On the excellent rec of [personal profile] egelantier, who has a better (non-spoilery) intro with photos., I recently watched a 54-episode Chinese historical drama, Nirvana in Fire (Lang Ya Bang). It was awesome.

The plot is very complex, but it's basically the wuxia version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Twelve years before the story begins, the crown prince, his general, and the general's military genius teenage prodigy son, Lin Shu, went to fight on the emperor's behalf. Something went horribly wrong, and they were falsely accused of starting a rebellion. The paranoid emperor had them all killed, along with their 70,000-man army. Now it's a completely taboo topic which no one even dares to mention to the emperor.

But Lin Shu is not dead! Exactly. Due to a near-death experience, he survived at the cost of his martial arts skills, his physical strength and health, and his entire previous body and face. No longer the strong warrior he was, he is now completely unrecognizable, an extremely beautiful but physically weak strategist dying of magical consumption. Going by the name of Mei Changsu (also Mr. Su), he returns to the capital to clear the name of the supposed rebels, bring down the two princes currently maneuvering for the throne, institute his own former best friend (the disfavored Prince Jing) as the crown prince, and restore justice, set up good rule, and get revenge.

He does this by means of incredibly intricate plotting and the power of the sarcastic eyebrow lift. Here is a typical moment: Mei Changsu is smarter than you.

Mei Changsu/Lin Shu is a fascinating character whose motivations are slowly revealed over the course of the story. I don't want to spoil what's going on with him other than what I already said (and some of it is a matter of interpretation) but in addition to being really fun to watch (his body language is amazing), there's a lot more to him than the perfect genius who immediately meets the eye. If you're interested in issues of identity, I'll just say that there's a lot to enjoy in that direction. His refusal to tell almost anybody - including his former best friend - who he really is, even if they guess and confront him, starts out seeming to have legit plot reasons, but ends up clearly being much more about his psychology. It's frustrating to watch at times, but also really interesting and uncompromising.

On a less elevated level, his illness provides an immense amount of satisfying hurt-comfort carried to sometimes hilarious extremes, as literally everyone in his vicinity gets sucked into worrying about his health, helping him walk, providing him with fur cloaks and fluffy blankets because as apparently everyone knows and is very very concerned about, his health is very delicate and he cannot take the cold. (At one point he actually has an enemy providing him with fluffy blankets.) Also, he has really beautiful hands and a great array of sarcastic/cranky/smug glances.

But this is really an ensemble story, and it has a huge array of fascinating characters, all with their own motivations and stories. Just a few of my favorites were Consort Jing, Prince Jing's 50-something mother, who has spent nearly her entire life locked in the palace but slowly reveals a talent for intrigue which is the match of Mei Changsu's own and probably better in some ways; a pair of very different warrior women, one a general and one a sort of ninja detective, who served together in the army and whom I shipped; Mei Changsu's teenage bodyguard Fei Liu, who is developmentally disabled but great at kung fu, and has a really sweet relatationship with Mei Changsu which gets more and more heartbreaking as his death gets more imminent and Fei Liu can't accept or even really understand it; the antagonist Prince Yu, who is not a nice guy at all but has understandable motivations and solid, loving relationships with his equally scheming mother and concubine/strategic advisor; Mei Changsu's kung fu doctor buddy who turns up in the last five episodes and completely steals the show.

I could go on and on. I had to stop myself or I'd name twenty favorites. In general, I liked the large number of badass middle-aged moms and the multiple interesting and important mother-son relationships, which made a nice change from western media's ubiquitous daddy issues. Though there are also a lot of daddy issues. The emperor is terrible but a really great character and gave one of my favorite performances. He's responsible for all his own woes and a lot of everyone else's too, but if I had to sit there and watch all that scheming, I'd probably start throwing paperweights too.

The story is structured as a lot of careful set-up and dramatic or funny character bits (punctuated by kung fu battles - I swear, there must have been some contractual thing saying that no more than five episodes could go by without an attack by flying ninjas) building to spectacular pay-offs; the pay-offs are sprinkled throughout the story, but more frequent in the second half. I thought it got better and better as it went along, so if you're potentially interested, I would keep going for a while even if it's confusing/slow at first.

I think everyone who might possibly have any interest should watch it so I can talk about some spoilery aspects. The first episode was really confusing and the series picked up a lot as it went along and I started figuring out who everyone was (and stopped thinking stuff like, "Is that the favored prince, the disfavored prince, or the non-prince dude whose status I'm uncertain of, and is he talking to his girlfriend, his advisor, or his sister?" It doesn't help that a lot of people have multiple names.

Maybe you could start with episode two. I think most of what happens in episode one just sets up some stuff. Skip this paragraph if you don't want to be spoiled, read it if you might skip episode one. There are two contenders for the throne, the Crown Prince (a total tool) and Prince Yu, and that younger Prince Jing is not considered a contender. Mei Changsu is associated with Langya Hall (a sort of martial arts and strategy consulting firm)which puts out the Langya List (a sort of Forbes List of great martial artists, strategists, and rich people), and comes to the capital under the easily broken identity of "Mr. Su." (Most people investigate him, quickly find that he's really Mei Changsu, the brilliant strategist ("The Divine Talent"), and don't think to look farther.) As Lin Shu (aka Xiao Shu), he was engaged to the general and princess Nihuang, and was best friends with Prince Jing (Jingyan).

The only person who knows that Mr. Su/Mei Changsu is actually Lin Shu is General Meng, who helps him find an appropriate mansion and build a secret passageway so Mei Changsu can meet with Prince Jing (aka Jingyan). This leads to this hilarious exchange:

General Meng: "The passage is ready. Now you may have your secret midnight rendezvous with Prince Jing."

Mei Changsu: "Could you try phrasing that differently?"

(If you legit ship them, there is plenty to support that and it's really angsty and epic. I had what seems to be a minority ship, which was Mei Changsu/Lin Chen, the late-appearing doctor buddy who is the one person who actually calls him on all his asshole behavior and is the only person other than Fei Liu who ever gets him to smile. I liked his relationship with Nihuang, his ex-fiancee, but I couldn't ship it because even though she does extract a few hugs from him, they are hilariously awkward. He pats her on the back like he has no idea what he's supposed to do in such a bizarre situation. That had to be deliberate, because he otherwise uses his hands so beautifully that they sometimes distracted me from reading the subtitles. And while I'm on shipping, Nihuang and Xia Dong would do a lot better with each other.)

If I have sold you on starting, I suggest using the handy photographic character guide and some patience. The show is really rewarding once you get your bearings.

Watch on Viki

Watch on Youtube

Character guide with photos.

Has anyone seen this? I would love to discuss some spoilery aspects, but only if you've seen the whole thing.
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