Over the past decade, I’ve pretty much lost faith in TVB’s series and in the last 5 to 6 years especially, I’ve given up on watching TVB series as ‘religiously’ as I used to because the quality just isn’t there. And it’s not just about the scripts being mediocre or the acting being horrendous in some cases, it’s more the overall feeling of insincerity that I get from TVB when they try to stick similarly-themed series with the same artists in our faces over and over again (if the script and acting were good, then I could still tolerate the repetition – but seeing that both have been lacking, it has become an “annoyance” over the years). I will honestly say that out of all the series that either aired or were scheduled to air this year, there wasn’t a single one that I was looking forward to – either the storylines didn’t sound interesting or I didn’t like the cast. Or perhaps I got so jaded from the many mediocre series that had aired up to this point, I just wasn’t expecting anything ‘good’ from TVB anymore.
A week or so before TVB’s newest series “The Life and Times of a Sentinel” was to start airing, the previews to the series had already started up – even as I watched the previews, I knew that the series would be different from some of the other series that had aired recently, but I still didn’t really feel a sense of excitement for the series. But since I like the cast (especially the male side) and the storyline seemed like something I would be able to tolerate, I decided to give the series a try. I’m actually quite glad I did because this series was excellent – one of the best that I’ve seen in a long time (given my disdain for newer TVB series, that’s definitely a compliment…LOL). From the first episode that aired at the end of July, I was instantly hooked by the engaging storyline and the suspenseful sequence of events. As the series progressed, it kept a pretty steady pace, though there were a few episodes that did feel excessively draggy and boring (mostly the concubine scenes near the beginning of the series) – luckily though, the less engaging parts were few and far between. The last episode was absolutely awesome and so well-written, I couldn’t help being captivated by the intensity and emotion of the ending, which had me literally in tears during some of the most pivotal scenes (actually, there were several scenes throughout the entire series that tugged at my heartstrings). Of course, no series is perfect and this one definitely had its flaws (some of which I’ll talk about later) – but even taking those ‘flaws’ into consideration, this series was still of a higher caliber overall. It has definitely been a long time since I’ve watched such an exciting, high quality series!
With this review, I will attempt to cover some of the highlights of the series (though it definitely won’t be all-inclusive) with a focus on the characters and the artists who portrayed them.
Cast / Characters
With regard to the cast, my opinion is that overall, the male cast – both the leads and supporting – were quite good and kept the series going, whereas the females were quite weak (except for Ching Hor Wai and Helen Ma). I will be honest and say that I didn’t like the female cast much (again, with the exception of Ching Hor Wai, Helen Ma, and maybe Selena Li), so obviously, I decided to watch this series because of the strong male cast (many of whom I like) – such as Steven Ma, Kenneth Ma, Power Chan, Evergreen Mak, Jack Wu, Lau Gong, Felix Lok, Sunny Chan, KK Cheung, Kwok Fung, etc. Even Chris Lai – whom I’m sort of indifferent towards, since I haven’t really watched too many of his series – did a great job with the few scenes that he had (primarily in the first episode).
Since this series has a complicated storyline and a big cast, I’m only going to focus on a few of the ‘main players’ for the purposes of this review. Again, this review is not all-inclusive – it’s pretty much just summary of my thoughts on the series.
Steven Ma (Nip Dor Bo) -- Steven's character in the series, Nip Dor Bo, is a very complex one, as his background is quite complicated (given his initial family background of being the grandson of a palace guard and losing his entire family due to one person's selfishness, then the subsequent revelation of his true identity as actual royalty) and the various situations he encounters as well as the relationships he forges (be it family, friendship, love, etc.) all require varying degrees of emotion. I feel that the character of Nip Dor Bo was very well-developed, but more importantly, he was very "relatable" for the audiences -- as a person, he was not perfect by any means and oftentimes allowed his own emotions and biases to cloud his judgement, which caused him to do things that were irrational or foolish. And his personality is a bit bold and daring -- sometimes too much, to the point that he gets himself in situations that could have been avoided. But yet, despite his flaws, we can't help but admire his fiery passion in upholding his values and seeking justice for others (and himself), his moving filialness and love for his adoptive parents as well as his righteous dedication to his friends.....there was a good "balance" to his character that made him come across as both realistic and likable. I know for me personally, I enjoyed the character of Nip Dor Bo very much.
In terms of Steven's performance as Nip Dor Bo...well, let me just say that after finishing this series, the best way to describe my reaction to Steven's performance is through one word: WOW!!! Obviously, I can't praise Steven enough for his excellent acting in this series (if he doesn't deserve TV King this year, then no one else does!!). His emotion-filled performance was very powerful on all fronts, to the point that watching many of his most pivotal scenes brought me to tears (can't remember the last time I cried like that while watching a TVB series) -- the scene where Steven (Dor Bo) watches his beloved parents (brilliantly played by Kwok Fung and Helen Ma) die right before his eyes, yet he is not able to do anything about it; the scene at the end where the woman he loves (Selena Li) dies in his arms; and of course, the entire dramatic palace scene after Steven's character reveals his true identity -- more specifically, his 'reunion' scene with his grandmother, the Empress Dowager (played by Ching Hor Wai) as well as the part where he prevents his brother Fook Chuen (Kenneth Ma) from killing himself by using his own hand (and blood) to block the sword (including the dialogue that takes place right after that). The emotional energy that came out of those scenes was so great that I actually had to compose myself after watching them! Basically, Steven’s portrayal of Nip Dor Bo was “perfect” in my opinion!
I can’t say that I’m a fan of Steven’s because to be honest, I only really started paying attention to him in the past few years and so I don’t know enough about him to call myself a fan. However I definitely remember him from the first 2 series that I watched of his – “Files of Justice” and “Healing Hands” – back in the 90s. And even back then, it was obvious that he had potential. I’ve always felt that Steven is one of those rare talents in the entertainment industry who has both the skills (in acting and singing) as well as good looks – and as if that weren't enough, he also has excellent penmanship (he wrote several books and also has his own column in a magazine) and is also a very engaging host (evident from his hosting of “Apprentice Chef” and “Book of Words” in recent years). All in all, the level of respect that I have for Steven as an artist just went up several major notches – and yes, he has definitely made it onto my ‘favorite actors’ list!
In terms of the TV King award this year, I’m definitely in Steven’s corner. I know that there are more series that have not aired yet this year, but honestly speaking, given the list of series that are scheduled to air between now and the awards ceremony, I highly highly doubt that there will be any other performance that will be able to top Steven’s. Even though I know that Steven’s chance of getting the award is very slim (based purely off the fact that certain influential TVB management doesn’t like him), I am still going to root for him (though for the record, it doesn’t matter to me whether he gets the award or not – he’s already the Best Actor of the year in my heart).
Kenneth Ma (Prince Fook Chuen) – Kenneth’s character Fook Chuen was the primary villain in the series. Fook Chuen is actually a very intelligent man and excelled in almost everything he did and in many ways, seemed to be better than his younger brother Yuan Yip (aka Emperor Hong Hei). Even his father, Emperor Shun Ji, thought highly of him and told him that he would be the successor to the throne. However, Emperor Shun Ji’s mother, Empress Dowager Hao Chong didn’t feel that Fook Chuen would be a good emperor because of his aggressive personality and selfish nature – she felt that Yuan Yip would be a better emperor because of his innate compassionate nature. So of course, when Emperor Shun Ji ‘abdicates’ the throne (the announcement to the public was that he had died, but in reality, he was alive and had become a monk) and Yuan Yip becomes successor as Emperor, Fook Chuen is upset and bitter. But he tries not to show it and as he grows up, pretends to be on the Emperor’s side, playing the role of ‘good brother’ and ‘good grandson’ – behind the scenes though, he secretly goes against the Emperor and Empress Dowager and plots to try to take the throne from his brother, using / manipulating everyone around him in the process in order to meet his objective (especially his ‘brotherly friend’ Nip Dor Bo, who, it turns out, is revealed at the end to be his real brother, the 4th Prince). Needless to say, Fook Chuen does not succeed in overthrowing Emperor Hong Hei in the end.
Overall, I feel that Kenneth did a decent job in his role as Fook Chuen. There were several points in the series where I was really impressed with the way he portrayed the character, though there were other parts where I needed some convincing. I think that the biggest problem I had with Kenneth’s performance in the series is that he wasn’t “evil” enough – I could tell that he was trying, but I guess I was expecting a little more, which is probably why I kept feeling like something was missing. It also doesn’t help that I’m so used to seeing Kenneth in those ‘sweet, boyish, bordering on comedic’ roles that was typical of his other characters in the past, so it took me a few episodes to “warm up” to his villain character in this series. With that said, Kenneth didn’t do too bad, considering that this was only his second(?) villain role and the character itself was quite complex.
In terms of acting, I feel that Kenneth has a lot of potential and he’s actually the only one out of the ‘newbies’ from his generation that I’m able to tolerate and even like (I’m sure it’s obvious from my other posts how much I can’t stand the other younger generation artists). He’s a good actor, but definitely has a ways to go before he can reach Steven’s level (Steven was consistently strong throughout the entire series, whereas Kenneth was a bit of a hit and miss).
Power Chan (Emperor Hong Hei) -- At first, I truly felt that Power was miscast as Emperor Hong Hei, as he didn't seem to be able to bring out that 'powerful monarch' feel to the character (seemed too overly compassionate). However, as the series progressed -- and especially after watching the ending -- I realize that the problem really wasn't with Power's acting, but rather, with the way the character itself (Emperor Hong Hei) was written. The feeling that I get after watching the entire series is that the scriptwriter (perhaps intentionally?) focused more on the compassionate side of the Emperor rather than on his sovereignty as a ruler because he/she wanted to created a strong juxtaposition to the aggressiveness of Hong Hei's brother Fook Chuen, whose main goal in life was to 'take back' the throne that was supposedly promised to him by his father (Emperor Shun Ji). I think the writer was trying to emphasize how Hong Hei was the best choice for Emperor because of his compassionate disposition. The only thing is -- in my opinion at least -- the writer made the character of Hong Hei TOO compassionate, to the point that there wasn't enough balance between his sovereign side and his compassionate side.
Historically, Hong Hei was known for being one of the best Emperors that Imperial China ever had, as he truly had a heart for the people and was different from previous Emperors who only selfishly cared about themselves and whether someone was going to come steal their throne / empire (and thereby getting rid of anyone who got in their way). Not only was he a fair and just Emperor, he was also compassionate and righteous when it came to resolving matters (though at the same time, maintaining his sovereignty as the ruler of the country).
Looking at it from this perspective, I feel that Power did his job (quite well, as a matter of fact) in that he successfully brought out the compassionate side of Emperor Hong Hei. As the Emperor, he didn’t order any of the men who helped Fook Chuen to be killed, but rather stripped them of their titles and military power, while rewarding those who loyally and faithfully defended him during the crisis (very appropriate actions and in line with what I would expect the real life Emperor Hong Hei to do). As for his relationship with his wives (the fact that he was extremely lenient and compassionate toward Elaine Yiu’s character) – well, that wasn’t really supposed to be the focus of the series anyway, so I’m ok with the way that piece was handled.
Overall, in terms of Power’s performance in the series, I’m fine with it, as I feel that the limitations of the character through the way it was written was the primarily reason for the impression that he wasn’t portraying the character well. Power is still one of my favorite supporting actors – that definitely hasn’t changed!
Ching Hor Wai (Empress Dowager Hao Chong) – From a historical perspective, Empress Dowager Hao Chong played a critical role in supporting one of the most well-known Emperors (Hong Hei) to the imperial throne. Given all the historical significance, the role of Hao Chong was not an easy one to play. In this particular series, the role was extra difficult because on the one hand, the portrayal of the character couldn’t stray too much from history in terms of personality, yet still had to accommodate the fictional storyline.
At first, I disliked how the Empress Dowager was portrayed to be such a vicious, heartless person in the beginning because honestly speaking, she’s really not an evil person – as the matriarch of the imperial family, she had to take matters into her own hands to ensure that the kingdom continued to run smoothly when her son Shun Ji decided to abdicate the throne. Having the best interests of the people in mind, she chose Hong Hei to be successor because she felt that he would make a better Emperor than Fook Chuen (whom her son had chosen as successor) – of course, this meant that she had to lie about Shun Ji’s ‘last will and testament’ and take extreme measurements to protect this secret (and in turn, protect Emperor Hong Hei). This actually sets the stage for the entire story. The ironic thing is that Hao Chong actually made the right decision, as Hong Hei truly was the best choice for Emperor – the only thing is that the way she went about securing his reign (getting rid of people who knew the secret) was wrong. As I watched how Hao Chong’s character develops throughout the series, I understand that the intention really wasn’t to portray her as an evil villain, but rather to convey the message that despite her status as the elder matriarch, at the end of the day, she is only human and will make mistakes just like anyone else (she actually admits this herself during one of the last scenes when she tells Dor Bo that her decision has proven to be correct, it’s just the way she went about it was wrong).
Ching Hor Wai’s portrayal of Hao Chong actually was quite good – I wasn’t too impressed with the first 2 episodes or so, but after I started getting into the series more, I realized that the casting was actually correct. Now, thinking through the list of veteran ‘green leaf’ actresses who may possibly have been good ‘candidates’ for the role, I don’t feel that they would have been as successful as she was in the role. The palace court scene during the finale was especially critical and Ching Hor Wai definitely pulled out all the stops, matching Steven in her emotional intensity, especially with her facial expressions. The younger artists could definitely learn a thing or two from her performance in this series!
Selena Li (Zhi Ying/Princess Duen Mun) – Selena’s character Zhi Ying is the adopted daughter of a rebel leader from the previous dynasty (played by KK Cheung). She does not know her true identity at first and thinks that she is truly KK’s daughter, only to find out later on that she is actually a Manchu Princess (the half sister of Emperor Hong Hei). She is devastated by the revelation because all her life, she was taught to hate the Manchus because they invaded their land (the Han peoples) and overthrew the previous (Ming) dynasty. Prior to discovering her identity, she meets Dor Bo and they become friends – they start to have feelings for each other, but before the relationship even gets a chance to start, Zhi Ying’s identity is revealed and they aren’t able to further their relationship. In the end, when we find out that Dor Bo is actually the 4th Prince, that means Zhi Ying is his half-sister (though she dies without knowing this) – so in a sense, it’s not a bad thing that their relationship never got a chance to develop….
With regard to Selena’s performance in this series, I guess I should say that I’m indifferent to it – I neither like it nor hate. I like Selena in general, but for some reason, I feel that she didn’t quite perform up to the standard that I know she is capable of. Throughout the series, I really didn’t feel anything for her character and to be honest, I didn’t feel a whole lot of chemistry between her and Steven. I’m not sure if it’s because she didn’t have a whole lot of screen time or her character was underdeveloped. I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt in this case and say that perhaps the focus was more on the Steven / Kenneth conflict, so there wasn’t enough time to develop Selena’s character or her relationships?
Kwok Fung / Helen Ma (Nip Dor Bo’s parents) – Both of these veteran artists turned in brilliant performances as Nip Dor Bo’s adoptive parents. Dor Bo’s relationship with his parents is a unique one, as they love each other even more than biological parents / children. Each time I watched the interaction between Dor Bo and his parents, I’m entirely moved by their relationship and especially how his parents are willing to sacrifice everything for him – even committing suicide for his sake. I mean, how many adoptive parents are willing to do that for their non-biological children? Better yet, how many adoptive parents are willing / able to show such unconditional love for a child whom they raised but is not theirs biologically? From the moment Kwok Fung and Helen’s characters appeared to the moment they died, they did not waver in their love for and support of Dor Bo. Now here’s a great example of how 2 characters can have very little screen time, but absolutely have a huge impact on the series! Interestingly, the 2 of them were my favorite characters from this series – I liked them from the beginning to the end.
Since I talked about the main male characters already (I’m not going to go into much detail about the rest of the characters, as there were way too many to talk about individually – as I said earlier though, they all did great jobs!)
In terms of the rest of the females (other than the ones I mentioned above)….well, most of them turned in poor performances, in my opinion. To me, this was really one of the biggest flaws of the series – other than the ones I mentioned above, the rest of the female characters should have either been cut from the series / script or re-casted….here’s the brief ‘lowdown’…
.—Natalie Tong (Fook Chuen’s wife Guai Lun): Her performance was horrible! I already didn’t like the character to begin with because the character itself was so pathetic, but Natalie’s bad acting made it even worse. From the first scene that she was in, it was obvious that she was merely “reciting” her lines rather than actually acting out her part – I was able to tolerate it for the first episode, but after she kept doing it every time she appeared, it started to get extremely annoying. Also, her acting overall was very wooden and stiff – it just came across as really fake to me. Sorry to say this, but Natalie’s first attempt at ancient series was a major failure – she definitely needs to keep to modern series only!
.—Elaine Yiu (Emperor Hong Hei’s concubine Man Gwan): I really wasn’t too keen on Elaine’s performance in this series, though I admit that I probably didn’t like her character much because she just wasn’t very convincing with her acting. I guess I’m so used to seeing her in those annoying ‘bxxchy’ roles that when she actually does try to do the ‘demure wife’ role, it’s not believable (to me at least).
.—Christine Kuo (5th Brother Chang Ning’s wife): All I’m going to say is, I’m glad she had very little screen time because at least that meant I didn’t have to sit through too many of her scenes. I think what annoyed me most about Christine’s performance is that her voice was dubbed – not only that, whoever ‘dubbed’ it did a poor job because the voice over sounded really weird and fake and watching the lip movements that didn’t match was extremely annoying – to the point that I cringed each time she opened her mouth (hey TVB, if you’re going to dub, at least do it properly!!)
.—Grace Wong (Concubine Wai): Um, Grace’s character was a ‘mis-cast’ of major proportions (boy am I glad that she was only in a few scenes at the beginning of the series)! How stupid is it to cast someone who already cannot speak Cantonese properly in the first place in an ancient series where the dialogue is poetic and complex by nature? I swear, I could not understand a single word Grace said in any of her scenes – plus her character was kind of useless anyway, so what was the point of even including her? If they really needed her character, they could have cast others in that role (there are surely tons of other pageant winners with mediocre acting skills that they could have chosen from).
Additional thoughts / comments:
Below is a compilation of comments that I had posted in the series thread on AF throughout the time that I was watching the series. Since I took the time to write the comments, I figured I should at least include them here as well (though some of the comments are a bit random), as the comments provide additional insight on what I thought about the series overall:
The Script / Storyline:
.—For a fictional story that is loosely based on historical events / figures, I think that the scriptwriter actually did a pretty decent job with the script. True, there were some parts that were a bit confusing and didn’t really make a lot of sense (though I think this was partly due to the editing and the fact that some of the ‘flashback’ scenes weren’t in chronological order), but overall, it was a good story.
One thing that people should keep in mind is that this series is supposed to be loosely based on ancient Chinese history and culture, which makes the writing of the script very tricky -- the most challenging part is that the scriptwriter needs to add in fictional elements to make the story interesting, but can't take too much liberty and stray too far from the history and culture of those times because then the story wouldn't be convincing (plus it would most likely backfire on them if they tried to change history completely).
Of course, the series has its flaws (as expected) and yes, there were definitely some parts that didn't flow too well, but given the complexity of the story and the historical as well as cultural background that had to be incorporated into the story, I actually think that the scriptwriter was successful in incorporating the various elements. Compare this script to the scripts of most of the other series that TVB has produced the past few years and you'll see the difference in quality!
.-- The series ended exactly the same way it began – intense, riveting, suspenseful. Unlike a lot of TVB’s recent series (which are seriously mediocre and bland compared to this one), the writers/producer were truly able to bring this series ‘full circle’ -- and I’m not just referring to the format of having the series start off episode 1 with a scene from the finale – but also in terms of overall impact (the climactic intensity of the opening episode and the ending episode).
.-- For some reason, I wasn't surprised with the ending, probably because I already knew it since the beginning. Not sure if TVB aired the same previews of the series in HK as they did in the U.S., but in the preview that I saw (here in the U.S.), the narrator doing the commentary for the preview already said that Steven 'discovers that he is actually the descendant of the Emperor' (Emperor in this case refers to Shun Ji)....so to me, there really wasn't a 'big secret' at all. The only part that I was surprised about is that Selena was actually the Princess, because for some reason, I always thought that was a 'setup' by Selena's father KK...I guess I was wrong about that piece....
.-- The ending was amazing and kept me glued to my seat the entire time (despite already knowing exactly what happens and what the 'big secret' was since the beginning)....goes to show how intense the ending was. The emotional impact was also quite high -- I was literally crying along with the characters during the last few scenes. I truly feel that everyone in the cast gave it their all during the ending -- that last episode definitely made up for any of the 'issues' I had with the series earlier! In fact, now that the series is over, I'm starting to feel a bit down myself...
I would absolutely recommend this series to anyone who enjoys watching ancient series and doesn’t have a problem with poetic, flowery dialogue (I say this because not everyone likes watching these types of series because they don’t understand the dialogue). It is definitely of a higher quality than most of the other TVB series out there and for that reason alone, it is already worth watching! This series is easily my pick for Best Series of the Year!