A Journey Called Life

Reviewed by: Bridget

November 30, 2009

Rating: four-point-five

Chinese Title: Kam Sek Leung Yuen
No. of episodes: 20
Theme song: Steven Ma and Linda Chung

Steven Ma as On
Linda Chung as Ka Ka
Kent Chan as Fatty Boss
Fala Chen as Sum (sister to Steven)
Helena Wong as Moon (sister to Steven)
Raymond Cho as “Bad Boy”
Steven Wong as Hing
Mary Hon as Steven’s mother
Ngo Ka Kin as stepbrother to Ka Ka
Elaine Yiu as Hana

Aptly named, emotionally involving, and socially relevant, A Journey Called Life (JLC) is one of those rare series that creeps up on you when you least expect it. Forget the “Heart of Greeds” and “Gems of Life”, this is possibly one of my favourite TVB series of all time, and we all know how short that list is.


Not many Asian series have dared to look at the dark side of society and the consequences of single-parent / dysfunctional families (I’m not talking about the corporate / rich-family drama that has plagued TVB for years). Of the ones that have, most morph into a sitcom at one point of another (The Family Man), or more often than not, into an after-school “kids, this is bad” special (My Family). Some others lose sight of what they were trying to communicate in the first place (La Femme Desperado). Only a select few have really succeeded without being overly preachy or just downright cheesy. One example is Taiwan’s Mars, which caught me completely off guard and sent me bawling at the end of it.

JLC, however, differs from Mars in that it manages to teach life lessons without seeming like it is, presents ugly realities, but still manages to be uplifting when all is said and done.

The series, however, is not without its flaws. It could have easily done away with the cheesy marathon storyline. In a way it is too ambitious in the scope of issues it tackles (teen pregnancy, abortion, STIs, drugs, single-parent families, and gambling problems, just to name a few), but at the same time, often these things are interrelated in real life. Some of the ways it resolves the problems are also too good to be true, as in Moon’s case when she gets pregnant. I would have preferred to watch her struggle through single-parent motherhood or at the very least show the difficulty of teen motherhood even if she can stay in school and is married to a decent guy. These flaws are generally outweighed by the realistic way the other problems are dealt with, such as Kaka’s difficulty getting pregnant because of the abortion she had in the past, and Hana’s and Sum’s deaths.

This series proves that TVB still has the touch when it comes to good scriptwriting. Ironically, it’s the general HK public/audience that feeds the relentless production of the Moonlight Resonances of the world (drama drama drama with little continuity and character development) because they simply do not care about lack of plot continuity and character development.

But I digress. This is one good series.

Characters & Performances

Steven Ma / On

Created in the mold of characters such as Hard Fate’s Ka Wing (Kevin Cheng) and Vigilante Force‘s Fong Nga Chai (Bowie Lam), On is one of those characters that risks being boring but on closer inspection, the story is really centred around him. He is the motivation behind Kaka’s transformation, the pillar of strength in his family, and his relationship with his mentor/father figure is at the core of the story. In many ways he seems perfect but he’s not; he’s uneducated, in a field that is considered taboo, and comes off as totally boring. But really he is not. Sometimes he is ruled by his emotions, like when his unborn child dies because of Sum, he angrily dismisses her and cuts ties off with her. The reason he is interesting as a character is because he is truly a good man to the core.

I’ve always thought that audiences have been indifferent to Steven (myself included). We neither hate him nor love him. He can do both ancient and modern series, is a decent actor, isn’t bad-looking, and looks good with a lot of of his female co-stars but he just is majorly missing that “it”, the “it” you can’t learn, the “it” you can’t teach, otherwise known as charisma. Based on his repertoire, I’m pretty sure TVB has figured this out too. I like him enough but I won’t watch a series just for him, let’s put it at that. This role is probably Steven’s most challenging to date. He is in a character that starts off as simple and goes through major emotional roller-coasters. Steven was well-cast in this role. He’s got the “honest good man” look nailed, emotes surprisingly well in the dramatic scenes and shows his acting chops in the hospital scenes with Linda. The one flaw in his performance was later when he is supposed to look depressed, he didn’t look depressed enough. Overall, though, a very good performance and my favourite of Steven’s to date.

Kent Cheng

One of the very few actors who is able to walk the fine line between comedy and drama at the right moments (the others being Bobby Au-Yeung and to a certain extent Nick Cheung). His chemistry with the entire cast is phenomenal and indicative of an actor of his calibre. I suspect the little mannerisms and expressions of Fatty (“are you having an aneurysm?” “so bad”, etc.) are additions by the actor himself and not part of the original script. This really added to the character. His relationship with On is fun to watch and very compelling, as is his interaction with Linda. Strongest performance of the series.

Linda Chung / Kaka

Many have said that Linda’s performance in Heart of Greed was her breakthrough role, and I originally agreed until watching her in JLC. While on the surface Ka Ka is similar to Elise from The Gem of Life, one major difference is that Elise makes absolutely no sense as a character. Though I am a Linda fan, I did not like her performance at all as Elise. I thought it was too over-the-top. How ironic that she is heaps better in JLC, which she filmed 2 years before Gem.

Kaka is much more well-written and for once TVB developed a character from end to end. Her anguish at the death of Hana and her baby, her temper, her disappointment at her father, her rage towards her step-mother are all real and make sense. I also like that though she goes through her transformation from bad-to-good girl, she still retains her edginess when necessary (i.e. telling Sum’s boyfriend off). This is one of many realistic elements of this series. One of the less realistic elements is how she fell in love with On.

That aside, I think Linda had a great time playing this character and it really shows. I take great joy in watching an actor excel in a character that is so different from their real-life image. Linda really threw away her innate gentleness and femininity to portray this role. She is fantastic in the earlier episodes where we see Kaka’s less-than-rosy past and shows some serious acting chops in the latter emotional scenes. She has many great moments in this series and as a whole really breathed life into this character. I think she really deserved her Best Actress nomination that year. I was also surprised that she has incredible chemistry with Steven Ma: they look compatible despite their real-life age difference and their interaction is rather romantic. Despite the fact that I’m a Rayda shipper, I really enjoyed watching this couple. An excellent performance overall and Linda’s best to date.

Fala Chen

Some may think Sum’s death at the end was just for shock value, but I see it more as poetic justice. It is indeed her fault that Kaka lost her baby. For once I am happy that TVB took the unconventional route in terms of Sum’s fate, as I was expecting her just to go to jail for drunk driving.

Fala…I can’t figure her out. What’s with her accent? It’s like a hybrid of American Chinese and Mainland Chinese. Her accent is beyond distracting, which is why the only performance I’ve only liked from her is Moonlight Resononance where she portrayed a mute. Accent aside, I think she did fine in this role. Her best moments in JLC were teaching her younger sister about the “wiser” ways of life and when she asks for On’s forgiveness after being beaten by her boyfriend. Her worst was the crying scenes. I think she should stick with these roles because I see her as a Flora Chan in the making; she would excel in those unapologetically bitchy, super independent characters but please do not ever give her anything that requires innocence until she fixes her accent and way of speaking.

Elaine Yiu delivered one of her better performances in a character that reminds me of the Young & Dangerous movies. My only complaint is that Hana died too early. Her death would have made more of an impact had it happened after Kaka’s complete transformation, if not just to show that not everyone is lucky enough to get second chances in life. Stephen Wong should remain in the 3rd line; his acting is consistently mediocre and JLC is no exception. Helena Wong was pretty shaky overall with some moments well-acted.

The performances by the veterans are stellar. Mary Hon is dependably excellent, and the actress who plays Fatty Boss’ wife is funny as hell. Halina Tam provides some comic relief and the actress who plays Kaka’s stepmother was very good as well. Best performance from the veterans comes from the actor who plays Kaka’s father. He really looked like a burdened man caught between the two key women in his life. The weakest link is Raymond Cho, who does fine in comedy but is terribly inadequate in drama. Some of the ke-le-fes, however, do deliver, such as the actor who plays Linda Chung’s nasty step-brother.

Memorable Scenes
1. Any between Fatty Boss and On, and Fatty Boss and Kaka.
2. When Kaka and On find out their unborn baby died in the operation room. Linda’s performance was nothing short of brilliant. The disbelief as she looked at On pleadingly, the tears, and the emotionally wrenching performance of her having to deliver their still-born baby naturally was incredible. I was sobbing in that scene along with them.
3. Sum’s argument with her mother when she finds out she’s been working at her company as a janitor. An excellent performance from Mary Hon and Sum deserved every word.
4. When On helps Kaka carve the words in Hana’s tombstone. I thought this was an intelligent, well-written scene. It made Hana’s death real and forced Kaka to accept her death.

To Watch or Not to Watch, That is the Question
Highly recommended as one of the surprises of 2008. And I thought my love for TVB was dead.

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