Better Halves

Reviewed by: CMU_Wasabi

September 08, 2003

Rating: four-point-five

Chuen Ka Fok - Steven Ma Chun Wai
Lien Bak Hap - Maggie Cheung Ho Yee
LingWu Hei - Joyce Koi Ming Fai
Ko Fei - Moses Chan Ho
Sang Seung Seung - Cerina da Graca
Ping On - Auguste Kwan Tak Fai

I don't think TVB has ever done a costume comedy about matchmakers before. There is a Cantonese saying: Not being a matchmaker means good for three generations of your family. So has this series meant good for TVB, the cast, and the viewing public? Supposedly the ratings for this series in HK were not that great. But it did win a lot of praise for the cast and crew. In my opinion, the series, along with Square Pegs, were among the best comedic works that TVB's Drama Department has churned out in the past few years.

Set in the Tang Dynasty, the series, in a nutshell, revolves around the lives and business of three matchmakers - Chuen Ka Fok (sounds like a family photo), Lien Bak Hap and LingWu Hei. Ka Fok and Bak Hap are private matchmakers, while Hei is descended from a line of matchmaking officials. Essentially, the LingWu family men are appointed to watch over the dealings of the private matchmakers to make sure they do not break the laws of marriage and they preside over the legal documents of marriage. I'm wondering how historically accurate this is, in regards to Government Official matchmakers. But anyways, the LingWu family meets with a problem at LingWu Hei's generation. All the children are girls. Therefore, Mr. LingWu's first wife lied to him when Hei was born that she was a he (classic comedy line) and even Hei's birth mother doesn't know it. Hei eventually grows up raised as a boy and heads the LingWu household. Of course, her confusing identity causes her problems and headaches as she meets a guy named Ko Fei, who is a lovesick swordsman with a keen eye (ahem, yeah right). Ka Fok's father is a compulsive gambler. He lost so much money that he had to literally "sell" his son to the Lien family, arranging a marriage between Ka Fok and Bak Hap. Not wanting to be arranged into a marriage he did not agree to and being misled by his father that it was the Liens who forced him into this, Ka Fok leaves home with his uncle Ping On and changes his name to Tang Chung Man. Inspired to play "Cupid" by his own situation, Ka Fok becomes a matchmaker to get by, only to meet with Bak Hap years later and to become her rival in the matchmaking field in Chang An. The bickering two goes from being fierce rivals to business partners, pairing up couples with witty schemes. But can these matchmakers match themselves up when they find that they have fallen for each other? Like a classic TVB comedy series, guess what kind of ending it is?

I found that the screenwriters for the series added a lot of modern concepts into the script. The matchmaking company is virtually the equivalent of today's bridal store one finds in Hong Kong, all except that we today do not do the matchmaking. All the advertising, sponsorship, and what-not that Ka Fok and Bak Hap thinks of is exactly like how people do business today. I really liked the costuming of this series, especially the headpieces of the ladies. This goes to show that all the complaints about the reusing of costumes over and over have finally gotten through to TVB. A thing that I did not particularly like about this series was that it was rushed. All the matchmaking cases were compacted into about 1-2 episodes each and it left me with the feeling of “Wow, it’s over already?”

On the matchmakers....
Steven Ma - His performance in Better Halves has got to be one of his best ever. He really portrays Chuen Ka Fok's pettiness and wit right down to a T. All the other roles that he played in the past (i.e. Where the Legend Begins, Perish in the Name of Love, and even On the Track or Off) were not suitable for him. Chuen Ka Fok, however, was probably one of the more non-boring roles Steven has portrayed. I was really getting tired of him playing roles like the one in Where the Legend Begins and I was really waiting for him to surprise the audience with a new thing. His portrayal of Chuen Ka Fok did just that. In fact, Better Halves is the first series which actually made me appreciate him as an actor. The role of Chuen Ka Fok suits him extremely well and I hope that Steven is cast into similar roles later on. (Grade: A)

Maggie Cheung - In most series I have seen her in, she is often cast into roles which are a little bit on the serious side. The role of Lien Bak Hap is comical, petty, arrogant - in other words, very un-Maggie like. In Cantonese, you could classify this character as a Bat Po (an "8 woman"). Her performance shows that she is truly a well-rounded and versatile actress. She is able to handle this role very well. If this role had fallen into the hands of a bad actress, the character of Lien Bak Hap would not have been very likable. The chemistry between Maggie and Steven is truly remarkable. I haven't really seen this type of interaction between her and her other co-stars, and vice-versa. But the constant bickering between Bak Hap and Ka Fok is truly old story, and sometimes it can get quite annoying watching them carry on like this for most of the series, wondering when they'll finally be true to each other. (Grade: A+)

Joyce Koi - Ok, once again TVB does not do her justice. Joyce, in my opinion, is a really good actress, but it just makes me mad that TVB always decides to typecast her in 'guy' roles simply because she does her stage performances in guy roles. And no, she is NOT really a guy - she does look like a woman in real life. Her makeup and wardrobe were designed really terribly, which just puts a discount in the whole grade. But all that aside, I felt that Joyce did an excellent job as LingWu Hei. Her performance here was a far cry from her performances in previous series. LingWu Hei is probably the character I most admire in the entire series. In the end, she chooses her family and takes responsibility for her actions over love. I mean the pressure that this character has to deal with her entire life, living a lie. Being the leading female characters in this series, she and Bak Hap are just complete opposites. Bak Hap is very expressive and her actions sometimes go overboard, while Ah Hei keeps most of her emotions to herself; possibly due to the fact that she was raised to deal with people of the government and bureaucracies most of her life. Therefore, I disagree with most comments that Joyce is expressionless in this series - LingWu Hei is mostly expressionless and very reserved. I felt that Joyce had gotten the character just right. But I really just wish that TVB would not typecast her ever again. (Grade A-)

Moses Chan - This guy made me crack up a lot in here. Not because he tried to be funny like Steven Ma, but because of his stone-faced expressions and his one-liners. Every time he recites that poem (as if it's the only one he knows), I would roll my eyes and apparently the people in the series couldn't stand it either. There was this scene that I recall when he was holding two coconuts to his chest and started to recite, with that expressionless face on him. I almost fell off my chair watching it. I'm surprised that Moses didn't laugh out loud himself. I felt the character of Ko Fei was just too good to be true. I mean he was good at kung-fu, good at literary works, could recite the Tang laws and regulations just as fluently as LingWu Hei, observant and keen at most things, and a true gentleman. He was perfect other than the fact that he was like a block of wood most of the times (re: the acting thing he did with Bak Hap in Episode 17). Back to the fact that he was observant and keen on most matters, if he was so good at detective work, why on earth did he not know that LingWu Hei was a she? It just didn't make sense to me that he hadn't noticed it all along. It was both hilarious and sad to see him realize that he had fallen for Ah Hei, but Ko Fei had thought Ah Hei was a he. I mean this sort of "Man of all men" thought he was gay. So I guess all people have their flaws here and there. I felt that Moses had improved a lot since I last saw him in Where the Legend Begins, at least he was more natural when reciting lines in a costume drama. When this series first started filming and he was cast opposite Joyce, I was quite surprised at TVB's move. I mean they don't really match in my opinion back then. But as I got through the series, it was surprisingly comfortable to see these two as a pair. The chemistry is there between Moses and Joyce, in fact it was there between all members of the cast. (Grade: A-)

Cerina Da Graca – Cerina, being fresh off her run in the Miss HK pageant, was immediately cast as Sang Seung Seung in this series. Seung Seung is a simple character – strong, has a big appetite, adorable, and naïve. Seung Seung is one of the many factors that kept Ka Fok and Bak Hap from each other throughout the second half of the series. Then the screenwriters manage to stick her with Ping On in the end, which obviously showed how the screenwriters were rushing to close. I felt that Cerina did an average job, which is not bad for her acting debut, but I felt that she was quite unnatural in her role sometimes. Given the fact that her primary language is English and not Cantonese, she seems to try very hard at making everything sound correct, which made her acting seemed very awkward. Cerina definitely has room for improvement and I hope to see that in the future. (Grade: B-)

Auguste Kwan – The character of Ping On is a really adorable one. First of all, he acts like he is seven years old due to a childhood trauma. You’d think he would be slow and stupid, but he turns out to be brilliant at times with his inventions and photographic memory. So is he stupid or is he not? That is what makes Ping On adorable - he’s like a smart little kid. This is actually the first time I’ve seen Auguste in a series and there is just this uncanny resemblance between him and Aaron Kwok. Sometimes, I think he was just channeling him. Ping On is a relatively easy role to play and I don’t think it presented a challenge to Auguste. But I felt that there is room to improve on his Cantonese. (Grade B)

My favorite couple in this series? Hard to decide on Ka Fok/Bak Hap or Ah Hei/Ko Fei. Both pairs I adore for different reasons. A good thing about this series was that nobody in particular annoyed me so much that I literally had to leave the room every time he/she came out. The exception was maybe Ah Hei’s birth mother and Bak Hap’s father. Other than that, the entire cast was just so adorable.

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