looks so genuinely devastated, while appearing so fragile and vulnerable, even as she forces a smile amid the tears. I am so impressed with her delivery.

Chen Kun is great as well. The way Ning Yi is putting up a calm and unruffled front, only to be stirred to fiery glares that look like they could burn a hole through Ning Cheng (He Lei), for speaking flippantly about Zhiwei’s impending death.

And the way Ning Yi rides up to deliver the edict, he looks like he’s literally about to burst from the effort of holding himself together, is so affecting.

[END SPOILER]

STUFF THAT WAS OK

1. The cast is sprawling, which is confusing, especially at first.

I found it the sprawling cast a bit bewildering, because there are so many characters in our drama world that it’s hard to remember who’s who and related to whom and how, but revisiting the beginning, and looking up the characters, helped a lot to keep our many characters straight in my head, and to therefore have a general idea of what was going on in our story.

2. The story is more meandering than I would like.

At 70 episodes, our story tends to wander and ramble, and this made me feel the length of this drama quite acutely. I felt like certain arcs could have been shaved down or cut out completely, to make for a tighter story.

[SPOILER ALERT]

For example, in episodes 12 and 13, I thought the way Zhiwei ended up in Qingming Academy could have been handled more simply.

If she hadn’t run away and gotten herself into trouble and just listened to Ning Yi, it would’ve taken 2 seconds for her to be placed in Qingming Academy, and without her having to use her favor from Ziyan (Zhao Lixin). Instead, there’s all this drama with Ning Yan (Tong Shao) trying to kill her, and then all the princes gathering in the middle of nowhere with their horses and men, basically jostling for the upper hand, with Ning Yan trying to kill Zhiwei, Ning Yi trying to save her, and Ning Sheng (Shi An) trying to get Ning Yan back to the Crown Prince (Hai Yitian). This felt a little tiresome and unnecessary.

[END SPOILER]

STUFF I DIDN’T LIKE SO MUCH

1. The political intrigue feels a bit one-note, after some time.

[MACRO SPOILER] Essentially, everyone takes turns aiming for the throne, and after a cycle or two, of various princes stepping up to the plate to be our story’s Big Bad, I started to find this a little repetitive. [END SPOILER]

2. Character development can be inconsistent and disjointed in spots.

[MINOR SPOILER] For example, Ning Yi is portrayed as quite weak and sickly in general, but sometimes, we see him spring into action, either by leading a war, or engaging in sword fights. While it’s nice to see him be strong rather than sickly, this did strike me as rather inconsistent.

Show does a similar thing with several characters, and this made the writing feel inconsistent, I felt. [END SPOILER]

3. Pacing is uneven, which makes the overall narrative feel a bit disjointed in spots.

Sometimes this show feels really slow, and then sometimes, a lot happens in one episode. When Show is interesting, I want to slurp up episodes back-to-back. But when it’s slow, I can’t muster up the interest to watch more than a single episode at a time.

[SPOILER] For example, in episode 21, suddenly the Crown Prince goes from being investigated, to incriminated, to being sentenced to life in confinement at the temple – only to then prepare a coup. All that, in the space of one episode, when the episodes that had come before, had moved like molasses. 😛 [END SPOILER]

PERSONAL HIGHLIGHTS OF MY WATCH

Chen Kun as Ning Yi

I really enjoyed Chen Kun’s outing as Ning Yi.

Did I love everything about his interpretation of Ning Yi? Well, no. There were certain scenes where his interpretation didn’t really work for me, to be honest. By and large, though, I found Chen Kun’s delivery of Ning Yi faceted and quite arresting.

Some people might find Chen Kun’s delivery of Ning Yi too theatrical, but I thought the theatrical quality, combined with Chen Kun’s very detailed delivery, made Ning Yi interesting, causing him to really stand out.

Given Ning Yi’s characterization in multiple shades of gray, he’s not a character that can be easily categorized as good or bad. He’s.. complicated. Sometimes, I feel drawn to him; sometimes, I feel sorry for him; and sometimes, I find him fascinating and almost repulsive.

[SPOILER] For example, in episodes 2 and 3, the way Ning Yi carries himself is so deliberate and languid, but it dances between being graceful, and being oily. When he’s talking strategy and philosophy with Ziyan, he appears righteous and shrewd, and then when he’s in the thick of executing his strategy, he comes across as slippery and duplicitous. [END SPOILER]

Because Ning Yi is characterized as someone who’s ambiguous and morally gray, but at the same time, places a great deal of emphasis on personal relationships, I often found myself uncertain of how much to trust his displays of emotion. Which tears were real, and which tears were crocodile tears, shed only as part of his strategy? It’s unsettling as it is fascinating, and I couldn’t look away.

In particular, Ning Yi’s facial expressions were a highlight of my watch, because his expressions keep changing. One moment he’s wincing in pain, the next, he’s leaking a pleased smirk, and then at the drop of a hat, he’s blazingly, startlingly regal. And it all shifts within mere seconds, consistently. I feel like I’m watching a kaleidoscope, and trying to figure out the pictures it’s portraying.

I find him such a fascinating, compelling mix, and I feel that Chen Kun’s intricate interpretation of Ning Yi, seasoned liberally with touches of the theatrical, makes him really pop onscreen.

On the shallow side of things, I think Chen Kun looks great as Ning Yi. I love the piercing gaze and chiseled features. I think the styling really works, on him. I love the top knot on him. I also love the long hair flowing loose on him; I think it makes him look interesting. Sometimes, when the story itself wasn’t grabbing me so much, I found myself just studying his features, and that made everything better, ha. 😅

Ni Ni as Zhiwei

I enjoyed Ni Ni’s delivery of Zhiwei a great deal, and she was definitely a big highlight of my watch as well.

I’d only ever seen Ni Ni before this, in Love and Destiny, and I must say, I much prefer her outing here. Not only is Zhiwei a more layered character, Ni Ni also gets a lot more room to showcase her acting range. I think she does a wonderful job of making Zhiwei really pop, as a character.

I love that Zhiwei is written to be so intelligent that she easily outsmarts most people, whether they are men or women. And I love that she’s kind, good-hearted, and loyal, too. She’s strong inside and out; she bears her burdens (mostly) without complaint, but she also won’t stand being bullied. She’s quick-thinking, and able to hold her own, whether she’s crossdressing as a man, or donning womanly robes. I found her versatile, capable and altogether lovely, and I could totally understand why various men in our story would be so taken with her.

I’d actually expected Zhiwei to be very ladylike all the time, because Ni Ni is so delicately beautiful, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find that when Zhiwei crossdresses as a man, she really comes across like a poised young man. Her speech patterns and entire manner in which she carries herself changes to something more masculine, while managing to remain natural.

And yet, when Zhiwei puts away the manly disguise, she becomes a graceful, elegant lady with a regal bearing about her. I found it quite remarkable and very impressive.

I found Ni Ni extremely versatile in her interpretation of Zhiwei, and I found her delivery spot-on, whether Zhiwei was being playful and cheeky, perplexed and impassioned, or deeply grieved and distressed. I was especially impressed with all of Zhiwei’s crying scenes. Every one of those scenes felt raw and real, and Ni Ni made those tears feel like they’d spilled over from the depths of Zhiwei’s soul.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Episode 51 is when Zhiwei learns the truth of her birth, and this is also when her mother and Feng Hao (Chang Long) die before her very eyes.

Ni Ni’s delivery of Zhiwei’s reaction to everything, is so full of heartbreak, denial, desperation and grief. It’s so good, and feels so raw and true. It doesn’t feel like a performance; she just is Zhiwei, full of palpable emotion, and I feel completely sucked into her pain.

It’s heartrending, agonizing torment, and Ni Ni delivers it all so beautifully and so elegantly. Amazing.

[END SPOILER]

Ning Yi and Zhiwei together

From the very first episode, I had an inkling that Ning Yi and Zhiwei would make a great pair, because they are equally matched in wit and sharpness – and I was absolutely right. They do make a great pair. Their mutual attraction is what makes the early stretch of this drama as engaging as it is; they are each both very quickly intrigued by the other, and the way our story has them dance on each other’s boundaries, vacillating between showing a dumb front because they both have secrets to hide, and revealing lashings of their true selves, is very cracky stuff.

Chen Kun and Ni Ni share excellent chemistry that mostly simmers under the surface of decorum, but when allowed free rein, that chemistry unfolds as something wonderfully rich and deep, and sometimes quite intoxicating too, because of how electric it is.

I was completely absorbed by how Ning Yi and Zhiwei become more and more drawn to each other, and how they care more and more deeply for each other, despite the things that might hold them back on the surface.

In the grand scheme of things, Ning Yi and Zhiwei don’t actually spend a great deal of screen time together, but when they do, it’s so gratifying that it compels me to keep watching, if only to see them share the screen again.

Here’s a hand-dandy collection of some of this couple’s scenes.

[SPOILER ALERT]

E25. “Aren’t you tired? I’m very tired.”

Admittedly, I’d thought that Shaoning’s (Xu Hao) plan to kill Ning Yi in episode 24 is pretty annoying, but that scene where Ning Yi and Zhiwei instinctively work together, is pretty great. They are so in sync, and there is complete trust between them, even though Zhiwei is pushed at Ning Yi with a dagger. That was pretty cool, and we get a lot of sparky tension too, in the moment.

Right afterwards, the scene when Ning Yi and Zhiwei are in close proximity on the floor, after Shaoning’s attack, is rawr-inducingly sexy. The way he trails his nose, maybe-touching her skin; the way he looks at her with meaning; the way his lip curls in pleasure and amusement. Augh. It’s incredibly sensual.

When he asks, “Aren’t you tired? I’m very tired,” I take it to mean that he’s asking if she isn’t tired from the effort of fighting her feelings for him and staying away from him, as he is, in regard to her. It’s all very heady and intoxicating, and I can see why Ning Yi would look so entranced and captivated still, the next day.

E26. Burgeoning hyperawareness

As the hyperawareness between Ning Yi and Zhiwei becomes more obvious, we get a fair number of moments where we see each feeling acutely conscious of the other’s presence and proximity. This scene in episode 26 is a great example.

The way Zhiwei looks in Ning Yi’s direction, when Nanyi (Bai Jingting) is dressing her wound behind the screen, and the way he hovers nearby, his ears clearly trained in her direction, tell us so clearly that she’s concerned for him, and he, for her.

E36. “You are so ugly.”

I found Zhiwei’s ploy of making herself look ugly for her visit to the palace in women’s clothing, audacious, effective and nicely entertaining.

The reason I wanted to highlight this scene, is because I love Ning Yi’s look of amused delight, when he sees her all uglified. I mean. He’s delighted. By her ugliness. That’s so endearing to me. 😍

E41. “You should leave. The farther, the better.”

We don’t get many scenes overtly acknowledging feelings between Ning Yi and Zhiwei, but when we do get them, they’re so good.

The quiet, restrained, tearful intensity between them in this scene, as Zhiwei asks his permission to leave, and he grants that permission, is so full of pent-up emotion. There’s something very sensual about the way these two relate to each other, when they’re in close proximity, and decisions that will affect their relationship are laid on the table. I feel like I could cut the longing between them with a knife; it’s that palpable.

Also, the mutual biting is so off-the-wall and so unique to them. She’d bitten him in fury before, saying things weren’t over between them, and at this agreement on her departure, he bites her back, claiming that he wants to leave a memento, since she’s leaving, but I think there’s an additional layer of meaning, where he’s echoing her words, “Things aren’t over between us.”

E42. “I would rather die.”

After Zhiwei comes clean about her disguise and is thrown into prison to await sentencing, Ning Yi goes to see her, and I found the scene between them so restrained and so moving.

Each of them is willing to sacrifice themselves in order to save the other. Ning Yi’s willing to throw himself under the bus for her, either by naming himself as the father of her (fictitious) unborn baby or the instigator who’d instructed her to go to Qingming Academy in disguise, but she is not willing to let him do either, and would rather die. Oof. Her tears are so raw and so pure.

And although Ning Yi keeps a mostly even sort of composure, it’s clear that he’s very concerned for her. The way he clasps her hands in his, and tells her that as his little raccoon, she must have nine lives, is a poignant callback to his pet name for her, while also being such a plaintive statement of hope.

E43. The marketplace date

Zhiwei trying to tease an admission of sorts from Ning Yi, to explain why he keeps saving her, is more evidence that her feelings for him have grown. Before, she’d been content to pretend to ignore everything, but now, she seems peeved when Ning Yi doesn’t reveal any personal intent, in answer to her question.

Her request, which leads to the date in the marketplace, is such a nice glimpse of ordinary happiness. This is pretty much the most “ordinary happiness” that this not-a-couple experiences in our story, which is why I wanted to give it a spotlight, despite how short the scene is. They look so blissful together, in this small snippet of freedom.

E47. A love confession

It makes complete sense to me that an epidemic, with its life and death stakes, would force our OTP feelings to the surface. Up to this point, they’ve been more overtly caring and flirtatious with each other. But it’s only now, when Ning Yi’s life is in actual danger, that both of them come to acknowledge and embrace their feelings for each other.

Zhiwei’s deep worry for him, at the expense of her own safety; Ning Yi’s huge effort to appear healthy in front of the doctor, so as not to worry her; her letters to him with multiple hints to keep himself well, and his immediate understanding; it all speaks volumes.

They understand each other so well, and care about each other so deeply. And then, when Zhiwei is allowed to nurse him back to health, the stolen glances and the leaked smiles say a lot about how pleased they are, to see each other.

The part where she insists on feeding him his medicine is so full of nervous awkward body language, it perfectly communicates the hyperawareness that Ning Yi is feeling, and the intent way he looks at her, is completely intoxicating.

Most of all, though, the confession scene gets me by the heart.

The nervous body language, and the humming and hawing, makes Ning Yi feel so perfectly awkward and nervous, but when Zhiwei basically threatens to walk away, his confession comes out in a string of strongly spoken words combined with a sweetly plaintive gaze, that when he was hanging between life and death, he realized that he likes her and only her.

His voice trails off as he talks about why he’d hesitated to say it out loud, but Zhiwei leans in, grabs him by his sleeves, and makes ready to give her response – until they are interrupted by the announcement of a visitor.

But Ning Yi leans in to hear her answer, his cheek on her cheek, his nose brushing her skin, while she quickly whispers, “Me too,” before shooing him to see his visitor. Ning Yi’s dazed, happy, relieved smile is cute, and Zhiwei’s happy tearful smile is heartfelt. Eee! ❤️

E53. “Let’s never meet again.”

The goodbye scene on the bridge is short, and neither Ning Yi nor Zhiwei say very much, but there’s a lot of pathos around Ning Yi and Zhiwei separating. The scene is so full of wistful finality.

Ning Yi’s face, mostly impassive, belying a deep sadness in his gaze; Ning Yi grabbing Zhiwei’s face, dislodging the tears; Zhiwei tearing herself away, saying that they should never meet again. Ack. It’s all feels so deeply emotional and heartbreaking. 💔

E54. “It’s all your fault.”

In episode 54, Zhiwei rushes to see Ning Yi in his carriage when she hears that he’s hurt himself in a fall. The entire scene, where they both bemoan the fact that he’s a prince, is full of raw emotion. There’s a lot of wistfulness expressed between them, and it’s laced with a distinct sense of resignation.

He looks at her with such affection and longing, and even in the midst of her tears, there’s a little bit of coquettishness about her which indicates that she likes him. There’s something so heartbreaking about the fact that Ning Yi leans into the moment to tell her that she’s even prettier when she cries, when they both know that there is no future for them as lovers.

Still, I love the fact that he reaches to hold her hand. There’s something very wistful, yet also hopeful and assuring, in that silent gesture.

E58. “Moving forward and giving up are two different things.”

The scene where Ning Yi and Zhiwei say goodbye before he leaves for Tiansheng, leaving her in Jinshi, is so full of feeling, that’s tamped down by decorum, but still leaks out in sheening tears.

Even though he declines to say much else, Ning Yi’s words to Zhiwei, that going forward and giving up are two different things, combined with his wistful gaze, is quite potent. It literally haunts Zhiwei, to the extent that she nearly loses it on her wedding day. 💔

[END SPOILER]

Special shout-outs:

I realize that aside from our leads, my biggest soft spots are for the key right hand men in our story. Here’s the quick spotlight on each of them.

Bai Jingting as Nanyi

Nanyi really grew on me as a character, because of his selfless, enduring loyalty to Zhiwei. The way that he’s literally willing to dedicate his whole life to protecting her, is very moving stuff. And his key phrase, “Where you are, there I am,” is such a succinct summary of his entire life’s focus. It moves me, that he does all of this so matter-of-factly, never expecting anything in return. ❤️

He Lei as Ning Cheng

I grew to really enjoy Ning Cheng for his unwavering loyalty towards Ning Yi. He’d stayed with Ning Yi in Zongzheng Temple, and then served Ning Yi with indefatigable devotion, regardless of Ning Yi’s station or ambition. To Ning Cheng, it was never about whether Ning Yi would ever take the throne; he just wanted to be true to Ning Yi himself, to the extent that he would literally die for Ning Yi, and I found that very moving indeed.

Hou Yansong as Zhao Yuan

What I really liked about Zhao Yuan, is how sincerely he cares for the emperor and his sons. He’s consistently an affirming presence, and he often speaks up for the various princes in front of the disgruntled, irate emperor, and it’s clear that he does it out of genuine fatherly concern, rather than an actual invested interest in the politics of the fight for the crown. He’s a good egg.

THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]

I’ll be honest; it’s not just Show’s ending that I didn’t like so much – I didn’t care for the whole last 10 episodes.

In the final 10 episodes, everything starts to get really messy and rushed, and quite a bit of stuff doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Most importantly, the dramatic tension in this last stretch feels distinctly manufactured instead of organic. More suspension of disbelief is required than ever, and even with my analytical lens set to its blurriest setting, I still couldn’t quite get into this final stretch.

The whole Dayue arc involving the Prince of An (Yuan Hong) feels hurried and all over the place, kinda like Show had been taking its own sweet time swanning around, and then realized too late, that it had a deadline to meet in serving up a finale, and had started scrambling to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the blender – and then served up the results. 🙄

The narrative itself is choppy, and the transition between scenes and mini-arcs feel abrupt. It almost feels like Show’s writers had to take a bunch of sick days at the end, and a bunch of interns were roped in to cobble together the finale.

For the record, here are some of the things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, during my watch of the last 10 episodes:

1. Why would Lingying suddenly tell Ning Yi that his mother’s alive, when she’d been so afraid to breathe a word to him before?

2. It’s a stretch that Nanyi would be able to talk so much, and so smoothly in his doctor disguise, especially since he’s naturally very reticent and non-verbal.

3. Ning Yi wiping Zhiwei’s memory with acupuncture (who among them has the expertise?), and Prince of An telling her that she’s his wife. And then the whole bomb+flood thing, with water levels rising so fast that people are swimming instead of walking, in a flash. This Titanic scene was really quite unbelievable. And then right away, in the next episode, we’re on dry land again, and everything that happened at Pucheng seems to be behind us. It’s more than a little whiplashy.

4. The sudden appearance of Dacheng’s fourth prince Zhangsun Hong feels like it came out left field, especially since Show’s been emphasizing for a long time, that Zhiwei is the only remnant of Dacheng royalty. Did nobody else know that he existed, or did people like Zong Chen (Xiu Qing) actually know, but lied to Zhiwei that she was the only remnant left? Either way, it’s hard to believe.

And now, Zhangsun Hong is stirring up trouble where there was none. Ning Yi was perfectly happy being a commoner, and Ning Qi (Qu Gaowei) – whose delivery unfortunately deteriorates into shouty petulance, the further into our finale stretch we get – was perfectly happy to let Ning Yi be a commoner, but Zhangsun Hong is set on turning these brothers against each other.

This feels very manufactured, because it’s introduced so late. Zhangsun Hong’s meddling all lands like a not very refined last-resort plot twist, written in to introduce sudden tragedy to our characters, who were otherwise on the road to something akin to a happy-ish ending. The opposite of deus ex machina, if you will.

Plus, Zhangsun Hong doesn’t even seem to have much of a plan, other than turning the princes against each other, and Zhiwei against Ning Yi. This seems small-scale, petty and kinda lame, on the scale of political revolution? 🙄

5. It strikes me as odd that people in this drama world are willing to die, just to point our key characters in the wrong direction. I’d think that people would value their lives more that that. But Zhangsun Hong dies in a set-up, created to make Zhiwei doubt Ning Yi. And Helian Zheng (Zhang Xiaochen) does the same. I find this hard to swallow, and frustrating to watch. Ning Yi and Zhiwei definitely feel like the victims of circumstance, and it’s perplexing to see a smart character like Zhiwei, who’s supposed to know Ning Yi so well, fall for the lies.

6. The emperor comes back from the supposed dead, after Ning Yi ascends the throne, looking not much the worse for wear. This is a definite stretch, especially since he was stabbed deep in the chest with a sword.

So why did I keep watching, even though I felt so dissatisfied by the way our story developed in Show’s last stretch?

Well, I stayed for the emotional beats, plus, I was curious to know how Show would tie up the story, especially for Ning Yi and Zhiwei.

In terms of positives, I did like the scene where Ning Yi comes out from Consort Qing’s (Zhu Rui) quarters where the emperor’s just been assassinated. He carries himself so regally.

When the doors open again and he walks out, his face is wan and there is a hollowness in his eyes, but significantly, he will not deign to answer to the accusations being thrown at him by Ning Qi and Ziyan. It’s like it’s beneath him to incline his ear to the noise.

And when he bellows that he will investigate to find the perpetrator behind the late emperor’s death, he’s absolutely commanding. I feel like he himself is the evidence that the people needed – ie, looking at him and feeling his personal power was enough, that they didn’t need further evidence – to acknowledge him as their new emperor.

The misunderstandings between Ning Yi and Zhiwei are finally cleared, Zhiwei agrees to Ning Yi’s request to be his Empress, and asks for three days to prepare.

However, as Ning Yi sets out to bring her to the palace, we see Zhiwei throw herself off a cliff, saying in voiceover, “Liulang. Forgive me for lying to you. You and I have caused the loss of too many lives. I cannot live with that. If we meet again in our next lifetime, let’s be ordinary people.”

Ning Yi seems to instinctively feel her presence leave the world, and he responds sadly in voiceover,

“Feng Zhiwei. I’m sure you’ve already arrived in the land beyond, where you’ll finally be free. Yet I, even though I’ll live the rest of my life in pain, I can’t end it with a stroke of a sword and follow you there. That’s because you and I still have unfulfilled wishes here on earth. I, Ning Yi, have witnessed too much destruction caused by the perpetual fight for power. Therefore, I will spend the rest of my life making sure that tyranny does not rear its ugly head. There will be no corruption, bribery or negligence. No innocents will be wronged. Only then will I be able to go meet you, Feng Zhiwei.”

Tear. Such a sad end, for a pair of lovers who, if not for the darkness of politics, would have been perfect for each other. 💔

I’ve heard that in the source novel, Zhiwei fakes her death and Ning Yi forsakes the throne in order to be with her, and I’ve also seen some theories hypothesizing that Zhiwei doesn’t die in this story, because Nanyi is shown waiting for her.

As much as I’d like to believe that’s true, I honestly don’t think that’s what Show was going for.

For a series that aired on TV in China, I do believe Show would choose to present the more socially conscious version of events, with Zhiwei being unable to live with her conscience, and Ning Yi putting nation before self, instead of following her in death. A very tragic end for our lovers, to be sure.

However, there is a silver lining in Ning Yi’s words, which suggest that he will reunite with Zhiwei, after he’s accomplished all that he needs to do, to uphold justice and rid the country of corruption. Additionally, there’s also what he’d said earlier, in episode 69, that he doesn’t just want to be with Zhiwei in this lifetime, but in every lifetime, for all of eternity.

And so, if we think of their love as something that is so deep and profound that it could – and would – transcend lifetimes, we can imagine them reuniting once again, sometime in the future, not as embattled royals, but simply, as an ordinary tailor and his little raccoon. ❤️

THE FINAL VERDICT:

An uneven ride that’s made significantly better by some truly excellent performances.

FINAL GRADE: B

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13 thoughts on “Flash Review: The Rise Of Phoenixes [China]

  1. Jiyuu

    Thank you for pulling the words straight out of my head (or heart). I’ve been struggling to figure out what it is I love and what it is that prevents me from continuing with The Rise of the Phoenixes (I stopped somewhere in episode 20).

    The trailer is so, so compelling! Everything looks beautiful and dynamic, I was under the impression that there’s plenty of action. And when I watched it, the production details blew me away–from the lavish set to the fabrics used. I cannot remember the characters repeating any of their luxurious clothing. My beloved Nirvana in Fire visually feels anemic if I watch it side by side with TROP. Every sageuk I’ve watched pales in comparison to the set and costumes used by TROP.

    The acting is superb from everyone, especially Ning Yi’s. Zhiwei could have easily been annoying (as a role) but she wasn’t. My eyes followed her everywhere. And our two leads together, even in the earliest episodes, were phenomenal. The way they look and smile and care for each other, if someone could splice and compile all their moments together, I’d watch it!

    And so the culprit must be the script and the languid pace. It feels like the book was adapted into drama page by excruciating page. I didn’t care for their politics and our OTP’s moments are so few, I ended up watching it for the fabrics (I kid you not). Even now, I am seriously contemplating continuing with it for the visual feast that it is.

    Reply
  2. phl1rxd

    Dearest Fangurl,

    Whew, where do I start with this drama?

    First, let me say how very much I appreciate you adding the looped instrumental OST piece. I came back to this review after I finished watching it this morning and listened to it while taking my time to dig deep into your review. That embedded OST is perfection in this post.

    I cannot tell you how many times I have passed this drama over in the last few years. It may be that I remember there being a lot of brouhaha over it and that a lot of viewers were disappointed. Thankfully, I did not remember the details of their disappointment. In the end it was your initial NIF reference that made me commit to this drama (after which I stopped reading your review to avoid spoilers) and immediately dug in.

    I think you posted this on the 16th so it took me a week to finish this (which I watched exclusively). I could have finished this much faster but I took all subs as important and, due to the fast dialogue, I had to rewind and stop the frame many, many times to capture the verbiage. I also took notes on all the characters so I would not get confused. In my opinion it was worth doing this.

    The reference to NIF – while I recognized references in certain scenes in the beginning of this drama, these faded as the drama progresses. It really is its own story.

    The first thing that struck me was the absolute, sheer perfection of the OTP. So perfect that I hung in there despite the constant cringing during the last 10 episodes. The OTP scenes quite literally crackled as sparks flew off my TV. It was the exquisite chemistry of two soul mates which our two leads brought to life. The second thing is the level of acting, not only by the OTP, but by much of the supporting cast. Zhao Li Xin (sigh, sigh and sigh) and Ni Da Hong are so very good in this. The costumes – did anyone else take note of the fact that the embroidery stitches on the Emperor’s jacket (please excuse my lack of its correct term) front flaps were evenly matched when closed? I found that a fascinating detail.

    I now understand the uproar over the ending of this drama. Suffice it to say that I had to go find an ending synopsis review to ease my poor heart.

    Highlights: The biggest highlight for me was when Ning Yi let his hair down. I rewound all of these scenes multiple times just to gaze at my screen. Zhao Li Xin (sigh, sigh and sigh) completely grabbed my attention and the drama was far better for him being there. Let me not forget the sheer visual beauty of Edward Zhang Xiaochen. I was also fascinated by the loom. I was impressed with the high production level. Funny, in researching this I discovered that this production team had the same etiquette consultant as NIF.

    Lowlights: The collapse of the writing in the last ten episodes was pretty darn sad. It was a shame for the actors and the crew. As for the ending; again, I had to go find the book to ease my aching heart. So many plot holes made me think I had missed an episode and I had to go back a few times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Dear, oh dear!

    Would I re-watch? No, as I would constantly be thinking ahead to the final episodes. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely yes. I never would have seen this without this review Fangurl! Would I read the book? Yes, just to read that ending several times. Was this as good as NIF? I do think there will ever be a drama as good as NIF. Am I glad I follow The Fangurl Verdict? Yes! Thanks for the review!

    Reply
    1. Ele Nash

      I agree, the costume details were exquisite. I loved this show’s gorgeous visuals and having not yet watched Nirvana in Fire, TROP for me is still the most beautiful TV drama (I include western too) I have ever seen. I loved the locations and again the attention to detail.
      Yes, acting by all is outstanding, such commitment to every role. There’s no weak link for me – besides the crashing, crushing last ten episodes – which in a 70 episode drama is slight but still breath-taking in its flaw. For me, the biggest struggle I had with the ending is the characters not behaving as they had up to that point. Urgh.
      But I have watched this show twice even so. And for 60 episodes I was smiling again. The OTP is just perfectly played. 😍

      Reply
      1. phl1rxd

        Hi Ele – per Wikipedia: ‘The series (TROP) is the first television drama to be filmed in Tang City Film Studios in Xiangyang.’ NIF interiors were filmed at Hengdian World Studios. A lot of dramas and movies were filmed at Hengdian. I am always looking at set designs and I noticed that TROP’s sets were nicer than NIF’s. Yes, gorgeous visuals.

        Ele – you may want to consider watching the masterpiece known as Nirvana in Fire. Note – it goes very fast in the first three episodes and can be a little confusing. I had to re-watch E1-E3 my first time around because I did not take notes like I did for TROP. NIF is a drama that gets better as it progresses. Romance plays second fiddle to the political intrigue and the emphasis on friendship. All the characters stay true to form throughout. The drama is very similar (only a few exceptions) to the original book which was also very good. I have seen it multiple times and I always pick up something new. There are two versions on Viki – one which is dubbed in English (avoid at all costs) and the subbed version (US viewing restrictions were recently lifted thank goodness!). NIF2 is very good as well.

        I really am glad I watched TROP even with the flawed last 10 episodes. I agree that the OTP was perfectly played. As Fangurl so aptly noted, it will be hard to forget this drama due to the performances of the leads.

        Reply
  3. Prashil Prakash

    70+episodes?
    Super intimidating!

    C drama?
    Uncharted territory!

    And to top it off, the Setting is similar to Saguks.

    Since everything already screams ‘Not me’.
    Your B rating doesn’t help it’s case either.

    But if I ever do dip my toes into some Cdrama Saguks, it’ll surely be ”Nirvana in fire”. I trust your recommendation on that!

    Oh by the way have you checked out the exact opposite of this show.

    It’s called “Be positive”.

    It’s 6 episodes, 10 minutes each and has DO as the main cast (He was Great in Swing kids)

    To Top it off, it’s by the same writer/Director who made ‘Be Melodramatic’

    I hope you do give it a watch!

    Cheers!

    Reply
    1. kfangurl Post author

      Ahaha! Yes, if you’re going to dip your toes into C-dramas for the first time, I’d definitely recommend Nirvana in Fire over Phoenixes! 😃 That was my first C-drama too, and I was completely blown away! 🤩

      Thanks so much for the suggestion on Be Positive! I’d missed that one, it totally flew under my radar. I’ve put it on my list, and hope to check it out soonish. I’m very intrigued that it comes from the writer/PD of Be Melodramatic, since I loved that show! 🤩 I’m hopeful that Be Positive will work for me in a similar way. 😃

      Reply
  4. Naomi

    When I saw that you were currently reviewing TROP I literally squealed out loud (I was at work and yes it was totally embarrassing). This. This show and all of its 70 episodes is the show that got me into Cdramas… then eventually Kdramas… I know this show is… difficult for so many different reasons (and I completely agree about the last 10 eps… like the more I’ve rewatched those episodes I find myself wondering, what were writers/directors thinking???).

    I just want to say —I have never read a more complete nor succinct explanation of the most electric screen chemistry I’ve ever seen in a K/Cdrama since this show aired (uhh and yes, my fan girl heart crushed hard on Chen Kun for months after watching TROP —Ni Ni is also amazing). This is SUPER high praise from me, as I used to search the internet for people that had seen TROP and were willing to post their thoughts on it. Did I mention this show literally broke me… and yet I love it. Ahhhh. I can still go on about it for days… ^^

    I mean, two years later and whole ton of other dramas under my belt —NY & FZ are still one of my top three K/Cdrama couples.

    Reply
    1. kfangurl Post author

      Tee hee! I can just imagine you squealing out loud at work, Naomi – and getting weird looks for it! 😆 Thank you for being so excited for this review! ❤️ And thank you, too, for the high praise about the writing on our OTP.. they really are a very special pair. Their connection feels so profound, and their chemistry totally crackles! 🤩 I can understand why they are among your favorite drama couples! ❤️

      Reply
    2. Ele Nash

      Same here, Naomi! TROP is where it began for me too and I’m so happy my favourite reviewer has reviewed it! I’m in lockdown here so I could beam and smile away while reading 😁

      Perhaps because it was my first toe dipped into the lush waters of Asian drama, I have such a soft spot for it and am a bit gutted with its B. I’d give it an A- for the acting and visuals alone – oh, and for the leads’ chemistry 😍

      Despite the grade, I agree totally with all your comments, Kfangurl. I adored Ni Ni in this as well as Chen Kun, who does indeed suit a topknot. I loved Nanyi’s character too. I mean, I pretty much liked all the characters. It was, as you say, repetitious in places and those final nonsensical episodes almost kill it. I am firmly in the camp that in this drama version Zhiwei isn’t dead. If she were, Nanyi wouldn’t be waiting, he’d have followed her over the cliff edge. That’s my view, I’m sticking to it 😊

      In case anyone is desperate for an alternate ending, the novel TROP is based on is very different. Can I say, Kfangirl, there’s a site by someone translating parts of the book if people want to check it out? It was something like therapy for me when I found it!! Xx

      Reply
  5. Shriya Mandepudi

    I have to admit, I came into this show expecting Nirvana in Fire vibes (which is literally my favorite international television show OF ALL TIME), and I think that mindset is what made this drama not work for me. At first, I was excited, because it felt very much like NIF with a romance (which I am a sucker for), but as you mentioned above, all the characters and logical and development inconsistencies and what seems like excess politics… it didn’t do well for me. Granted, had this been another drama, I would’ve kept going, and I would’ve loved it. However, all the comparisons to NIF and all the promoting that made is seem as such… I was disappointed (and I fell into a loom of how NIF literally ruined all sageuks for me 😅). I also think the episode count was what really sealed the deal, and I dropped this show early. Maybe I’ll try it again in the future? In the meantime, I’m off to rewatch NIF again. 😎

    Reply
    1. kfangurl Post author

      Aw, I can see how promotions hyping this as being similar to NIF would have messed with your enjoyment of this show, Shriya! Although it does have lashings of NIF about its story, this one is really quite a different creature, after all is said and done. 😅 NIF is far superior in terms of the plotting, intricacy and consistency, for sure. For me, personally, the draw in Phoenixes was mostly the acting and the high production values. I found Chen Kun and Ni Ni outstanding in this, both individually and together, so much so that I found it quite worthwhile to put up with less than stellar writing, just to see them in action. 🤩🤩 Also, the connection between their characters, and the chemistry they have, in delivering that connection, is Quite Something. If you feel like you could get into that, then this one is worth a revisit. 😉

      Reply
        1. kfangurl Post author

          A new lens can definitely make a positive difference, in my experience! 😃 I hope you’ll enjoy this one after all, Shriya! ❤️

          Reply

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