Monday, May 09, 2016

Nirvana in Fire

As little children reading fairy tales with their all-too-predictable happy endings, we are brought up to expect our kings and queens to be kind, gentle and righteous paragons. Anyone else behaving otherwise would have no choice but to be tragically typecast as the opprobrious villain.

Clearly demarcated pieces of black and white with very few anti heroes in shades of gray. For those keenly following stereotypical Chinese serial dramas, they would find little to complain about since the heroes and villains are clearly marked right from the beginning. Simple enough to pick out the dastardly libertines in a Chinese wuxia since there's a certain pronounced look and behaviour easily discernable to regular viewers from the ever-present devilish sneer to the sharp, dramatically arched eyebrows.

And their heroes are always ever-so-righteous.

Perhaps wonderful on the written text but in real life, most of us would find these exemplary protagonists utterly unbearable. Even more so if these paragons manage to somehow stumble their way to the throne. And I do mean stumble since otherwise it would be quite impossible to achieve that ultimate goal without guile or gumption.

Which is just about the premise for the latest Chinese historical drama Nirvana in Fire 琅琊榜. Something I've been wildly addicted to lately.

Based on the novel with the same name, it tells the story of the terrifyingly brilliant Lin Shu, who under the alias of political strategist Mei Changsu, has come to seek justice for his family after having been treacherously branded as traitors more than a decade ago. To achieve his apparently nefarious goals, he secretly enlists the help of his old allies to revitalize the imperial ambitions of a long neglected prince.

And undeniably crush the sorry pretensions of all other potential adversaries - that coincidentally includes most of the villains involved in the insidious conspiracy years ago. Think of it as another take on the Count of Monte Cristo though like any intricate Chinese puzzlebox, it's far more complex than it first seems.

Rather than focus solely on the unprincipled political maneuverings, the series deals more with the sincere friendship and brotherhood amongst the main protagonists. In fact the near negligible heterosexual romance is almost eclipsed by the sheer number of bromances evidently shown; most importantly the preeminent bond between Mei Changsu and the cherished object of his Machiavellian machinations, Prince Jing.

Despite being seemingly disgusted by the schemes and stratagems of Mei Changsu, the overly principled, self-righteous prince can't help but be intrigued by him - and the rare telling quirks he mysteriously shares with his late best friend, Lin Shu.

Is this the end of a bad bromance?

However like every other Chinese novel or drama series, the morally upright characters all seem hellbent on denigrating the artful schemers - not immediately realizing that without their help, the holier-than-thou do-gooders probably wouldn't be able to achieve their noble aspirations. Fueled mainly by a false sense of honour and loads of senseless impulse, half of them would have witlessly marched to the executioner's axe if not for the timely advice of master strategist Mei Changsu.

And let's be honest, a virtuous, honourable king with little guile or wile likely wouldn't last too long with all the wicked court intrigues. That only happens in fairy tales.

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