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Essential Wuxia: Nirvana in Fire

Nirvana in Fire (also known as Langya Bang) is an exceptionally well-written Chinese drama, available with English subtitles on Viki and YouTube. The drama is a riveting story of political intrigue in a world where might makes right and members of the Imperial Court are more interested in the profit than the people. Everything from the writing to the acting feels well-thought-out and smartly presented. In fact, the sheer craftsmanship of this drama is by far its best feature.

To say that it was popular is something of an understatement. Released in 2015, the 56-episode series topped viewership ratings in fifty cities in China. It won some of the highest awards available in China, and was recognized by the Chinese government as one of the best dramas of the year. While it does have a second season, only a few characters overlap between the two and the stories are completely unrelated.

Set in roughly 6th-century China, Nirvana in Fire tells the story of Young Marshal Lin Shu (played by actor Ge Hu) after his army was betrayed, the majority of soldiers - including Lin Shu’s father - are killed in combat and he himself grievously injured. Although Lin Shu survives, he is deeply changed by his injury. His face is completely altered and his body weakened to the point where he can no longer practice martial arts. Unwilling to leave the Chiyan Army’s name in ruins, he takes the name Mei Changsu and founds the Jiang Zuo Alliance, which becomes the largest martial arts sect in the world. After 12 years of careful preparation, Lin Shu turns his sight to the capital.

Taking his first steps into the complex fight for succession, Lin Shu faces the advances of both the incompetent Crown Prince (Xin Gao) and the selfish Prince Yu (Wei-De Huang), favored son of the Emperor, as they fight to have him on their side. Openly, he pretends to support Prince Yu, but in secret he becomes a trusted advisor to Prince Jing (Kai Wang). Prince Jing is a very just leader, someone who’s unwilling to overlook corruption. This makes him unpopular in the court which has grown self-serving under the reign of the current Emperor. With the ultimate goal of restoring the Chiyan Army’s good name, Lin Shu slowly removes his enemies one by one.

First of all, Lin Shu is one of the best-written characters I’ve seen in a C-drama. He’s consistently calm and composed, always thinking ten steps ahead. Case in point, he has a deck of cards with names that he asks his subordinates to pull randomly from, goes “Oh, this guy, huh?” and then casually deposes some of the highest ranking members of government. Partway through, the question changes from “Can he do this?” to “How is he going to do this?”. It’s not uncommon to see characters that are intelligent, but it’s rare to see intelligent characters that are so clearly rationalized. There are points when Lin Shu explains his plans as they’re in motion, or after the fact, and those times really let you sympathize with the awe felt by the characters he’s explaining to. He always has reasons for his actions. Lin Shu is very deep and the more you get to know him, the more impressive he gets.

All of the actors in the cast of Nirvana in Fire are amazing. There are so many moments of high emotion - betrayals, sacrifices, shocking revelations - and they consistently give amazing performances without over-acting. It feels very real when Prince Yu is screaming in heartbreak at the Emperor by the end of the drama. It feels very real when Princess Ni Huang (Liu Tao) reunites with her betrothed. Even in moments of calm, the way that characters play off each other - especially any interaction with Lin Shu’s young bodyguard, Fei Liu (Leo Wu) - is so fun to watch. These characters have such charisma to them. Even with such a large cast, side characters are memorable and three dimensional.

The worst thing I can say about these characters is that it might be hard to keep their names straight. There are a lot of players in this game of chess, many of whom go by several names or titles. Almost every main character has two or three names. It can be confusing, especially if you’re not familiar with Chinese names or naming conventions. On his own, for example, the protagonist goes by the names Lin Shu, Mei Changsu and Su Zhe. For those that do get confused, it can be very helpful to find a guide online. There are some awesome references with names and short descriptions that can make remembering who’s who much easier. If you ever find yourself wondering, “who was Marquis Yan again?” or “wait, which prince was Xiao Jing Xuan?” a guide can really help.

Another potential negative is that, even though this is a wuxia series, it’s mostly focused on its politics and strategies. There’s a lot of sitting down and talking in this series, so people that come into it expecting a high paced action drama might be disappointed. What action sequences Nirvana in Fire does have are not terrible for the most part. The opening battle was by far the worst in terms of production value. If you can get past that, the rest aren’t too bad. Many of these sequences felt too choreographed to take seriously, but aesthetically a lot of their movements are very graceful. They can feel more like dances than fights at times, which doesn’t really allow them to create too much tension. On the whole, fight scenes in Nirvana in Fire are fun to watch, even if they’re not very suspenseful.

For people that enjoy deep character writing and strategy, I very highly recommend this show. It’s a great change of pace for both new and veteran C-drama viewers alike. While it might require some patience as it sets-up its story, Nirvana in Fire is a really great watch that has a special way of drawing you in.

by S. Howie
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