NIRVANA IN FIRE II
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CHINESE RESTAURANT SEASON 2
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SINGAPORE - I hesitated for the longest time over whether to watch Nirvana In Fire II.
And that is because Nirvana In Fire (2015) was so good. The Chinese period drama about a frail strategist, Su Zhe/Lin Shu, who seeks justice for his framed family, was a riveting game of thrones. He had to keep 10 steps ahead of everyone else because a wrong move would mean exposure and death. It was a critical and popular hit and boosted the careers of its stars Hu Ge and Wang Kai.
What are the chances of a sequel measuring up when the characters and actors are different?
It turns out that Nirvana In Fire II is a most worthy successor.
Other than the change in cast, the behind-the-scenes talent has returned, from directors Kong Sheng and Li Xue to writer Hai Yan, whose Web novel of the same name was the basis of the first series.
So quality-wise, there is definitely a sense of continuity. There is that same satisfyingly cerebral approach to the storytelling in the way characters analyse things: Who might have done this? What is at stake? What is the most advantageous move to make?
But Nirvana In Fire II is also its own animal.
It takes place after the events of the earlier show and is set during the tumultuous period of the northern and southern dynasties in the sixth century. The Changlin army defends the Liang Dynasty's northern frontier and is led by Xiao Tingsheng (Sun Chun) and his son Xiao Pingzhang (Huang Xiaoming); younger son Pingjing (Liu Haoran) wants to be a carefree wanderer. They have the trust of the emperor, but others at court are wary of the power wielded by the house of Changlin.
The story begins with Pingzhang holding down the fort in the north and in desperate need of supplies - but the ships never make it. After the battle, Pingjing sets out to investigate the sinking of the vessels.
The opening arc sets in motion court rivalry and intrigue with ideas of loyalty and sacrifice. Add to the mix an ailing emperor, an insecure empress, a young crown prince and things become even more fraught.
A-list actor Huang brings gravitas and intelligence to the role of Pingzhang and there is warmth and even moments of humour in interactions with his younger brother and his wife, played by Tong Liya from 2015's comedy mystery Detective Chinatown.
Relative newcomer Liu, 20, more than holds his own playing a mischievous and good-hearted young man who learns that the world can be a treacherous place.
Pacing wise, Nirvana In Fire II unfolds at a more stately pace.
It is not until about one-third into the 50 episodes that we get a glimpse into why the empress' spiritual adviser Puyang Ying (the silkily villainous Guo Jingfei) is nefariously scheming away.
The sequel is more of a slow burn, but it remains compelling.
The show of strength by Chinese television shows in recent years is not just in scripted dramas, but also in variety programmes. They have a wide range of absorbing formats plus the draw of top celebrities.
On a recent holiday in Beijing, I found myself glued to the quiz show Who's Still Standing?; the creative music programme PhantaCity, featuring the still-luminous Faye Wong; and Chinese Restaurant, a reality show about celebrities running an eatery in a foreign land.
Incidentally, Huang had appeared in the first season of Chinese Restaurant (2017), which was set in Thailand's Ko Chang. In the second season, actresses Zhao Wei and Shu Qi, singer-actor Alec Su, TFBoys' leader Karry Wang and singer Bai Jugang set up shop in the picturesque town of Colmar in France.
It's fun seeing the stars interacting with one another and finding out who can cook. Shu often plays sexy on screen, but Bai calls her "Qi ge", or brother Qi, and it's like she's one of the guys. And despite his young age, Wang, 18, is most assured in the kitchen.
There is also some drama in the form of problems, such as the language barrier and an unexpectedly heavy storm that lashes down.
It comes as something of a jolt to realise that Zhao and Su were co-stars on My Fair Princess in 1998, the period comedy drama that turned her into a star. And there's a touching reunion when actor Zhang Tielin, who played the Qianlong emperor in the show, makes an imperious guest appearance here.