Review: When Heaven Burns (TVB 2011)
When Heaven Burns <天與地>
Producer: Jonathan Chik
Genre: Psychological Drama
Number of episodes: 30 in Hong Kong
Who’s In It?
Cast in no particular order:
Charmaine Sheh as “Yip Hou Yan” or “Hazel”
Bowie Lam as “Lau Chung Hung” or “Joe”
Moses Chan as “Sung Yee Long” or “Angus”
Kenny Wong as “Cheng Chun Hin” or “Ronnie”
Elaine Jin as “Yung Cheuk Wah” or “Brenda”
Maggie Shiu as “Yung Cheuk Tung” or “Emma”
Astrid Chan as “Ma Wing Yee” or “Gina”
Angela Tong as “Yeung Suet Mei” or “Shirley”
and some other characters
What’s This About?
While journeying in the snowy mountains, four friends become stranded. With no rations and the looming threat that nobody will come to their rescue until after the snowstorm passes, three of the four friends are forced to do the unimaginable – cannibalize the injured fourth friend. Many years later, these three friends still feel and live through the never-ending trickling consequences of their act. Add to this, the surviving friends must face each other and their dead friend’s girlfriend, who has yet to let go of their friend’s death. This is a story about the psychological struggles we face.
Review Formally Begins Here
This is most likely TVB’s most ambitious venture yet. Ambitious because from any angle you view this, it is something unlike any other factory-TVB has churned out. Beware, ambitious does not necessarily equal quality, meaningfulness, artistry, memorability or success- or any combination of those adjectives. Caution, when I say this is something unlike any other from TVB, you really ought to finish the sentence yourself, because if you are one of those hardcore TVB purists (and I pity you if you are), you’d probably want to throw this series off a cliff six times over. If, however, you (like me) like to keep a reasonably open mind (with plenty of “open” time), you may only find that this series deserves only to be thrown maybe once or twice, if at all.
Thematically, there’s enough here to write a dissertation. Beware, that doesn’t mean all song and praises, it just means there are many concepts worth expanding. Caution, it also doesn’t mean the series conveyed those concepts effectively either. The problem here is that while the base material is all here, how does one dissect that from the material that is merely base? Of course, this level of analysis is an interpretative exercise, and funnily enough, this isn’t really one! Yay! First I’d like to applaud those responsible for having the guts to concoct a story precipitated by actual themes! WHOA! Blow me away to Tuesday! Are we talking TVB any more? Of the few themes is friendship, and likely the most neatly conveyed. The friendship between Charmaine, Bowie, Moses, Kenny and their deceased friend Ka Ming is strong, in that teenage-childhood sort of way. The friends bicker, they have their differences, and they have immature bouts. However, their bond is eternal, not because of any profound similarity or theory of living. That eternal bond was forged in the heydays when the five were in some oddly nameless band, and although the band never took off, each member participated wholeheartedly. In addition, during those heydays, the five friends spent plenty of time together, often doing pointless activities like “hanging out” or just being there when one of them was upset despite having no cure. It is precisely this abundance of time spent together, facing one another, laughing the world away, naive and naked, that has made their bond eternal. It’s that soft spot for the friends you grew up with. A bond premised on a purity before social corruption. This eternal bond is further increased as the four friends reminisce those heydays in their adulthood as a means of reflecting on their current lives. Arguably the strongest connection for their bond is Ka Ming’s death, which has initiated a ripple in each of their lives that connects and makes sense of their actions. Beware: what you just read is borderline interpretation!
The second most salient theme I summarize as the “human condition” or the struggles of making sense of one’s identity, purpose, justice, rationality, survival and a host of other ideas. This is a rather amorphous concept related to dealing with being and believing, or between reality and ideals, or put simply- the general ambivalence and anxiety of making sense of the choices we make, and how we deal with our (perceived) conflicts. This accounts for the metaphysical atmosphere of the series. There are plenty of metaphysical musings (mostly I recall by Charmaine) through the series. One easy target is the narration in the finale on respecting different methodologies and values, albeit confusingly conveyed through music appreciation. Unlike friendship, the human condition is a era-long philosophical (and political too, but let’s not get political here) problem, and a extremely messy one, so for something of TVB-calibre to tackle such, is worthy of some stars already. It is noteworthy that the series tackles the human condition most obviously through the characters played by Bowie and Moses, whose lives are dictated by how they have come to reconcile their burden of eating Ka Ming to survive. This is precisely why Moses takes survival to the next level by engaging in morally and legally dubious activities, either to justify himself that it is his persona to be ruthless and amoral, or to alleviate the vileness of cannibalism. As for Bowie, his life in lobbying for workers’ rights appears to be founded partially in some sort of confirmation that he is an innately “good” person and what he did to Ka Ming was of necessity. Caution: this is, I think, a rather liberal summary, which may be a tad lenient in drawing together rather messily dropped themes- and no you cannot narrate themes in a series/movie because that is called cheating.
Truth and veracity, is also another prominent theme, although it develops into a standstill that never resolves by episode 20 when Ka Ming’s death is revealed to Charmaine. It is disappointing that the series did not delve further into what being truthful as a human being means but let’s not be pushy.
Narrative Structure And Execution
Simply put? What a mess. To be fair, it is commendable that every character in the series, including those played by Cheung Kwok Keung, Queenie Chu, Elaine Jin, Angela Tong, Astrid Chan etc. meld with the narrative themes. Each character has a reason to be here and each added a little more depth into the lives of the main characters whilst having their own little struggles. But was it worth episodes of 60 second camera pans of people’s faces staring blankly? Or minutes and minutes of Moses imitate something between a guitarist and a hard-boiled detective? Or the lines and lines of dialogue that would make you giggle when watching spinning tops? The story nearly verges on being too sporadic, too disperse, too hidden for viewers to weed out. The problem is the dearth of material has not been presented in a manner that can be understood in a way that quickly translates into thought-provocation. You will often have to first find out what is relevant and what is not by connecting the dots before gleaning some idea at what is on display. My suspicion is that this form of narrative will alienate more than fascinate. The 30 episode format is partly to blame.
So can we possibly enjoy this series on a surface level? Maybe if you like soap operas, though this is far removed from any soap opera. There are no un-cleverly placed anti-climatic revelations. No easily identifiable characters to root for, or conversely, to damn. There’s even a defined ending, even though it’s an open-ended one that is at the same time quite clever in tying the story and prompting viewers to think (provided you got to the end and remembered what happened at the start). There really isn’t much else on offer here if you did not follow the themes. Partly because you cannot appreciate what the characters are doing, why certain images are passing through your iris, or where the whole music metaphor is going. This pitfall is accentuated by the odd changes in the lead characters towards the end of the series. Plus there are no family rivalries, no long-winded acts of revenge, or harem-esque competition. It also doesn’t help when the series adopts an artistic flair often associated with cinema, particularly Johnnie To cinema- cue the hotel ballroom scene towards the end of episode 5 as a prime example of how to alienate an audience.
So is this poor execution? I hate to say it, but it veers that way. Happily though, Mr. Poor Execution will not be bearing the brunt of negativity alone because Mrs. Poor Narrative is not too far behind- and is likely the main culprit. If execution refers to the style of dialogue, the coherence, pace and logic of scenes, and general artistic direction, then the narrative should refer to the more traditional ideas of story soundness, originality and development. The narrative here is decidedly weak notwithstanding the intriguing premise because it is far too long to sustain an effective presentation of the themes, not to mention distractingly superfluous dialogue. Character development is also weak, but that’s probably because the story is more about the inner journey than what not. The final problem: not much else really happens, leaving viewers helplessly thinking “where is this going?”
What about the acting you ask? Well there is something consistent in the acting. Each of the main leads carry themselves admirably during scenes of obvious emoting, like when Charmaine gets drunk, when Moses becomes aggressive or where Bowie is being earnest. Simultaneously, each of the main leads seem a tad two-dimensional when trying to pull off the deeper emotions. If the tepid pace of this whole drama is a let down, then it becomes difficult to follow the actors themselves who seem to add tepid to tepid. Tepid is sometimes rewarding when presented as a simmering of danger or turmoil, but here, 30 episodes of tepid really got on my nerves. They really ought to have been more expressive when showing their inner turmoil. Sigh a little. Frantically blink a little. Stutter a little. I always sense an overall detachment or foreignness from the lead cast. Obviously this may be because the cast themselves have no idea what to be “conflicted” about other than the semi-convoluted nature of the story itself. Interestingly, the scenes with Moses and Elaine are most entertaining, if only for the reason that both appear most natural during their verbal sparring. In most other scenes, the leads give us a “hesitant” impression when they should have been providing something closer to “confusion,” “disdain” and “restlessness” to fit in with the themes of this series.
There are probably a ton of other things worthy of mention: the rather quirky detective; the extended but fitting use of flash backs to convey the friendship amongst the five friends; the metaphoric but slightly uninspired use of Rock and Roll music as a symbol of independence; the use of Rock and Roll as a thematic device to signify memory versus change; the nature of Bowie’s job as a workers’ right lobbyist and potential politician versus his somewhat warped sense of self and justice; and the oddly real relationships the characters are having that we may possibly have. There is so much here that it begs the question- isn’t this too much? One lesson to be learnt for the creators here is minimialism can be a virtue and very effective to convey deep themes. I don’t suppose they felt going overboard was the right thing to do in line with the TVB style right?
This may be a step in the right direction for TVB, but it probably took a few more extra steps that were unnecessary or inappropriate. Embedding and using defined themes to channel a story so the story is but the vehicle is a grade up from the usual TVB excuse for a TV series and is a welcome style of story-telling. However, there needs to be less narration and execution that comes off as unfocused, messy and uneventful. It is no easy task. It is a meticulous one of tightening the script and having the actors on the same page. In the state as it currently is, the narrative and the acting all seem rather distant to both one another and the viewers; helpful note: neither are desirable. This is definitely not a series for everybody, especially if you get migraines from mere calculus.
Beware, you will be fooled if you thought this was a sensational representation of morality and justice; caution, this is a tepid examination of friendship, survival and the wrong choices we make.
Obligatory Disclaimer: If you have read the article above and believe anything contrary to the opinions therein written, you should consult your conscience before formally airing your discontent by asking whether the comment(s) you wish to air are those that any of the following persons would air – Aristotle or Mickey Mouse – and if those comments are not such, then for each such comment you air, you hereby agree you owe the writer $1USD.
This review was written by SDS, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com.