Review: When Heaven Burns (TVB, 2011)

When Heaven Burns (天與地)
Genre: Modern Thriller/Horror
Length: 30 episodes
Producer: Jonathan Chik

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Cast

Bowie Lam as Joe aka Lau Chun-Hung
Moses Chan as Angus aka Sung Yee-Long
Kenny Wong as Ronnie aka Cheng Chun-Hin
Charmaine Sheh as Hazel aka Yip Chi-Yan
Maggie Shiu as Emma aka Yung Cheuk-Tung
Elaine Jin as Brenda aka Yung Cheuk-Wah

and Angela Tong, Astrid Chan, Cheung Kwok Keung, Queenie Chu, Timothy Cheng, Rachel Kan, Catherine Chau, Cindy Lee, Lau Don, Angel Chiang, Stanley Cheung, Ben Wong, etc.

Prior to Watching

When the trailer for this series came out in the sales presentation two years ago, most, if not everyone, expected this to be something different, something phenomenal, and possibly a breakthrough for a television broadcasting station that has become increasingly conservative mainly for financial reasons from a corporate perspective perhaps.

Besides, many seem to be excited for the return of Nick Cheung, whose workload has only increased since winning Best Actor at the prestigious Hong Kong Film Awards in 2008, and thus was not able to take part in this one. Others like myself, was more captivated by Sheren Tang’s court scene which was featured in the sales presentation clip too. (How disappointing was it that there was absolutely no court scene in the actual product?) The long-awaited series finally made its broadcast premiere in November after two years of being warehoused, but was it able to live up to our expectations? Taking a peek into the series elements, filming style, characterization, plot development (or lack of), metaphors involved, narration, execution, mood, and veterans’ performances, hopefully, we can come to a more thorough conclusion as to whether this is actually pretentious art or undigestible garbage.

Synopsis in Brief

The consequences of one’s future rests in the actions of one’s past perhaps. Eighteen years ago, four band members and friends were deserted in the snowy mountains; three friends cannibalized the other friend who was extremely ill at the time for survival purposes. For the next eighteen years following this incident, these three each lead a different lifestyle, suffers a different fate, and for survival adaptation perhaps, one experiences selective amnesia, one strives to fight for the workers’ compensation unconditionally, another uses and abuses everyone else around him to satisfy his corporate-climbing and monetary desires, while the female girlfriend of the group cut ties with the guys completely while silently mourning her boyfriend’s death… And what do you suppose goes through their minds everyday, psychologically?

Performances and Characterization

By now, is anyone else tired of Producer Chik casting the same old people in his series since the days of War and Beauty? Perhaps those glorious days of high ratings and well-received praises from the audience for that masterpiece is over. Just kidding, while Bowie, Charmaine, Elaine, KK Cheung, and Timothy fared well in this one (but I’ve always liked these artists in general), Moses, Kenny, and Angel (and maybe a few nameless others) were trying too hard to emote, don’t care to emote, or over-emoted, respectively.

Perhaps due to his subtle expressions, Producer Chik loves to cast him in his ambiguous work of arts. Bowie who seemingly has a straight face most of the time manages to have an outlet for his emotions just by moving his eyes or by moving his jaw.

While on vacation in Hawaii visiting her mother, Charmaine took a month’s time to get herself immersed in this unusual character with multiple, conflicting emotions. Paid off is her hard work (and of course, let’s not forget her wardrobe and haircut which only adds convincing value to her character). From her promiscuous bed moments with various men at random times in random settings to her deep-reminiscing about life radio program talks to more joyous bar hanging outs with her old buddies, the actress manages to express these emotions in a subtle manner, understanding the adult Yan and what she has gone through. She never shows too much happiness in Yan and balances that by displaying a hint of repression.

Elaine, KK Cheung, and Timothy delivers memorable enough performances, especially the latter whom I had a kick out of his dry, yet witty humor. Timothy’s (I believe he’s Ho Sir in the series, but can someone confirm or un-confirm?) quirkiness as a cop was never founded in TVB series from my memory and if more cops were like him, perhaps little kids wouldn’t be afraid of them anymore. Why? Because he is just random and fun. If you were Ronnie, you would one day come home and find him playing board games with your son. If you were Yan, you would find him dancing on your Rock Fest stage when it’s uncalled for. He can camouflage himself into something different every time at every new encounter, yet take his work seriously when the time calls for it. And it takes some maturity to know when to let go and when to take back.

And then we have the not so great: Moses, Kenny, and Angel. Not that the two veterans are necessarily “bad” in their performances, but they are rather boring, especially Kenny who seems rather lifeless even with his wife, daughter, and son by his side and having experienced selective amnesia, shouldn’t he be less exhaustive than the other two? For Moses, I really want to give him points for trying, but his emotions in drama just doesn’t go through me. Angel who has gained more press coverage due to playing the youth version of Yan was really no angel with her constant squeaky nagging on the boys and not very attractive face and hair, but let’s assume that most teens/ young adults are this way? Character aside, she resorted to the uninhibited style of simply yelling her lines.

Narration, Execution, and Mood

The narration and execution of this will probably drive most people to a confused state. It’s not the typical series in which one of the main characters simply reminisces the past and narrates it once and for all. Basically, we have flashbacks in almost every episode and at the most unexpected times. Returning to the present life, most of the time I have forgotten where they left off, or simply don’t really care. Also, many of the flashbacks seemed redundant and unnecessary, did little to enhance plot development, and most of the time it was just a batch of young friends bickering, arguing, reconciling, and then repeating the process over again in the next flashback. Perhaps the flashbacks were necessary to portray the full story, to give reasons as to why these friends valued their old times despite the many arguments and reconciliations they had. It was easy to let one’s emotions go astray when we’re little, but even easier to forgive and forget perhaps.

With HD television these days, everything generated by TVB seems to be high in saturation, making everything seem unreal, too bright, and fantasy-like. The contrast of a dark and gritty mood is metaphoric to the dark lives of these main characters. Whether it’s the police station and Timothy’s office in which he discuss important matters with his subordinates or the radio station’s open office or the pool room in Elaine’s gigantic mansion, the series offers a hint of mysteriousness, dimness, and perhaps pessimism.

Must emphasize is Moses’ large open office in his investment company; while the countless people working under him were never really introduced in the series, the jam-packed room, with more than just five employees gossiping (the usual standard in every TVB series), with computers running, phone calls coming in from every direction, and excessive yapping conveys a sense of desperateness by the quick-paced Hong Kong-ers who are eager to make a couple more bucks each day. Now, the directors never zoomed into the lives of these people, but the backdrop generated a realistic dimension as the CEO’s and managers (aka main characters) hurried from the elevator to their offices.

Aspects to Praise

Hazel’s narration and radio program philosophical talks regarding her perspective of life.

Each and every character appears to undergo their own psychological struggle, possess their own set of repressed desires, and have their imperfections. This only makes them human. How one handles it is one’s own choice.

Hazel and Bowman (Ben Wong) to root for as a couple. This is the time to screw everyone else when Bowman is the only man who treated the adult Yan right.

Good and unique characterization although there are more unlikable characters to hate than likable ones to root for.

Overall Appraisal

Characterization, a plus. Acting skills, a plus. Filming style, a plus. Witty and indirect dialogue, a plus. Plot execution/development, a minus. Enjoyment, a minus. Overall understanding of what the producer wants to portray, a minus. This was not what I expected; I wanted and needed more story development. It’s the type of series that despite being able to appreciate the artistic elements, characterization, good acting, film-style directing, and witty dialogue, I need to know where is all this going. What meaning does it bring? At the end, it only left me in a “so what?” attitude.

A grain of ambiguity creates desired mystery, but a bucket generates unwanted confusion. Thirty episodes in length to portray nothing seems too long. Maybe twenty episodes? It’s the type of series where characters are merely doing what they are suppose to be doing on a day-to-day basis, nothing spectacular, and completely trivial perhaps, but when it’s brought together, it’s suppose to mean something more.

Final Verdict

Definitely not for everyone. It appears more film-like than television-friendly as it’s quite difficult to go through thirty episodes or 22.5 hours of sitting in front of your television trying to analyze everything and understand everyone when all we’re given are images of different actors taken from different angles in deep thought. Remember to take off all your worries, bring in your patience, an open mind, an un-depleted amount of imagination, and an appreciation for “art” before you begin. And once you begin, you might want to finish it quickly before you no longer care what really happens — which embarrassed to say, that was kinda what happened to me.

Jue: I was excited to start this, but not motivated to finish it. By the time I reached episode 18, I was depleted of my energy to continue further. For the most part, my reason for almost discontinuing is that nothing was really happening although Charmaine’s narration of life’s philosophies was a continuing factor. Sadly, it wasn’t too frequent and not enough for ratings to pull in.

I will admit that I don’t know how to fully appreciate this series (if that was ever meant to be), however, this sort of ambiguity is also the reason why the series has the potential for more, deeper discussions compared to the usualness of ‘how you like this character and that character’ or simply judging whether or not he/she is suitable for their respective roles.

What do you all think about this series? Is it your cup of tea? I really want to hear your thoughts and what you liked and disliked about this one. Did anyone understand it (more than I did) or simply appreciated the changes and switch ups compared to the usual TVB series? Do share your views!

A compilation of my favorite quotes from When Heaven Burns will be posted soon. Stay tuned!


One thought on “Review: When Heaven Burns (TVB, 2011)

  1. i really enjoyed reading your review!! I had a lot of mixed feelings for this series…i was really cautious of starting it at first mostly for the fear of too graphic scenes…thankfully there wasn’t tooo many LOL but i also didn’t want to watch it because I, too, was sick of the same group of actors, and personally am not a big fan of any of them…but from all the hype that was created, i really wanted to watch it
    after the first two or so episodes, i just didn’t have enough patience to analyze everything and wanted to stop, but at the same time, it was so mysterious and words were rarely used to explain certain scenes that it just kept me wanting more and finding answers, so i guess what i’m trying to say is that even though i didn’t quite enjoy the series too much and didn’t like sitting through 30 episodes trying to figure it out…surprisingly i finished the entire series because i wanted answers hahah. but yeah, i just want to say i agreed with a lot of what you wrote and i guess the one thin i did enjoy for sure was hazel’s monologues on the radio, those actually had depth to it and bought out a lot of good insight 🙂 hahah but yeah, thanks again for your review!! i was wondering what others thought of the series!


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