This series is currently airing on TV and even though it will be a couple weeks before it finishes, I am going to proceed with my review of the series, since I've already seen it several times (obviously, I own this series on DVD).
This series is actually from 1996 and is a remake of the classic series "The Bund". For those of us who are old enough to remember, "The Bund" was the immensely popular TVB series from 1980 that made Chow Yun Fat, Ray Lui, and Angie Chiu household names. In fact, the series had such an impact that for alot of us, whenever we hear about Shanghai in the early 20th century, this is the series we think about. Plus the powerful theme song for the series (sung by veteran songstress Francis Yip) is so famous in Asia, even people who can't speak Cantonese know how to sing this song (and Francis has mentioned in interviews that even now, 30 years later, this is still the most requested song of her career -- in fact, it's even been translated into several different languages!).
So anyway, with the overwhelming popularity of "The Bund" and its 'legendary' status in terms of TV series, attempting to do a re-make of the series is definitely no easy feat, especially since the original artists were so memorable in their roles. And for me personally -- well, I've never really been a fan of re-makes, since most of the time, they are not able to live up to the original. That's why when I first watched "Once Upon a Time in Shanghai" years ago, I didn't think I would actually like it, since 1) "The Bund" was one of the first series that I watched as a girl and it had a lasting impression on me, 2) I'm a huge fan of Chow Yun Fat and he pretty much immortalized the role of Hui Man Keung (the lead character in the series), so it's hard for me to imagine anyone else in that role, 3) the Chow Yun Fat / Ray / Angie trio was so classic that even now, many audiences -- including me -- still associate them with the characters they played (Hui Man Keung, Ting Lik, and Fung Ching Ching, respectively).
I guess you could say that "Once Upon a Time in Shanghai" was already at a disadvantage from the beginning, since it had big shoes to fill as a re-make. But, if you watch the series, you'll find out that it is not actually a true re-make of the original series -- I would say that only about 50% of the series can be called a remake because the rest of it is a completely different storyline that is ‘blended’ in with the original storyline (plus alot of characters were added that were not part of the original series)....the result is a series that is similar, but different.
Let's start with a quick run-down of the main characters....
These are the main characters that were also in the original series and the artists who portrayed them in the current series (I also listed the artists who portrayed the original character in "The Bund" as well, just as a point of reference):
>> Hui Man Keung (Sunny Chan) / (Chow Yun Fat)
>> Ting Lik (Gordan Lam) / (Ray Lui)
>> Fung Ching Ching (Nnadia Chan) / (Angie Chiu)
>> Fung King Yiu (Pat Poon) / (Lau Dan)
>> Cheung Kwai (David Lui) / (Liu Kai Chi)
>> Fong Yim Wan (Florence Kwok) / (Victoria Lam Kin Ming)
>> Wang Yuet Kei (Shirley Cheung) / (Chong Man Ching)
>> Chan Hon Lam (Patrick Tam) / (Kent Tong)
>> Kong Tsi-Kwan (Noelle Leung) / (King Toi Yam)**
**Note that Noelle's character had a different name in the original series (more on this later)
These are the 'added' characters in "Once Upon a Time in Shanghai" (I only listed the main ones)
>> Yu Chun Hoi (Adam Cheng)
>> So Tsat Hau (Carol 'Dodo' Cheng)
>> Lok Tin Yau (Dickson Lee)
>> Henry (Law Kar Ying)
>> Koo Ching Wah (Maggie Cheung Hor Yee)
>> Tse Dong (Bowie Lam)
>> Chin Lai Hei (Emily Kwan)
>> So Chor Ng (Eric Tsang)*
>> Kwok Sei Wai (Gallen Lo)*
*Eric and Gallen only appeared as cameos in the series, as they were only in the first few episodes
I took the time to list out the cast because for me, this was an important element as to why I decided to watch the series for the first time years ago -- if it wasn't for the appealing cast, I probably would not have bothered to watch the series, since so much of the original story was changed.
After watching this series, I have to say that I still love “The Bund” and it will always be a classic in my book, but I also like “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” as well, primarily because of the performances of the main leads (of course, the performances pale in comparisons to the original actors / actresses, but each have their own “flavor” and I like both). True, I definitely have an issue with some of the plot differences between the 2 series (which I will complain about later in this review), but overall, I still think the series was well made.
Obviously, there is a lot to talk about this series (I could go on forever about the plot differences alone), but for the purposes of this review, I am just going to cover some of the highlights, with a primary focus on a few of the main characters and the various relationships.
The characters / casting / relationships
Sunny Chan as Hui Man Keung – First off, I have to applaud whoever did the casting for this series because Sunny is absolutely PERFECT for this role. Sunny is one of my favorite 90s actors and it wasn’t until I watched this series that I realized why I like him so much – he totally reminds me of Chow Yun Fat and I really feel that he has the potential to be the next Fat Gor in terms of his acting (plus their mannerisms and personality are very similar)! He definitely has that ‘look’ that fits ‘pre-modern’ series such as this perfectly, but regardless, he did an excellent job in this series, especially in the emotional scenes – he gave a very convincing performance as Hui Man Keung and IMO, you can’t help but fall in love with his character in here.
There is this one scene I always talk about when discussing this series where Sunny’s demeanor and mannerisms (and even his voice) is SO similar to Chow Yun Fat that if you were to tell me Fat Gor filmed that scene, I would totally believe it. It’s hard to describe the scene (I probably wouldn’t do justice to it), but when it comes up again, I’ll make note of what episode it’s in so that those who get a chance to watch this series can see what I’m talking about.
Gordon Lam as Ting Lik – Not sure how I feel about Gordon’s performance in this series. He did a pretty good job actually, but I think Ray Lui was way more suited to play this role -- in the original version, Ray’s performance really stood out at the time (he almost stole the show from Fat Gor). I actually found Gordon’s character a bit annoying at times with his impulsiveness, but I understand that it was supposed to be part of the character’s personality, so it makes sense. I found it interesting that in the series, Ting Lik constantly lives under Hui Man Keung’s shadow (because honestly speaking, Keung is a natural leader) and in real life, Gordon’s acting was overshadowed by Sunny’s. I honestly feel that the writers were trying too hard to make Gordon’s Ting Lik different from Ray’s version of the character (right from the start, the biggest sign was the signature mustache that Ray had in the original series, which was conspicuously missing on Gordon)…..to the point that they overdid it and the character ends up being almost ‘bland’ and not memorable (in my opinion at least).
Nnadia Chan as Fung Ching Ching – Nnadia is just an overall great actress and casting her as Fung Ching Ching in this series was another perfect choice…but to be honest, I just don’t like the character of Ching Ching that much (nothing to do with the acting though). Even in the original series (where Angie played Ching Ching), I would get annoyed at how wishy-washy the character is – I mean, if she truly loved Hui Man Keung, she should have just defied her dad to be with him – especially since she knows that her dad is a bad guy. Instead, she marries someone else and when that relationship doesn’t work out, she goes running back to Hui, only to leave him for good when she finds out he killed her dad. I personally think that the character of Ching Ching is quite weak and a bit naïve (and we all know how much I dislike those types of characters) – I got so annoyed at the end that I actually wanted Hui to be with someone else instead.
Adam Cheng as Yu Chun Hoi – Um, ok, what was the point of Adam’s character? I know they were trying to “beef up” the series by adding more characters and different storylines and such, but really, how necessary was it? I disliked Adam’s character from the get-go because he’s just way too ‘gullible’ and doesn’t have that ‘leadership’ element that I expect from a character that is supposed to have huge influence and power in Shanghai. And goshdarnit, I hated how his character kept trying to protect and ‘reform’ Dickson Lee’s character – whom he viewed as a ‘nephew’ of sorts because Dickson’s father was his close friend / brother and mentor – even though he knew how bad the dude is. I mean, really – after all the bad things Dickson does, Adam keeps forgiving him over and over again and keeps trying to make him into a ‘better person’, even sacrificing his relationship with Dodo and his friendship with Sunny….and what does he get in return?....Dickson backstabs him of course and causes him to lose his memory as well as everything he has (not to mention a lot of innocent people die in the process). Sorry, but Adam’s character totally brought all of that upon himself – I felt no pity for him whatsoever!
To be honest, I’ve never really liked Adam (both as an actor and on a personal level) and I generally refrain from watching his series because he just bores me to death – unless I like the rest of the cast, in which case I’ll usually watch and just try to ignore him. This was definitely one of those situations, as his performance was so-so in this series (and it’s not just because I didn’t like the character either). Throughout the series, I felt that Adam looked tired and worn out, plus his voice sounded really weird – for some reason, it sounded really soft (there were some scenes where I could barely hear what he was saying) and hoarse (like he had a throat issue the entire time)….it felt like he lacked energy and was constantly out of breath. I think this is why Adam’s performances usually bore me – but I have to say that I only noticed it in the last few series that he did (like from the mid-90s and on)….it seems to me that he doesn’t have the “fire” and the passion that he used to have in the 70s/80s (and even early 90s) and it’s really affecting his performances.
Dodo Cheng as So Tsat Hau – now here’s a character that I’m glad they added because she is actually one of my favorite characters on the female side. Of course, it helps that Dodo has always been one of my favorite actresses from the 70s/80s (it’s such a shame that she doesn’t do series anymore – awesome actress!). Dodo’s character is actually the ‘strong woman’ type who is independent-minded and assertive, but at the same time, still able to be feminine. The thing I like most about her character is that she is strong-willed (and so able to pull through adversity) but not rigid or stubborn. This is definitely another great role for Dodo – true, it’s very obvious she has aged in this series and she no longer looks as pretty as she did back in the 70s/80s, but that’s ok because her acting is still awesome – in fact, I really feel that Dodo is the type of actress whose acting gets better with time (that’s why I say it’s too bad that she doesn’t film series anymore because she can definitely still give Liza Wang a run for her money – plus I absolutely prefer Dodo’s acting over Liza’s).
Bowie Lam as Tse Dong -- Bowie plays one of the workers at Dodo and Eric’s shipping company (Eric has a cameo as Dodo’s older brother in the series). He is a good friend of Dodo’s and is also her closest confidante – he’s very devoted / loyal to her and the family and also has a crush on her. I have a lot of respect for Bowie’s character because he is always by Dodo’s side no matter what happens and even though he has feelings for her, never once does he try to cross the line with their relationship being anything more than good friends (even though there were certainly opportunities when he could have, such as when her fiance – played by Gallen – leaves her or when she and Adam break up later on in the series). So in essence, he is perfectly happy with just being by her side and protecting her, even until the end when he does the most admirable thing by sacrificing his life in order to save her and the man she loves (Adam). Bowie was my second favorite character on the male side (after Sunny’s Hui Man Keung of course).
Noelle Leung as Kong Tsi Kwan – One of the biggest differences (other than the obvious added characters and storylines) in terms of existing characters in the series is Noelle’s character. In the original series, Noelle’s character is actually called Ah Tai and is played by 80s actress King Toi Yam – if I recall correctly, the character had a very minor role in the series at the time (she is the woman Hui Man Keung marries when he flees to Hong Kong after a fall-out with Ching Ching’s dad Fung King Yiu). That’s why I don’t have much memory of her character in that series because she pretty much shows up, marries Hui, then is killed by Fung King Yiu’s people (ok, that’s a very streamlined version of what happened, but you get the picture)….I’m ok with this in the original series because I’ve never been fond of King Toi Yam (she used to always play those annoying, bxxchy roles in the 80s) and plus she had zero chemistry with Chow Yun Fat anyway. Interestingly though, Noelle’s character has a bigger role in the re-make – she’s supposed to play the same character, but I think they changed the character’s name on purpose because technically, it’s not the same person (the background of the 2 characters is different).
Though Noelle technically does not have a whole lot of screen time (if you compare to the other female artists in the series, such as Dodo, Nnadia, and even Maggie), it’s actually pretty significant taken on it’s own (her role would definitely qualify as supporting). I totally prefer Noelle’s character in this series over Nnadia’s character because even though she is poor and less educated than Nnadia, she is a lot more noble and respectable in that she was true to her feelings but also understood that things won’t always go according to what she wants – IMO, she was a much better match for Sunny (in terms of character) than Nnadia was. I was absolutely rooting for Sunny and Noelle as a couple in this series – to the point that I was actually a bit bummed out when Noelle’s character dies (even though I already knew it would happen based on the plot from the original series).
Maggie Cheung as Koo Ching Wah – Maggie’s character is another example of an unnecessary character added just for the heck of it. The storyline involving her is really dumb first of all and second the character does not appeal to audiences because of the way it is written. Pretty much, Maggie’s role in the series is that of Pat Poon’s mistress and Adam Cheng’s former girlfriend. Not sure if her role was added to ‘further’ the rivalry between Pat and Adam in the series, but to be honest, it wasn’t really necessary because there is already enough animosity between them, even without her. Plus the whole ‘love triangle’ thing they tried to do in the beginning was dumb because honestly, no one really cares (we already know Adam is going to end up with Dodo anyway and I would much rather they have spent more time on the relationships between Sunny, Noelle, Nnadia, and Gordon). They definitely should have just taken Maggie’s character out completely and used all those scenes with her in them to further develop the plot instead!
Pat Poon as Fung King Yiu – As far as older veteran actors go, Pat isn’t really one of my favorites, but he is a good actor, so I don’t mind watching his series. In most of the series that I’ve seen of his, he usually plays the villain role (maybe because he has that ‘look’?), so not really surprised that they gave him the big villain role in this series. To be honest though, I prefer Lau Dan in this role because Pat just wasn’t convincing enough – in a way, it’s sort of hard for me to blame Pat though because the way the series was written, so much ‘stuff’ was added and changed that in a sense, the role of Fung King Yiu was greatly diminished…for example, in the original series, he was the only ‘villain’, but in this one, Dickson’s character is also a villain. This is significant because some of the ‘evil’ things that Fung King Yiu does in the original series, he doesn’t do in the remake (perhaps because there were more characters and so they had to give some of his ‘tasks’ to someone else?). I’ll talk more about this later….
Dickson Lee as Lok Tin Yau – Dickson plays the son of Adam’s friend / mentor / business partner, who entrusts his wayward son (and his casino) to Adam’s care when he dies. Though on the surface, Dickson’s character is obedient to Adam and appears to respect him and such, on the inside, he actually hates Adam and is upset that his father would rather give the casino to Adam to look after instead of himself (um, that’s because his father is smart and knows how his son is like). So throughout the series, Dickson is pretty much trying to chip away at Adam’s power and get his casino back (most of the time behind Adam’s back) – which is why he becomes the other ‘villain’ in the series, since he does a lot of bad things in order to meet his selfish needs.
I totally think that it was a bad idea to add Dickson’s character into the series because it completely takes away the significance of Pat Poon’s character Fung King Yiu. Fung was central to the original series but in the remake, his character was less significant because they had to make room for Dickson’s villain character. As I will talk about later on in this review, most of the stuff that I feel ‘doesn’t make sense’ actually revolves around Dickson’s character….basically, this was another pointless character that was totally unnecessary in furthering the plot.
Though there were way more characters than the ones I described above, the rest of them are not really worth talking about because they have such insignificant roles in the series (either their original roles were reduced or the character ends up dying near the beginning anyway).
One last thing regarding the characters – I really think that when TVB made this series, their point was to get as many ‘big name’ people in the series as they could, even if they play small roles in the series because half the characters in there were really insignificant…such a total waste of talent! Even though I like this series overall, I definitely think they should have done something with some of the characters (either take them out or develop them further)…this is probably why this series is only a ‘like’ for me and not a more enthusiastic ‘really like’….
The ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘What the Heck?’ moments….
With so many characters and additional storylines added, of course there is going to be a lot of inconsistency with the original series. Even though most of the summaries I read about the series ‘claim’ that the plot involving the original characters is pretty much the same and the primary difference is they ‘added’ stuff (implying that they didn’t really ‘change’ anything relating to the original characters / storyline), this is obviously NOT TRUE – they definitely CHANGED a lot of stuff because they had to find a way to work the new characters and storylines into the original ones….
I’m not going to talk about all of the differences, since there are too many, but I do want to touch on the one that I had the most issue with….
One of the ‘differences’ (between the original series and remake) that I had the most issues accepting was Dickson’s role. If they had just added his character and kept his storyline limited only to the parts that involve Adam and Dodo (since their characters were also ‘additions’, so it would not have affected the original plot), I probably would be ok….but unfortunately, they mixed the storyline involving Dickson’s character into the ones involving the original characters (namely Sunny, Noelle, and Pat), which changes things significantly.
In the original series, the character Fung King Yiu is the ‘root of all evil’ and the ‘battle’ is really between him and Hui Man Keung. In order for Fung to maintain power and control over his area of Shanghai, he does everything possible and ‘removes’ anyone or anything that gets in his way. In the original series, one of the significant justifications for Hui Man Keung to kill Fung King Yiu at the end was to avenge the death of his wife and unborn child (whom Fung had mercilessly killed just because she was Hui’s wife). This was also the primary reason why Hui decided to return to the triad society again after he had been set on getting away from that type of life in the beginning. This part is also significant because near the end of the series, Hui knows that by killing Fung, he would probably lose Ching Ching (since it would be hard for her to forgive him for killing her father), but he was willing to make that sacrifice to seek justice for his innocent wife and child.
In the remake, Fung King Yiu is not the one who kills Hui’s wife and family – it’s actually Dickson’s character Lok Tin Yau who does it. This is the part that doesn’t make sense because we know that Hui is still going to kill Fung at the end (just like in the original) – so what is the justification going to be then, since Fung isn’t the one who kills Hui’s wife? Even though the writers ‘try’ to pull Fung into it (by saying that Fung was the one who put the idea into Lok’s head), it was too much of a stretch if you ask me….Fung may have ‘suggested’ the idea, but if Lok didn’t already have a bone to pick with Hui (and there was already animosity between the 2 based on the way the storyline develops in the remake), it would not have made a difference (plus let’s not forget that Fung wasn’t the one who ‘told’ Lok to do the evil deed, so in a sense, we can’t really say he was the one conspiring behind the scenes).
This was really the WTH moment for me because it really ‘negates’ the second half of the series then (it was like a domino effect – for instance: they are no longer able to ‘properly’ justify why Hui is reluctant to get back in a relationship with Ching Ching and has to watch as she marries someone else, why he becomes so ‘conflicted’ when he has to choose between being with a woman he loves or avenging his wife’s death, etc.)….
So in conclusion (sorry for the LOOONG review), even though “Once Upon A Time in Shanghai” was a fair attempt at remaking “The Bund”, it definitely falls short of the original series in many ways. I think that if they had not added so many characters and changed the storyline so significantly, TVB probably would have had a decent shot of the remake living up to the original’s standards (I, for one, totally buy Sunny Chan as Hui Man Keung and am ok with Gordon and Nnadia as the ‘newer generation’ Ting Lik and Fung Ching Ching as well).
My honest opinion – some of the new stuff is ‘cleverly’ worked in, but some of it isn’t and it actually causes some parts of the series to not make sense….I would have much rather they stuck with a pure remake and use the added characters / storyline to make a completely different series -- that way, it’s less confusing for the audiences.
I still recommend this series to anyone who is interested in that particular genre (early 20th century Shanghai + theme of triad gangs fighting for power) and I actually liked the series (as I mentioned earlier) primarily because of stellar performances from some of the cast…but for die-hard “The Bund” fans, this may not be a good choice – all the changes that they make will probably annoy fans to no end….