On the list of top-rated Chinese costume dramas compiled, there are the "Four Classics" that have firmly held their ground: "Empresses in the Palace," "Nirvana in Fire," "The Story of Minglan," and "Joy of Life." Regardless of how many new costume dramas may have dazzled in recent years or how many years have passed since their release, these finely crafted masterpieces continue to unleash a long-lasting impact, continuously appreciated by both new and old audiences.
In this article, we're going to dive into the "Nirvana in Fire," which has been distributed to 120 countries worldwide. Why is this ancient costume drama, produced by Daylight Entertainment, hailed as the pinnacle of Chinese costume dramas? Simply put, its emergence not only helped Hu Ge successfully transform his career but also presented viewers with an extraordinary sense of quality that had long been absent. It completely ended the era dominated by mediocre cdramas and ushered in a new era of overall improvement in costume drama production.
01 Intriguing Political Revenge Story
Is "Nirvana in Fire" considered an enjoyable drama for audience? This may be the only point of controversy for this highly acclaimed drama on Douban with over 780k ratings and a score of 9.4. Whether Mei Changsu is a strategic mastermind akin to Edmond Dantès from "The Count of Monte Cristo" or just another typical protagonist who possesses convenient plot devices directly affects how viewers evaluate the entire series.
"Nirvana in Fire" is not merely a superficial and indulgent story solely focused on favoring its main character. Instead, it constructs three audience perspective perspectives based on information asymmetry for viewers' immersive enjoyment.
The first layer of mystery begins with Mei Changsu's words to Prince Jing (Xiao Jingyan): "I want to choose you."
In the eyes of the characters within the drama, the rivalry between Crown Prince and Prince Yu for the throne has reached a boiling point. The Mei Changsu seizes this opportunity and enters Jinling, inevitably having to pick a side and become a strategist in the chaotic situation.
However, Prince Jing has no presence whatsoever in Jinling's political landscape; he like an unknown figure on an isolated mountain. Only viewers are fully aware that Mei Changsu's countless schemes are all aimed at supporting Prince Jing's ascension to crown prince.
From the Binzhou land encroachment case, Lan Garden corpse concealment case, brothel murder case, dead prisoner swap case, to even the explosive revelation about private arsenals, Mei Changsu appears to be maneuvering between Crown Prince and Prince Yu.
In reality, every step he takes is paving the way for Prince Jing's rise. It is only when Crown Prince is on the verge of being deposed that Prince Yu finally awakens to realize that Xiao Jingyan, whom he had never taken seriously before, has quietly grown into a formidable rival who can stand up against him as one of princes.
The plot is halfway through, and the second layer of mystery surrounding Emperor Xiao Xuan unfolds effortlessly. From Xiao Xuan's perspective, Empress Jing and her son are truly heaven-sent gifts for his twilight years. One is gentle and compliant, able to help him nurture his body and soothe his spirit; the other is diligent and straightforward, easy to manipulate. Compared to those scheming individuals who go to great lengths for their own throne, this mother-son duo, embodies the humble gratitude that he has always imagined.
However, only the audience knows that all this apparent docility has been custom-made as a trap for Emperor Xiao Xuan. Who could have guessed that Empress Jing, who appears unassuming and non-confrontational, is actually one of the most intelligent characters in the entire story. She single-handedly manages to control the chaos within the harem. Therefore, when King Liang shockingly realizes at a banquet that Prince Jing and his mother have gradually overshadowed him despite their usual meekness, it brings immense satisfaction from prolonged anticipation for viewers.
The third layer of mystery runs throughout the entire drama - Mei Changsu is Lin Shu - a discovery made step by step. With each reunion between old acquaintances such as Meng Zhi, Ni Huang, Consort Jing, Prince Jing, there are intense clashes between love and hatred that bring forth torrents of tears.
Even when Empress Liang ends up with disheveled white hair in final scenes where he says, "I carried you in my arms; I taught you how to ride horses; I flew kites with you... do you remember?" it also evokes empathy from viewers. How did these once closest uncle-nephew pair end up in an endless cycle of suffering?
Of course Mei Changsu's revenge is satisfying, but even if everyone achieves their goals and successfully overturns injustices, the deceased Prince Qi, Lin Shuai, and even the seventy thousand Chi Yan Army soldiers can never return.
Therefore, although "Nirvana in Fire" may be highly satisfying overall, it still carries a tinge of melancholy that washes away the greasy feeling of conventional gratifying dramas. The finale where Da Liang reignites war and Mei Changsu decides to don armor at the end of his life to return to his identity as Lin Shu and embrace death brings the entire story to a tragic climax that is both thrilling and heart-wrenching.
The executive producer of "Nirvana in Fire" Hou Hongliang was moved by the innocence portrayed in this story: "Everything moves towards brightness; this truly touches people."
The three perspectives in "Nirvana in Fire" are illuminated by a sense of righteousness for one's family and country. They alternate between known and unknown elements to create waves of satisfaction and heartache for viewers. In addition, unexpected moments of humor add multiple layers of emotional stimulation that make it unforgettable.
02 Exquisite Production of Nirvana in Fire
In addition to its captivating storyline," Nirvana in Fire" stands out with its top-notch production quality throughout the drama which continues to impress audiences until today.
At that time when only viewer ratings were being emphasized on television screens , there were countless poorly made period dramas flooding the market with subpar aesthetics: careless makeup, costumes, set designs dominated cheap tastes. This led some people wondering whether ancient costume dramas had become obsolete?
"Nirvana in Fire" remarkably returned to classic filming techniques portraying ancient aesthetics; employing an overall watercolor elegance combined with shades of green landscapes , thoroughly refreshing viewers' visual experiences.
This traditional charm was also applied meticulously across various aspects such as etiquette (palace rituals, scholarly decorum), ancient costumes (noble satin robes, scholar's long gowns, warrior armor, commoner attire), music (abundance of ancient musical instruments such as zither, flute, xiao, drums, and qin), props (extensive use of candlelight for lighting), and dialogue.
Moreover, "Nirvana in Fire" was hailed as the most beautifully composed costume drama of that time. The entire series adopted classic photographic composition techniques such as symmetrical composition, central composition, leading lines etc., resulting in numerous aesthetically pleasing shots. Combining a story that is both trendy yet rooted in tradition with exceptional production quality contributed to the unique charm of "Nirvana in Fire," which exudes both maturity and youthfulness.
This drama also set a precedent for future television productions to prioritize aesthetic composition; subsequently many other costume dramas across various genres found their own exemplary answers by following the footsteps of this shining treasure.
Looking back at it now, the exquisite craftsmanship and quality of "Nirvana in Fire" can be seen as a contrarian choice. It didn't make a strong initial impact, but as the story progressed, its various subtleties became more apparent. Therefore, the drama initially struggled with viewership ratings but eventually achieved a breakthrough through word-of-mouth effect. This is perhaps the best feedback for creators who approach their work with deep respect.
The courtyard remains deeply secluded while old houses no longer have their former occupants. The brightest youth in Jinling City eventually passed away with the wind, leaving behind countless descendants who benefited from his grace and continuing to write their own legends. It also left numerous viewers feeling nostalgic as they repeatedly savor his story.
Preparations are underway for "Nirvana in Fire 3," which will once again feature the golden trio of producer Hou Hongliang, director Kong Sheng, and screenwriter Hai Yan. What new tale will they bring us this time?