Review: ‘Nirvana in Fire,’ a historical drama from China
In my college days, one of the activities that bound the community of Chinese students whether from Hong Kong, Taiwan or the US was the circulation of wuxia novels to be enjoyed by those able to read Chinese. Mostly published from Hong Kong and Taiwan, this genre of stories portrayed heroes and heroines with mastery of martial arts and a peerless sense of chivalry. They would go around the country, which they called jianghu, righting wrongs and injustices, defending the weak, fighting corrupt officials and battling all kinds of evildoers. In stories with historical settings, the kung fu masters were volunteer defenders of their kings against usurpers and barbarians.
Many of the popular stories were serialized and published in daily installments by the newspaper or in weekly wuxia magazines. The story lines were always intricate, complex and non-linear. When the story was gripping, the reader would be hooked and held fanatical vigils at the newsstand to snatch each installment as it appeared in the newsstand. The length of some novels was of biblical proportions. Popular authors, such as Harvard grad Jin Yong, became multi-millionaires.
I was recently doused with nostalgia as I watched the 54 episodes of Nirvana in Fire on YouTube. I don’t know how Lang Ya Bang in Putonghua became Nirvana in Fire in English. But I found the Mandarin version gripping and entertaining and reminded me of my youth when I was an avid reader of wuxia anthologies.
The story supposedly took place in the 6th century Liang dynasty, one of the short-lived regimes in China’s history that coexisted with many other contending kingdoms in an era known as Northern and Southern dynasties—with the Yangtze River as demarcation, it was itself an indicator of a divided China. It was one of the chaotic periods in China’s history, and thus a convenient setting to take liberties with history.
Nirvana told a story of massive betrayal that ambushed a loyal army of 70,000 and how one lone survivor returned to painstakingly plot the step-by-step liquidation of the traitors and complicit court officials, and to eventually achieve ultimate redemption more than 13 years after the massacre.
The story opened with an ancient take of a thoroughly modern idea that information can be monetized and distilled from big data. It seemed a mysterious organization collected information sent from the four corners of China via messenger pigeons and employed a room full of clerks to compile and organize the amassed data. It was known as the place to inquire for answers to any question, rendered to those willing to pay the fee.
Two contending princes of the Liang court sent emissaries to Lang Ya Shan wishing to know the best master strategist available to help each overcome the other and ascend the throne. The answer to both princes was the same: Namely, find someone by the name of Mei Chang Su. And the tale unfolded from there.
Unlike Hollywood portrayals of super heroes from comic books, none of the characters were two-dimensional cutouts. Just the opposite, each character was attributed with a certain psychological profile and personality that gradually became clear with succeeding episodes. The Chinese subtitles made it easy to follow the dialogue and thus the plot development as exhibited by the thoughts and schemes of various protagonists.
Dazzling sword fights
With impressive cinematography of the imperial court and countryside, beautiful costumes, dazzling sword fights and superb acting from a large cast, the story unfold bit by delicious bit, meticulously paced but never dragged. Going from one episode to the next was just like scarfing down one installment of a wuxia story and then on to the next.
The script paid careful attention to details. Over the 54 episodes, inconsistencies were rare. Each character had logical reasons and motivation for his/her actions. The dialogue was subtle and nuanced abetted by sophisticated acting. It was a terrific TV serial that put Chinese culture on display.
Two examples came to mind. Early in the story, the survivor, Su Zhe, who lost his martial prowess on the battlefield, came back 12 years later as a physically frail, scholarly counselor. He amazed everyone in the court when he boasted that he could train three 12 year-old boys with no prior exposure to martial arts for five days to array in powerful proprietary formations that could defeat the reigning kung fu master. Later in the story, while Su and the crown prince were waiting for reports of the outcome of various skullduggeries orchestrated by them, Su lit and used the burning of a single joss stick as the ancient form of a Chinese hourglass. Those touches were drawn from classic stories of martial arts.
The episodes contained elements of greed, betrayal, loyalty, suspicion, love, revenge, lust for power, implications of genocide, jealousy, honor, integrity, murder, cruelty, kindness, generosity and mixtures of these qualities in conflict and contradiction. The closest hint of sex was when the star-crossed couple held hands and on rare occasions tearfully embraced. The underlying theme in Nirvana was the Chinese tradition that one’s most sacred duty was to honor one’s ancestor and protect the reputation of the family name.
The twists and turns of the story enthralled not just the audience in China but also captured a global following. The Korean version of the serial has captured prime time viewing in South Korea, reversing the usual export of TV drama from Korea to China. The YouTube and other video versions are being viewed around the world.
China has rapidly evolved to become the most important market for movies and television programs second only to the US. Indeed, to capture major market share in both countries, a conglomerate like Wanda has been making major investments in America such as buying AMC, one of the major chains of cinema theaters in the US as well as taking major stakes in Hollywood studios to help them produce movies that will appeal to the Chinese audience.
Certainly with Wanda’s knowledge of the Chinese consumer taste, their investment can steer its Hollywood partners away from the vapid series of Kung Fu Panda 1, 2 ad nauseam into producing movies of substance that would appeal to the more sophisticated Chinese palate.
Nirvana for US audiences?
Similarly, by owning the largest or nearly largest chain of movie theaters in America, Wanda is in the perfect position to introduce quality productions such as of the Nirvana genre to the American audience. I am guessing that the American audience would welcome a change from the super heroes that require huge leaps of faith and drastic suspension of reality and from the stomach churning gore of fantasy monsters and walking dead.
In a recent debate on whether China or India has more effective tools to wield soft power around the world, the pundit arguing on behalf of India asserted that Bollywood movies from India emanate soft power to a greater degree than anything in China’s toolkit. I believe the powerful stories of the Nirvana genre would capture audiences around the world far more effectively than movies from India that entertain the audience with sudden bursts of song and dance.
For readers interested in a sample of Nirvana in Fire, the first episode with Chinese subtitles can be found on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2thWEW1pQk
or with English subtitles below:
As indication of the worldwide popularity, there is yet another site that offers the serial in eighteen different languages including English,
Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.