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Daily Helping for August 1st, 2021 – Nirvana in Fire

A promotional still for Nirvana in Fire. The poster features four of the main actors, in costume, posing as their characters. The two in the background are on horseback.

Today’s helping came to me through a recommendation from a podcast that I adore. This is happens to be the podcast that sent me to Descendants of the Sun and When the Camellia Blooms, so their track record is pretty darn good. I was also warned that this show would hit me with all the feels, and that turned out to be entirely accurate. I actually took a break from watching this show about halfway through because I could see where it was going and I wasn’t ready to be emotionally devastated just yet. But I did pick it up again, and once I did, I devoured the entire second half of the show in one weekend. One weekend! I. Could. Not. Stop. Watching. It’s now been a week since I finished the last episode, and I think I’ve sufficiently recovered to talk about Nirvana in Fire. I think.

Nirvana in Fire is a 54 episode Chinese historical drama (with wuxia elements) that was released in 2015. From what I understand, it was a massive hit at the time it aired, making stars of everyone involved, and was critically well received, winning a slew of awards both in China and abroad. And I can’t say I’m surprised. Everything about this show is superb. The production values, the action pieces, the direction, the casting. Everything. But what impressed me the most was the script.

Nirvana in Fire tells the story of Lin Shu and his quest to avenge his family. 12 years before the show begins, a political conspiracy accused his family of treason, resulting in the deaths of 70,000 soldiers in his father’s army, as well as his entire family. Lin Shu is the sole survivor, and after altering his appearance and building up an alliance, he returns to the capital, determined to clear his family’s name and put his best friend, Prince Jing, on the throne. Cue 54 episodes of some of the most masterful and meticulous political strategies, maneuvering, and scheming. Seriously. This script is a masterclass in plotting. It’s simply brilliant.

It was also fascinating. Up until very recently, my scope of narrative entertainment was limited to the western world. And I must admit that I never realized how engrained western narrative structures had become in my mind until I started watching narratives from other cultures. Until I saw just how differently stories could be structured and told. It sounds ridiculous when I write it out like that. Because of course different countries and cultures will have different narrative structures for their stories and entertainment. But Nirvana in Fire really hammered this point home in a way that no other show I’ve seen (yet) has done.

In particular, it was fascinating to see what points in the plot were explored in great detail and what happened offscreen. I’m not going to spoil any plot points for you, but suffice it to say that nearly every time, the plot played out the opposite of what I expected. Every time I expected to watch a plot detail, it happened offscreen. And vice versa. And remember above when I said I stopped watching for a bit because I thought I knew where the show was going? Well, turns out I did know the final destination, but I was completely wrong about the route the show took to get there. And I loved that. It kept me guessing right up until the end, which is always such a treat in today’s world of Hollywood reboots and generic recycled storylines.

One of my goals of The Daily Hart was to expand my understanding of art and to break out of the western silo that I somehow found myself in. As I head into the final months of this challenge and I look back at everything I have discovered, I think I can say mission accomplished. But I’m also very much aware that this is only the tip of the iceberg. If one historical drama can teach me so much about storytelling and narrative structure, just imagine what else is out there to learn. Enough to keep me busy for a lifetime, that’s for sure.

In the meantime, I will continue to recover from the emotional gut punch that was Nirvana in Fire. Apparently there’s a sequel series, but I’m not ready yet. One day perhaps. But for now, I think I need some lighter fare. Perhaps a fun Kdrama that won’t sack me in the stomach with feelings. Do those exist?

One final note. If you search for “Nirvana in Fire trailer” on YouTube, please do not watch the video that pops up. For reasons I will never understand, that trailer gives away the entire plot and is almost entirely composed of clips from the final climatic scene. Trust me when I say stay far away. This is not a show you want ruined by a trailer.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!