Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review of “The Legend of Master Chan 吉星報喜” (1989)

It’s been a long time since I watched this series, so of course, when I saw that it was coming on TV, I was ecstatic. Despite having watched this series several times already, I didn’t mind rewatching again, since I love old TVB series (“old” meaning from the 70s/80s/early 90s) and this series in particular is especially enjoyable.

Even though this series is set in the Qing Dynasty era, it has nothing to do with the Imperial palace or anything of that nature – this is important to note because in recent years, most of TVB’s Qing dynasty era series have been dramatic epics filled with stories about the Imperial palace, the emperor, and infighting between various magistrates, concubines, etc. (to the point that I’m sick and tired of watching series with that theme). This particular series is way different – first of all, it is a comedy rather than a drama, and second, it focuses on the “adventures” of ordinary people as well as those who work for the government bureaucracy…the emperor and his wives are nowhere to be found and in fact only get a mention or 2 in the series (thank goodness!!).

There is definitely a lot to like about this series – the “intelligent” comedic humor interspersed throughout the series (the jokes and such are genuinely funny, to the point that I got a stomach ache afterwards from laughing so hard – and the humor is very wisely done..there’s none of that stupid raunchy slapstick stuff that is characteristic of many TVB comedies nowadays), the storyline is well thought out and fast-paced, the characters are well-developed and believable, etc. But what really drew me in to this series was the cast, which consists of many of my favorite actors/actresses (many of whom are no longer active in the HK TV industry).

The main cast consists of Deric Wan, Kathy Chow, and Margie Tsang, with a strong supporting cast (for the most part) with the likes of Hugo Ng, Paul Chun, Lau Siu Ming, Bak Yan, Michael Tao, Nixon Pang, Gallen Lo, Angelina Lo, etc (there are many more people in the series – I only named the ones that most audiences would be familiar with). The chemistry between this particular cast – especially the trio of Deric, Hugo, and Paul – is absolutely awesome, which is interesting given that it was the first time that a few of the main actors had worked together.

I will admit that one of my primary reasons for watching this series was because of Deric Wan – he is just such a brilliant and versatile actor, it’s very hard not to be drawn in to his series. “The Legend of Master Chan” was actually Deric’s first ancient series and -- if I remember correctly – the only Qing dynasty era period drama that he starred in at TVB (it’s known that Deric dislikes acting in period dramas because he hates shaving his head)….so of course, this series is particuarly special for Deric fans.

As is typical of most of my series reviews, my focus will be on the characters / cast rather than the storyline itself, since most of the time, certain aspects of the storyline end up being revealed in the character analyses anyway.

Here are the highlights:

Deric Wan (Chan Mong Gat) – Deric plays the historical scholar Chan Mong Gat, who is known for his intelligence and wisdom. In the series, his character is extremely smart and talented, but because he has a very playful personality, he sometimes lets that get the better of him and does some mischievious things that make people think that he is a “brat”. His dad (played by Lau Siu Ming) owns a rice shop in the Chan village and is constantly lamenting to his wife (played by Bak Yan) how naughty his son is and how it’s her fault because she spoils him so much. Instead of being serious about his studies in school (which he could definitely excel in if he had put in the effort), Mong Gat spends most of his time hanging out with his classmates and playing tricks on others. Later on, he ends up fleeing the village because of the woman he loves (To Yi Mui) and settles down in Guangdong, where he meets Lau Wah Dong and Fong Tong Gang (more on them later). Also, he re-encounters the ‘fiancee’ Kam Ngin Fung, whose family used to live in the same village, however the parents broke off the engagement when both were just children (mainly because at the age of 10, Mong Gat didn’t know how to talk and Ngin Fung’s family thought he was a mute). They are enemies at first, constantly arguing but then end up falling for each other.

Of course, it’s Mong Gat’s smarts that eventually makes him successful, as he soon becomes a rich and successful businessman (with ties to both the underground world as well as the bureaucracies) and later on, becomes one of the “Three Great Advisors of Guangdong” due to his quick thinking and intelligence. The interesting thing about the character is that he may appear to be a ‘brat’ on the outside, but on the inside, he is actually a very righteous, good man who has a great sense of humor but also is willing to help others and has a certain amount of respect for elders – also, he has no problem forgiving those who have wronged him, primarily because he is able to see the good qualities in them and he respects them.

I love Deric’s performance as well as his character in this series! He is so funny in this series and his interactions with the other artists / characters comes across so natural that you feel like you are right there with him, experiencing what he is experiencing. His portrayal of Chan Mong Gat is very endearing and also refreshing (he’s wearing ancient costume, yet has cool sunglasses on – now how often do you see that?). Watching how Deric’s character deals with the two women in his life (who are constantly arguing with each other) is just plain hilarious – despite his “smarts” and his success everywhere else, his one “weakness” lies in the difficulties he encounters in ‘taming’ these two strong women.

As for how close Deric’s portrayal of Chan Mong Gat is to the actual historical person – well, to be honest, I can’t really comment on that piece because I don’t know too much about the real person. Therefore, when I watched the series, I pretty much took out the historical aspect and treated it as a regular series.

Kathy Chow (To Yi Mui) – I would have to say that Kathy is really the female lead in this series (over Margie), as she has the most screentime (appearing throughout the entire series). Kathy’s character Yi Mui is the daughter of a group of ‘Robin Hood’ type bandits (led by Angelina Lo) and so growing up, she has always carried with her a sense of justice and righteousness, sticking up for people and situations whenever she feels that an injustice is being carried out. Even though she is not too educated, she is a smart woman and very strong-willed, plus she is extremely skilled in martial arts. She is actually a great match for Deric’s Chan Mong Gat, as she is very much on the same level as him in terms of ‘street smarts’. In the beginning of the series, she passes herself off as a male, as her mother sends her to the local school in the village town so that she could get an education (the school only accepts males) – therefore, she has many opportunities to ‘match wits’ with Mong Gat and his classmates. Initially, she falls for Mong Gat’s classmate Chan Gwan Yat (played by Nixon Pang), but after he betrays her and cuts ties with her (and she sees the guy for who he really is), she realizes that Mong Gat is truly good to her and so ends up falling for him.

I like Kathy’s character in this series – she’s smart and loud, but not annoying. Plus she’s a strong character, not meek and shy like traditional Chinese women of that era – I also like how she is very straightforward and isn’t afraid to show her emotions (she is definitely not what I would characterize as ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’, which is great because everyone knows how much I hate weak, badly developed characters).

I also enjoyed the interaction between Deric and Kathy in this series – knowing how many times the two have collaborated, mostly in modern series (though not always paired together), it was interesting to see how they interacted in an ‘ancient’ setting and in a comedy. These two definitely shared a lot of funny scenes together!

Margie Tsang (Kam Ngin Fung) – Margie actually does not have as much screen time compared to Kathy, as she really only appears in the later half of the series (after Deric and Kathy escape to Guangdong). Her character Ngin Fung is supposed to be the polar opposite of Kathy’s Yi Mui, as Ngin Fung had a more Westernized upbringing and so she dresses and talks like Westerner as well (she even has a Westerner boyfriend when she first appears). As is typical of an only child of a somewhat well-to-do family, Ngin Fung is spoiled and has a very willful personality – she likes to throw her weight around and have people heed her every whim. She’s also quite strong-willed as well (yay – another strong character) and sometimes, when she encounters someone she doesn’t like, she purposefully tries to be unreasonable, just because she can (for example, her relationship with Mong Gat in the beginning). When Ngin Fung ends up falling for Mong Gat later on in the series (in the typical TVB formula), she does change her ways a bit in that she is less obnoxious and willful, but still loud-mouthed and strong-willed.

I’ve always liked Margie as an actress and I definitely enjoyed her performance in this series, even though her role was not unique (she’s usually typecasted into playing willful characters). As always, Margie’s acting is very natural (which is one of many reasons why I like watching her performances). Her endless bickering with Kathy in the series is funny, though to be honest, I find Deric’s reaction (as well as the reactions of the other characters) to the arguing to be even more hilarious – the things that they do to try and sabotage each other in order to gain Deric’s attention are a bit formulaic, but funny nonetheless.

As for the Deric and Margie pairing – well, considering how rare it is for the two of them to be paired together (I’m having difficulty thinking of another series that they even collaborated on, let alone being paired together!), I have to say that I would have loved to see more of them. Too bad they didn’t have a whole lot of screen time together (compared to Deric and Kathy, that is).

Paul Chun (Fong Tong Gang) – Paul’s character is a smart aleck who is cunning and smart but can't exactly be described as 'righteous'. I wouldn't call him a villain, but he's not necessarily a 'good' person in the traditional sense because he does things in a way that can be deemed 'inappropriate' or 'outside of the rules'. Most of his time is spent trying to outwit and outsmart Chan Mong Gat, though in the end, he proves unsuccessful in this endeavor and ends up submitting to Mong Gat, even becoming his friend and confidante. And it's pretty much because of him that Mong Gat and Ngin Fung end up together.

As always, Paul Gor puts in an awesome performance as the devious assistant to the magistrate who eventually reforms and changes his ways. Paul Gor has always been one of my favorite veteran actors (I've been watching his series since the 80s) -- what I love about him is that he always puts 100% effort into his roles and whether he plays a good person or a villain (or a somewhat comedic role as with this particular series), he is ALWAYS convincing with his acting. It was alot of fun to watch the 'battle of the wits' between him and Deric in this series, with their characters constantly trying to outsmart and outdo the other, yet in the end, they are able to see each other's good qualities and mutually become friends.

Hugo Ng (Lau Wah Dong) – Hugo’s character is another wise and intelligent man who, when he first appears, works for one of the bad guys, but eventually realizes his faults and becomes a righteous person, going over to Mong Gat’s side and helping him manage his businesses. Wah Dong is actually a friend of Fong Tong Gang’s and even though he didn’t work for him, he supported Fong Tong Gang at first in trying to ‘outwit’ Mong Gat and sabotage him, until he realized that both of them were no match for Mong Gat. He is moved when Mong Gat easily forgives him for doing him wrong and becomes dedicated to helping him, evenutally becoming a good friend.

Hugo does a great job in this series, however his role is very small in here – in fact, I would venture to say that he has even less screentime than Paul Chun. I’m not sure if he was perhaps filming other series at the time because I noticed that there were some group scenes in the latter half of the series where it seemed like he should have been in the scenes, but he wasn’t.

Anyway, I’ve always felt that Hugo was a bit underrated as an actor. He certainly had the potential to be ‘leading man’ material (the looks as well as the acting), but for some reason, he just never really made it very far. I’m actually used to seeing Hugo play serious characters or villains (he’s one of those actors who is perfect for ‘ancient’ series because he looks good in ancient costume and just has that overall ‘ancient’ era feel), so to see him play a somewhat comical character like this one is quite refreshing.

Nixon Pang (Chan Guan Yat) – The best way to describe Nixon’s character in this series: A PIECE OF WOOD!!! (hey, that’s actually pretty similar to his acting in real life…LOL!). His character is one of those ‘book-smart’ types who excels in school, but pretty much sucks in everything else. He’s the “boring” type who doesn’t really know how to think for himself (relies on his dad and the servant boy who takes care of him to think for him and give him advice on stuff) – because he is so ‘rigid’ and ‘by the book’, he is not able to think outside the box and so in a sense, is inferior to Mong Gat, who may not do well in school, but has the street-smarts and intelligence to survive in the ‘real’ world. Nixon becomes a magistrate in the second half of the series, but that’s only because he got lucky (and also because of his dad’s ‘connections’ as the village leader). Both Yi Mui and Ngin Fung like him at first, but after he betrays Yi Mui and then later avoids Ngin Fung because of her “incident” with Mong Gat, he ends up in an unhappy marriage with a woman that his dad arranged for him.

If I had to choose a character to dislike, it would definitely be Nixon’s character – his character is so dense and weak, it’s not even funny! I got so annoyed and bored with his character that I just kept wishing for his scenes to hurry up and be over!

I hate to say this, but I’m glad Nixon is no longer in the industry – the guy just cannot act! He wasn’t in very many series to start with and was only the “lead” in one series while at TVB (bad decision on TVB’s part) – good thing because his “acting” his extremely wooden and boring. Can’t stand watching him!

Angelina Lo (To Dai Leung) – Angelina plays Kathy’s mother and also the leader of the bandits who steal from the rich and give to the poor. Despite being a bandit, she is still a very ‘righteous’ and ‘upright’ woman who understands very clearly right from wrong. Even though she always has to appear strong on the outside because of her position as a leader, it’s obvious that she is also a loving and caring mother, as is constantly looking out for her daughter and wanting what’s best for her future (one of the reasons why she sends her to the village school to get an education). Also, when she finds out that Gallen’s character is actually her long lost son, she is overjoyed that she is finally able to reunite with him, but also understood that in his position as magistrate, he may not want to acknowledge her as a mother, so she was ready for that (luckily, he did acknowledge her).

Angelina is another veteran actress whom I enjoy watching – I remember the first time I saw her was in the “The Seasons” (which coincidentally also starred Gallen Lo) and I’ve watched most of the series that she was in before and after that. She’s a very versatile actress who can play both the benevolent mother as well as the evil, bxxchy roles really well!

Gallen Lo (Magistrate Wun) – Gallen’s character only appears in a few episodes near the end of the series, so I wouldn’t really say that his role was even ‘supporting’. He plays one of the higher Magistrates (Chan Guan Yat’s boss) who comes to Guangdong for the purpose of capturing Mong Gat’s ‘sifu’, who has been on the run for over 20 years (the ‘sifu’ is a blind monk who used to work for the emperor in the palace but ends up going on the run because he accidentally revealed the ‘fate of the Heavens’, which the emperor didn’t like, so he became a fugitive). The Magistrate is actually a very ‘rigid’ person who is very upright and does everything by the rules, so it’s very hard to find fault with him. It is later revealed that he is actually To Dai Leung (Angelina Lo)’s long lost son and because he is a very filial person, he accepts and acknowledges Dai Leung despite her ‘bandit’ lifestyle.

This was actually one of Gallen’s earlier series and it’s obvious that his acting skills were not very polished back then – as is typical of his earlier series, Gallen’s acting in this particular series is a bit wooden (though in my opinion, better than Nixon’s). The thing that stood out most to me about Gallen in this series is that he looked extremely thin and pale, almost as though he was sick or something (maybe filming too many series and didn’t get much sleep?). Anyway, those who are interested in seeing how much Gallen has changed in terms of appearance as well as acting, this series is a good choice for the ‘earlier works’ part.

Michael Tao (Yat Dim Hong) – Michael’s role in this series is also relatively minor, as his character is one of the members of the bandit group led by Angelina’s character (his name Yat Dim Hong comes from the big red mole that he has on his face). He’s the type of person who acts before he thinks (he’s already not very bright to begin with, but add to that the fact that he sometimes acts brashly and doesn’t use his brain when he should, and you’ll see why he finds himself in ‘awkward’ situations more often than not).

Michael may not have much screen time in this series, but his character is absolutely hilarious! I know I had said once that Michael’s strength in terms of acting skill is in dramatic and villain roles, but he doesn’t do too well with comedic roles – at the time I said that, I completely forgot about his role in this series. I definitely enjoyed Michael’s performance in this series – it was funny seeing him make a fool of himself in a lot of different situations!


Honorable mentions:

Lau Siu Ming / Bak Yun (Mr & Mrs Chan) & the actor who played Deric’s ‘sifu’ – Definitely need to give an “honorable mention” to these 3 veteran artists, especially Ming Sir, who had some of the funniest scenes in the entire series (special ‘kudos’ to Ming Sir for maintaining his hilarious accent throughout all of his scenes!). I don’t know if it’s the tremendous amount of experience that these artists have or if it’s just that they are truly excellent actors – whatever the case, it was a joy to watch these artists’ performances!

Gregory Lee (the young Chan Mong Gat) – Yup, you guessed it – child-actor (at the time) Gregory plays the ‘kid’ version of Deric’s character…I guess you could say that he has a cameo in this series because he’s only in the first episode and only in a few scenes. As usual though, he does a great job with those crying scenes!

Lam Yien Ming (Lo Yuet Ngor) – She plays Chan Guan Yat (Nixon Pang)’s precocious, outspoken cousin who at first is ‘smitten’ with Kathy (when she was pretending to be a guy), but then when she finds out Kathy’s true identity, she supports her cousin’s efforts to court her. Her character is actually quite funny because of all the ‘messy’ situations that she gets herself into – especially near the end when she ‘re-appears’ after being gone for a number of episodes and almost messes up all of Deric and Kathy’s plans (another funny moment)! An interesting fact about Lam Yien Ming (the actress) – for those who may not know, she is actor Kent Cheng’s wife in real life…of course, she retired from the industry long ago and nowadays, is a housewife taking care of her children with Kent.


I definitely recommend this series for many reasons. First of all, if time is of the essence, this series is only 20 episodes, so it won’t take too long to get through (plus the storyline is quite fast-paced, so that adds to the overall ‘quickness’ of it). Also, the fact that this is a comedy is another advantage, as you will probably spend most of your time laughing, which will help you forget some of the flaws in the series (which is pretty much what happened in my case). The biggest reason why I recommend this series though – obviously – is the CAST….this series has an absolutely great cast (with a few exceptions), so definitely it is high on the ‘recommend’ list for me!

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