War and Beauty

Reviewed by: lea

December 30, 2004

Rating: three-point-five

30 episodes, 10 tapes

Bowie Lam, Moses Chan, Sheren Tang, Charmaine Sheh, Maggie Cheung, Gigi Lai, Rebecca Chan, Jade Leung

"War and Beauty" is an extravagant production, and one of the best serials to come out of TVB in recent years.

The plotting is complicated, but plotting and scheming is what this grand traditional drama is all about. The vicious and bloody 'wars' between a King's concubines had probably occurred in any and all dynasties throughout China's long history of imperial rule.

Every three years, the Emperor calls for girls from honorable families in all the lands to enter the palace so that he may take the best as concubines. Among the many thousands that arrive are Nhi Thuan (Charmaine) and Ngoc Dinh (Gigi), who during their journey are rescued from the clutches of some common thieves by Moses and his pal Sang (Wai Ka Hung), also on their way to the palace to seek their fortune.

Upon arrival, the girls quickly find that the current holder of power is the evil and scheming Sheren, who is the Duong Phi, second in rank only to the Empress, played by Rebecca Chan. They meet An Thien (Maggie), a clever and crafty 'co-co' responsible for their training in the art of servitude (someone equivalent to a housekeeper in 19th century England), and Bowie, a doctor who can't seem to mind his own business and keeps getting mixed up in everyone's schemes, yet somehow still manages to keep his morality intact.

Needless to say, there is plenty of rivalry and back-stabbing. The two would-be concubines, at first mushy as chocolate cake, are soon at each other's throats. Sheren discovers that she needs all her cunning to remain in favour with the Emperor against the fresh-faced and much younger new arrivals, while the mastermind behind it all is the Empress, who will do all in her power to hold onto her place by the King's side. Everyone plays the games according to their own private agenda, but all with a common goal: survival - in a place with few morals, where the sly gain power, the powerful rule and the weak stand absolutely no chance.

It's been a long time since TVB has come up with such a promising premise, and they've actually managed not to botch it up – too much.

What impresses me most about this serial is the character development - or perhaps more accurately, the many dimensions of each character and how they constantly shift depending on circumstances. The choice of actors here is very important, and thankfully the casting people did their job. The acting is superb, especially Sheren Tang as the calculating but compassionate Duong Phi. This performance should erase all doubt in anybody's mind that Sheren is an extremely good actress. And Bowie Lam as the do-gooder doctor in love with a woman he knows better than to be in love with... it's one of his best, or maybe THE best performance he's ever given. The diversity of this actor constantly amazes me - good guy, bad guy, gangster, cop, lawyer - he's done it all. Here he manages to convey so much emotion, all with very little change in countenance. A well-deserved 'Best Actor' at this year's awards.

I won't comment on Charmaine, only to say that she was tolerable. Moses had such a dull role that I will refrain from comment here as well. Maggie's role as the clever An Thien is reminiscent of Jin Yong's Princess Trieu Minh, a role played to perfection by Kitty Lai and then Gigi after her in the 2000 remake of Heaven Sword Dragon Sabre. Maggie is as always very good, but An Thien's craftiness doesn't quite leave as strong an impression as it should have.

Gigi was the recipient of this year's 'Best Actress' award for her role as the seemingly naive Ngoc Dinh. Here is another very versatile actress. It's amazing how she can still pull off any type of role - young, old, good, bad, ugly. My only complaint is that she tended to overact - was it the character? It had me positively squirming in my seat, and yet she still managed to evoke great compassion. But who can resist a beautiful woman with such a remarkable talent for crying on the spot?

Before I go on to make a big fuss about the ending, other aspects of this production deserve some mention. The sets are magnificent, especially the wide shots of the palace courtyard covered with snow. And the costumes are beautiful. The plotting itself is devilishly fiendish, if somewhat repetitive at the beginning. However, there are way too many superfluous scenes and annoying characters. Moses and Maggie's love story is dull, tedious and predictable, and did they really need so many scenes involving that darned flute? And Maggie missing seeing her grandmother, lamenting to her guard friend (or eunuch or whoever he is) about seeing her grandmother, getting money to see her grandmother... well you get the picture. Her friend, incidentally, serves no other purpose except for Maggie to reveal to us her schemes through him. And in the end he ruins everything!

The most redundant character is Moses's friend Sang and their scenes together. He throws a big tantrum and then disappears for most of the story, only to come back and contribute to the generally horrific ending. And the most annoying characters are Charmaine's "parents" whose basis for sending her into the palace is laughable - he wants to keep his head, when it seems the emperor doesn't even know he exists. And WHY did the mother spill everything to the empress at the end?

I won't reveal the ending, only to say that it was horribly rushed, totally unbelievable, and a complete anti-climax. It was incredibly disappointing to have followed their plotting and scheming for so long, only to watch the rug being pulled out from under all their feet in such an illogical fashion. What the hell were the writers thinking? And they had done such a fine job up to that point, practically the last episode.

Suffice it to say that if it weren't for the ending, this series would have been one of the greats (and would have received another half-star). But do watch it - it's good. You might find however that you'll be skipping over the unnecessary parts mentioned above, if only to save yourself the agitation of seeing those irritating characters on screen.

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