Review: “The Life and Times of a Sentinel” (TVB 2011)
The Life and Times of a Sentinel <紫禁驚雷>
Producer: Leung Choi Yuen
Genre: Historical Fiction
Number of episodes: 25
Who’s In It?
Cast in no particular order:
Kenneth Ma as “Fu Tsuen” or “Prince Yu” or “Second Imperial Prince”
Steven Ma as “Nip Dor Po” or “Very Capable Bodyguard”
Power Chan as “Hong Hei” or “Emperor” or “Point-Man”
Selena Li as “Cheuk Chi Ying” or “Princess Duen Man”
Elaine Yiu as “Man Kwan” or “Imperial Noble Consort” or “Empress?”
Natalie Tong as “Kwai Lan” or “Second Princess Consort”
Ching Hor Wai as “Empress Dowager” or “Someone’s Grandmother”
And other miscellaneous characters not worthy of mention (the joke continues!)
What’s This About?
It’s the Qing Dynasty, Hong Hei is emperor and you know what that means, anti-Qing! Rest assured that’s only the mandatory side plot which turns into dust by historical compulsion. Much of the remaining story focuses on power-hungry Kenneth Ma whose supposed reign was obfuscated by Ching Hor Wai, who either had a seventh sense about evil children or was just playing favourites. Luckily for audiences, Kenneth learns about Ching’s treachery, and together with a half-baked Steven Ma, begin their (when I say their, I really mean Kenneth) plans to dethrone Power Chan and possibly give Ching her just deserts. Selena Li also shows up though I’m still wondering why…
Review Begins Here
Gone are the days where protagonists in wuxia-slash-ancient-costume series actually spend time learning their martial arts. Instead, in this fast-moving world of economics, entertainment and politics, they should now enter a drama series already well endowed, martially of course. This upsets me in a way. We’ve lost a closeness with these protagonists. They don’t seem reachable or knowable. I cannot bring myself to care for their plight anymore. Okay it’s probably artificial to expect Kenneth or Steven, both nearing the big four zero, to be schooled martially; but to me it just takes away from the fun of it all. The adventures and jokes to be had. Obviously I know this series has no use for such adventures and jokes because… actually it could have well used some of that.
Gone also are the days when you wouldn’t feel like throwing whatever you’re eating into the TV or monitor. What is with the horrible computer generated images of the Forbidden Palace? Can’t TVB just send some photographers there to take a bunch of stills for use in their series? All grandeur is lost by showing us such grotesque images. We never really feel the Imperial Palace is “Imperial” or a “Palace.” Sure we see nicely adorned rooms, but what of the long vacant corridors and the countless red pillars? And why does Power Chan keep pointing? What is he pointing at? Roaches? A speaker may point to be emphatic while trying to persuade. But when you’re King, you don’t need to persuade. You are law. Power is adequate as Emperor, but like the computer graphics, all grandeur is lost. Look and feel is something we don’t like to admit is important because it’s shallow. Sometimes though, it is mighty important.
Faces of TVB
Let’s not dwell on minor issues. Let us focus on larger problems. For instance how can Elaine Yiu hold any meaningful conversation with Natalie Tong when she’s making that “the-words-coming-out-of-my-mouth-are-all-lies” face. I know she’s trying to display jealousy and/or spite but in terms of the narrative, she’s a tad too obvious.
While we are talking obvious, we might as well talk Kenneth. He truly deserves an award for covering the most facial expressions in the least amount of scenes. So it might be an editing stuff-up but it doesn’t displace the fact he’s just too exaggerative. Being such a cold and calculating character, he really shouldn’t be wearing his emotions. There’s also a problem with his fury faces. He’s angry yes, but there lacks the fiery that installs terror.
I am also curious as why Selena, when acting as Princess trying to aid the anti-Qing bad guys, she puts on a very standoffish attitude towards Steven, who is just asking questions out of care. This should have set alarm bells in the usually “prudent” Steven that something uncanny stirs. Why is she acting all regal at one point in time, but then several scenes later she’s off in a cornering reminiscing the heart-breaking memories of being able to wander freely on the streets of wherever and chit-chatting with Steven like old buddies or pre-lovers? To top that off why are are scenes of torture all that I can remember at this point about the series? And why was Selena’s “maid,” who was anti-Qing, so young and seemingly fragile? Was it her cover or was it because TVB has no more armoury (also known as the “second-line female support staff”) to fill such shoes. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, such roles would have been given to actresses of higher standing, acting standing that is. Someone seems to have just pluck a number and drew Lily Ho (何傲兒).
The Great Deception
Then there’s the narrative, which is absolutely derivative. In the finale, the scriptwriter(s) likely thought “here’s an ending no one would have guessed,” eyes sparkle, only to realize the boo boo made when Selena began asking questions of logic. That aside, much of the story is understandably driven by Kenneth and Ching. Steven curiously takes a back seat that is so far from the forefront that I’m forced to say his involvement is as petty as any “brotherhood” he supposedly had with Kenneth. Aggravating this dislocation is the fact Kenneth never really topples the Emperor in any true sense. He spends much of the series exploiting random opportunities that arise until Steven hands him the MacGuffin. He is no mastermind of his own destiny, just a mere charlatan. No deaths are caused by him of any great importance either. Events unravel with little trickle-on effects that dramatically change the tide of events. Sure Steven’s parents die, but he still returns as a bodyguard. Yes anti-Qing people lurk about inside the Forbidden Palace, but most doors are still left open. The series deceptively misleads us to believe so much happens, yet in reality little actually happens.
An allied deception is how the series always conveys an air of urgency. Steven always looks earnest while Kenneth looks like three million things plus vehemence. This great atmosphere is ruined by the end of each plot-device when you realize nothing is that unexpected. If you haven’t finished the series, then try this: keep a pen and paper handy; next time you spot a plot development, write down three ways you believe it will unfold. I’m going to bet you will, more than half the time, get it right. If you don’t, then you’re not trying hard enough! The point is, much of the series plays like a man needing to butter his bread. He grabs a knife and lunges at the butter. You might not know how he will make the incision, or which direction the butter will fall, but you know he will get his butter. What I prefer is being shown the hungry man driving a knife into the butter, only to find a walnut blocking his stride. He then resorts to using an iron, and instead of buttered bread, he eats mash potatoes or steak. The point is, I want something unfathomable. Something like Kenneth organizing the anti-Qing plot. The potential of historical fiction and ancient costume series are all lost.
If you were a little more inquisitive, or bored, you may realise a odd similarity between this series and one called, Relic of an Emissary <洪武三十二>. There’s a guy who believes he’s the rightful ruler in both. There’s also a royal bodyguard filling in as the middleman in both. Then there’s a king who is not convincing as king. A princess falls in love with the bodyguard in both. There’s even a Sentinel here, and a Emissary there. Sentinel. Emissary. Emissary. Sentinel. Do you see the similarity? If you do not, don’t worry, your talents may lie elsewhere, in more important endeavours. But for those that do, a list of other manual occupations with slick names may have crossed your mind as being the title of TVB’s next ancient series involving kings, bodyguards and princesses: Death and Turmoil of an Adjudicator? Relic of a Geomancer? How about Sentinels Versus Emissaries?
A few things deserve special mention. The first is the narrator, who I believe is Chang Tse Sheng (鄭子誠). His got this hypnotising mellow voice, that borders on putting me to sleep. No, that is irrelevant. Why he deserves special mention is apart from sometimes providing nifty insight into the inner world of certain characters which we never comprehend, his narration gives the whole series an undeserved legitimacy. As if the events that have happened to far are of some critical mass. Similar to how narrators in historical documentaries make us feel feelings of pride, tears and strength. This is truly artful deception. Then there’s Lau Kong (劉江), the go-to monk for every TVB costume series. I’m willing to put down money that if the next series TVB costume series has a monk, he’s that monk. Conjectures aside, he’s a very convincing monk. His scenes with Steven provide a nice grounding for Steven’s character and interjects some nice pauses into the otherwise frantic pace of the series.
By the end of the series, you will have noticed many things have been lost. Kenneth loses his mind. Natalie loses her dignity. Elaine loses her movement. Power loses a lot of face I presume. Several babies have been lost (abortion-by-scent anyone?). Ching loses a lot of time messing around with her grandchildren. Selena loses… Some guy loses an arm. And Steven also loses his mind, as indicated by the circular gibberish he wants you to mistake as philosophy (or voodoo). This has been one of the most negative TVB endings I’ve watched in recent history. I’m surprised the sensitive public of Hong Kong did not file their usual unfounded complaints. Usually I stand by a writer’s vision, and I hate how TVB keeps changing endings, unless of course it’s some dude named Laughing Gor. For once I would have preferred they change the ending. Then again I would have preferred they change Kenneth’s character too. His sense of treachery was far too reactive for my taste. He needs to be more proactive. Kill some people that matter. As he did not, he paid the ultimate price: he’s stuck in the middle of nowhere with Natalie!
My mother thought the series was “Pretty good, not many boring scenes.” On reflection, I agree. I must have overlooked the sum of its parts. Apologies. It appears mother has better taste than me, who has unendingly broken down what was initially unbroken. Apologies again. I would change my review in light of this newfound perspective but that would be cheating or deception. In fact, mother should write my next review (if I get around to it), to prevent me from embarrassing myself. No use crying over spilt milk. So if you’ve read up to here, then know this, you have gained absolutely nothing. Zero. This emptiness you now feel is exactly the same emptiness you felt at the end of The Life and Times of a Sentinel. Gotcha!
If you’ve seen Relic of an Emissary, there’s only two and a half reasons for watching this: (i) you are Steven’s fan; (ii) you are Kenneth’s fan; or (iii) you, like me, have too much time on hand.
Obligatory Disclaimer: The above written content is not intended to delight, excite, pacify or be any way entertaining, and the reader acknowledges and agrees that should it be delighted, excited, pacified or feel any other emotion capable of being experienced by a reasonable reader, then the said reader shall tap his or her head twice, flip a coin nine times and switch the device they are using to read that content on and off six times.
This review was written by SDS, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com.