War and Beauty


Reviewed by: wisefool

March 23, 2005

Rating: four-point-five

Cast
Sheren Tang - Yu Fei
Gigi Lai - Yuk Ying
Charmaine Sheh - Yee Shun
Maggie Cheung - On Sin
Bowie Lam - Suen Pak Yeung
Moses Chan - Hung Mo
Jade Leung - Fuk Nga
Rebecca Chan - The Empress
Yu Yeung - The Emperor
Chan Hung Lit - Suen Ching Wah
Wong Tak Bun - Siu Luk Chi
Wai Ka Hung - Chan Song
Irene Wong - Mrs. Suen Pak Yeung
Patricia Liu - Heung Fou

Plot Overview

Fifteen years after Qing Emperor Jiaqing was crowned, the country appears to be in harmony. However, fights between the imperial concubines escalate. Beauty never lasts. All the imperial concubines, including the emperor's beloved Yu Fei (Sheren Tang), understand this and become nervous when the triennial imperial concubine election approaches. Yu Fei's position is threatened by an imperial descendant Yuk Ying (Gigi Lai), a powerful eunuch's adopted daughter Yee Shun (Charmaine Sheh) and an experienced imperial servant maid On Sin (Maggie Cheung). They are friends and enemies in the war for the emperor's love. Yee Shun later falls for imperial physician, Bak Yeung (Bowie Lam) who also stole the hearts of courtesan, Heung Fou (Patricia Liu), Lady Fuk (Jade Leung) as well as his lonely wife (Irene Wong) but Bak Yeung only has eyes for Yuk Ying, the woman who loved him the least. When she is still a palace maid, On Sin falls for imperial guard, Hung Mo (Moses Chan) but the later keeps his distance from her when she becomes a Lady, the emperor's woman. Hung Mo then finds companionship with the lonely Yu Fei, who has fallen out of power.

Comments:

It has been ages since I saw such an intense and entertaining series made by TVB. Unlike the usual shallow and predictable storylines, this series is full of exciting and unexpected twists leaving you gripping your seat. I must applaud the scriptwriter who, despite using such a simple theme as the backdrop, is still able to capture the attention of the audience with brilliant twists and subplots. The story basically portrays a struggle between four beautiful and cunning women for power (who isn't interested in a catfight?) when finally they get tired of it and quit when they don't see the point in fighting further. But, by adding sugar and spice such as friendship, romance, betrayal, trust, revenge, greed, jealousy, and furthermore, using the imperial palace during the Manchu regime as the background, makes the series very grand and interesting. I like the theme of appearance versus reality where things are not what they seem and people are not who they appear to be. It creates an element of suspense and surprise when you finally know the truth. For instance, there's this part where Yee Shun purposely switches her medicine with Yuk Ying's to harm the latter and Bak Yeung exposes it, revealing Yuk Ying's true colours and showing that she's not as innocent as she seems. I thought that was brilliant. There's another part where Yee Shun feeds Yuk Ying with the wrong information on what colour to wear to the empress's banquet so as to harm her and also this part where Yee Shun tries to eliminate Yuk Ying by making up stories to the emperor that their characters clash. At that point, you get so excited to see whether Yee Shun succeeds and it's wonderful when you watch how the intelligent On Sin saves Yuk Ying.

Besides the interesting plot, the cast was also very strong. Needless to say, they all turned even more popular overnight. I also like how the director adds in interesting bits about Manchu tradition, like the various stages a candidate of the imperial concubine contest has to go through before she is picked and how much more she has to struggle to reach the top. This really cleared up my misconception caused by other series that a girl immediately become the emperor's concubine if he likes her. It is also funny to see how money buys everything in the palace and how corrupted the officials and servants are. It was great that they actually decided to go to Hengdian as well as the forbidden palace in Beijing to film because the beautiful sceneries of the countryside and the grand palace, especially in winter, was a great delight compared to the cheap and chessy backgrounds used in typical TVB costume series which spoils the mood and atmosphere. I guess they're picking up a thing or two from China productions.

The costumes designed and worn by the leads were really beautiful and grand, the head-gears and hairstyles were very pretty and the furry winter costumes were lovely. The costume designer is just great for coming up with such beautiful costumes which are unlike the normal, recycled ones used in the usual series. A grand, high budget production is indeed a ton different from low budget ones. I also liked the music, the opening and ending themes, sang by Bowie Lam were slow and soothing. I especially like the opening theme, which gave a bit of the ancient feel with the string instruments in the background. The background music were all very nice, catchy, and appropriate for different scenes. There's this fast, loud music which creates suspense when something exciting is about to happen and this sad romantic tune as well as the delightful flute tune for scenes with On Sin, Yu Fei, and Hung Mo.

Praises aside, the series is not completely flawless. I felt that certain parts, like the last episode where the leads attempt to escape the palace, were really too rushed and messy. It was like a bunch of people scrambling here and there with no head or tail. The graphics used to portray the arrows that the bandits were shooting were really fake and there were too few people as the rebels. I guess TVB still cannot beat CCTV productions in getting many extras to film huge scale fights. The death scene with Yuk Ying and Bak Yeung was also too rushed thus, taking away most of the emotions.

I thought was the relationship between On Sin and Hung Mo dragged on too much. I don't know whether it's the actors fault or that there is simply no chemistry between them. In fact, apart from the love between Bowie and Gigi, I thought the rest of the love stories were pretty boring because I simply couldn't see any chemistry between the actors. I also did not like the choice to cast a silly old man as the emperor. Yes, I know the emperor is selfish in making so many women suffer but I don't see a need in making the emperor appear silly, dumb, and blur. It would have been better if someone like Kong Wah was casted, as he is not dashing and young but commands respect like an emperor. It's very obvious that the crew is afraid that the emperor might steal away the spotlight from the two not-so-dashing male leads. One last thing that irritated me was the repetition of how ugly and cruel the palace was. Life in the palace was painted in such a negative and gloomy light again and again that it gets annoying. Yes, you dont have freedom and happiness in the palace, but what makes you think that you will be happy starving, living in a world of poverty and crime outside the palace walls? The series was a little biased and painted the world outside the palace as such a happy picture which is rather inaccurate. Also, I don't believe that almost everyone in the palace is as miserable as portrayed in the series.

Characters/Performances:

Sheren Tang (Yu Fei)

Yu Fei is the cold and powerful concubine who holds the emeperor's affection for many years but she is aware of younger competition and guards herself and her position aggressively. A few minutes into the first episode and you will fear her presence when she frames and forces another concubine to commit suicide. However, the reason for her cruel ways is revealed later on when she falls out of power and you actually see how vulnerable and tired she is that you really sympathise with this poignant character.

Needless to say, Sheren gave a brilliant performance and I wasn't surprised since she's a very experienced and good actress. I would have been surprised if she didn't do well. Sheren is great in giving those cold, killer stares and imposing fear on you without even having to speak. She is a natural with evil and arrogant looks and she commands even more respect than the empress when she is around. She also handles her emotional and crying scenes very well and will make you sympathise with her greatly when she acts afraid after she is temporary blind. She will also touch you with the love and affection she has for her baby daughter so much that you feel very sad for her after her daughter dies.

Gigi Lai (Yuk Ying)

Yuk Ying is daughter to a wealthy official and appears to be very immature, innocent and gullible when you first see her. She appears dumb, spoilt, and loud such that people will laugh at her. However, when her real character is exposed you will realise that she is manipulative and cunning downright. Others are threatened because she has great beauty, such that her main rival, Yee Shun, tries all ways to eliminate her. She is selfish and takes advantage of Bak Yeung's love for her. All these traits make you hate her but when she realises how much Bak Yeung is willing to sacrifice for her, she falls for him. Evil as you may think, Yuk Ying is actually just like any other woman, trying to gain power so that she can repay her mother who is despised in her household. Yuk Ying grew up in a complicated household and has since learned the importance of competing to survive and so masks herself to avoid luring any unnecessary attention to herself. You will feel sorry when she is outcasted in the middle of the series, respect her love for her mother, and sympathise with her when On Sin betrays her, leaving her to believe that there is no good in this world.

Contrary to what some petty haters say, I think Gigi deserved the award as much as Sheren for her outstanding performance. She really surprised me with her strong emotions and ability to change expressions at ease. This was unlike the vain flower vase I used to see in Hong Kong movies. However, I must say that she tends to exaggerate a little when she acted innocent but that only made her transformation all the more obvious. Gigi's a very versatile actress, convincing with innocent and gullible expressions, great with spoilt, crazy and angry ones and excellent with evil and manipulative stares. Her best scene was when Bak Yeung exposed her true colours and that innocent, helpless frown turned into a cunning smile straightaway after he left. It was just amazing and her crying scenes were touching as well. She did very well in the scene when she cried and slapped Bak Yeung after learning that he was willing to die for her. She breathes rather heavily at times when she spoke but I don't see that as any hindrance because she has the acting abilities and that's what that matters.

Charmaine Sheh (Yee Shun)

Orphaned and brought up learning to be a concubine by a powerful eunuch, Yee Shun is taught all the traits to survive in the palace so she is calm, careful, and resourceful. She also learned how to eliminate her opponents using underhanded methods. While you may hate her for always harming Yuk Ying, Yee Shun is again not what she appears to be. She is devoted to her loved ones, such as her long-lost sister, who she does not recognize anymore, and is a pitiful character who is cheated and made use of by the eunuch. She mistook Bak Yeung's care for her as love and falls deeply in love with him only to realise that his feelings for her are solely those of friendship.

Charmaine did an average job with this role and, in my opinion, was outshined and overshadowed by the spectacular performances of the other leads. It is understandable since the others have been in showbiz longer. I found her acting in here rather similar to her other roles and one thing I feel she should improve more on her emotions. She tends to underact a little so that her expressions comes across as wooden or bland. Her crying is convincing and good and will be even better if she puts in more energy. She gives me this feeling that she is afraid to look ugly when she cries. I feel that she should improve on her evil and jealous scenes because all she does is frown, look hurt and confused, rather than look evil. She is much more convincing and natural when she is acting kind. But you do feel sorry for her when her love for Bak Yeung is rejected.

Maggie Cheung (On Sin)

Originally a head palace maid who is kind and intelligent, she is forced to fight for power as a Lady to avenge her beloved grandmother who is killed by the empress. She surppresses all feelings of guilt towards Yuk Ying and love for Hung Mo in order to fulfill her goal of revenge. A truly poignant character who gives everything but loses everything in return.

Maggie Cheung is a very good actress but it's a pity that her character is the least interesting out of the four. She is very good in acting evil too but her character does not require any real evil acting. However, she proves to be able to act kind and compassionate as well because she makes On Sin very likeable. Her crying scenes make you feel very sad and sorry for her, especially after her grandmother and her best friend die.

Bowie Lam (Bak Yeung)

Son of the head imperial physician and one himself, Bak Yeung attends to mostly the concubines in the palace. He is a smart, kind, and honest fellow who despises the shallow masks of manners and the power struggles in the palace and thus, tries to stay out of it but is always, unwillingly pulled into it. He has four women who love him whole-heartedly and are willing to sacrifice everything for him but he rejects all of them. It is then by fate that he falls for the woman he hates at first, Yuk Ying, and is willing to do anything for her. He gets a taste of getting hurt from loving blindly when Yuk Ying makes use of his weakness for her. However, his undying love finally moves her and she returns his love.

Bowie may not have the looks and charm but he manages to act well in his role. It is difficult not to like his character which he made so kind and smart. I thought he did very well with the scenes involving arguments and conflicts with his father as you can see the rebellious side of his character. The part where he confesses his affair with Yuk Ying to his father and then reconcile with him is really touching. He did very well too in the scene towards the end when he decided that he would give up on Yuk Ying and he hardened himself even after she cried, asking him not to leave. Bowie is also great in showing how much he loves Yuk Ying, like when there is no ounce of regret shown as he willingly eats the poisoned cakes Yuk Ying gave him and how hurt he is when he willingly helps her to gain the emperor's affection that you cannot help but feel sorry for him.

Moses Chan (Hung Mo)

A poor peasant who is sick of living in poverty and thus decides to try his luck working in the palace with a buddy. He is later promoted to the ranks of an imperial bodyguard. He falls for On sin but later avoids her when she becomes a lady as he mistakens her for someone who is greedy for power. He is the only one who is willing to help and accompany Yu Fei when she is outcasted and this makes her fall for him.

Moses is another actor who, like Maggie, is good in acting, but given a not so interesting role. His acting is fine and he is great in showing how hungry he is for wealth and how sad he is when his buddy dies. However, he can be rather robotic in delivering his lines at times and the sad thing is, he, Maggie, and Sheren do not have much chemistry. I prefer him in comical roles than in serious ones.

Given all my comments, I would recommend that you watch this TVB series which is very different from the normal, cliched ones. I can see that the crew and cast put in a lot of effort and even with some flaws here and there, the series won't disappoint!


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