Period drama in new clothes

China's new hit show, Nirvana In Fire, combines politics with idol drama

Hu Ge plays a mystery man seeking justice in Nirvana In Fire.
Hu Ge plays a mystery man seeking justice in Nirvana In Fire. PHOTO: WWW.WEIBO.COM/LANGYABANGDRAMA

Nirvana In Fire, a period political thriller that has won wide acclaim in China, cloaks itself in an air of mystery and pop-culture savvy.

The protagonist is Mei Changsu (Hu Ge), an underworld leader who is preceded by his own public relations firm, as it were. Characters including two rival princes and their advisers talk up a storm about Mei, a reputed genius who might hold the key to the princes' succession struggle.

Only then does he make an entrance proper, a frail lone man on a raft who is somehow capable of striking fear in an army of marauders on a fleet of ships. Oh, and he has a guard - a pouting pugilist who flies in to drop a fur-trimmed cape onto his shoulders, and who is maybe one makeover away from a career in a boyband.

Adapted from an online novel, the show is a rather accomplished hybrid of historical and idol drama.


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    KBS World (StarHub TV Channel 115 or Singtel TV Channel 523), Monday and Tuesday, 8.50pm


Mei is a mystery man with a complex plan, which begins with agreeing to be a guest of an aristocrat's family in the capital city and involves insinuating himself into the imperial court, cracking a conspiracy and clearing the name of a military clan that was executed for treason.

It is a tapestry into which fun subplots are woven fairly seamlessly. There is Mei's bromance with his ally, Prince Jin (Wang Kai), for instance, which must be kept secret from the prince's two brothers, who are both courting the genius for their own reasons.

Curiously, Mei's strategy, like his backstory, is at once too complicated and not complicated enough.

Early episodes are mostly smoke and mirrors, designed to puzzle you, leaving you fragments you can't quite piece together: a fiery nightmare, possibly from Mei's past life as Lin Shu, the surviving son of the family accused of treason; a slave boy, quietly protected by Jin; a dotty dowager empress, speaking to Mei on their first meeting in the inner palace like she has known him all his life.

But when you have a clear picture of who's who and what's what - around the 50th of 54 episodes - the excitement of discovery wears off.

Stripped of the mystery, the show still has an admirable purpose though. It is not often that a pop drama is produced about questioning a government and making it more accountable to the public.

Okay, the festive season is around the corner, and Oh My Venus is my idea of a holiday: a cosy, safe K-drama in which corsets are ripped, hearts are broken but love prevails.

The tight undergarments are worn by an overweight attorney (Shin Min A), before she is liberated from them by a tyrannical personal trainer (So Ji Sub). He is the one who fixes her life after her break-up with a high-school boyfriend and assures her: "Your body is mine. It's up to me what I choose to do with it."

Actually, it's Pygmalion or My Fair Lady (1964) once more, but the fair lady is now a fat woman and her trainer, unlike his predecessors in the Greek myth and the American film, falls for her quickly, before he transforms her fully.

In addition, Oh My Venus has more touchy-feely, lovey-dovey moments - more delicious empty calories to sweeten the story with.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline Period drama in new clothes. Subscribe