Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review of HKTV series “To Be or Not To Be” (來生不做香港人)

Director:  Luk Tin Wah (陸天華)
Creative Producer:  Stella Choi (蔡淑賢)
Script Supervisor:  Alex Pau (鮑偉聰)

Cast:  Maggie Cheung ( 張可頤), Prudence Liew (劉美君), Savio Tsang (曾偉權), Poon Chan Leung (潘燦良), Lam Lei (林利), Zac Koo (高皓正), Queena Chan (陳丹丹), May Tse (謝月美), Mimi Kung (龔慈恩), Wilson Tsui (艾威), Oscar Chan (), Janice Ting (丁樂), Leung King Ping (梁健), Emily Wong (王歌)

First off, a ‘disclaimer’ of sorts – if you’re looking for a detailed analysis of the Mainland vs HK conflict depicted in the series, then this review definitely won’t be what you’re looking for.  In the course of relaying my thoughts on the series, I might touch on a few Mainland vs HK related issues, but it will only be surface-level stuff, since I’m really not interested in a ‘heavy’ discussion about political, economic, and/or social issues.

Second….as I do with all my reviews, I usually throw it out there first that my review won’t be ‘all-inclusive’ – meaning that it won’t cover every single opinion or thought I had about the series nor will it cover all angles.  I basically focus on a few things that I feel like talking about and move on from there.   Oh and I’m also a bit forgetful and since I’m writing this purely based off memory, I may forget to include some things that I had originally wanted to include…so please bear with me if there are things I don’t cover in this review that might be important or if I’m not as thorough as I could be.

Ok, so now onto the review (which is technically a ‘hodge-podge’ of my general thoughts on the series)…

For starters, let me just say that TBONTB is one of the best series I’ve seen in recent years (I’m talking about HK series only here).  With the overload of mediocre fare that the ‘other’ station has been churning out the past decade, it’s refreshing to finally watch a series that does a great job with all the elements I care about in a series (i.e.: script, cast, acting, pace, aesthetics, etc.).  Most of the series nowadays are usually lacking in one or more (and sometimes even all) of these elements, to the point that sometimes I feel as though the production teams of those series don’t actually care about making a quality series, rather they just hastily throw something together to meet a deadline.  So yes, I definitely applaud the HKTV production team for taking the opposite approach and putting such a sincere effort into making a high quality ‘worth your time watching’ series.

Of course, no series is without flaws and despite how much I enjoyed this series, there were definitely a few things that annoyed me (which I will talk more about later).  Overall though, this is one series that I highly recommend watching (and when I say ‘watching’, I mean actually paying attention to each scene and each episode rather than merely ‘listening’ to the series like most of us might be used to doing with TVB’s series).  What you get out of the series may be different from what I got out of it, but one thing I’m pretty sure of is that you will find something to enjoy about this series.


In my opinion, one of the biggest contributing factors to this series’ success lies in the meticulous effort that was put into the 3 critical elements that make up most series:  the cast / acting, the script / storyline, and the aesthetics (aka production value, visuals, etc.).  With that said, it is only appropriate that this review covers these 3 areas:

The Script / Storyline / Plot

In recent years, I’ve lost a lot of faith in HK’s television series.  The lack of talent and the acting of the newer generation not being up to par are both contributing factors, but the main reason is because of the lack of decently written scripts.  As a writer myself, when I watch series, I instinctively pay more attention to the script (storyline, plot, character development, etc.) than to the acting itself and within the past decade, I’ve been ‘disappointed’ with poorly written scripts more times than I care to count.  It actually got to the point where I was even thinking about giving up on HK television series because I felt like I was wasting my time watching crappy production after crappy production (I can’t even count how many TV series I was actually able to finish watching the past couple years – most were so bad that I would just abandon ship a few episodes in).

Well, that has all changed now with the launch of HKTV.  So far, the 3 series that they’ve aired (The Borderline, The Election, and To Be or Not To Be) have something that TVB series have lacked the past couple years:  well-written scripts!  Since this review is on TBONTB, I will focus only on that series here (though I HAVE commented on the other 2 series’ scripts in other forums).

Now, with this review, I don’t intend on launching into a detailed discussion of all the differences between TVB and HKTV when it comes to scriptwriting (if you really want to know, then read my previous 2 posts recapping the CRHK interview with HKTV’s scriptwriters, as the process is described in detail there).  However, I do want to talk about a few important differences that were apparent in TBONTB’s script, as I strongly feel that these ‘differences’ form the crux of why this series has been getting such great feedback (and why I feel that this is one of the best-written series I’ve seen in a long time).

In a recent interview, TBONTB’s main scriptwriter Alex Pau talked about how the idea for this series came about and described the writing process for the series.  One of the things he said that really stuck with me is that, at HKTV, the script is the ‘main driver’ of the entire production – everything revolves around the script and everyone’s goal is to successfully bring the script to fruition.  This means that NO ONE is allowed to interfere with the script or change it in any way except the scriptwriter him/herself – the job of all the other departments (i.e. artists department, HR, sales and marketing, etc.), the artists filming the series, the director/producer of the series, and even the management team (i.e. Ricky Wong, To Wai Bing, etc.) is to give the scriptwriter their full COOPERATION.  This ‘no interference’ mandate is part of Ricky Wong’s promise of ‘complete creative freedom’ to his production team. 

After watching TBONTB, it’s obvious that the script reflected this ‘creative freedom’ philosophy.  The entire series truly revolved around the script and didn’t stray off into a bunch of different sub-plots / sub-stories that had nothing to do with the main story whatsoever (the only ‘sub-story’ in the series was the younger generation storyline, which I don’t consider as straying completely from the main storyline, since it does revolve around the HK/Mainland conflict).  Every character in the series has their specific role to play and when they are done, they retreat – there is very little ‘overusing’ of certain characters or having unnecessary characters in there who have no significance except to stand around and do nothing.   In addition, the dialogue was very well-written and did not ‘hold back’ at all – the scriptwriters incorporated whatever dialogue they needed to get the message across…there was no ‘censoring’ of the dialogue to avoid offending certain people or certain organizations.  This was especially important considering the topic that the series revolved around:  the HK/Mainland conflict.  The script simply laid out all the facts surrounding this conflict, without bias and without ‘taking sides’, and left it up to the audience to relate to the series in the way that worked best for them (in other words, the series causes us audiences to think and reflect, but it doesn’t try to ‘force’ us to think in a certain way or certain direction…as long as the series triggers thought, that is already enough).  The same can also be said about character development – practically all of the main characters in the series are thoroughly developed and there is not one character that ‘trumps’ the other (I felt like both Mei Tin and Mei Hang’s stories were adequately covered and one wasn’t dominant over the other).  Lastly, and most importantly, the script was tightly written and didn’t drag – the story was told the way it needed to be told and that’s it…I didn’t get the feeling that the director/writers were trying to meet a certain ‘quota’ or cater to certain people with the script.

This is in stark contrast to the ‘TVB way’ where it’s oftentimes too obvious that the ‘politics’ dictate the direction of the series, not the script.  For instance – quite often when I’m watching a TVB series, I feel like some characters are thrown into the series for no good reason or certain characters are more developed than others, resulting in an awkward imbalance -- to the point that sometimes I can’t help but think whether the execs had the producers/scriptwriters incorporate those characters in order to promote certain artists.  Oh and I’m sure we’ve all complained at one point or another about TVB series being draggy and incorporating unnecessary story arcs that have nothing to do with anything.  With all 3 of HKTV’s series so far, I don’t get this feeling at all!  To me, HKTV is doing all the right things (so far) when it comes to the script, which is refreshing to see.  Of course, the scripts will never be perfect and truth be told, there were definitely flaws in TBONTB’s script as well – but at least HKTV is putting in the effort to make things different rather than sticking to the safe, convenient, and conventional route…so I’m willing to overlook these flaws.

The Aesthetics

Obviously one of the biggest things that sets HKTV’s series apart from TVB’s is what I like to call “the aesthetics” – basically the use of high quality, Hollywood-style filming equipment as well as the 100% real location filming of every single scene.  I’ve said this before (numerous times) and I’ll say it again – any consummate actor/actress will tell you how much of a difference it makes to film in a real-life location rather than on a fake set inside a studio.  Ok, I know what some people are going to say – a lot of American series film on fake sets inside a studio too, so I shouldn’t pick on TVB for choosing to do the same thing.  Well, let’s not forget that the management over at TVB are super-duper cheap tightwads and so are definitely NOT going to invest the huge amounts of money that many of the Hollywood studios do to make their sets look realistic and different (how many times have you seen the same fake set in every TVB series?  I mean, even when they try to make the set look different, it still ends up looking the same…oh and don’t even get me started on the costumes and props).  I don’t care what TVB tries to say otherwise – as an audience member watching a series, the real location filming ABSOLUTELY makes a difference, as it adds to the visual enjoyment of the series.  Nothing beats getting to look at beautiful, breath-taking scenery that is so realistic that it makes us feel as though we are right there with the artists in that same scene!   

With TBONTB, the aesthetics was especially important due to the historical aspect of the series.  Since the timeframe of the series is spread over a period of 30 to 40 years, it was definitely important to make sure the scenery reflected the different eras – especially the earlier scenes and flashbacks back to the Hakka village.  The production team did a great job in this area, as I was completely sold on the realistic scenery, plus it helped me immerse myself in the story, particularly the flashback stories involving the 2 sisters, their parents, Siu Sa and his family, etc. 

The Cast / Acting

There’s a lot to be said about the cast of this series – I won’t go into detail about every single character, but there a few main ones that absolutely deserve mention.

First, the women….

Before I go further, I find it necessary to give a brief summary of the 2 sisters’ backgrounds, as this forms the premise of the series and is essentially the catalyst that launches the entire story:

The story starts with the 2 sisters as children (played by child actresses Moon Chan and Suki Lam), born and raised in a Hakka village in rural China.  Their mother Siu Suk Wai (played by former TVB actress Mimi Kung) is a school teacher who loses her husband at a young age and so must raise her daughters alone in the village.  When Suk Wai’s mother Granny Kam (played by veteran actress May Tse) returns to the village from Hong Kong to visit her daughter and grandkids, they decide that it is in the best interest of the girls to have them grow up in HK rather than in the village.  Unfortunately, immigration to HK wasn’t that easy back then and since Granny would only be able to get 1 visa approved, it meant that only 1 of the sisters could accompany her back to HK – the other sister would have to stay back in the village and wait until additional visas could be approved.  It was decided that the older sister Mei Tin would accompany Granny back to HK, since she was more mature and could better take care of herself.  Not wanting to be separated from the older sister who has always loved and protected her, Mei Hang is upset and saddened at the arrangements.  An unfortunate incident happens (I won’t go into detail – you’ll have to watch the series to find out details) that causes the mother Suk Wai to change the arrangements and have her younger daughter Mei Hang go to HK instead.  When Mei Tin wakes up on the morning she is supposed to leave, she discovers that the visa is gone and rushes outside, only to see her mother helping Mei Hang into the car with Granny.  As the car leaves, she chases after it, crying and pleading not to leave her behind – unfortunately, the car drives away and she is helpless to do anything except watch and cry profusely.  After that, the story cuts to 30 years later when the sisters are all grown up and leading separate lives:  in HK, younger sister Mei Hang (played by Maggie Cheung), who is educated overseas and so goes by the Western name Anson, is the ‘stereotypical HK girl’ (we call it ‘gong niu’ in Cantonese) who is self-centered, defiant, bossy, and looks down upon all things Mainland….she is an extremely successful public relations expert and has a (soon to be fiancé) boyfriend named Hill (played by award-winning theater actor Poon Chan Leung) who works at the same company.  Mei Tin (played by Prudence Liew), on the other hand, has become a wealthy socialite in the Mainland who became affluent through her own smarts and hard work – she owns a restaurant chain in Dongguan and lives in a big expensive mansion with her husband Cheung Kwok Cheung (played by Savio Tsang)….Mei Tin is smart and has a strong personality as well as great social skills, which not only help her accumulate massive wealth, but also an abundance of connections all across China.  Against this backdrop, the sisters reunite and various conflicts ensue due to their vastly different upbringing, background, socio-economic status, etc.

Leung Mei Tin (Prudence Liew):  Prudence’s portrayal of the strong, level-headed older sister Mei Tin was ‘perfect’ in my book.  She absolutely put in a performance worthy of her ‘movie queen’ (Golden Horse Best Actress winner) status and truly brought the character of Leung Mei Tin to life!  Savio Tsang’s character Cheung Kwok Cheung put it best when he said that Mei Tin had “the Hakka woman’s natural ability to prop up half the sky with her bare hands” – throughout her life, she faced every situation head-on and never let anyone or anything take her down.  No matter what type of ordeal/hardship/obstacle she faced, whether as a child or adult, she always managed to take it all in stride, maintaining her optimism and positive attitude.  Whenever any problem came up with anyone, she would step in to help resolve it (though unfortunately, she didn’t always get the same support back from others).  It was almost as though Mei Tin was born to be the ‘protector’, taking care of her loved ones regardless of whether they had wronged her – from the beginning of the series to the very end, she never stopped playing this role. 

I don’t think it should come as any surprise that Mei Tin was actually one of my favorite female characters in the series – I was moved by her strength, her dedication and loyalty to her loved ones, her perseverance, her positive attitude, etc….basically way too many traits to list!  Mei Tin had her flaws of course and some of the things she did weren’t exactly the most admirable, but in the grand scheme of things, she did what she had to do given the circumstances.  There were a few decisions she made that I didn’t necessarily agree with, but in the end, things worked out.

I actually never saw any of Prudence’s previous works as an actress (no, I didn’t watch the movie that she won Best Actress for, though I heard she was very good in it), since I grew up in the 80s knowing her as a singer.  I recall that she was in a few movies in the past and even a few TV series (and also hosted a few music-related shows), but I always thought that her forte was in singing (which is still true to some extent, as she sang the theme song for TBONTB and did a great job with song).   Definitely an impressive performance and now I’m actually looking forward to seeing more of Prudence’s works in the future!

Leung Mei Hang/Anson (Maggie Cheung Ho Yee):  Maggie’s portrayal of the bossy, self-centered younger sister Anson Leung was also quite impressive.  On the surface, the character of Anson seems very similar to the roles that Maggie used to play at TVB (the strong, feisty, demanding woman type roles), but if you actually watch the entire series, you will realize that Anson is quite different from Maggie’s previous roles.  Looking deeper, Anson is actually a very well-developed character – a very realistic human being who, though not a bad person, has so many faults that sometimes I wonder how anyone was able to get along with her.  Of course, we see later on in the series that Anson does have a ‘soft’ side, it’s just that she suppresses it more often than not due to past experiences – plus as a business woman in modern society, she has to constantly put up a strong front in order to succeed.  Despite her many flaws, one of the things I did like about Anson was her persistence – she always knew what she wanted in life and her strong personality stayed consistent throughout the entire series.  True, she was less self-centered at the end, as she finally learns how to accept other people’s differences and embrace her own roots, but at no point in the series did she appear ‘weak’ – whether at work or in all her relationships, she was obviously always the dominant one, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as her other half was okay with it.

Interestingly enough, I actually never really liked Maggie until TBONTB.   Now don’t get me wrong – Maggie has always been a solid actress in my book and there’s no doubt that she has good acting skills, but for some reason, I never really enjoyed any of her previous performances at TVB.  Perhaps it’s because most of her past roles were not well-developed enough…or perhaps, as Maggie herself has said in recent interviews, this is the first time in her acting career that she actually received a 100% complete script way in advance of filming, so it allowed her to thoroughly study her character and immerse herself in her role, resulting in such a meticulous performance.  Or perhaps it is the good chemistry she had with Poon Chan Leung and Prudence Liew that also brought out the best in her own performance.  Whatever the case, Maggie did a great job and was able to not only hold her own, but also match her co-stars skill for skill.

From an acting perspective, both Prudence and Maggie were FANTASTIC!!  The emotional scenes, especially in the latter half of the series, were done extremely well – both ladies were very natural and convincing in those scenes….there were no weirdly distorted facial expressions, no OTT yelling and screaming, the crying didn’t feel forced or fake (unlike other so-called actresses nowadays who can’t seem to do emotional scenes without coming across fake and exaggerated).  Prudence and Maggie were absolutely the ‘pillars’ of the series and definitely deserve all the praise they’ve been getting for a job very well done! 

Isabella Zhang (Queena Chan):  Remember earlier in this review I had mentioned that there were a few things that ‘annoyed’ me about this series?  Well, Isabella was definitely one of those ‘annoyances’.  Actually, maybe I should clarify – I found the character of Isabella a bit annoying overall, but I can understand that the character was necessary to the development of the plot, especially with the whole ‘mistress from the Mainland’ story arc (albeit a tad bit overused).   But to be honest, the ‘character’ of Isabella wasn’t as annoying as the actress who played her:  Queena Chan.  Queena’s acting was quite bad – from her shrill voice to her accented Cantonese to her contorted facial expressions to the weird way she said her dialogue – I honestly could not find a single thing to like about her.  Unfortunately, as the series progressed, she got more and more annoying, to the point that I just wanted her to go away and never come back (this may sound mean, but I’m glad that the writers did ‘get rid of her’ in the end).  She was the ‘most hated’ character in this series for me.

I actually had no clue who Queena was prior to watching this series and I still don’t know too much about her even now, which, of course, is fine with me.  In the various articles I had skimmed through about the series, I recall reading that Queena also used to work for TVB but mostly had bit parts in series – Isabella was her first ‘meaty’ role.  After seeing her performance in this series, I can understand why her acting career (if we can even call it that) never made it far.  It’s unfortunate, but Isabella (both the character and the actress) was definitely one of the few ‘blemishes’ in this otherwise great series!

Yau Kam Por / Grandma (May Tse):  As the maternal grandmother, Kam Por was essentially the ‘link’ that kept the 2 sisters in contact with each other – if it wasn’t for her, the relationship between the 2 sisters would have been virtually nonexistent, so her role was definitely critical.  Actually, when we look at the 2 sisters, it’s easy to understand where they got their ‘strong streak’ from – the grandmother herself had a tough life, as she had to raise her daughter on her own when her husband walked out on them many years ago and married someone else – then, after her husband died, she actually sought out and took care of her husband’s children with his second wife, only to have them abandon her once they became adults.  With all that she had been through, it came as no surprise that she had to develop a tough personality – but that ‘toughness’ was only towards those who tried to bully her or her family members…towards her family (her daughter and grand-daughters), she was just like any other elderly parent / grand-parent – loving and doting but at times argumentative.

Kam Por also provided a lot of ‘comic relief’ in the series, especially in all those scenes with Zac Koo’s character Siu Sa (their bickering scenes were hilarious!).  Though she did not have a tremendous amount of screen time in the overall scheme of things, Auntie May put in a solid performance – she was witty, fun, and very natural with her acting.   While it’s true that she played the usual ‘see lai’ type role that she used to do at TVB or in theater works, she’s good at it and that’s what counts the most!

Siu Suk Wai (Mimi Kung):   Playing the mother of the 2 sisters, Mimi only had a cameo appearance in the first episode (though she was also in a few flashback scenes throughout the series).  Despite her brief appearance, Mimi already left quite an impression with her acting.  It had been a long time since I’d seen Mimi onscreen, so my memory of her acting was still back during the height of her career in the 80s when she was a young fa dan at TVB.  Her acting back then was pretty decent, but not ‘impressive’ enough to stand out amongst all the talented actresses of that era.  It makes sense that she is taking on more mature roles now that she is older and a mother in real life – I just didn’t realize how good her acting had gotten since I hadn’t seen much of her onscreen in recent years.  Mimi is also in The Election as well, but her role in there is relatively less significant (even though she has more screen time) compared to TBONTB.  Good job so far!

Lana (Janice Ting) & Lennon (Emily Wong):  Both Lana and Lennon represent the younger generation in HK, though their aspirations and personalities are so opposite.  Lana was Anson’s colleague at the PR company where they both worked, then later when Anson decided to venture out on her own, Lana decided to leave with her, becoming her assistant at the new company.  Lennon is a student who spends most of her time participating in rallies and events that protest against the injustices in society.  Both of them are also indirect love rivals, as Lana’s boyfriend Jacky (Oscar Chan) had joined some of the protests with the alternate identity ‘Headless Knight’ and Lennon was one of his biggest admirers.  I won’t go into much detail on how the sub-story of the younger generation develops, as I’ve felt from the beginning that this sub-story – though relevant to the plot – did not deserve as much screen time as it got (the ‘random-ness’ of some of these scenes detracted from the series a bit -- this was another one of the ‘annoyances’ that I had mentioned earlier).  I get that Lana/Jacky/Lennon story arc was added to reflect current events as well as further emphasize the Mainland/HK disparity, but honestly, the storyline involving the 2 sisters is already more than sufficient to cover both of those areas.  I’m fine with having the characters of Lana and Lennon (and Jacky) ‘exist’ in the series and referred to briefly perhaps, but I definitely wish the sub-story was much shorter!

Next, the men….

Au Yeung Shan / Hill (Poon Chan Leung):  If Anson represented the stereotypical ‘gong nui’ (HK girl), then Hill definitely represented her counterpart, the stereotypical ‘gong nam’ (HK guy) – charming, charismatic, well-spoken (in the sense that he is good with words and is a sweet-talker), etc.  He has high adaptability skills (which helps him adapt well to whatever environment he is in) and tries to ‘be all things to all people’ -- meaning that he tries to please everyone, acquaintances and strangers alike, but especially the ladies (which obviously makes it more difficult for him to maintain stable, long-term relationships, since he’s more susceptible to ‘temptations’ given his personality).  Basically, when it comes to relationships, he is very non-committal, but when it comes to work, he is very much competent. 

From an acting perspective, the character of Hill is not easy to portray at all and if not done correctly, the results could be ‘disastrous’ – which is why I’m glad that they (the scriptwriter, director, etc.) decided to cast Poon Chan Leung in this role because he absolutely NAILED IT!!  This may have been Poon Chan Leung’s first time filming a television series, but it was actually very hard to tell that he was a ‘newbie’ to the TV industry due to his great performance.  Obviously, Poon Chan Leung’s meticulous acting skills can be attributed to his nearly 20 years of experience as a stage/theater actor (and let’s not forget that he is an award-winning actor as well, since he has several Best Actor in theater trophies under his belt).  I’ve always had a certain respect for theater actors/actresses because I know that acting-wise, they rarely disappoint (which is one reason why I have an affinity for artists who came from the HK Academy of Performing Arts, such as Power Chan, Sunny Chan, Rain Lau, Louisa So, etc.).  I definitely enjoyed Poon Chan Leung’s performance and in my opinion, no one could have portrayed Hill as good as he did -- by the end of the series, I was truly starting to understand why all the ladies would be put on by Hill’s charms as well as why Anson would fall for him again and again, despite all the ‘pain’ he put her through (i.e.: jilting her at the alter and also cheating on her).  Oh and I’ve got to be honest:  Poon Chan Leung and Maggie Cheung had AWESOME chemistry together -- I couldn’t help ‘rooting’ for this couple throughout the series, even though I knew I shouldn’t because Hill totally didn’t deserve Anson after the detestable way he treated her.  I’m actually looking forward to (more like hoping for) another collaboration between these 2 in the near future!

Cheung Tai Loi / Siu Sa (Zac Koo):  Siu Sa was one of the most interesting characters in this series.  I will admit that when he first appeared, I actually thought that there was something wrong with him mentally, as the story of his past and his actions kind of pointed to this possibility – for example: both parents died tragically and he grew up as an orphan, he often shuts himself inside his own house with his collection of ‘recyclable’ items, he recites this weird thing about a rocket ship to himself occasionally, etc.  But as the series progressed, I (along with the rest of the audience) realized that there was nothing wrong with Siu Sa mentally – in fact, he’s more ‘normal’ than normal, it’s just that he has a bit of a quirky personality that people who don’t know him may find odd (ok, his appearance seems a little quirky too, but come to think of it, he actually dresses the traditional way that most of the men in the village dressed, but compared to the ‘modern’ style of all the other guys in this series, he does stick out a bit)….as the saying goes though:  one’s outer appearance does not matter as much – most important is what is on the inside.  Well, if we look at what’s on the inside, then I would have to say that Siu Sa ‘outshines’ all the rest of the guys in this series!  Sure, he can be annoyingly stubborn and insistent (and persistent too) when it comes to matters that are important to him, to the point of being a ‘nuisance’ (someone mentioned ‘stalker-ish’ – though in a good way of course -- in one of the discussion forums, which I agree with), yet at the same time, he is fiercely loyal and 100% devoted, especially to the woman he loves.  Actually, he’s quite an endearing character if you ask me!  I know that he and Anson might seem like a ‘mis-match’, both in appearance and personality, but I had no problems with the two of them being together, even though their relationship was brief.  After what Anson went through with Hill, one would think that she would cherish her relationship with a guy like Siu Sa, who treated her like a queen and was so devoted to her (it was so sweet everything that he did for her, especially his very last act of selflessly giving Anson back her freedom, even though he still loved her – and after she hurt him too by being unfaithful in their relationship)…but I guess when it comes to love and relationships, it’s hard for things to always be entirely predictable or conventional.  Perhaps it was all for the better, as I felt that Anson did not deserve someone like Siu Sa anyway….

In terms of the acting -- Zac Koo was amazing in his portrayal of Siu Sa!  I actually didn’t realize that he was such a good actor (I guess I never really paid attention to his acting in the past, since he had such relatively small roles in a few TVB series back then) – admittedly, I was more familiar with him as a host for a number of programs and as a singer/songwriter (as well as his devout dedication to his Christian faith).  Apparently, he has done movies and stage plays and participated in a number of commercials as well (geez, what has he NOT done yet?), so it’s not like acting is new for him – very multi-talented in my opinion!  After seeing his performance in this series, I’m actually interested in watching his other works as an actor.  I heard that he is in Once Upon a Song (the HKTV series currently airing) as well, so I’ll definitely keep an eye out for him in there.

Cheung Kwok Cheung (Savio Tsang):   In a nutshell, Kwok Cheung was Mei Tin’s ‘useless husband’.  Next to his very capable wife who always ended up being the one to resolve any problems that occurred (whether big or small), Kwok Cheung was ridiculously incompetent (though personally, I found it kind of funny how he would always go running and crying to his wife when he got himself in trouble – sort of like a little kid who always needed mommy to clean up his messes).  Knowing that he couldn’t do without his wife, it’s logical to think that Kwok Cheung wouldn’t dare put his marriage in jeopardy, right?  Wrong!  First of all, it turns out that Kwok Cheung was a ‘wife-beater’ (when he drank too much alcohol, he would go berserk and beat his wife), which is already ‘unforgivable’ in my book (sorry dude, but whether you ‘meant’ to do it or it was the influence of the alcohol doesn’t matter).  As if that weren’t enough, he’s also a ‘cheater’, as he secretly got involved with another woman who bore him a daughter and supposedly became pregnant with his son (and he later brings the mistress home too) – such a douchebag!  He should get the ‘World’s Worst Husband’ award!!  I’m sure most of us female audiences who were watching were hoping Mei Tin would divorce him right away (don’t even wait for the ‘third strike’ – he should have been ‘out’ already with the first strike!)….well, she doesn’t divorce him (though at least she didn’t stay in the same house with him – she moved out and left him to grovel in his own misery…that’s better than nothing, I guess).  Though he eventually learns his lesson and goes running back to his wife in the end (because he finds out that the mistress was ‘using’ him and neither kid was actually his), it’s too little, too late – Mei Tin doesn’t take him back (good for her!!) and instead starts a new relationship with Bao Suen (Lam Lei).   Kwok Cheung’s case is definitely a wake-up call for the guys out there – if you betray and hurt someone often enough, even being married 20+ years isn’t going to save the relationship!

Savio is a great actor (hugely underrated though) and his portrayal of Kwok Cheung was right on point!  So far, looks like he made a good decision to leave TVB and join HKTV, as he hadn’t gotten a decent role in years from TVB.  The 2 HKTV series that he has been in (The Election and TBONTB) have truly allowed him to show his acting prowess.  I think most audiences had largely forgotten about Savio in recent years due to the lack of decent roles, so both series are airing at the right time now – hopefully his solid performances in both series will help ‘resurrect’ his career a bit and help him get the recognition he rightfully deserves. 

Tam Chun Fai / Bao Suen (Lam Lei):  Bao Suen’s background is a bit complicated, so not going to go into too much detail about that piece.  But he is definitely a good match for Mei Tin in my opinion and I’m pretty happy with the way the scriptwriters wrote his storyline.  Mei Tin certainly deserves a man who not only loves her and respects her, but most importantly, is capable of being successful on his own accord.  I was actually quite touched by their relationship line, especially near the end when Kwok Cheung finally comes to terms with the fact that Bao Suen is better suited for Mei Tin than himself and withdraws from the relationship, allowing the two of them to pursue a new life together.

It’s been years since I’ve seen Lam Lei in a decent role.  Ever since he returned to the HK television industry after a long stint in Taiwan, most of his roles had been relatively minor or insignificant.  Now, I haven’t seen any of Lam Lei’s series outside of the HK ones, so I can’t comment on how his acting was in those.  But back when his career in HK was most active in the 80s/early 90s, I actually felt that he had potential as an actor (I’m sure most TVB old-timers like myself will still remember his performance in 1990’s Blood of Good and Evil – which, by the way, is one of the best series TVB ever produced!).  Anyway, glad to see that he is making somewhat of a comeback in the HK market.  His brief cameo appearance in HKTV’s The Borderline (which aired prior to TBONTB) wasn’t really enough to show his abilities (though the fact that he played a villain in that series contrasted well with his ‘good guy’ role in TBONTB), so I’m glad they aired this series right after.  He’s also in quite a few of HKTV’s upcoming series so hopefully we get to see more varied roles for him.  [Sidenote:  Not sure if anyone else noticed, but 2 of the 3 (technically 4) members of HK’s Little Tigers have been making a comeback in recent years, not necessarily in singing, but in acting -- Lam Lei has been filming for HKTV while William Hu (胡渭康) is filming for TVB.  And it’s also interesting that neither one of them has changed much in appearance – though Lam Lei does look like he has aged quite a bit…William on the other hand, doesn’t look like he aged much at all!]

Leung Chan Kong / Uncle Kong (Wilson Tsui):  Wilson’s role seemed relatively minor on the surface but was actually quite important in the story arc concerning the whole Mainland vs HK conflict.  From the very first scene in the series (when he’s trying to escape to HK with his girlfriend/wife and even though they eventually make it, she ends up dying) to the various moments throughout the series when he’s struggling to live a decent life as a Mainlander in HK but encounters one obstacle after another – his story closely mirrors history as well as current life and highlights the vast change that HK has undergone in the span of 30 years.  Wilson played his role well, as I knew he would, since he has always been a good actor – it’s just unfortunate that he toiled at TVB for close to 30 years and has nothing really to show for it.  Well, he did a good job in this series and I’m looking forward to seeing his first lead role in HKTV’s Hidden Faces (whenever they decide to air that series) – I’m sure he’ll do fine!

Jacky (Oscar Chan):  I talked a bit about Jacky already in the section about Lana and Lennon above, so no point in rehashing all that.  I honestly didn’t see the significance of his character except to push the ‘younger generation’ sub-story.  In fact, I really can’t remember anything important that he does related to the main story of the 2 sisters (unlike his girlfriend Lana, who was actually important to the plot).  Acting-wise, Oscar was okay, though to be honest I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to his scenes so can’t really comment much.

I had actually read an interview where Maggie Cheung had mentioned that she had received all 30 episodes of the script prior to starting filming (which allowed her to do her homework and immerse herself into the character).   Well, we all know that the series was only 25 episodes -- I’m not sure if the magazine that published the article put the wrong information or there were originally 30 episodes but it got edited down to 25.  If it’s the latter, I’m actually very curious to know what got edited out – I would’ve preferred that the ‘younger generation’ storyline got edited out rather than any part of the main story concerning the 2 sisters.  Unfortunately, we probably will never know….

Concluding Thoughts….

No review of TBONTB would be complete without mention of the theme song: “Two Cups of Tea” (兩杯茶) sung by Prudence Liew.  The melody of the song is very nice and goes well with the beautifully written lyrics (by award-winning lyricist Lin Xi) – not only that, the song complements the series perfectly!  I completely agree with what Alex Pau said about the theme song during his radio interview:  Prudence’s style of singing and her voice, coupled with Lin Xi’s lyrics that reflect the plot of the series perfectly, take us back to those days in the 80s and 90s when theme songs actually felt ‘connected’ to the series.  Back in those days, when we listen to a series’ theme song, the scenes from the series would instantly run through our heads.  Nowadays, the theme songs for most series don’t give off the same feeling and instead, seem to be ‘detached’ from the series (as though the song has nothing to do with the series at all).


  1. Thank you thank you so much for the review. The series from HKTV are like oasis in the middle of a desert. They offer and inject fresher topics into their dramas and give different viewing experience. Too bad I can't watch it since the drama is not available anywhere in my region. But once again, thank you for spending some time to work on this marvelous review and got into the depth on some characters

    1. @Anonymous: Thanks for your comment! Glad to hear that you enjoyed reading the review -- I was actually very happy to do this particular review, as I enjoyed TBONTB immensely -- definitely makes things easier! :-)

      Hopefully you get to watch the series one day, as it is definitely worth the effort. Reading a review is one thing -- of course watching the actual series is an experience within itself!

  2. I enjoyed the series a lot. I definitely agreed with you on the character, Hill. Even though he was such a douche bag for treating Anson the way he did, but I cannot help routing for them throughout the whole series. There is something about him that is very charming, I like  He does understand her pretty well, but Anson’s personality can be hard to deal with as she is very controlling. She is one tough cookie to be with. I especially agreed with you that this is not an easy role. Any bad acting would make his role most hated character.

    Totally agree on Isabella, the character and the actress…best word to describe: annoying.

    I beg differ on Prudence Liew’s character, Mei Tin. While she have good acting, but her character is unbelievable. She is in my annoying factor for most part of the series..haahaha I wanted to smash the TV at the scene where her in law beg her not to get a divorce. I hated her character for accepting her husband adultery, giving him chance after chance, and even willing to financially support his kid and mistress. The scene where she allow the mistress to take over her house was just insane. The only thing in my mind was – this lady is dumb…period.

    Bao Suen is in borderline of annoying too. The way how he love Maggie at first is pretty creepy. LOL

    1. @Kathy: Thanks for commenting! 

      So true about Hill – the way the character was written could’ve easily gone the ‘most hated character’ route if not for Poon Chan Leung’s excellent portrayal. I’ve actually taken a liking to Poon Chan Leung now after TBONTB and look forward to seeing him in future series (though it will be very hard to get used to seeing him without the mustache/beard, that’s for sure!).

      As for Prudence’s Mei Tin – actually, I had thought the same thing as you in the beginning. I was so pissed during those scenes when Mei Tin got upset at her sister time and time again for trying to help her ‘leave’ Kwok Cheung – and yes, I also hated that scene where Mei Tin caves in to her in-laws and changes her mind about divorcing Kwok Cheung….I was so ticked off that I wanted to throw something at my computer…lol. But after watching the entire series, I changed my mind because I realized that doing what Mei Tin did wasn’t totally out of character for her because remember how filial she is. I mean, this is a woman who took care of her mother for 7 years when she fell ill, despite the injustice she suffered with her mother switching out her visa. Sure, it would have been ideal for her to divorce Kwok Cheung right then and there, but I could also understand her reasoning for not doing so for her in-laws’ sake. Plus, remember that even though she didn’t divorce Kwok Cheung, she also didn’t stay with him either – she moved out and started a new relationship with Bao Suen. And even when Kwok Cheung went running back to her, she didn’t take him back either. I feel if that part of the storyline had been written differently (meaning that if Mei Tin had decided to take Kwok Cheung back or sacrifice her relationship with Bao Suen because of it), then I probably would not have liked her character at all because at that point, she would be the typical ‘weak woman’ character that I see a lot in TVB series. Looking back after watching the entire series, I feel Mei Tin’s character is realistic and her actions are in-line with the way her character was written (though it may not seem like it at the time those particular scenes occurred).

  3. Wow, such a detailed review! Out of the 3 HKTV series (Borderline, Election & TBONTB), this one is definitely my favourite because both sisters' storylines were interesting and great acting by all the main characters. Yes the story is not perfect (I wish they didn't make Isabella so 'crazy', she was an interesting character when she first appeared.) and I also thought Anson's storyline lost a lot of charm towards the end. Well, actually Hill lost me the minute he said 'I'm still in love with Anson' and then 2 minutes later started kissing Isabella... HRMMMMM.... just no. Not to mention them sneaking around... I guess Anson and Hill probably deserve each other.

    I have to say though, the Jacky/Lana/Lennon storyline annoyed me for most of this series (like 20 eps) but I started to appreciate it towards the end. Not the 'love triangle' of course, but I thought Jacky's struggle between what society expected of him and chasing his dreams is interesting and had potential...

    1. @Kat M: Thanks for the comment.

      Definitely agree about the character of Isabella. And I also hated how Hill was so nonchalant with his relationships. I remember one scene at that bar when he was venting to Roy about his relationship issues and Roy asked him he didn’t just get back together with Anson if he still loved her – Hill answered that even if he got back together with Anson, he would still have an affair with Isabella behind her back…he just couldn’t control himself. Hmmm….um, yes, the guy is charming, but with that kind of attitude toward relationships – thanks but no thanks...

      Also agree with your comments about the Jacky/Lana/Lennon storyline.

  4. I agree that Isabella is an annoying character in the series, but don't forget that she was born and raised in HK (in real life). I applaud her effort in trying to speak Cantonese like a Mainlander, and Mandarin fluently.

    1. @Anonymous: Thanks for the info! I didn't bother looking up Queena Chan's information so didn't realize she was actually born and raised in HK. She definitely came across as a Mainlander to me, so from that perspective, yes she was very convincing with her fluent Mandarin and accented Cantonese. I think that if her character was less annoying, most of us would have been able to pay attention to her performance more.

  5. I finished watching all episodes within a week. The highlight of the series for me was the heart to heart talk between the two sisters nearing the end. The acting was phenomenal. Although I am a bit curious. Some (or even all) of the scenes in the trailer were not in the series. Would you know if those scenes were edited out or the trailer was done ala TVB sales presentation type?

    1. @Joshua: Thank you for commenting and welcome! :-)

      The scene you mentioned is definitely a great scene, though it's hard for me to pick a favorite since the entire series was so good.

      In terms of the scenes not matching from the, the trailer was not done TVB sales preso style -- those scenes were truly edited out. The series was originally 30 episodes, but it was edited down to 25 episodes. All of HKTV's series were edited actually -- TBONTB is already one of the series considered having few edits...there are some HKTV series were more half the episodes were edited out!