Philosopher George Santayana (probably) said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It is one of the best-known aphorisms anywhere, and is therefore habitually mangled, usually as: “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
Which means certain Chinese television channels and production houses are obviously damned.
The King’s Woman, Princess Agents, Fighter of the Destiny, The Princess Weiyoung, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms, The Virtuous Queen of Han, Prince of Lan Ling … even for the most slavish lovers of blue-bloods, that represents royalty overload. It is also antiquity overkill, regardless of whether the storylines are really allegories masking contemporary comment.
So colourful they look like an explosion in a paint factory, these dazzling extravaganzas always engage the senses, but there are only so many magnificent gilt thrones, peacock feathers, gold-braid uniforms, lacquered screens and shimmering longpao a viewer can take. Likewise, only so many history, or inspired-by-history, or let’s-pretend-it’s-history yarns. So, where does that leave The Rise of Phoenixes, the lustrous Chinese series that recently made its Hong Kong entrance, via Netflix?
Adapted from the novel Huang Quan, by Tianxia Guiyuan, it’s another production propelled by its dressmakers. But, it’s also rebellion! It’s empire! It’s corruption, assassination, plague and a cumbersome title, at least in translation. (Why not Phoenix Rising? The Golden Phoenix? Boss Phoenix?)
It’s also confusing in its backstory, which is populated by walled cities in ruins, slaughtered infantry, political factions manoeuvring for position, floaty princesses, shifty-looking officials at court exposed as imperial spies (surprise!) and, touchingly, an exiled royal who’s made a pile of cash from “weaving fabric and doing embroidery”, as one dodgy nobleman puts it. “That’s a woman’s job!” says another. (Surely, this Easter egg is there for those hard-working costumiers.)
The Rise of Phoenixes’ extensive cast of scheming characters is embroiled, before the action even begins, in a convoluted story requiring comprehensive exposition as episode one rolls. But never mind, there are 70 instalments in which to work it all out … and that’s just the first series. It’s as though the history of imperial China is being re-enacted in real time. The first 15 episodes were made available in one go, which amounts to kill or extravagant cure for the hesitant viewer, with subsequent shows available on Fridays.
But history is written by the winners, and the makers of The Rise of Phoenixes are, according to some polls at least, onto a winner. The series is officially pitched as “a story of power, desire, lust and love among people from different kingdoms in ancient China, all with the desire of rising to become The Great Phoenix”. Birds of a politically and romantically grasping feather flocking together. What’s not to like, Señor Santayana?
If the big, bad world just seems too, well, big and bad, allow videographer Joerg Daiber to cut it down to cute toy-townscapes on Amazon Prime’s Little Big World, an ever-expanding, tilt-shift, time-lapse travel series. Take two- or three-minute hits of Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, Beijing and beyond, all looking like Lilliput come to life. Feel-good chuckles guaranteed, Gulliver.