Review: When Heaven Burns (TVB 2011)

When Heaven Burns <天與地>
TVB 2011
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.

Thematic Composition

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?”

Notable Mentions

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?

Overall Appraisal

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

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  1. spoiler:
    the whole series is about the ending song. Haha.

    1. I really enjoyed this drama. To me it was a very bold and artistic move by TVB. It has multi-layered themes about the human’s heart,mind and soul. I appreciate the values of how deep friendships can be through their passion for music. Spoke to me alot on how despite how much the people we know may have changed, for better or for worse, the mutual bonds we have made will bring us back together 🙂

  2. SDS,
    You did a wonderful job as always analyzing the various thematic elements and overall execution of the series.

    Due to the reasons you pointed out in your review, I think that is the reason why audience’s reactions are so polarized towards “When Heaven Burns.” There are fans that love it due to the subject matter in exploring the “human condition” as you mentioned, intense subjects that are often not explored in television shows. There are also others who despise it due to the messy implementation of what otherwise may have been grand themes (coming across as pretentious artistry?) or others who do not like the slow pace or requirement in thinking and evaluating the matter presented more deeply than normal shows.

  3. 30 episodes is WAY too long for this series. It is boring, plain boring. I skip most episodes; and it is a waste of time. The story was “great”, except it is stretch way too much crap of their lives.

    2 out of 5 stars for me.

  4. A really boring show!! The story line just drags too long!!

  5. The series is good. I don’t find it draggy. Initially, I also thought the series will be better if shorter. But, after watching the whole series, I feel that 30 episodes is needed to tell the story. The ending is very well done. It’s not rush at all.

    Love the ending song. Mito is kinda right. The ending song represents the whole series.

  6. Thought it was amazing storytelling (for TVB). Definitely not a series to watch if there are any distractions because you really have to take in every moment.

    5 stars for me

  7. I thought this series was pretty boring since it was not well executed at all, but I really liked the last episode and how they showed what could’ve been (although would Charmaine really have the same hairstyle that many years later? c’mon now!)
    Basically, it’s the complete opposite of what I thought of Bottled Passion- good series, bad ending- where When Heaven Burns had a boring story but a good ending.

  8. The ending did not disappoint me at all. The ending was much better than other typical TVB series. The cast did a good job in my opinion. 🙂

  9. A story about cannibalism sort of scares me and reminds of the Donner party…

  10. 3 stars only? are you kidding me. this is a transending series for TVB. its sad the ratings do not reflect the quality of this series. i hope TVB will continue and make more series like this.

    1. This series was really not aimed at housewives or people dont like Rock, cannibalism, etc. It is a risk for TVB, and lately they promoting the series to give out prizes to try to save the ratings.

      I cant blame TVB for trying this “new” type of drama; its one of these things that this series is a fail for audience liking.

      1. I’m not a rock fan or cannibalism fan, but, I still like the series.

        The producer was trying to capture a new group of audience. He did expect the audience to have some difficult in accepting the series in the beginning, but, he overestimated the acceptance level of audience for such things.

        This series is not for audience who prefer straight-forward storytelling. A lot of time, this series need the audience to interpret what’s happening and different people come to different interpretation.

        This series is the direct opposite of Lee Tim Shing’s series. ‘Bottled Passion’ even has voice-over of Tsui Sum’s thoughts to let audience know exactly what is Tsui Sum thinking. Not dissing BP, since I already warmed up to BP by episode 2 and plan to continue watching. Just point out the difference of technique I notice.

      2. Maybe the producer should have known not many audience like art sort of series? Moreover why does art house different sort of series had to be so difficult to understand? BP is straightforward good old storytelling and I feel WHB maybe got the worst end of the spectrum because of its lack of good pacing and storytelling? No point in being so stylistic and different if you can’t connect with the audience and I suppose audience expect a good story to begin with. I sorta thought WHB worked best as a mini series, shorter, or even a movie but as a full blown series, I can understand why it fails. BUt who knows? few years down the line it could qualify as a cult classic.

  11. I really enjoyed this series. It reminded me of WKW films where there are a lot of pauses. I like how they held facial reactions, showed people in thought, etc. I certainly don’t finish emoting in two seconds so I feel that they really tried to express things in “real time”. It made me understand the character more. The friendship theme (among others) was so great. I am 100% sick of shows about revenge and wealthy family infighting. This is a unique series that based on the ratings, will probably not be tried again, which is truly unfortunate. It was so poetic. I give this show two thumbs up. Give it a try (but you need to focus or you’ll miss a lot of its subtleties which adds so much to character development). If you like fast paced, spell it out kind of shows, this is not for you.

    1. It’s true it copies WKW type of films with the pauses and disjointed filming, but WKW takes 2 hours? to tell his story. Jonathan Chik took 22.5 hours.
      WKW films reminds me of a dreamer, making his way though life, with a few crossroads, several divergences, a number of dead ends.
      When Heaven Burns reminds me of a dog following a scent trail, then losing interest half way, trots off rambling through the forest, picking up the trail one month later when everyone else already lost interest.

  12. The long pauses and blank stares are, IMO, needed in this series. Its not a series like say, Off Pedder or FH3 where everything moves so fast, that ppl actually forget that their wife died (FH3 cough).

  13. I love this series. It’s not perfect, but I love this series. (Head off to rewatch the HD episodes on my laptop and phone).

    2 thumbs up!

  14. SDS
    I always enjoyed reading your reviews. However, I think you have underrated “When Heaven Burns”. If you gave “Curse of the Royal Harem” 3 stars, this one should get at least 4-1/2 stars. There were no good acting, poor scriptwriting, poor development of plots, and cheap palace setting in CRH. I did not enjoyed CRH at all. I watched the 1st few episodes, skipped a whole bunch, and watched the last two long ones. I can only say the last 2 episodes were half decent. However, I watched every episode and every scene in WHB, and listened to every character’s conversations. Though I found that the pace of this series was a bit slow, but everything else was good. I have not watched a TVB drama series for a long time with good story developments, good acting from almost every single artiste (including those support artistes), good photography, good scenes, good music, and good dialogues. Everything in the series gave us room to think of the meanings behind.

    I am also sick and tired of those TVB drama series which involves revenge and wealthy family infighting and yelling. WHB is quite a unique series which involves the love affairs between 4 male lead characters and 1 female character, plus a few other support male and female characters. However, the love affairs between these characters are well and naturally developed, unlike some awkward arrangements of someone’s death in order to match other characters in some typical TVB drama series.

    On the whole, I think WHB deserves a higher rating. If the pace is a bit faster, it will definitely be a first- class production. We can surely see the hard work and dedication of the production team.

    1. Aren’t you bored that all the male characters love the main female character?

      1. No. It could have happened to anyone especially since they grew up and played band together.

        It is a lot more logical than some awkward arrangements of multi-line love affairs in those typical TVB drama series.

      2. I remember reading someone’s post that they didn’t really “loves” her like a normal person who love a girl with intention of living with her etc..but they “loves” her because of feeling remorseful for eating up the gf’s bf sort of…

        It makes sense if they felt that way for trying to patch up things to compensate the losses of that girl but if they truly loves her.. that’s truly illogical.

      3. So they don’t love her? They feel guilty? Guilt perhaps, leading to remorse leading to the need to treat her better?

      4. Angus (Moses) truly loves Yan (Charmaine). The other 2 loved her during their youth days, but, I continue ‘loving’ her because of her connection to Ka Ming (Yan’s bf) and to their old dreams. She’s the one who persevere with her dream. The guilt also play a part, I think.

      5. Yes, I agree w/ Kidd. All 3 guys loved her partly b/c she represented the strong friendship f/ their youth and partly due to the remorse they felt towards her. But only Angus was truly in love w/ ah Yan. Did they ever explain why he broke up w/ her before she met ka ming? It didn’t make sense since he obviously never stopped loving her.

        Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. The series was kinda slow in the beginning and it didn’t help that there was like a 5 day break due to CotRH and anniversary awards (I couldn’t remember where they had left off).
        The characters were all so tragic and full of regret. I was really happy that everyone was able to let go and eventually found their peace. The ending felt very satisfying and even hopeful to me.

        For both WHB and BP, the theme songs were beautifully touching and fitting.

      6. “Did they ever explain why he broke up w/ her before she met ka ming?”

        Maybe because they were too young?

    2. Don’t dwell too hard on the ratings, its a rather arbitrary yet complicated basis on how I come to them (although I do realise I’ve never explained how I actually rate each series) and they don’t always relate to other ratings I’ve given. The stars usually reflect how much I believe a person of reasonable intelligence and of general disposition who has not watched it should give it a try and how much they would like it- it doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall quality. So on that basis my ratings would mean something like:

      5 = Everybody must watch this even if they do not understand Cantonese/Chinese and love it
      4.5 = Everybody must watch this and really enjoy it
      4 = Most people must watch this and like it
      3.5 = Most people should watch this and like it
      3 = Many people should watch this
      2.5 = Neutral advice
      2 = Watch if you have free time and nothing else to do
      1.5 = Watch if you really cannot think of any thing else to do
      1 = You’ll be sorry you watched this
      0.5 = Indescribable pain
      0 = #^(*@#^%(@#(%

      So as you may see, my ratings are based more on what I think the general populace would/should watch.think. Its not really my final rating of the series. Personally I don’t believe I can provide a more encompassing conclusive rating regarding the quality and my personal enjoyment of a series when I’m limited to a 5-star system. There are many reasons why I believe this to be, but its a long story.

      Safe to say, I did in fact like WHB much more than CRH, but there are many problems (from my view) with how WHB presents its themes/narrative which I cannot adequately explain in a short review that serves it justice. One of the major problems is the treatment of what I called the ‘human condition’ is somewhat lacking in depth and strength. If the series was 25 episodes, I think it would done much better.

      1. SDS
        Agree with you that 25 or even 20 episodes would make this drama series more attractive. It was too slow-paced and a bit boring in the first 10 episodes, and probably a lot of viewers decided to quit after watching the first few episodes.

        This drama series would be better filmed as a movie …… condensed and faster-paced. Will have to keep most of the conversations and scenes though so that people can enjoy the original theme and message of the series.

      2. SDS
        Sorry that I did know about your actual rating system. Thanks for your explanations.

        Personally I think it would be a good idea to combine the quality of a drama series with the “trend” of viewership. In that case, it will both reflect the quality (acting, scriptwriting, production, etc.) as well as type of people who would watch it. What do you think?

        I am sure that most people (and I am one of them) will read every single word of your review before we decide to watch a drama series. However, there are people who would just check on the rating of a series in your review. In that case, they would miss a lot if the drama series, such as WHB, turns out to be a quality one.

      3. @sandcherry

        I’m not sure. I always find watching something first then reading a review to be my own preference. Then again I have noticed some people seem to ignore what I’ve written and focus on the rating so perhaps I should change it.

      4. SDS
        Can I suggest something? Perhaps you can have two different sets of ratings, such as:
        1) Viewership acceptance
        2) Overall quality of the drama series

        In that case, people know what to look for. If a viewer is looking for general enjoyment, he/she can check the first set. However, if a viewer goes for the quality of a drama series, he/she can look at the quality rating.

        I think it may be easier to separate the ratings than to combine them. What do you think?

        As a viewer, I usually go for the quality of a drama series rather than the general acceptance. Moreover, I can usually tell the type of drama series from its name.

  15. I bet the one with Nick Cheung would have been BETTER. Unlike this crap series.

    1. The one with Nick will be a typical revenge series.

      This series is not crap.

      1. Well everyone has different opinions and views so some may love this series while others may hate it. I have not seen this one yet and don’t think that I want to since the cannibalism part just scares me… Maybe this is the type of series where you either like it or just hate it…

  16. “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.”

    The scriptwriter said Bowie is the 贖罪者, the one who wants to make atonement for his crime/sin.

    1. i always thought he only did the lobbying because of his guilt and that he wanted to make up for all his wrongdoings. you could kinda pick that up in the conversations that he has with the older man that’s part of the lobbying (sorry i don’t know how to spell his name)

      1. My opinion is same like you. I also think Bowie did it for atonement.

        SDS’s interpretation never crossed my mind. But, it’s an interesting interpretation and also a logical one.

      2. Well in a sense it can be interpreted as stemming from guilt. The problem with that interpretation is towards the end, Bowie changed, employing unethical means and eventually worse. Bearing in mind this change starts to occur when Ka Ming’s death is revealed to everyone. And bear in mind Bowie has always been someone who did not want the truth to be told.

        From those three things I interpreted it as Bowie’s own struggle to make sense of his action with himself and what he wants to be. It is precisely because he believes himself to be a good person and he does things out of necessity that he does not deserve punishment for what he did to Ka Ming. That’s why he chose his career, as confirmation of himself. That’s why he employs unethical means, because its a confirmation of his method- do anything to achieve good outcomes. And that’s why he changes when Charmaine finds out Ka Ming’s death and does not blame Bowie- it confirms his sense of logic that survival is the only good outcome and that one can do anything to achieve this.

        This is one interpretation of course. I think Bowie plays the most conflicted character of the three.

  17. Kenny and Bowie doesn’t looks so convincing as rockers in the above poster, both their position looks rather stiff. And What the hell is Charmaine doing kneeling infront of the band?? (dont get me wrong, I’m not a charmaine’s hater, just dont like the position though).

    Maggie’s position looks the best in the poster imo.

    1. Ironically, Bowie is a professional drummer (he joined an amateur band when he’s 13, became semi-professional at 15 and work as drummer for a singer at 18) and Kenny has played band before in his school days. Moses is the one who learn guitar for the series.

      1. Moses has been playing guitar when young. So, all three do know guitars and drum.

    2. As much as this show talks about music, I think they intentionally toned down their band status to make it seem like they can be just any ordinary group of youths putting together a band.

      They were not even that good, and spent a good deal of time playing around. So it was about friendship and avoidance of adult responsibilities.

      I wouldn’t truly say they were “rockers”, these are guys you might know now as your accountant or your potbellied neighbor that works on your car occasionally that might have had “dreams” in their youth.

  18. My two cents worth since this is my favourite series of 2011:

    This is a very thoughtful review and I agree with some parts and also disagree with other parts but that’s the norm of things and also I think the hallmark of at least a watchable series that it should invite such polarizing opinions and discussions from the public. This is also imo what quality entertainment should be, and why TVB should at least try to produce more quality and well thought out series. They may not have to be exactly like WHB, they may in fact be the usual crowd-pleasing series like Moonlight Resonance but more well-planned and well-thought out (i.e. minus the rushed ending and ridiculous twist gimmicks and good character development).

    A great example would be Bottled Passion, another well-thought out and exceptional series with a more conventional plot and style. At least with these two series, TVB are heading in the right direction but sustaining it under pressure of the ‘housewives’ viewers and advertisers are another matter.

    I for one did not think that WHB was boring, in fact I thought it was well-paced and the style for me is refreshing and does not seem pretentious but is in fact creative and honest. The character development and the theme, for me at least, was conveyed in a complex and mature manner compared to other series. But that is just my opinion and one of the few advantages of the internet age is to have these forums where we can discuss and air our opinions freely and in a rational manner. Of course the series is not perfect and have flaws that can still be improved. But overall this is my favorite series of 2011 (now that it has finished airing) with Bottled Passion at a very very close second (in fact I should consider it a tie for the two series).

    But again that is just my two cents worth of opinion and should be taken with a grain salt. I am after all a viewer who also considers The ‘W’ File a favorite series of mine although the majority thinks that it is ridiculous crap I thought that the ridiculousness of the plot adds to the entertainment factor of that series (The ‘W’ File) so go figure. 🙂

    1. I like The ‘W’ File too. It’s very entertaining. I don’t remember finding it ridiculous though. It’s based on the Wisely novels which talk about mysterious happenings (brain wave channeling, aliens, time travel etc).

      1. Yeah, but this version is very loosely based on the Ni Kuang novels and I mean very loosely based. They adapted the main elements and characters and relocate it to another era and change around the backstory of the characters. The plot involving the deities or immortals and the Japanese using Southeast Asian black magic for world domination are frankly speaking, quite ridiculous for more serious-minded viewers but I like it just the same. It somehow fits into the context of the wholes series, but that’s just me 😉

      2. I do remember reading one Wisely novel involving deities. But, I might be wrong. It’s been years since I read a Wisely novel. I want to start on one, but, always got sidetrack.

  19. SDS
    I have to make my one comment on your reviews. Based on the several reviews that you wrote in the last few months, I found that you were more lenient and generous on ancient drama series, but more critical on modern ones. Am I right?

    You gave a 2-star rating on FH3 (which is a better series to me) and a 3-star rating on CRH (which is a poorly acted and produced one).

    1. Sandcherry,
      We can wait for SDS’ official reply on your question, but I also sense that he may have a different ruler stick in measuring different genres and series, based not only on the time period, but also the themes, actors, and material at hand. How well the series’ ability in fulfilling what it set out to do is important (which is why there is a different ruler stick for each series) and how the story evolves over time is quite important as well. Given the unique combination of variables at hand for each series (themes, genres, cast, script, etc.), it is difficult to evaluate using the same benchmarks all the time. It is like dining out at a French versus Indian restaurant; we will naturally have different benchmarks in evaluating the food.

      He already noted that “When Heaven Burns” deserved nods due to the deep themes and messages the series tried to develop, however given the subject matter, he felt that the execution (narrative, script, development etc) did not fully deliver the potential of the series nor did its collective results succeed on the mission it set to accomplish.

      I think SDS rates each series quite fairly; he takes into account a multi-set of variables and tries to take into account each factor somewhat equally into the final assessment. His reviews are quite technical, analyzing the strength of the story, the acting, and the more “literary devices” of the script, in which his overall assessment is well explained.

      In this review of “When Heaven Burns,” he pointed out that the series was a large departure from previous TVB series in several aspects, but despite the grand themes and look and feel of the series, he felt that the series did not possess a good overall execution, which is why he gave it 3 stars.

      1. Sometimes reviewer views a tv series, movie or book very differently from the mainstream viewers like us. It may be based on criteria from their accumulative experiences in viewing these forms of entertainment throughout the years and also from their knowledge via the technical and artistic aspects (most reviewers have educational background in their chosen field, i.e. literature, movie-making or script-writing).

        That’s what I’ve always try to put into context when reading reviews that I don’t wholeheartedly agree in and try to look at it from the reviewers’ point of view.

        The points the reviewers make when arriving at their conclusion (although not the same conclusion as mine) if well-written and well thought-out provides great fodder for thought and may also provide extra knowledge and info that I’m previously impervious to.

      2. @Jayne

        Can I hire you to be my spokesperson? I’ll pay double what you’re earning now 😛 You’re spot on like always!

      3. SDS,
        Your qualitative assessment (the part about the human condition) encouraged me to watch 1.5 episodes of WHB last night. It was enjoyable and I found Charmaine’s promiscous character interesting. Although I appreciate that the characters are a grade above standard caricatures and not talking 100 words per minute, i can see how such pacing may become a problem after awhile and such lifestyle habits of the characters may seem repititious, or how the dialogue’s structure, which may be engaging cryptic at moments, may seem unecessarily circumspect for people who wish for something more straightforward. So far, I like it primarily interested to see how Charmaine develops.

      4. @Jayne,

        There is a slight issue with the dialogue (as with Wong Kar Wai films) is that some of the stuff are not what ‘normal’ people would say. We don’t usually talk in riddles or employ sentence structures that form a larger arc of subtle meanings that contribute to some greater concept. There is a line you cross when what you start making characters speak like monks, and when you overdo it, it seems highly pretentious and somewhat disingenuous.

        Overall I thought WHB was too circumspect for its own good. However, I’m impressed I somehow motivated you to watch 1.5 episodes of it! I must be doing something right.

      5. SDS,
        “There is a slight issue with the dialogue (as with Wong Kar Wai films) is that some of the stuff are not what ‘normal’ people would say.”

        Some cryptic language can come across as artsy and poetic. It depends on how far you go. Wong Kar Wai is heavy on involving the viewer into being there with the characters, where the scene can just focus on swirling smoke or the characters’ breathing for long minutes of film. You have to be in the right mentality for it. I liked “In the Mood for Love” but I haven’t gotten around to watching too many of his films.

        I also feel that characters in TVB sitcoms “trash talk” too much, in which dialogue is 90% nonsense and 10% on topic (for their typical comedy filled with bantering scenes, where every pedestrian in a crowd will offer their opinion). This kind of dialogue is not realistic either and can be quite jarring and irritating. In small doses, it’s okay though.

      6. SDS,
        If time allows, I’ll try to watch a few more episodes of WHB to get a better flavor of the show. I like introspective topics too, provided a good point is made.

        Your writing is quite persuasive, didn’t you know? You have developed a fan following that looks forward to your upcoming reviews.

        In the first episode, I found Stanley Cheung and his friends to be a little overly chirpy though. Their rendition of one of Beyond’s classic songs was pretty bad too. Anyhow, I liked Charmaine’s character, a huge departure from her past roles, and it’s refreshing to see her in this bad girl role.

        So far, Bowie and Moses are a little too brooding for me. Kenny talks too much. Hehe Charmaine struck just the right chord. The characters seem to live too heavily in the past and carry too much burden in their hearts. From the comments I read, this constant intertwining of the past with the present may be a source of viewer annoyance?

      7. @Jayne

        Persuasive I don’t know, slightly funny maybe 🙂

        The flashbacks are annoying if you don’t appreciate why they are there as they occur throughout the series. Personally I think they help in this case but you might have to watch them chronologically as they are related to the ‘current time line’ of the narrative. There is a possible and BIG throw away flash back in the last few minutes of the series that may explain why Charmaine has not let go of Ka Ming over the years and has this pent up anger towards the other three leads.

      8. SDS,
        I can see that the ghost of Ka Ming will be making frequent appearances. Frankly, I am not too fond of series that intertwines too much of the past into the present, where time may be somewhat at a standstill. In which scenes may frequently reference one event, one occurrence and everyone talks about their feelings over that one event and one person from every possible angle. I foresee that happening in WHB and that was my initial reservation about watching the show.

        To add to the above point, if anyone has read the novel, “Atonement” by Ian McEwan, I was annoyed by the superfluous narrative (it came across as pretentious to me) and the central characters lives revolved heavily around one incident that shattered everyone’s lives. That one incident is heavily referenced throughout the novel, even decades later, and it grew tiring. I didn’t watch the film, but my comments were based on the novel, which I labored through (which a co-worker enthusiastically recommended so I felt like I had to read it).

      9. I saw and I read Atonement. I can only say the movie there can be no atonement since the ones that can forgive died before the one who seeks forgiveness can ask for atonement. She didn’t exactly did anything remotely to atoning for her sins. I didn’t like the movie but the young actress was rather good.

        I think Enduring Love is a better movie and a better book. Same author.

      10. What I meant is she can’t atone for that particular sin.

      11. Funn,
        Do you like Ian McEwan’s writing style? Based on “Atonement,” I felt he was overly superfluous in his narrative and the beginning of the book took especially long to build momentum. If his other books are written in the same manner, I don’t think I have the patience to read through it. Frankly, I was skipping quite a few pages in the beginning, until the life shattering event occurred.

      12. @ Jayne

        WHB won’t always flashback to the same point. Ka Ming will make constant appearance in the flashback, but, not always about him being eaten. The flashback give glimpses of their young days, slowly revealing their relationship and friendship with Ka Ming and the course of events that lead to them going to Snow Mountain. It’s a bit like the technique used in A Fistful of Stances. Tell 2 parallel stories in the series. Of course the major line is the adult story, but, from the flashback, we know some of their past.

      13. Kidd,
        Yes I realize from reading between the lines that Ka Ming will have many scenes opposite Charmaine, in which his spirit continues to live on and she will have many “what if” conversations with him (as indicated by the first episode) and the last episodes.

      14. @Jayne

        I think yes and no. While Ka Ming is the starting point of the series, he is neither the centrality nor the ending point. Ka Ming’s death is more of a plot device. The rest of WHB is about the characters dealing with the consequences in their own way and making sense of their world based on that event. The event itself takes a bit of a back seat, floating around in the back of their minds, and is eventually forgotten. The ‘event’ and its consequences can be considered an allegory if you watch the several themes into it. Otherwise WHB taken on face value is just one moment of brooding following another plus a lot of confusing developments.

      15. Jayne, I don’t particular love his writing or his style BUT I do like Enduring Love which is one book I finished. I did not rush to buy his other books as opposed to Robert Harris’. I can’t remember why I dislike his style but since I can’t remember the contents, it really means I didn’t like his style.

      16. @ Jayne

        You predict wrongly. Ka Ming will not have many scenes with Charmaine. In fact, the beginning and ending are the only scenes of Ka Ming conversion with adult Yan played by Charmaine. Yan did not talk with dead Ka Ming all the time in the series.

      17. Kidd,
        Okay thanks for setting me straight. Ka Ming appeared too chirpy for my taste hehe.

      18. Chirpy as in happy and positive or chirpy as in naive?

      19. Ka Ming is that sort of person. The producer chose Stanley because of his optimistic attitude.

      20. Jayne, I love Kim Tak Gu! I don’t like the makjang storyline, but I certainly like the character Tak Gu! A very positive and uplifting young man 🙂

      21. Jayne, Funn,

        Ka Ming may seems chirpy and naive, but from conversation he is definitely mature beyond his age. He knows what is hardship, ugliness of human but he prefer to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.

      22. Kidd,

        “Ka Ming is that sort of person. The producer chose Stanley because of his optimistic attitude.

        Hrmm..nice to hear that a TBB producer choosing the cast based on the character. Nice to hear that the producer and scriptwriter puts a lot of thoughts into a “character” too.

        From the talks here, this drama sounds to be written in as “character driven” instead of “plot driven”.

    2. @sandcherry

      I wrote a post up above regarding my rating system, its not a typical rating system in that it doesn’t really represent my conclusive opinion on the series, but rather an indication of what I think regarding whether a general audience should watch it and like it etc.

      I’ve reviewed 1 period (2.5), 2 ancient (both 3), 5 modern (2, 2.5, 3, 3, 3.5). I think the average is kinda 3ish which isn’t really lenient is it? I’m not sure, you be the judge.

      Without going in depth, I think FH3 is a total rehash of FH1 & 2 adding nothing new and even coming off worse as the characters have little to no personality. FH3 to me proves practice does not make perfect, in fact, practice can make things worse. In terms of CRH, I admit I don’t watch many palace series for comparisons sake, so I just went on what I got. There is a story in CRH, and it was conveyed coherently albeit the first 10epsides felt a little redundant. There was nothing overtly flawed unless there are any historical issues (but I will overlook these for TVB’s sake). I felt the series got better as it went on with some interesting turn of events and character dynamics. Personally I quite liked the incapable King, and I wish they would expand on that.

      However, as Jayne said, I tend to measure series differently each time because to use set criteria would require a lot of effort and even impossible because some series are just qualitatively different to others. Some earn points for different things in different places and deserve to be given a try for different reasons. Whilst some just strike me as inept like FH3 which was filmed on the same premise as the previous ones but came up with zero new flavor. Whilst the final product is watchable, it was only bearable for me.

      1. I’ll just note there’s probably a half star margin of error for some of my ratings in terms of which category they belong. Again, the stars are more of a ‘formal impression’ then a deeply meaningful summary analysis (as most people may have thought- the confusion is my fault though as I’m not giving stars in the way most people are accustomed)

      2. SDS
        Thanks for your prompt reply. I also agree with you that “FH3 is a total rehash of FH1 & 2 adding nothing new and even coming off worse as the characters have little to no personality. FH3 to me proves practice does not make perfect, in fact, practice can make things worse”. However, in terms of acting it is a good drama series though the storyline can be better.

        For drama series with a palace setting, CRH is surely not a good one. The cast is okay, but the acting is pretty bad, especially the queen and the empress dowager . The background is cheap and fake. We should never see the emperor, empress, queen, and concubines walking around the palace with only bring one maid or eunuch. Many times the king even walks around in the palace without any escorts. This should never happen in a palace. Moreover, the storyline is pretty boring as well, particularly the first 10-15 episodes. They are all about the infighting between the queen and全妃/鈕祜祿伊蘭. Therefore, I was surprised that you gave it a 3-star rating. The most it should get is a 2-star (based on my personal opinion only) rating.

        I know you wouldn’t like WHB because you mentioned in your previous review that it was a boring and slow-paced drama series. I agree, too, especially in the first 10 episodes. However, if you have time, watch WHB again with your full attention. I am sure you will notice the difference. This drama series requires a person’s concentration in order to appreciate the acting and conversations between the artistes. There are many messages and meanings from the conversations, scenes, and music. Watch it again when you have time. Never watch it in a rush or you will miss a lot of things.

        Thanks again, SDS. As I said, though I might not agree with you all the time in your reviews, I always enjoyed reading them. I also anxiously look forward to reading your new ones.

      3. @sandcherry

        Lets leave FH3 and CRH aside since I have memory lapse issues 😛

        Anyway contrary to what I’ve said in the review etc. and I guess what it may have led others to believe (including yourself), I actually quite like WHB not only because its something TVB has not done, but I like stories about introspection, human nature and philosophical ideas. I liked it enough to use a much higher bar to measure against, and it was unfortunate that I found certain flaws with it that reduced my overall appreciation, especially because the potential was there. In respect of entertainment factor, its neither here or there as solid commercial entertainment nor as a theoretical/academic/literary piece of work.

        It may depend on what the creators intended to achieve. Also it may depend on what meanings you received too. I for one saw too many meanings, hence why I said there is too much in the series, leaving it unfocused and slightly messy. All masterpieces require a lot of dot connecting by those of us who are not intelligent enough to create those masterpieces; but only those which are truly masterpieces deservedly require our strenuous effort to appreciate that the sum of its parts form a much more profound entirety. For what its worth, WHB presents many disparate ‘parts’ which yes while meaningful on its own, never come together to form any holistic view meanwhile the characters seem to have come to terms with some amorphous new self awareness. It neither offers an answer nor a perspective (I note the finale musings by Charmaine’s character on independence, difference and respect, while yes is a perspective, it is not one that was firmly entrenched in the series and steadily built up to- it was, while meaningful, felt rushed and slightly forced).

        Personally I prefer to view WHB as a series about friendship more than any other theme as it branched out far too wide than it could possibly accomplish. It is not enough many messages are conveyed, you have to convey them for a certain point. And that point appears to have been lost in the 30 episodes of plodding pace. Until next time… 🙂

  20. of course, there were parts that were boring, and some episodes seemed to move a bit slow. but if you really gave WHB all your attention while watching it, and listened to their conversations, noticed their expressions and movements, then i think you’d be able to appreciate it more. just like books, there’s more to it than the surface. you just have to learn how to look beneath the surface for what it’s really trying to convey. this is unlike the usual dramas where everything is told with no depth. i personally liked the way this ended, and its the first time in the longest time where i actually was content with the ending of a tvb drama.

  21. Agree with “purplepaw” in his/her comments. We have to watch WHB with our full concentration in order to appreciate it. We cannot even afford to miss one scene or a few conversations. This is a very atypical TVB drama series. Not everyone likes it, especially those who want to “watch and go”.

    1. I disagree. You can actually watch the first and last few mins of each episodes and still not miss anythibg lol

      1. Really?! Probably since if your purpose is to know what happened but the full series is required for why it happened. Frankly I maintain the series can be cut short.

      2. You will miss something that you wouldn’t even know. Besides, you will not be able to appreciate the drama series. You will only learn about the storyline and its developments. You will not be able to appreciate the good acting of the artistes.

        Try to watch the whole series again with your full attention, and you will notice the difference.

      3. I guess this all depends on what you mean by “miss anything big”. By that same token I can “watch” the 3/20 episodes of nearly every TVB production in 2011 and still understand the story line.

        In fact I “watched” an entire series something almost completely blind (while doing something else i.e. gaming, internet, chatting, eating, watching another show), it was so vague and uninspiring.

    2. Agreed with Sandcherry. Should watch the whole series of this drama to appreciate the ending.

      Love this ending,very cleverly done.

  22. Very enjoyable review – possibly more thought provoking at times than watching the series itself.

    I quite liked WHB. It’s a theme that hasn’t been explored by TVB before and was it felt quite new and fresh. The acting was good (no brand new Miss HK’s thank you!) and the young guys in the flashbacks were surprisingly good too. I do agree that the pacing was a little on the slow side though, especially the first ten or so episodes where it didn’t seem like anything was going anywhere. It did pick up a little but not before it lost a chunk of audience I would think. Definitely not a C Lai series and possibly too adventurous in both style and theme. The poor airing time and warehousing for 2 years didn’t help things though! Nor did the unfortunate abrupt exit of Chan Hung Lit’s character for obvious reasons. Brenda was my favourite character so it was a pity that her character probably wasn’t as fleshed out as it could originally have been.

    And young Charmaine was insanely irritating.

  23. I had watched it. I have to say it is quite boring but I stick to the end to see what so different from other series. The theme is new and rare but the storyline and dialogues are typical of Jonathan Chik or scriptwriter that works with Chik. You ask a question and the other people answer with a question. You say/ask one thing and the other person throw you with all the possible answers without answering you. Weird but it is suppose to sound deep and you have to analyze it.

    The ending was good, it wraps up the whole story. The ending is basically “what if” or like the ending song. I like how they show besides the three men made their big mistake by killing and eating Ka Ming, they also show that Yan also make a mistake that could have change all their lives… what if she turn around and not leave, then Ka Ming will not go to the mountain with the others and then the incident will not happen.

  24. Before it was broadcasted, I was looking forward to watch it. After watching the 1st episode I couldn’t stand it anymore. It was so boring. Hence, the low ratings.

  25. Definitely an honorable attempt at a multi-dimensional production; something we’ve been conditioned to not expect from hk tv series. This series needs to be watched with an attentive mind and a desire for thought and introspection as its symbolism and allegories can be easily missed since the execution felt disparate at times. Those who find it boring may change their minds if they watch the series again later in life … i felt the same way about WKW films when i first watched one in my early 20s; by my late 20s, i realized they were brilliant! WHB is a production that feels uniquely HK yet it’s themes are universal in endeavour. As the soul alludes to, it’s important to not lose our soul to the mainstream.

    1. oops i meant:

      As the series alludes to, it’s important to not lose our soul to the mainstream.

  26. WHB could be better in ranking if Chan Hung Lit not died during the filming ,his character George could be the main bad guy in WHB,the drama get boring a bit after his character gone ,however i hope moses character angnus went to jail with his crime and not just get away with it ,the 3 guy could get executed in China if Kenny really confess the crime ,murder.

  27. Ideally a good punch, it def. had potential. However the drama dragged & at times seemed to be trying too hard to be hip & modern. But the ending was nicely done- left an underlying bittersweet sadness but closure – could finally feel what the story had struggled to convey.

  28. I prefers the ending is something like it did not happened like the murder. It is all their imagination. Feel this series a bit draggy. I think this series like epic. Will be a classic. The actors is great. The script is okay-ish.

  29. I really enjoyed this drama. To me it was a very bold and artistic move by TVB. It has multi-layered themes about the human’s heart,mind and soul. I appreciate the values of how deep friendships can be through their passion for music. Spoke to me alot on how despite how much the people we know may have changed, for better or for worse, the mutual bonds we have made will bring us back together 🙂

  30. Btw does anybody know where i can find the instrumental music of the ending theme song? They play it quite often in scenes where they reminisce about good times etc..

  31. very excited at the beginning coz WHB seems artistic and have very interesting plot. But the way people say things are so unnatural which makes me feel bored and unable to swallow. If the script are written precisely, and a bit more naturally toned I think it will be success among most people.

    Like Charmaine Mosses and most cast, and truly a great theme song. Do you remember the secene when the three men painted lyrics on the wall? When music comes with Bowie’s voice, my head tilted from reading magazine to the tv “Awww so nice”

  32. “If the script is written precisely, and a bit more naturally toned I think it will be more successful among most people” ….. Agree.

    However, this kind of script makes people think more about the messages and meanings behind the scenes and from the conversations. It is a very different and new approach. Some people like it, while some people don’t.

  33. i thought this was pretty interesting story. the end certainly got my emotions going.

  34. Jayne says:

    “To add to the above point, if anyone has read the novel, “Atonement” by Ian McEwan, I was annoyed by the superfluous narrative (it came across as pretentious to me) and the central characters lives revolved heavily around one incident that shattered everyone’s lives. That one incident is heavily referenced throughout the novel, even decades later, and it grew tiring.”

    McEwan is among my favorite writers working today and I like Atonement a lot. I thought the narrative was adequate to the overarching theme of the novel and that one event was the whole point of the novel because after that event we don’t actually know if the war time events of the following chapter actually ‘happened’ of if it was written by the main character herself as a form of atonement.
    For me after reading through the final twist and going back and rereading the whole book again, the line between reality and fiction starts blurring at the commencement of the second chapter during the war. In fact, the whole book may have been the point of view of an ‘unreliable narrator’ even the ‘factual’ happenings in the first chapter. using the power of language and fiction is the only way the narrator knows to rearrange events to atone for her sins and help her at least retain a semblance of ‘letting go’ of the past.

  35. I enjoy watching this show because of Charmaine Sheh, I could see the really good acting skills in her! Shiok!

  36. I do not really care about the story; as I often leave it on as background.Though with the stars on the show especially Charmaine Sheh,it could go the distance for me.If you think I care about the ratings it doesn’t matter.

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