Review: “When Heaven Burns” (By VCN)
When Heaven Burns <天與地>
TVB 2011 Drama
Producer: Jonathan Chik
Genre: Psychological Drama
Number of episodes: 30 in Hong Kong
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”
When Heaven Burns is a story about friendship, young love and morality. The story focuses on a trio of best friends, who suddenly do the unthinkable; they cannibalize a fallen fourth friend, Ka Ming, during a snowstorm for survival’s sake. Mentally and emotionally scarred by this incident, Angus (Moses Chan), Joe (Bowie Lam) and Ronnie (Kenny Wong) dissolve their friendship to live very separate lives. Over the years, each of these friends try to cope with this event in their own way but can never fully come to terms with their guilt. Incapable of proper recovery, they reluctantly admit their crime years later. To further provoke the pain and suffering that resulted from this event, the story also follows Yan/Hazel (Charmaine Sheh) as she pursues a life full of sexual dissolution and confusion in the wake of her boyfriend’s, Ka Ming’s, mysterious death.
Both the Chinese and English titles suited this drama series very well. The direct translation of the Chinese title is “heaven and hell,” which is an appropriate description of the situation at the start of the series. The three best friends or survivors of the traumatic incident have seemingly moved on to embrace a “heaven[ly]” existence. Angus continues life by justifying his brutal act with ruthless avarice while Joe pursues atonement for his crime through a crusade for social welfare. Suffering from partial amnesia, Ronnie hides in the comfort and love of family life. Conversely, Hazel continues to dwell in the past, chasing shadows, and consequently lives in perpetual “hell.” Similarly, the English title When Heaven Burns is profoundly relevant to the plot. By the end of the series, the three friends lose their “heaven,” which “burns” symbolically, as retribution catches up with them.
Controversial in content, this series was not well received in Hong Kong. And, that was understandable since it was broadcast to people, who did not perceive the themes of friendship, young love and morality behind the brutality and violence of this story line. Contrary to popular criticism, TVB did not forgo its stance on moral dogmatism for even one second of this series. The moral principles were all present but delivered differently.
The premise of this series is the overly expounded moral dilemma of survival. It begs the question, what would one do for the sake of survival? Should one individual be sacrificed to save the rest or should everyone perish together if rescuers do not arrive in time? Does the greater good outweigh independent survival? These are the questions that continue to plague Angus, Joe and Ronnie until they each develop their own means of denial, shutting out these questions with ruthless greed, social justice and physical memory loss, respectively.
For once, TVB presents the rarely used character-driven plot in When Heaven Burns. These characters face choices, which they ineluctably make, thereby moving the plot along without the effects of independent and involuntary events trickling through the series. In such a series, the characters can only become more realistic and self-identifiable for the audience. Sure, none of us will be going out the next day with the intention of eating our best friend, but it does force one to think logically about one’s existence and rational decisions.
Similarly effective and realistic, the flashbacks were artistically incorporated into the series. Through these flashbacks, TVB finally learns to show its audience instead of telling them what is happening or has happened in the past. In drama, the showing is what makes a production melodramatic and worth watching. Like real life, how often are we reminded of incidents in the past when encountering a similar event or individual? Very naturally, our memories are triggered by recognition and introspection. So too are these characters imbued with this ability to recall, think and later find fault with their actions.
The story line is a bit long and runs rather slowly, dragging on to explain certain changes in relationships and emotions. If the story was solely about the cannibalistic act and its repercussions on the human soul, then 30 episodes is way too much time. However, this story also addresses the effects of this immoral act on their relationships with each other as friends and their relationships with other people outside this inner circle of friendship. Some scenes are repetitively presented in excess, but it is only to convey a better sense of the character. Through redundancy, all suspicions become validated. Thus, 22.5 hours or 30 episodes may just be the right amount of time for the story to properly unfold without turning to hasty character development. Although the story line has its flaws, it does cleverly link every player to each other through convoluted and unexpected relationships. Essentially, everyone knows each other’s connections without being fully aware, thereby being more knowledgeable of each other than expected.
Producing this drama was undoubtedly a bold step for TVB, a move that I graciously applaud them for. No longer are they making dramas that insult our intelligence but creating something that is thought provoking. I agree that the topic was a tad bit disturbing, but what moral dilemma isn’t. Unlike previous TVB drama series, there are a multitude of fine nuances in this series that I found simply wonderful and invigorating. However, I hesitate to mention all of them for fear of creating a laundry list of compliments. To mention my favorite creative device, I am particularly fond of the contrast between Antoine Saint-Exupery’s children’s tale, The Little Prince, to this drama’s major premise. Because The Little Prince is consistently mentioned and discussed throughout the series, one can accurately compare the philosophies of the Little Prince and the three friends during their journeys of self-discovery and self-understanding. Recall that the Little Prince altruistically sacrifices his life for the survival of the pilot/narrator in the end while Angus, Joe and Ronnie selfishly murdered and cannibalized Ka Ming to survive. This parallel makes the friends’ act more poignantly evil and less acceptable. Other nice touches include the appropriate use of rock music as a background for the theme of friendship and that love of music represents morality and goodness in mankind.
Even the English names of the characters serve as a personification of their nature. Because these names were mostly adopted after the cannibalizing act, they are a representation of who they have really become after the incident. Comparatively, the characters used mostly nicknames during the flashbacks of their youth, which holds much less significance to their present-day characteristics. The name, Angus, is also the name of a well-known breed of cattle and brand of meat, illustrating the carnal side of the character and his obsession with physical fulfillment. Hazel is a light golden brown color. Neither gold nor brown but a mixture of both, this name symbolizes her inner confusion and inner turmoil. Joe is a very common name and represents the average man. So, Joe is employed at a workers’ union, helping the regular folk gain workers’ rights. Lastly, Ronnie is a child-like rendition of the name, Ronald, which evokes a sense of innocence. Suffering from partial amnesia, he cannot remember his part in the cannibalizing act and thus behaves with the least sense of regret amongst the three friends.
For me, the story is not a completely original story. Its structure and general story line is strongly redolent of a 1980s novel and miniseries by Shirley Conran titled Lace where friends are guilt-ridden for a moral action, drifting apart for many years until they become reunited to face the crisis that separated them in the first place. But for TVB audiences, this story should be original enough to be new and refreshing.
The performances were exceptionally well done. Finally, we are given a cast of seasoned actors and actresses, who can play effectively off of each other to evoke the necessary sentiments of the series. There were literally no weak links to create a hiccup in the acting. I cannot say that they were perfect, but they were certainly good enough when compared to their contemporaries.
Regarding the camera panning of blank stares by the leading characters, how else can one portray a sense of total loss and total detachment other than through a complete lack of emotions. Even Greta Garbo adopted this expression to depict her state of emotions in the ending sequence of Queen Christina. Producer Jonathan Chik was trying to tell these characters’ stories with their faces. Their success or lack of it is another matter.
When Heaven Burns is the rarely found good title plus good story combination that TVB seems incapable of producing (or reluctant to produce due to harsh public criticism). Just for courage and effort alone, this drama series deserves a higher than usual rating. But coupled with intense symbolism, philosophical insight, artistic presentation, great performances and a creative musical score, When Heaven Burns should rightly earn 4.5 stars out of 5.
For those of us who don’t mind thought-provoking dramas, the story closes with two moral questions, What would you do to survive if ….? And does retribution truly exist? A show of this intellectual calibre is not likely to be produced by TVB again, so I am glad that the population of Hong Kong has finally agreed with me by voting it the Best Series of the year at the 45th TVB Anniversary Awards.
This review is written by VCN, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com.