War And Beauty

Reviewed by: Faith

December 06, 2005

Rating: five

War and Beauty is one of TVB's high-budget productions of 2004. To be honest, it's one of the best TVB dramas I've watched so far in terms of cast, acting, costumes, setting, and production. The charm of this whole series is that it embodies the whole 'survival of the fittest' concept so well. And the best part is, no one is completely good in this series, and the hypocrisy, backstabbing, scheming, and hidden meanings are just too well captured.

To anyone who hasn't watched this series yet, please be warned that there are spoilers in this review.


Sheren Tang - Lau Gu Luk Yu Yuet (Yu Fei)
Charmaine Sheh - Dong Kai Yi Shun
Gigi Lai - Hau Kai Yuk Ying
Maggie Cheung - Su Yuen Nei Gua Yi Kai On Sin
Bowie Lam - Suen Bak Yong
Moses Chan - Hung Mou
Jade Leung - Lap Lan Fuk Nga
Rebecca Chan - Empress


It all started with the story of two "Sau Lui", Yi Shun and Yuk Ying, who were selected to enter the Forbidden City to become one of the Emperor's women. They land into some troubles halfway and are saved by two young men who are on their way to Beijing as well. The scheming and backstabbing started already from here. When the girls finally reach the Forbidden City, they are taken care of by a palace maid called On Sin, who has served in the palace for 10 years. As the two Sau Luis try to gain the Emperor's affections, Yu Fei, the favourite concubine of the Emperor, battles the evil Empress to maintain her position of power in the palace.

The Hot Chicks and The Thorns Among The Roses

Yu Fei (Sheren Tang)
Sheren Tang gave a sterling performance as the charismatic, cruel Yu Fei. It was such a pity that she lost out on TVB's Best Actress Award to Gigi Lai. At the start, Yu Fei was portrayed as a ruthless concubine who would do anything to keep her position as the Emperor's favourite concubine secure. At the end of the series when Chan Song wanted to kill her to avenge Bou Sim's (Yu Fei's maid) death, Yu Fei said that she's killed so many servants (lou choi) in her life that it didn't matter if it's one more or one less, but in actual fact, it wasn't her who killed Bou Sim. I didn't really like her character for using her daughter to regain the Emperor's affections, but when the princess died, she did show some sadness for a moment before returning to her old, scheming self. But she had many ups and downs too, from being so powerful to being reduced to a forgotten, lonely concubine that few respect, and Sheren Tang portrayed these changes very, very well.

Yi Shun (Charmaine Sheh)
I admit that although I like Charmaine Sheh, her voice really puts me off at times. I was hoping that it wouldn't affect her performance here, and I wasn't disappointed. She did well playing Yi Shun, a young, intelligent Sau Lui who isn't a real Manchurian, but adopted a fake identity given by her godfather Chui Gong Gong, a greedy and power-hungry eunuch. Chui Gong Gong has been secretly training orphan girls to become Sau Luis in hope that they gain the Emperor's affections and would be powerful enough to assist himself to gain the Emperor's favour. Yi Shun and 2 other girls were educated by the eunuch's wife to learn to attract the Emperor. The 3 of them were close like sisters, but when one of them managed to impress the old man, the other girl got jealous and caused her death. Yi Shun ruthlessly took her out in revenge, thanks to her brilliant schemes. I thought she was one of the nicer ones out of the four, because she was loyal to her godfather till his death, and her sincere friendship with Fuk Nga (Fuk Kwai Yan) touched me. She only wanted to have a family, to belong somewhere, to be with the man she loved. But she got neither. The worst they could do to her was make her live, without anyone left in her life. And they did.

Yuk Ying (Gigi Lai)
In the series, they regarded her as the prettiest one out of the four. That's debatable, but I'm not going to harp on that. Her character was a cry-baby, spoilt, innocent girl who always wants her way. Well, that sounds a lot like her character in "Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre", except that in "War and Beauty", it's all just for show. She pretend to be naive and trusting to throw others off guard. Even I was sort of conned by her at first, but until she put away the sweet plums that Yi Shun gave her to wash down her medicine, then only did I realise that she was faking it. They did say why Yuk Ying acts the way she does, but they didn't really try to justify her evil schemes with her sad background later on (only in the last episode). Her crying scenes were amazing though; it's quite puzzling to see how she can cry so convincingly, especially in the scene where Yu Fei told her to scar her own face to prove her loyalty. Her interactions with Suen Bak Yong were priceless though; I loved the fact that he saw through her in their first meeting. But later on, I really hated her because she used him so many times. It became quite hard to believe in her love for him, even until the end. Still, Gigi didn't disappoint me too, she portrayed the two-faced Yuk Ying very well. Whether she deserves the award or not, I still need to mull that over.

On Sin (Maggie Cheung)
My favourite character! Partly because she starts off good, unlike the other 3, and in my opinion, she had the most chances of actual happiness. She found a man who loved her, and was going to retire and leave the palace in no time. But her intelligence ruined her. Maggie Cheung embodied the wise, quick-thinking On Sin so well that I really couldn't imagine anyone else playing this role. On Sin is an experienced palace maid who knows how to serve her masters well, and knows what to say and when to shut up. The Empress admired her intelligence and secretly killed On Sin's grandmother (who is also her only living relative) so that she could use On Sin to fight off the other women. So technically, she was also a pawn and she knew that. The main reason she wanted to leave the palace was for her granny, but when she died, On Sin sort of lost her way. When she found out that it was the Empress who killed her granny, she decided to stay in the palace and fight for the Emperor's affections, so that she could kill the Empress one day. My heart really went out to her in the scene when she found out about her granny's death. Maggie's emotions were really touching, and I couldn't really blame her character for becoming so evil. I felt really sorry for her because it wasn't what she was supposed to be, ad I was so sad that she didn't make it till the end. *sobs*

Suen Bak Yong (Bowie Lam)
He was probably the most righteous character in the whole show. It's out of respect that I didn't say stupid, because he was only stupid when he dealt with love. Anyway, Bak Yong was a good man and a good doctor, but he probably was not fit for life in the Forbidden City. He knows of the backstabbing and scheming among the concubines, but he tries not to take sides and do the best for his patients. That was until he met Yuk Ying. He fell for her while trying to help her after she fell out of favour with Yu Fei. He helped her to the extent of sending her into the arms of that senile old Emperor. Madness. And I couldn't really stand how he was completely oblivious to the affections of all the other women around him, namely Yi Shun, Fuk Nga, Heung Fau, and his wife. (So it was an arranged marriage. Boo-hoo.) To say that love is blind is an understatement for his case, though. A smart man like him allowed himself to be used by a woman. For me, Bowie did an average job only, partially because he was overshadowed by all the outstanding women. Hardly his fault though.

Hung Mou (Moses Chan)
Another average performance, because when you compare his to the performance of the ladies, Moses's portrayal just paled in comparison. His acting is quite solid and he managed to carry off his role well. He was just a poor man with loads of ambition at first, but he was smart enough to create opportunities for himself. He created a fire that eventually made him a hero and was made a palace. He finally lucked out when he saved the Emperor from some bozo murderer. But his position came with a price. He lost his best friend, who thought he betrayed him for On Sin. Overall, he seemed like a very troubled person, who has trouble choosing between love and brotherhood, and choosing between Yu Fei and On Sin. Moses showed his indecisiveness very well, and I still think that they shouldn't kill On Sin for his sake. He hasn't really done anything seriously bad. Probably as Bak Yong said, he wasn't suited for palace life, because of his sympathy and all.

Personal Thoughts:

I've always been a sucker for ancient Chinese stories. Although this story wasn't a portrayal of actual history (but the characters truly did exist in Chinese history, just at different times), it had a good ancient feel to it. The dialogue was very well scripted out, the scenes and settings were simply majestic, and the costumes were also beautiful, especially the winter ones. And God, those shoes that they had to wear were ghastly! I'm quite sure that during several scenes, the actresses did not wear those shoes, because I remember seeing Yuk Ying walking really fast in one scene without any clacking sound, but her shoes were obscured by her dress. One inaccuracy was that in olden days, technically no uncastrated men are allowed to be seen in the concubine's palace, let alone have little strolls alone with the concubines in the palace! But then again, without this loophole , there would be so little juicy scenes.

I was also really impressed with the casting people for choosing the Emperor. It couldn't have been more apt to cast an old, bumbling man as the Emperor and have so many beauties vying for his affections, but in reality none of them loved him at all. How these women scheme and sneak just to sleep with him and bear a baby for him is simply unthinkable. However, it pretty much resembles office politics everywhere, so that's why it was that popular in Hong Kong. People love it because it's real, and it depicts what they're facing in real life, albeit in a more twisted way.

After giving some thought to the award issue, I thought that perhaps they gave it to Gigi because Yuk Ying is a character that goes through so much changes, and admittedly, Gigi portrayed the many sides of Yuk Ying very well. Yuk Ying had to deal with a lot of issues, by pretending to be innocent, experiencing her first downfall, fearing for the safety of her mother should she lose her position, facing the betrayal of On Sin whom she trusted, dealing with her own feelings for Bak Yong, giving up her power to save Bak Yong etc etc. So this might justify TVB's decision to award her the Best Actress title. Anyway main cast aside, the supporting cast also gave a stellar performance. Jade Leung was wonderful as Fuk Nga, the forgotten concubine who was also sent into the palace by Chui Gong Gong, and is also Yi Shun's long-lost sister. And Rebecca Chan, who played the Empress was also deliciously evil.

Nevertheless, one thing I absolutely despise was the cruelty towards the babies. I understand it if the Empress were to mistreat Yu Fei's daughter out of hatred and jealousy and all, but at the start even Yu Fei herself didn't seem to care much about her baby. When the Empress scratched the princess's face in front of Yu Fei and Yu Fei was so angry, I was thinking "so now other people cannot hurt your baby but you have every right to? Yeah, you're a great mother." And drugging her daughter to gain the Emperor's affections? Absurd. And her sadness over the baby's death was over too soon. I was quite disgusted when she begged the Emperor to save the princess. But that's the reality of it. Even Yi Shun and Yuk Ying who were both pregnant at the end had no regard for the life they were carrying. I really pity those princes and princesses, honestly. Yi Shun wanted to give up on life when Fuk Nga died, even though she was pregnant. And Yuk Ying just couldn't care less about her baby, even though it was conceived with the man she loved, because all she saw the baby as was a tool to help her regain power in the palace. So pathetic. Thank god On Sin had some sense. The scene where she told Siu Luk Zi that it was unfair to the baby if she were to give birth to a child for a man she did not love almost seemed human.

The ending was sad, but inevitable. I felt really sad for Yi Shun, who was so close to being with the man she loved, but in the end lost out to Yuk Ying. She didn't even get to know that her sister was Fuk Nga, nor did she know the truth about Chui Gong Gong. Yuk Ying's side was not that bad, since Bak Yong and her perished in the fire, in probably the one and only truthful and heartfelt moments they had with each other. I admire Yuk Ying for not leaving the palace with Bowie for the sake of her mom, which served as a final reminder to why she fought so hard in the first place. At least she wasn't as selfish as I thought her to be. Or was she? I don't know now, but all I know that for her and Bowie, dying was definitely better than living. For Hung Mou, it was particularly difficult for him, for having to deal with the loss of his best friend, and for having to choose between Yu Fei and On Sin, something he could never do. Yu Fei probably didn't expect him to hold her hand too, but at last she made up her mind to stay and continue her battle with the evil empress. That is, if they're not all killed by the Tin Lei people. Even if she gave her blessings to On Sin and Hung Mou, the two of them didn't exactly have a 'happily ever after' ending, just a 'happy for now' ending. Poor Hung Mou, letting go of Yu Fei but losing On Sin in the end. And Yi Shun got the worst deal, because she was left alone without anyone at all. When On Sin was telling her to live on to fulfill Yu Fei's and her dreams, and saying that Yi Shun could go to her own hometown if she didn't know where to go. Yi Shun desperately told On Sin to hang on, that she'll be safe. It's funny how they suddenly care so much for each other. I cried at that part, because it was just so pitifully beautiful. And when On Sin finally rested her head on her Hung Tai Kor's shoulders...

Favourite Scenes/Moments:

- Yi Shun and her sisters playing with the stones in the room.
- Bak Yong seeing through Yuk Ying's "innocence" at their first meeting.
- On Sin and Hung Mou playing the flute at night.
- Yu Fei going into Concubine Chan's room and saying that she didn't scare her when she was alive, so even if she's dead her ghost won't be able to scare her.
- On Sin serving the poisoned drink to Sou Ying. The part where she told Sou Ying that she'll wake her up was eeriely similar to how Hung Mou telling On Sin he'll wake her up in the end.
- Hung Mou getting all obsessed about the silk handkerchief
- Yu Fei giving birth to the premature princess.
- How Yi Shun played with Suk Ling's mind and made her go mad.
- Yi Shun capturing the attention of the senile old man with the kite and little pouch. So gullible, that old man.
- Bak Yong saving Yi Shun by jumping into the lake with her.
- Yu Fei telling Yuk Ying to scar her own face to prove her loyalty.
- Bak Yong giving the lamp to Yi Shun after she finds out that her birth sister is 'dead'.
- Yi Shun threatening Yuk Ying with the hairpin thing.
- On Sin helping Yuk Ying to attract the Emperor's attention.
- Fuk Nga giving the socks to Bak Yong, but pretending that it's for Chui Gong Gong.
- On Sin walking in the snow with Hung Mou, saying that she'll follow his footsteps. Aww.
- Bak Yong re-drawing the portrait of Yuk Ying and her mother.
- Yi Shun threatening Yuk Ying (again!) after Yuk Ying moves into Seng Kin Gong.
- On Sin finding out about her grandmother's death.
- On Sin going into Hung Mou's room and giving him the coat and repairing his shoes before she turned evil.
- Yuk Ying's reaction after being betrayed by On Sin.
- The Empress scratching the princess's face in front of Yu Fei.
- Yu Fei crying while copying the sutras, and Hung Mou picking up the papers she threw.
- The princess dying in Yu Fei's arms.
- Bak Yong wanting to eat the food that Yuk Ying brought to him, even when he knew it was poisoned, and Yuk Ying slapping him, asking him if it was worth it.
- Hung Mou taking care of Yu Fei when she was blind.
- Siu Luk Zi's confession before his death.
- Fuk Nga finding out that Yi Shun is her long-lost sister, but refusing to reveal the truth to her.
- Fuk Nga telling Bak Yong she loved him, and that she has been poisoning herself so that he'll take care of her.
- The Empress telling the Emperor that she was the only one who loved him and treated him as a husband, and the Emperor responding by telling her to scram.
- Yi Shun asking Bak Yong to think for himself, not for her, not for Yuk Ying, not for anyone else.
- Bak Yong slapping Yuk Ying, telling her that she's lost, and all her plans have failed.
- Hung Mou holding both Yu Fei's and On Sin's hands when Yu Fei asked him to choose between them.
- Yuk Ying admitting that she did love Bak Yong while the fire swept in.
- The final scene with Yi Shun crying in the back of the carriage while On Sin rested her head on Hung Mou's shoulder.

Final Ramblings:
All in all, it was definitely worth the 30 episodes/days of intense watching, and trying to figure out whodunnit and what'll happen next. The ending where Yu Fei read out the poem on the silk handkerchief (which was really hers) which conveyed her dreams to live beyond the red walls of the Forbidden City, was so strong. It was all because of the circumstances in the Forbidden City that made them to be as evil as they were, that caused them to fight each other to survive. How close to real life that is...which is why "War And Beauty" was so popular when it was shown in Hong Kong, because people could relate to the series. A must-watch, for its sheer magnificence and wonderful acting.

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