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.

When Heaven Burns 3 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.

When Heaven Burns Charmaine Sheh 5Even 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 Acting

When Heaven Burns 2The 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

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  1. Good review. I agree that “When Heaven Burns” was the best TVB drama series in 2012 because of its excellent acting, script, dialogues, plots and developments, scenes and photography, lighting and music. The only complaint that I may have is the pace which was a bit slow. It might not suit some audience, especially those who liked fast-paced drama series produced by TVB.

    Personally I think “WHB” was the best drama series performed by Charmaine Sheh and Moses Chan.

    1. 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.
      Good statements. Support.

  2. Very insightful review and I learn some new things e.g. the significance of the names.

  3. This tv series got the lowest rating ever, but won the best tv series of 2012. Make a lot of sense. If the rating was low, then it means not much ppl like the series. Then how can it be the best tv series.

    1. this was shown last year same time-chrismas end of year. obviously people will be out etc so no time to watch it. but its very popular in terms of viewing online/downloading. tvb pretty mush deserted this series, gave no promotion, i think they were p*ssed charmaine didn’t sign contract so they pushed this series back as much as they could (i think this was filmed late 2009 and released late 2011) so that makes sense.

    2. Maybe the people who closely watched the series, really liked it and made sure to vote for it. Whereas ppl who watched higher rated series didn’t like those series enough to bother voting.

    3. High ratings does not equate to good TV series. High ratings just means that it is the type of series easily absorbed and readily accepted by the general audience.

      Pretty much like how critically acclaimed movies win at the Cannes Film Festival, but fail miserably at the box office.

    1. Good point. I hate it. Too pretentious and trying way too hard to be different when in the end it is quite the same.

      1. Pretentious – exactly my thoughts. Someone needs to put that word up in neon lights.

      2. I see people throwing that term around a lot. Care to elaborate? What was it trying to be that it’s not? I thought the ending summed up the story they were trying to tell perfectly. It was what it was.

      3. Don’t see how it’s pretentious at all. And when you say ‘when in the end it is quite the same’, what do you mean? This series, in my opinion, is quite different from other TVB series.

        I agree with Kay.

  4. And this is not a housewife “see lai” series. Not your typical cutie- sarcastic- look- at- me- linda chung- in your- face series. Hardly anyone is happy in this series. Charmaine was robbed big time (as if tavia did a better performance, she was like literally breathing through her nose delivering her lines, there’s seriously NO Artistry with tava’s acting AT ALL). i guess thats just what you get for not signing with tvb.

  5. anyway where does eb=veryone view this series now? where do you download it from??????? all the links seem to be broken…….

  6. I can’t remember when “the little prince” was mentioned during this series. It’s the same book Paul Ching read to Jackie when she was in a coma in Healing Hands. That part was very memorable.

    Btw, Charmaine’s character name is Yip Zhi Yan.

    1. I can remember two parts…

      One is Bowie confessing he has developed feelings for Charmaine (Little Prince & Fox)

      Second is Ronnie and his family (Little Prince and The Rose)

  7. Good review, but why posting this review after almost 1 year? Just because this drama won TVB Best Drama 2012 ?

      1. I personally have not watched this series yet since the cannibalism stuff really scared me just hearing about it…

    1. Haha, one year is nothing. Earlier this year there was a review of Triumph in the Skies (2003 drama series) posted on this site.

      But yeah, I think the readership of this site is quite international and therefore we’re all watching TVB series on different schedules. The TVB affiliate channel I’m getting in my country is about 6-8 months behind Hong Kong schedule, for instance.

  8. It would be great if Paul Wong portrayed mid-age Ka Ming, too bad the schedule clashed.

    p.s. The picture of the young cast together, it was deleted from the final ending.

  9. i hated WHB when it was airing as i found the plot confusing and hard to follow. when tvb uploaded the entire series onto their website, i watched it all within three days, and it was then that the whole thing started to make sense to me.
    while it’s not one of my favourite series nor something i will watch again in a hurry, i do understand why it was so critically acclaimed. it is very unique, very philosophical. everyone should try to watch it at least once.

    1. Agree. If you watch “WHB” in a hurry (i.e. skipping scenes or episodes), you will not enjoy it at all. I did it in the very first few episodes, and almost abandoned the rest. However, after reading the posts/comments on TVB Forum, I started watching it all over again but slowly, I started enjoying it. Eventually I watched every scene and every episode in the whole drama series. I very seldom watch every scene and every episode in a drama series.

  10. i really like the seamless editing of this drama. very moving. still remember the dolphin scene vividly. Ah, and the music.

    i think this is Moses’ best performance. the anger, the lust, the greed, the obsession. his overall build fits the character best.

    1. Agree. It was Moses Chan’s best performance, and I think it was Charmaine Sheh’s best drama series as well.

  11. wow, well written and a in-depth, thorough unbiased review! i like how you also dissected their english names and how it reflects upon them as adults.

  12. now starting to watch it half way thru…the plot is getting more interesting as each episodes build-up more suspense, hatred and human hate-love emotions between each character. all the leads played out the characters well. moses and charmaine sheh acting really outstanding with the “cool-angered” emotions, kenny wong best portrayal is when he falls into “psychotic depressive” mood once he remembered he kills ka-ming, maggie shiu portrayals of “fun-filled teenage-happy go lucky childish” character really perfect as not all mature adults actors can portray so well “teeny-happy” characters.. bowie wong character as “surface is clean, non-tainted, charitable-kindness” yet deep-within lies true character which he is a big-liar and moody, ka-ming young character also wins over young teenage fans (though not sure who is he), maggie shiu older sister portrays a loving-caring protective sister yet full of anger n hatred towards moses also win praises. finally, the young actress portray charmaine also done well and pretty (wonder why TVB never promote her as she is pretty and always portray small-role only)..charmaine should have won best actress and moses chan also win praises

    1. The actor for young Ka-Ming was Stanley Cheung. He gained a lot of popularity in “WHB”. Agree that every artiste did very well in that drama series, including Elaine Jin Yin-Ling, Maggie Shiu, Kenny Wong, Queenie Chu, Angela Tong, etc.

      It was a character-driven drama series, rather than a storyline-driven drama series. “WHB” surely deserved the Best Drama Award in 2012.

    2. the young actress who plays charmaine actually is getting some sort of promotion. she’s starring in the sitcom Come Home Love as a regular

      1. Her name is 蔣家旻, Angel Chiang. Personally I don’t like her. She was not pretty enough to act the young Hazel (Charmaine’s character) and her voice was very squeaky. She was almost the worst artiste in “When Heaven Burns” because everyone else was better than Angel Chiang.

      2. Wasn’t she Siu Chai in The Confidant? Or was that another actress?

      3. @Funn: Yes, she was Siu Chai in TC.

        @sandcherry: I like her. She’s not bad and although her voice may be squeaky, I don’t find it ear-bleeding. I thought she was pretty enough to act as the young Hazel.

      4. she’s not drop dead gorgeous but i think her acting isn’t too bad so i don’t really care about how she looks lol

  13. I cant help laughing hard whn i saw WHB pic on jaynestars homepage..remeber that saddened n maddened pic chosen abt not getting awards.. the comparison of both pics n the issue on whos crying sadly n madly of not getting award.. hahahaha..n of all WHB promo pic, why choose tis pic n not of the group.. everytime i giv up on browsing jaynestars cos no B’s news, thn his news will surface.. either Heavens telling not to giv up on jaynestars or on B..^.^
    Merry Christmas & Happy New Year, Jayne & readers.. 😀

    1. Klnyy,
      We keep tabs on many talented stars such as Bowie Lam. Since he has been away from Hong Kong, there has been less news on Bowie recently.

      Happy New Year as well!

  14. Thank you, everyone, for reading my review! It’s true that I had finished watching the series a little while ago and I had written the review then but was hesitant to submit it because it was an older and perhaps forgotten series. When the series was awarded Best Series, I thought it was relevant to submit the review to Jayne and share my thoughts on it. Thanks again!

    I wish you all a Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year!

    1. VCN
      It is good timing for people in Canada to read your review. Fairchild Chinese TV is broadcasting “When Heaven Burns” now, and I just watched it again a few minutes ago.

      1. I live in Canada too haha but we stopped paying for cable tv so we watch dramas on-line now!

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