The Rise of the Phoenixes is a handsome, complex Chinese epic, but it’s built for 70 long episodes, and you can’t half tell.
Oh, look, Netflix is making my life difficult again. Here I was, quite looking forward to picking up a weekly show, especially one like The Rise of the Phoenixes, which emerges from the Middle Kingdom with an impressive creative pedigree, including Shen Yan and Liu Haibo as directors, and artistic direction and costuming courtesy of William Chang Suk-ping, who provided the same for The Grandmaster. But let it never be said that anything in my world is so straightforward. Today Netflix debuted the first fifteen episodes, with plans to deliver another 55 in the coming weeks. That’s a 70-episode season order, folks, which is somehow even more ridiculous than Undercover Law, although at least The Rise of the Phoenixes had the decency to only drop the first 15 at once rather than the whole lot.
This, then, is another first impressions piece, so take the score with a pinch of salt. But I’ve watched the first few episodes and can probably give an adequate suggestion of if you might like The Rise of the Phoenixes or not – providing, of course, you have enough time on your hands to sit through it.
And it can be a tough sit, let me tell you. Not that it’s bad – far from it. It’s actually exceedingly well-made and incredibly handsome, adapting a plot (loosely) from Huang Quan, a novel by Tianxia Guiyuan. But it’s a story designed to be told across 70 45-minute episodes, so the pace is glacial and there’s an awful lot of narrative and historical detail to establish before things get moving.
In some ways, it’s your typical meaty romantic drama, with plenty of royal intrigue and such, but it’s also steeped in ancient Chinese culture, with class and gender playing significant roles. Feng Zhi Wei, for instance, played by big-screen actress Ni Ni making her television debut, has to cross-dress as a man to protect her true identity.
But what really stands out about The Rise of the Phoenixes is atmosphere and attention to period detail, which will inevitably go over well with anyone who’s into such things. There are no shortage of such shows, even Mandarin-language ones, but none on Netflix quite like this; not crafted with this degree of patience, care and seriousness. This isn’t binge-watch material, and it isn’t a laidback time-killer – it’s a big, complex, grown-up story, rich in culture and period flourish, delivered by a talented creative team and performed by an enthusiastic cast. If that sounds like your kind of thing, put some time aside. Let me know how it shakes out.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.