Yu On On
Yeung Jak Lam
I am not a Chinese history expert, so I cannot pinpoint the factual elements in this series, but it impressed me greatly, and to say that it is the classic historical drama is not very far out. From the cast to plot, from costumes to settings, the series is as perfect as it could be.
Unlike other series of the same theme, this serial explored further the events after the invasion of Manchu such as the siege of Yangzhou. As a result, it seemed very convincing and original. Moreover, the series told of the history through many aspects from different individuals or groups. It certainly prompted me to do a lot of thinking after each episode.
The plot seemed to be divided into three periods - about the ending of Ming Dynasty, the Li Zi Cheng story, and the invasion of the Manchus.
The Ming Dynasty
This part was the greatest for it conveyed so well of the Imperial affairs at the time. I couldn't help feeling sorry for the emperor. Despite his weakness and many faults, he sincerely had good intentions toward his people and nation. One could sense his anguish of failing to protect his country from the rebels, and although he might have made many wrong decisions, he was a loving father and a compassionate ruler.
This section introduced all major characters, and as the story proceeded, we saw each character's development. Although the Ming was destroyed in the end, the happy mood of this part was in stark contrast to later episodes.
One of the highlights was the killing of the evil eunuch. I actually applauded while watching this scene, for it seemed almost an impossible mission. Unfortunately, the eunuch's adopted son lived on to be the second villain. This new villain was the more gruesome because he had such guileless eyes and sweet expressions.
Michelle Mei as Princess Chang Ping was very beautiful, fragile yet clever, and Yu On On as the second princess was equally beautiful -- no wonder that they were admired by the three men. David Jiang at this beginning was an arrogant, highly skilled man with a deep knowledge of music, whereas Damian Lau's character was portrayed as a humble and intellectual scholar whose loyalty to Ming never wavered. These four characters were vivid and distinguished from one another. In addition, Yeung Jak Lam excellently played the role of a lovesick Wu San Gui who later betrayed his country out of vengeance.
I was kept on edge at the beginning of the series, hoping that the evil eunuch would get kill soon. Then afterward, I was sort of hoping that the two princesses would come out all right in spite of the actual facts in history.
The Story of Li Zi Cheng
This section had the weakest plot in all. I am rather disappointed that Li Zi Cheng was put in too favorable light. He was portrayed as a righteous man and was not blamed for any crimes that happened after his entering the capital. Even his closest consultant's
death was due to the ultimate villain of the story instead of by his hands as was indicated in the history books.
Chen Yuan Yuan's image was also different from that of other series' even though it was rather a refreshing approach. Wu San Gui was also provided with good excuses in letting the Manchus into China, and looking back to the earlier episodes, one could understand the psychology behind his betrayal. Essentially, Wu was a weak man. He lacked the determination that existed in Damian's character, and the pride that David's character had. Being a soldier without an army, he kept on staying in the palace only hoping to get a glimpse of the second princess (Yu On On) everyday.
Then after her death, he lost his mind and became well again after meeting Chen Yuan Yuan (Yu On On). In my opinion, however much he loved her, it was due to her looks, not her character or other qualities. Therefore, he lived in doubt when she fell into the rebels' hands.
In contrast, Princess Chang Ping and her Fu Ma (Prince Consort) although had not declared their love for each other, the chemistry between the two was evident every time they were together. Michelle Mei and Damian Lau relayed their emotions through body language very well, and although their marriage was based on political reasons, one was relieved to find that the couple indeed had some feeling for each other.
Despite my displeasure with the rebels for the cause of the end of Ming, I couldn't help admiring Old Liu's courageous. He reminded me of Zhang Fei of 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms', for he was rash and not very smart but sincere and honest to friends.
The Beginning of the Qing Dynasty
The important event in this section was the massacre of Yangzhou. I don't know how accurate it was according to the actual history, but it did serve a purpose of showing the conflict between Ming's subjects and the Qing government. There were some interesting details; for example, it showed people to shave their heads according to the new law. Also, we would see how the country slowly transferred from Ming into Qing through costumes.
As episodes flew by, I felt restless to see that the main villain, Eunuch Cao's foster son, survived and thrived on. Without a question, he was disgustingly bad through the core, and I would prefer to think of his love for his foster father was more of an unhealthy obsession. It was at least one consolation that he looked very weird in the Manchurian yellow robe with an oversized white wig. The actor who portrayed this character did a very good job, and it was possible that he had some martial arts training before too.
Wu San Gui had utterly become a 'traitor' of the Ming Dynasty by now. He was no longer motivated to work for the Manchus, not because of Chen Yuan Yuan but because of the power he could receive from them. Therefore, the ending was rather befitting him as if it was his punishment from heaven.
I like David Jiang's character better although his garbs might look duller and he looked a bit more haggard. The character had matured into a real 'dai-hup' for he finally could let go of his hatred for the emperor and actually helped Princess Chang Ping for the higher cause.
His love for her was an opposite to that of Wu San Gui's for it was deeper and based on friendship, not on mere looks. I doubt that he would love any woman with just Chang Ping's look because he admired her for intelligence and integrity. That's why he would remain friends with her even after realizing that he had no place in her heart.
On the same token, although Michelle Mei might look less pretty in black outfits, she still looked regal and was the same princess in any situation. One could hardly expect her to travel around and save people in her princess robe.
Michelle Mei was very superb as Princess Chang Ping. She had grace and ancient beauty that matched the character to the T. I prefer Yu On On as the second princess rather than as Chen Yuan Yuan. Maybe it was because I have just finished watching the series 'Reincarnated'; therefore, every intimate scene between her as Yuan Yuan and Yueng Jak Lam as Wu San Gui was a bit no-no to me.
As for David Jiang, I have heard of him a lot from my seniors and only knew him in recent series. Compared to then, he definitely looked more dashing and handsome in this series. But what awed me the most was his martial arts ability. From the scenes, I believe that he did most of the fighting sequences himself. In fact, every male artiste was very convincing in the fighting scenes, which resulted in a tone of authenticity in the series.
Other support characters were equally great, especially the musician. This was at least one serial that the audience could see the musical instrument and its player at the same time. Minor characters had their own stories and showed development in their personalities as well along with the story.
It is probably the fashion of film making at the time that many scenes on the trailer were different from those in the actual episodes such as Princess Chang Ping’s wedding.
On Ending (Possible SPOILER!)
By the last fifteen episodes, the audience was certain of the sad ending. I felt that it was too tragic and a waste of good characters. Why couldn't Chang Ping live on and became a nun? How come everyone ended up dying so unnecessarily such as the musician and Bao-er? But at least, David Jiang’s character lived, and the villain died at the end.
This is one series that I wish for a happier ending. Nonetheless, the conclusion was quite impressive and in a way showed a cycle of sin. It was ironic that Wu San Gui worked for the Manchus because of Chen Yuan Yuan but ended up being responsible for her death due to his loyalty to the Manchus. Just make sure that you have plenty of tissues nearby. This series was not showered with so many tears from artistes' eyes, yet the audience felt the pains and sorrows of the characters. For an example, David's character shed a drop of tear as he listened to the song about blood debts, and it was enough for the viewer to understand his anger and sadness.
As a TV series, it has certain flaws just like others, but beyond that, it offers a valuable lesson on war. It reminds one that no matter whichever side is right, whoever wins, in the end, death and suffering of common citizens is certain and unavoidable. Such is the truth regardless of the place and time; war could only end up in destruction. And that, I think the series deserves more than 5 rating.
The indoor settings were well designed, and the outdoor scenery was magnificent. In addition, the costumes and hairdos of the two princesses were gorgeous -- something that is hard to see in the nowadays' series. In short, this is one good production, and I would highly recommend it to the viewers. Buying the series is probably better than renting it for it is not a regular entertaining serial. The viewers might need time to get in tune with all the emotions from the episodes. It is also a well-done series to add in your collection as it depicts values of heroism, courageous, righteous, and peace.
I heard that TVB is making a series of the same title and am curious to see how it will turn out. Hopefully, TVB will try to approach the story differently for it is probably impossible to produce such grand and good serials like this one, not to say that Michelle Mei was truly the one and only Princess Chang Ping in my opinion.