[Review] The Rise of Phoenixes

If you’ve ever read reviews about the Rise of Phoenixes on rating sites and forums, people will most likely comment it to be “Almost as good as Nirvana in Fire”. Considering how NIF is such a masterpiece, this is actually a compliment. Sadly, in terms of commercial success, the drama was no where nearly as successful and as popular as Nirvana in Fire was. Nevertheless, The Rise of Phoenixes is one of the best underrated Chinese historical dramas out there.

Title: The Rise of Phoenixes (天盛长歌)
# of episodes: 70
Release date: August 14, 2018
Where to watchNetflix (eng sub); 

BEWARE OF SPOILERS!!! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Synopsis

The Rise of Phoenixes is an intense political drama set in the early years of the fictional Tiansheng dynasty. The story follows the 6th prince, Ning Yi, and the princess of the previous dynasty, Feng Zhiwei. Ning Yi is highly intelligent and ambitious. Yet, he puts up a carefree front to wait for an opportunity to strike back to those who had falsely accused his brother, Prince Ning Qiao. Meanwhile, Feng Zhiwei is desperate to save her mother, leading her to crossdress and eventually enters the palace as an official. From complete strangers, they start protecting and supporting each other in the treacherous palace, then eventually fall in love.

Story: 8/10

If you love political intrigue, no doubt the Rise of Phoenixes will be a great show. Expect complex political schemes, bloody battles between the princes, and different nation-states vying for power. It’s definitely one of those shows that you can’t really fast forward. Despite a great plot, the Rise of Phoenixes can be hard to get into, especially with a slow beginning. It’s definitely not the drama for everyone.

Although the story is great overall with several climaxes and twists to get you hooked, it is sadly flawed. In Nirvana in Fire, you can see how every single scenes explain what will come up next. Everything intertwines together to form a very intricate plot. This subtlety and careful planning is somewhat lacking in The Rise of Phoenixes. Some scenes are redundant, whereas numerous important scenes are cut-off, especially in the last 10 episodes. I blame Chinese censorship for the missing scenes, rather than the production team, because online there are several very good scenes such as the emperor abdicating to Ning Yi, but they are all edited out. Uneven pacing and the deleted important scenes are probably the biggest flaws of this dramas.

There are many “strange” and unexplained details in TROP that made you scratch your head. For example, the misunderstandings between Zhiwei and Ning Yi in the last few episodes feel off. They’re too intelligent for those stupid tricks. Or the bit where Ning Yi and the Emperor’s health are literally connected? Is it even necessary? Somehow we just got magic in this drama? And who the hell is Zhiwei’s bodyguard, Nanyi?

Acting: 9/10

It’s very rare that you see viewers’ reaction split so much for the acting of a drama. On one spectrum, people commented it to be “phenomenal”. On the other, many viewers expressed that they dropped the dramas because of “weird acting”, especially Chen Kun’s performance of Ning Yi.

Personally, I loved the acting of this drama, both Chen Kun and Ni Ni’s. I can also see why people may dislike Chen Kun’s acting because it is completely different from what we normally see on the small screen. Ning Yi is passionate, calculative, and most of all, he is dramatic. In one interview, Chen Kun mentions his interpretation for Ning Yi as “a drama queen, like his father” For me, this interpretation makes perfect sense because (1) it leaves a strong impression on the viewers (2) Ning Yi lost all the people who are important to him at a young age and was locked up alone for a long time, it’s understandable that he’s a bit unstable. Precisely thanks to this strong dramatic acting, the character of Ning Yi remains so vividly in my memory for a long time after I finished the shows.

As for Ni Ni’s acting, her performance is very convincing that you can really see the changes in the character Feng Zhiwei. In the beginning, she was just a nobody, an unfavored niece living in her rich uncle’s house, with a thirst for knowledge. As such, she is boyish and intelligent, yet naive. Fast-forward to the later half of the series, Zhiwei now is aware all the palace conspiracies and has become more prudent in her actions and words. Her gestures and overall atmosphere also transform from boyish to elegant and mature. These changes are so natural that you probably won’t even notice while watching. This is why I think Feng Zhiwei is one of the best strong female characters in Chinese historical dramas.

For a drama that has so few romantic scenes and kisses, the chemistry is incredible. You can sense the love the characters have for each other just by their expressions and their eyes. I love their chemistry so much that the sad ending was devastating for me. My heart ached for several weeks after watching.

The supporting cast gives a convincing performance too. Thankfully, no crazy jealous women here (but there’s a spoiled princess). I’m particularly impressed with the actor who played the Emperor. He’s probably the most interesting emperor I’ve seen, playing out well the complex and unpredictable mentality of an emperor.

Production Quality: 10/10

The production quality of The Rise of Phoenixes was indeed very impressive. I remember thinking to myself, since when Chinese dramas has gotten this beautiful? Unlike everyone else, I watched TROP first before watching Nirvana In Fire. Coming from TROP, even NIF looked a bit cheap in terms of costumes and sets (the filming itself is beautiful though). The soundtrack also goes well and succeeds in building the tension of the drama.

Overall: 9/10

Although there are many serious flaws with the story, at the end of the day you don’t really care. The amazing acting, high production quality, and engaging plot more make up for that.

If you like Ni Ni (the actress who plays Feng Zhiwei), she has a new drama called Love and Destiny, which is a spin-off of the 2017 hit series Eternal Love (aka Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms). It’s amazing to see how she has completely transformed from the capable Feng Zhiwei to the innocent and cute Ling Xi!