War and Beauty

Reviewed by: Bridget

August 09, 2005

Rating: five

Chinese Title
"Gum Jee Yook Yip" (A play on words on the ancient Chinese saying that refers to a princess, but here "yook yip" means something like the revenge and crimes left from yesterday)

# of episodes

Theme Song
Bowie Lam

Bowie Lam Bo Yee as Suen Bak Yeung
Sheren Tang Sui Man as Yu Yuet/Yu Fei
Charmaine Sheh Si Maan as Yee Sun
Gigi Lai Zhi as Yuk Ying
Maggie Cheung Hor Yee as On Sin
Moses Chan Ho as Hung Mo
Rebecca Chan Sau Ju as the Empress
Yu Yeung as the Emperor
Chan Hung Lit as Suen Ching Wah (father of Bak Yeung)
Wai Ka Hung as Chan Song (friend of Hung Mo)
Lo Hoi Pang as Chui Man Tin (godfather of Yee Sun)
June Chan Sook Yee as Suk Ling (godsister of Yee Sun)
Chan Man Kei as Yuen Kei (godsister of Yee Sun)
Wong Tak Ban as Siu Look Ji (friend of On Sin)
Lau Cheuk Kei as Heung Fau
Jade Leung Jing as Fook Nga (blood sister of Yee Sun)

Believe everything you've heard. If this is what TVB can really do, TV fans around the world rejoice!

Evaluation of Cast and Characters

Yu Yuet/Yu Fei (Sheren Tang)
Lau Fa Look Yu Yuet (referred to in the palace as Yu Fei or Yu Fei Leung Leung).

Enters the palace at the age of 16. Becomes the most powerful and feared concubine in the palace. Her power doesn't come from thin air, however. Originally innocent and pure of heart when she is recruited as a concubine, she becomes dominant, manipulative, and ruthless after discovering that the Empress arranged for her to have a miscarriage when she was pregnant with her first child. Since then, Yu Fei has plotted to recruit future young concubines to remain loyal to her, as well as killing those who betray her and try to compete with her for the Emperor's attention. Loses her power after a misunderstanding involving servant Boh Sim and Chan Song, and her newborn princess is taken away from her after she tries to use her to regain the Emperor's affection. Later she befriends Hung Mo, but remains behind when the rebels invade the palace, sacrificing herself to have Hung Mo and On Sin be together. I love this character. A very well-written personality, ruthless, cruel yet extremely intelligent and we can't help sympathasizing with her when we realize why she is the way she is.

Phenomenal. Sheren Tang is the embodiment of Yu Fei and made her a character to remember for years to come. Her acting is on the level of Francis Ng's Sam from "Triumph in the Skies". She commands your attention from when she first appears to her very last scene, and has chemistry with the entire cast. One of the many fine acting moments in this series is after Yu Fei spends a night with the Emperor and he sees a white hair on her head and she realizes something is wrong. For her acting in "War and Beauty", Sheren didn't only deserve the 2004 TVB Best Actress Award, she probably deserves it for the next five years. An electrifying, superb, flawless performance. And Sheren looks great in ancient costume.

Yee Sun (Charmaine Sheh)
Originally referred to in the palace as Yee Sun Ju Ji (Master Yee Sun), later named Sun Kwai Yun (Worthy/Elegant Lady Sun).

Enters the palace at the age of 18. Softspoken but calculative, Yee Sun is perhaps the only concubine made of flesh and blood. She enters the palace for one reason only, to gain the Emperor's good graces so that she can protect her benefactor/godfather (eunuch Chui Man Tin), who committed some kind of treason several years ago. Yee Sun, along with her godsisters Suk Ling and Yuen Kei, have been trained since they were young girls to become palace concubines. Gains Yu Fei's attention after Yuk Ying is unable to climb to power. Yee Sun is also one of the first to be named Kwai Yun, and also the first to become pregnant with the Emperor's child. She has no problem manipulating and getting rid of those who are unimportant to her, but remains deathly loyal and almost painfully innocent to those she cherishes and loves. Blood younger sister to Fook Nga, and actually of Han blood (considered banned from becoming imperial concubines in the Qing dynasty). Later falls in love with Suen Bak Yeung, but escapes the palace with her unborn child when the rebels invade. Perhaps the most pitiful character in the series. The reason she becomes a concubine is to serve filial duty to her useless and heartless godfather who is willing to sacrifice anything for self-preservation, she never really knows Fook Nga as a sister until she dies, and she truly loves Suen Bak Yeung, only to lose him to Yuk Ying.

Above average. Charmaine's work here reminds me of two of her past performances. Her portrayal of the quiet, demure, filial Yee Sun (i.e. treatment towards her loved ones and Suen Bak Yeung) reminded me of her very old but memorable portrayal as Miu Yeuk Lan in "Flying Fox on Snowy Mountain". Then her portrayal of the calculative, ill-disposed Yee Sun is reminiscent of her Omei Master in "Heaven Sword Dragon Sabre "(Charmaine does make a convincing villain). She has definitely improved (anyone remember her Man from "Detective Investigative Files IV"? I wanted to kick her and slap her silly in that series) but there's always room for more. Charmaine was the best to watch while speaking in her monotone voice to Yuk Ying but with a slightly sinister smile.

Yuk Ying (Gigi Lai)
Originally referred to in the palace as Yuk Ying Ju Ji (Master Yuk Ying), later named Wah Kwai Yun.

Enters the palace at the age of 16. Puts on a facade of outspoken wildness and childish innocence to hide her true nature: vindictive, manipulative, and cruel. She becomes a concubine as a kind of vengeance on the behalf of her mother, a powerless concubine in the 4th position to her wealthy and powerful officer father. Yuk Ying is bestowed with a lovely face, one that gains attention early on from both the Emperor and other concubine hopefuls, the former as affection and the latter as jealousy. She befriends On Sin, only to have the friendship betrayed. Is also originally Yee Sun's younger godsister, befriended on the way to the palace, but the friendship is short-lived when competition consumes them. Dies in the palace with Bak Yeung and their unborn child at the end of the series. The selfish female character in the series. She strives to become the most adored concubine for status purposes, uses Suen Bak Yeung's love to become pregnant and pass off the child as the Emperor's. At least at the end she redeemed herself, but still died anyway.

Overdone. Someone please explain to me how she won Best Actress out of the 4 or 5 women in this series. Yes, she is gorgeous. Yes, she made a convincing 16-year-old. But to me, during the whole thing it was so overdone and showy that I just stopped liking her after the 3rd episode or so. I can't tell whether it's her character (a wild, outspoken teenager at the beginning) or Gigi herself that annoys me. Perhaps both. The worst part was that she breathed heavily while reading her lines. It was very distracting and almost made Gigi seem asthmatic. If she only underplayed the child-woman part a lot more, but Gigi does have a hellacious stare.

On Sin (Maggie Cheung)
Referred to in the palace as Goo Goo by the other servants, later named On Kwai Yun.

Moral, upright, perceptive, and prudent. One of the most respected servants in the palace. Both trains and mentors the younger and newer servants. On Sin is 25 years of age, but abandons her long-awaited retirement when she discovers that the Empress schemed to murder her grandmother, her only remaining relative. Instead, she successfully becomes the Emperor's concubine, but her competition lies not with the other concubines, but with the most powerful woman in the palace, the Empress. Is friends with eunuch-servant Siu Look Ji, who is actually in love with her and later sacrifices himself to protect her. On Sin falls in love with Hung Mo, but also abandons their relationship for her thirst for revenge against the Empress. Later escapes the palace with Hung Mo with Yu Fei's aid, but is destined to die since she has been shot by a rebel's arrow.

Above average. Maggie has finally gotten rid of that habit of hers: jerking her head around while speaking. That was so distracting in many of her previous works ("Burning Flame II"). And she succeeds in giving the less-outstanding On Sin a personality without overdoing it and perhaps even underacting a little. A credible performance but I still think she blinks too much when she talks. But I like her On Sin.

Suen Bak Yeung (Bowie Lam)
Referred to in the palace as Suen Dai Yun.

Exceptionally intelligent, principaled, and confident. An accomplished imperial doctor, Bak Yeung shares a frosty relationship with his widowed father who is both an imperial doctor and the director of the palace clinic. He has a devoted wife in the form of Ho Suet, but spends his days at a brothel pouring his heart out to prostitute Heung Fau. Becomes involved in the concubines' struggle for power, used by all of them in some form or another, but also ironically is the ladies' man of the series. Uses banned methods to deliver Yu Fei's baby, and somehow avoids being used by the Empress (something his father never achieved). Befriends Hung Mo and On Sin, while Yee Sun, Fook Nga, as well as Yuk Ying fall in love with him. Bak Yeung is actually in love with Yuk Ying, a very bad choice of the three since she is the most ruthless, seducing him to become pregnant while scheming to pass off the child as the Emperor's. They burn to death in each other's arms when the rebels invade the palace.

Great. Bowie underacts charismatically in "War and Beauty" that is fitting for the role of the calm yet compassionate Bak Yeung. A remarkably effective portrayal of the imperial doctor, considering this is Bowie's first ancient series and he was quoted as saying that the dialogue for ancient series is quite difficult to master. Like Sheren Tang, he has chemistry with the entire cast, and in particular, Bowie and Moses Chan share a strange odd-couple chemistry. Bowie has always been one of my favourite actors, he is among those such as Patrick Lam who do not scream/shout but remain calm and cool while still displaying depth in emotion. He also has a face with much character that makes Bak Yeung memorable.

Hung Mo (Moses Chan)
Referred to in the palace as Hung Dai Yun.

Impulsive, outspoken, and determined. Originally of peasant background, Hung Mo arrives to Beijing with friend Chan Song to "strike it rich". Slowly climbs the ladder of power in the palace, becoming one of the Emperor's personal bodyguards after saving his life. First falls in love with the owner of a hand-sewn handkerchief, and later falls in love with On Sin (whom he believes to be the owner). Befriends Yu Fei after she falls from power, and secretly helps her to see her baby princess after she is taken away by the Empress. Is shocked when he discovers that his friend Chan Song (who believes Hung Mo betrayed him) is one of the rebel leaders, but convinces him that he has always regarded him as a brother. Escapes the palace with On Sin at the end of the series.

Below average. I do not find Moses to be a good dramatic actor. He started with some promise (in the scenes where he is still a peasant looking to strike it rich in Beijing) but gets overshadowed by the other performances. This is not because his role is small. Frankly, I believe that this could have been a breakthrough performance for him. In part, the writing of his character is responsible - Hung Mo loses the determination that made his character in the beginning as soon as he entered the palace. Why? Moses could have also done a lot more when it is shown that he falls in love with the owner of the handkerchief. Even his romantic scenes with Maggie Cheung have no passion, no electricity. I would tend to think that Moses would be more effective in comedic roles such as his character Kelvin in The Family Man.

Fook Nga (Jade Leung)
Referred to in the palace as Fook Kwai Yun.

Gentle, good-hearted, and elegant. A powerless imperial concubine whom the Emperor has forgotten. Blood older sister to Yee Sun, of Han blood. Separated from Yee Sun and trained by Chui Man Tin to become a concubine at a young age. Excels at paper-cutting crafts. Friend and admirer of Suen Bak Yeung. Later commits suicide to protect Yee Sun's secret (her Han identity) from the Empress.

Adequate and natural, yet nothing earth-shattering. A pleasant breakaway from Jade's usual kick-butt martial arts/tomboy roles.

Other Notable Performances and Characters
Rebecca Chan
Very effective as the Queen, just as intimidating and daggers-in-smile (Cantonese speakers will understand that expression) as the actress who played the Queen in Huan Zhu Ge Ge. Excellent performance and she looks great in ancient dress.

Yu Yeung
Useless as the King, but no one really cares in this series anyway. War & Beauty is where the women shine.

Wai Ka Hung
Good performance as Hung Mo's friend. Always a reliable ke-le-fe.

Lo Hoi Pang
Veteran actor and it shows. His role as the scheming eunuch who will stop at nothing for self-preservation is executed perfectly. Excellent performance.

Lau Cheuk Kei
Nice performance as Bak Yeung's confidante. Soft, natural, and ladylike. Probably the actress who had the smallest make-up job out of the women and it works in her favour.

Other Comments
The cinematography of this series is excellent. The palace looks great and the costumes are absolutely breathtaking. Do not blink for one second during this series because you will definitely miss something worthwhile. Plus, even a second of tuning out and you will have no idea what's going on.

My aunt, who grew up in Hong Kong, explained something to me about this series and its popularity. Her explanation, to the very least, disturbed me to no end. She said that the reason this series was so popular was because the plot and the characters reflected society in Hong Kong. In the cutthroat capitalist society that defines the city, the workplace is full of twisted-minded people who engage in all kinds of underhanded motions for self-preservation. Although these people in real life manipulate, lie, and engage in diplomacy/office politics for legitimate reasons such as protecting their livelihood (families, etc), it is still scary to think that the dog-eat-dog world portrayed in "War and Beauty" reflects real life. I'd like to think that human compassion extends a bit beyond our immediate circle.

Since I am not a fan of any of the actors or actresses in this series (with the exception of Bowie) and yet "War and Beauty" still met my great anticipation and expectations, I give the series five stars. Highly, highly recommended.

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