I came across this article the other day and felt like sharing it. The article is a quick, interesting read that discusses some of the most common ‘characteristics’ of Hong Kong’s investigative/mystery TV series. Now of course, whether we view these ‘characteristics’ as positive or negative is up to the reader/audience, as each person’s viewpoint is different (though the writer of the article seems to view these characteristics as negative based on the sarcastic tone that he/she used to write the article).
Obviously, the writer is mainly referring to TVB’s series in the article (I guess we could say that is one disadvantage of being the only TV station in HK – when they is ‘criticism’ about “HK television series”, 99.9% of the time they are talking about TVB series). With that said though, there IS mention of HKTV in the article and one of their series was talked about as having a similar ‘formulaic’ aspect to it (I’m sure those who’ve been following HKTV can guess which series, as I know we’ve talked about it in discussion forums). To be honest, HKTV’s series also have some formulaic stuff in them, but I’m able to be more forgiving towards them because 1) they did put in huge effort to ‘break’ from the traditional TVB formula and produce series that are different from what HK audiences are used to; 2) they dare to explore topics that are ‘taboo’ or off-limits in HK (i.e. politics, Mainland/HK conflict, etc.), and 3) they have not been in existence for long (though some may argue that they are technically ‘illegitimate’ since they don’t have a license) and already they are exploring different things, whereas TVB has been around for more than 4 decades and despite their series going downhill, they still refuse to change.
Anyway, I digress…..going back to the article, how many of the below defining characteristics of HK television series do you agree with?
P.S.: In my translation, I tried to keep the writer’s sarcastic tone as much as possible, since the sarcasm is really what makes this article an interesting, witty read. However, I recommend reading this article as it was originally written (in Cantonese) to get the full effect.
999: Hong Kong-style investigative TV series
Article originally published July 9, 2015
In the past few decades, Hong Kong’s biggest (and only) TV station has come out with its fair share of investigative series (推理劇). [TN: for the purposes of this article, I will use the word ‘investigative series’ to describe推理劇 however those who prefer ‘detective series’ or ‘mystery series’, feel free to use those terms instead]. These types of series generally have an abundant, complicated storyline and are almost guaranteed to pull in good ratings – indeed, these series had their glory days for a period of time. However, as we all know, the traditional path for HK’s scriptwriters is to get ‘inspiration’ for their stories from American, Japanese, and Korean investigative series as well as novels. This is why, in many of HK’s TV series, we often see familiar story concepts such as those found in the works of [Japanese novelist] Jiro Akagawa (赤川次郎), manga series Case Closed (aka Detective Conan), American series such as NYPD Blue and CSI, etc. Now of course, the scriptwriters can’t copy those works verbatim, so they will always mix in some of their own ‘ideas’ to the story so as to make it their own – and with that, the ‘essential characteristics’ of HK television series was born.
1. Working professionals (專業人士)
In HK series, the main lead is usually a working professional of some sort: police officer, lawyer, doctor, high-ranking detective, forensics investigator, professor, etc. Sometimes the character may even have more than one occupation that covers a combination of these professions. What about ancient (costume) series, you ask? Constable, guard, magistrate, bureaucratic official, etc. -- take your pick. Oh and if they have any sort of martial arts skill, it makes their job of solving cases much easier! Actually, Western series often go the ‘professional’ route as well, so we’re not too far off, I suppose. Besides, in recent years, we’ve seen more of an emergence of less professional characters such as insurance agents, theater masters, etc. – I guess we can consider that a bit of improvement!
2. One case per week (每周一單case)
Everyone knows that most Western investigative series utilize the ‘one case per episode’ route, which makes the story fast-paced and tightly written. HK investigative series on the other hand, usually have two cases spanning 1 week, with 1 story easily taking up 3 to 4 episodes. Investigative costume dramas, such as Justice Pao for example, are usually only 1 case per week, which of course means that the plot develops unbelievably slowly and oftentimes the story drags. Actually, HKTV’s chairman Ricky Wong (王维基) had tried changing things up at one point, sending his scriptwriters overseas to learn the American way of filming series in the hopes of bringing a ray of light to HK audiences. But we all know how that ended up, right? No need for further explanation there! So all you HK audiences out there, don’t even think about getting to watch this type of fast-paced investigative HK series any time soon!
3. ‘Perfect’ main leads (完美主角)
If you notice in most HK investigative series over the past decades, the main leads are all physically fit and mentally as well as psychologically competent. Dayo Wong’s (黃子華) character Detective Mok from TVB’s 2003 series To Catch the Uncatchable (棟篤神探) can be considered a rare exception, as he has asthma, so he is not able to heroically carry the series’ female lead Ada Choi (蔡少芬) out of an inferno (like all his other counterparts have done with their female leads). Scriptwriters of Western series already realized a long time ago that having their main characters be ‘perfect’ is way too unrealistic, so they will usually add some type of ‘flaw’ to the character – for example, making the character have an obsessive-compulsive disorder or some type of physical handicap.
4. Suspects voluntarily confess (疑兇自爆)
Don’t know why, but in most HK investigative series, when it comes to solving cases, the pattern is almost always the same: when the suspect is caught and questioned on whether he is the killer, he will first give you that ‘how did you know?’ look, then inevitably he will confess to the crime. Not only that, he will then start describing in detail every bad thing he did and his justification for doing it – things that perhaps you already knew as well as things that you didn’t. Boy do we wish that criminals in real life would be this cooperative – we could save a lot of money in attorneys’ fees and also a lot of precious public time and money!
5. Reenactment of cases (案件重演)
In HK investigative series, once the suspect confesses to the crime, there’s no need to wait for Police Report (警訊) to find out the details of the crime. Automatically, the case will go into the ‘reenactment’ stage, the scene’s background color will change to either black and white or a lighter color, and the suspect will then start ‘telling his story’ from the beginning: how he killed the victim, how he disposed of the body, how he framed someone else for the crime, how he misled the police, etc. etc. In fact, the description will be so detailed that audiences pretty much only need to watch those few minutes of confession and they will already know the exact story that occurred in the previous few episodes.
6. Voiceover accompaniment (v.o.配畫面)
HK’s TV stations generally believe that reenacting a case in detail is not enough to help the housewives (whose minds are probably numb from doing household chores all day) or the elderly folks (who most likely have weakened vision) understand the case completely from beginning to end. Therefore, they (the TV stations) will very ‘attentively’ add voiceover (旁白) to accompany the reenactment scenes: for example, the scene shows the suspect standing over the victim, knife in hand, ready to stab -- the voiceover accompanying that scene involves the suspect saying, “At that moment, I decided to stab him!” Another example: the scene shows the suspect digging a big hole in the ground, obviously to bury the body, yet it is necessary to have the voiceover say “I dug a hole and buried the body.” So attentive indeed!
7. Homosexuals are killers? (同志係兇手？)
An earlier analysis of HK television series concluded that HK-style investigative series with homosexual characters usually will portray them as killers or other criminals. A recent example is last year’s TVB series Officer Geomancer (八卦神探) where the lesbian character portrayed by Pauline Chow (周寶霖) ended up being a serial killer. Oh and remember Kevin Cheng’s (鄭嘉穎) character in 2007’s The Ultimate Crime Fighter (通天幹探) and Kiwi Yuen’s (袁潔儀) character in 2005’s Into Thin Air (人間蒸發)? Both were homosexuals and both ended up being murderers. In the few instances where homosexual characters are not written as killers or murder suspects, they are still not portrayed in a good light, with those characters usually being a villain or a bad person. I wonder if this is considered being prejudiced?
8. Love story, love story, and more love story (愛情、愛情再愛情)
Not sure if HK’s scriptwriters feel that most Hong Kongers’ lives are dull and uninteresting so they feel the need to ‘spice things up’ with complicated love relationships. In practically every investigative series, the scriptwriters will add at least one (though more often than not it’s ‘many') love relationship line for each of its main characters – the most classic example of this is Detective Investigation Files IV (刑事偵緝檔案IV), which featured 2 male leads and 4 female leads in love relationships that at times overshadowed the plot itself. It’s almost as though if a series doesn’t have complicated love relationships, no one will watch. Wait a minute….I remember now that a scriptwriter told me once that there really was a series that had no love relationship lines whatsoever – the ratings ended up in the toilet and the station even threatened to ax the series! Well, in that case, what else can I say except to admit that HK audiences truly do need love relationships in order to survive?
9. The ‘twins’ antidote (孖生解藥)
With investigative series, we know that scriptwriters are endlessly immersed in conjuring up various ideas for their cases. So it’s reasonable to expect that, at times, they will come up with cases so complicated that even they cannot come up with a plausible way to solve them! Well, no worries, because when in a rut, the sure-fire way to resolve it is to add a twin brother or twin sister character to the mix! A few examples: Ram Tseung’s (蔣志光) character in 1997’s Mystery Files (迷離檔案) as well as Maggie Siu’s (邵美琪) character in Detective Investigation Files IV (刑事偵緝檔案IV) both had twin siblings who ended up being killers (though it’s not discovered until after the characters appear to suffer from schizophrenia, only to realize afterwards that it was the twin all along). Even HKTV’s The Borderline (警界線) had to resort to the ‘twins’ storyline in order to resolve the ‘mystery’ of killer Pandora’s true identity.
10. ‘Everything goes’ ending (合該有事)
As if all the ‘out of the ordinary’ cases that the main leads experience throughout the series is not enough (hey, in real life, there are cops who’ve been in the police force for 30 years and don’t encounter the ‘extraordinary’ cases the characters in investigative series do), the scriptwriters find it necessary to make the lead characters' lives as ‘dramatic’ in the finale as possible. Therefore, in the series’ final case, the tables are usually turned on the main leads, with them either being framed or getting into all manner of trouble that is [seemingly] impossible to get out of. Oh and of course, in the end, the female lead and / or her family have to be pulled into the mess as well, with the most common situation being kidnapping or holding them hostage. Don’t believe me? Go ask Jessica Hsuan (宣萱)! [TN: Haha…I laughed at that last part – Jessica probably holds the record for being kidnapped/held hostage the most in TVB series].
Here’s my take on the 10 ‘characteristics’ that the article describes:
The first point about working professionals I actually don’t have a problem with, as it’s kind of hard to avoid. I basically don’t see a problem with going the ‘working professional’ route as long as the story is written well.
Point #2 I’m definitely in agreement with, as that’s one of the main reasons why a lot of the series get so draggy (though there’s other stuff too, such as the love relationship thing they mentioned in #8). In fact, isn’t that one of the biggest complaints with TVB’s series in general – that they aren’t “fast-paced” enough and drag on and on unnecessarily?
Point #3 is a bit of an exaggeration (especially with the ‘carrying the female lead out of an inferno’ part), but it does have some truth to it in that oftentimes the main leads in HK series truly are ‘too perfect’. This one is pretty much an indirect critique on the lack of character development in many of TVB’s scripts.
Point #4 -- I agree that the suspect confession thing truly is overused in most of TVB’s investigative series – the writer made a good point with the example of criminals not being so “cooperative” in real life…I mean, how many times have we seen a suspect get arrested, get proven guilty, and go to jail, but never once confess to committing the crime? Too many times to count.
Points #5 and 6 had me laughing really hard. Yes, the writer was overly sarcastic (I don’t think the housewives and the elderly would appreciate being stereotyped like that), but what he/she said is very true. This is pretty much a jab at the constant redundant dialogue in TVB’s scripts, which we already know is a big problem for them (this is definitely not the first time it’s been brought up). When I first read this point, I was reminded of something I had read about HKTV a few years back, how Ricky Wong was so adamant about his scriptwriters not having redundant, wasteful dialogue in their scripts – his philosophy was: the less dialogue, the better. It’s obvious that HKTV spent a lot of time refining this area in their scripts, which I as an audience definitely appreciate…
Personally, I’m glad they put point #7 in there because the way TVB portrays / handles homosexual characters has been a long-standing problem with their series and one that is extremely disturbing given how huge an influence their series have on society. The part I’m not sure of is whether they handle the characters this way out of ignorance or out of bias – either way, it’s definitely a problem. I will have to say that, so far, I definitely appreciate the approach that HKTV has taken to homosexual characters in their series (which is completely opposite of TVB’s) – and like The Menu’s scriptwriter Poon Man Hung said during an interview: since she does not have experience writing about homosexual characters and therefore doesn’t have the confidence that she can handle the subject properly, she would rather just touch on it briefly like she did in The Menu and leave it at that….obviously a smart decision!
Point #8 has always been one of my pet peeves since I learned how to write scripts many years ago. While it’s true that there will always be some type of ‘love’ relationship in all scripts, the part that TVB’s scriptwriters don’t seem to understand is that ‘love relationship’ doesn’t always have to mean romantic love – there’s love between family, friends, even strangers that can be completely platonic. To me, putting too many complicated love relationships into a series whose focus is not above that at all totally detracts from the original story itself (I think the writer read my mind here because the first example that came to my mind when I read this one was also DIF IV, as that has always been the biggest ‘complaint’ I had about the series – though of course there are many others with the same problem too).
Point #9 is one that I think pretty much everyone agrees with as being a common ‘issue’ with HK series. I kind of think that HK (meaning TVB) series have a bigger problem with this than others because of the way they operate in terms of casting and availability of artists and yes, the politics. Oh and of course, the ‘obsession’ with filming a sequel to practically every series with the same or similar cast doesn’t help either….
And finally, point #10 – another point well-made that is very true of many TVB investigative series. In fact, I feel this type of ‘everything goes’ finale should be ranked right up there with the cheesy BBQ ending thing that TVB gets criticized about all the time (LOL). And poor Jessica – no wonder she doesn’t want to film for TVB anymore, especially since they keep giving her the same types of roles (that also go through the same types of experiences) over and over again….