Episodic Thoughts: “Beauty at War” (By Tony)

Beauty at War <金枝慾孽 (貳)>
TVB Series 2013

Cast: Sheren Tang, Ada Choi, Moses Chan, Christine Ng, Kenny Wong, Eddie Kwan, Alice Chan, and Christine Kuo.

Before I go onto my episode thoughts about Beauty at War, I first would like to mention that I have actually been waiting for this series to broadcast for 9 years! My childhood memories of War and Beauty are still stuck in my mind, as I can remember the classic scenes with Gigi Lai and Charmanie Sheh, Rebecca Chan, and Sheren Tang’s fighting scenes. The series was such a success because of its first approach on focusing on the concubines’ adventures in the palace and its majestic storyline was highly praised. The actors and actresses’ performances were stellar, and swept many of the award categories; Gigi Lai the Best Actress Award, Bowie Lam the Best Actor award, and the Best Drama award.

I had watched every single War and Beauty episode at least two times! And I got excited watching it all the way! So I was really thinking that Beauty at War was going to be the same as well, although the different cast gave me uncertainty.

Although nowadays it is hard to find a Jonathan Chik series that is widely accepted by the audience, I had confidence that Beauty at War would match the standards to War and Beauty.  I have been anticipating and had high expectations for this series. I was initially disappointed when I heard the news that Bowie Lam, Gigi Lai, Charmanie Sheh and Maggie Cheung would not return for the sequel. Maggie Cheung was alleged to be kicked out by Jonathan Chik for her ‘diva attitude’. Gigi Lai obviously did not return as she has retired from the entertainment industry from 2008, so I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t come back to the sequel. Charmanie Sheh and Bowie Lam were invited for flashbacks by Jonathan Chik but they both refused due to schedule conflicts. This leaves us with Sheren Tang and Moses Chan who are the main characters left.

Ok… Here comes the actual episode thoughts of episode one. I had waited for 9:30 PM, where the first episode finally broadcast to Hong Kong viewers and it was on! I initially really liked the editing and the music of the theme song, where it looked elegant and ‘magical-like’. However, I was thrown back when the singing just popped out of nowhere. I didn’t particularly like the song, but it was adequate. I thought though that the original theme song from the first series was better with Bowie Lam singing, but I didn’t mind much.

The series started with the appearance of an official who knelt down waiting for Emperor Puyi to come. The cinematography showed the crows flying above the palace. The imagery was cool and mysterious. However, my first impression of the series immediately drowned when Emperor Puyi finally came and talked to the official. The Emperor talked about how the Qing dynasty was in no hope and that it would be gone soon, despite the official’s attempt to persuade the emperor that there was still hope. I have to be honest, but what the hell is with the official and the Emperor Puyi? Their voices were dubbed and were completely strange. No wonder the Hong Kong viewers thought it was confusing and weird.

Next, the scene came to a confusing jump to 100 years back in the past, during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing. The Kungqu leader, Cheung Kuk Sang spoke to the crowd about how Consort Yu forced a palace maid to marry a eunuch. I could immediately see the connection to War and Beauty, as it was referencing when palace maid On Sin (Maggie Cheung) was forced to marry a eunuch. I particularly found it to be weird on why did Jonathan Chik cast Cheung Kuk Sang. Although he isn’t an important character in the series, he is a complete stranger to Hong Kong viewers and has never been featured in any of previous TVB series. Nevertheless, his acting was good as he had good facial expressions and was convincing, just a bit new to me.

Later on, came the scene where Tracy Ip was introduced. The last time I saw Tracy Ip was when she was given a leading role at Jonathan Chik’s 4 in Love series back in 2012. Her acting has improved slightly as she has more facial impressions and spoke clearly, but it seemed that she was trying to read off an essay. It was because Jonathan Chik and the scriptwriter Chow Yuk Ming often made last-minute script changes, so I guess Tracy Ip didn’t do bad at all. Her conversation with her uncle who was also a eunuch was good as it an understanding of Tracy Ip’s intention to get rid of Ada Choi, who acts as Sheung Ling (the nanny of the 5th prince along with Tracy Ip).

The scene where Ada Choi appeared playing a game with the 5th Prince (Consort Yu’s son) was in my opinion a bit boring and pointless. Yes it did introduce to us the 5th prince and Ada, but I thought that it was an unnecessary scene. However, Ada Choi did do a good job trying to portray Sheung Ling and I would so far give her a 3.5 out of 5 stars. The 5th prince reminded me of Emperor Tongzhi from the The Confidant, but I think in this series he is more mature. He suits the role as the 5th prince!

This is the part where I got extremely disappointed with this series and at the same time really excited, as Katy Kung who acts as Muk-do-yee (a palace maid) comes storming with other palace maids and eunuchs to see Consort Yu (Sheren Tang) who was watching a Chinese opera performance, only to be stopped by Christine Kuo (who plays Consort Yu’s maid). Christine Kuo looked beautiful but her Cantonese was really unbearable. I was knocking my head through the scene when she was talking as her Cantonese has hardly improved and her facial expressions were poor. Why would Jonathan Chik cast such her as Consort Yu’s palace maid? I thought Jonathan Chik had quite a unique and wise choice at casting characters, but he definitely proved me wrong! I basically wanted to stop watching, but luckily the exciting scene where Sheren Tang appeared saved it all.

I liked the exciting background music as the camera moved slowly from showing the consorts and eventually stopped with Consort Yu. It further proved the cinematography in this series. Although Sheren Tang didn’t look as powerful looking and glamorous as from War and Beauty, she still looked really nice and shined a lot. If Sheren Tang was not in this series, I doubt there would be any motivation for Hong Kong viewers to watch this! The appearance of Rachel Kan in this series with the rumored palace maid and eunuch was a bit confusing for viewers as it talked about the rumors from the prequel On Sin (Maggie Cheung), which I can understand is a really obscure scene. Rachel Kan in the series really shined the most out of all the palace maids. Every word she spoke was clear, her facial expressions were appropriate and convincing, and her tone was just right. She is underrated but she doesn’t have much fanbase, which is why she never gets meatier roles.

Sheren Tang and Christine Ng equally stole the show as their appearances were the highlights of this episode. Christine Ng’s scene where she looks at herself in the mirror with an evil smile was excellent and the lighting of this scene was well done. I give 4 out of 5 stars for Christine Ng so far!

On the other hand, Moses Chan was introduced near the end as he performed as a Chinese opera performer (Ko Lau-Fei) and he did an adequate job. I can understand why people think this is a confusing and boring scene as the long scene with him in the opera place was kind of draggy and uninteresting, but Moses Chan nevertheless had alright expressions. I prefer his previous role as Hung-Mo instead because he was more ambitious and had more opportunities to shine then, but his opera artist role he spoke a bit femininely.

The first episode was nearly over as people in the palace and outside the palace could hear a flute song being played. I understood the connection from War and Beauty as On Sin (Maggie Cheung) played that flute after she was told she was told she would marry a eunuch. I think it is a bit ridiculous how Jonathan Chik would just use Ada Choi to replace Maggie Cheung’s character, being the lover with Moses Chan. The moon also looked a bit fake when it showed Moses and Ada both staring at it. It didn’t really capture any chemistry between the two yet as it is still the premiere, but I think it will eventually.

Overall, the first episode was a complete disappointment to me. Although the appearances of Sheren Tang and Christine Ng were highlights, the rest was draggy, confusing, unnecessary and the plot was so slow and boring compared to the first episode of War and Beauty, where a lot of things happened. There are too many weak casts I think like Christine Kuo and Katy Kung that might not save this series from achieving its previous successes. I know it is still early as it is the first episode and I have no right to judge things from just the premiere, I still have this feeling it’s not going to gain any high ratings for this series if it continues to be like this. I will watch the whole series no matter what happens but please Jonathan Chik, do not disappoint me again or I may celebrate that it is the last time watching your series!

This review is written by Tony, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com.

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  1. yeah, i am totally confused. 4 episodes in i have no idea what the plot is.:(

  2. the episode in beauty at war need to get tensed up. Sheren need to do more action!!! Chinese opera performer-Moses scene is boring!!!

  3. Most likely the voices of the official and Emperor Puyi were dubbed because the production probably hired local actors up in Hengdian (where they filmed most of the exterior palace locations) to portray them and the actors probably spoke their lines in Mandarin thus needing the voice dubbing.

  4. Jonathan Chik will always be remembered for the original War & Beauty. I thank him for the best series ever. Good try on this one though.

  5. This series is really confusing! I will continue to watch it though, as I am hoping that it will get better. I wonder what the ratings in HK are like.

    1. Oh and I have to say, I get confused when I watch a brand new episode everyday as I feel like I am watching a different show. There are so many different characters and scene. It’s like watching Cloud Atlas.

      1. Serious it’s like Cloud Atlas??? Oh boy… it’s boring & long…. hmmm… & I’m so looking forward to this!

  6. Is this series about palace maids and eunuchs? Because the main cast like Sheren Teng rarely appear after 4 episodes! I think she has less than 10 scenes so far. I watched this with my dad (as my mom gave up after the 1st episode) and yet we still can’t get it! Where is this heading? Come on! This is really getting very frustrating when you don’t understand the story line! Christine Kuo is a totally waste of time! With that kind of Cantonese accent she doesn’t even have a right to be cast in a period drama roles! Talk about no improvement TVB actress, she should be one of them!

    1. The series is gaining momentum in storyline as we speak and to answer your question, BAW is about rumours and how they affect ones life. In the midst of all that, the usual sub themes such as love, lust, friendship are thrown in.

      I couldn’t agree more with you on Christine Kuo. It is bizarre to hear such accented speech in a period drama.

  7. I confused in the opening episode 1 ,I told puyi was child when Qing was overthrow .Is Puyi suppose to be 6 years old when Qing dynasty was overthrow by Sun Yat sen in 1911 ,am I right?
    Are Puyi suppose to be emperor of Manchuria until 1949 after Mao Ze dong capture Manchuria again and reunited it with China PR/

  8. Very well illustrated in your first episode thoughts. I think the storyline has picked up a lot of the confusions in the latter episodes. Just be patient and carry on watching.

    I also think Scriptwriter Chow Yuk Ming was not too smart to start his introduction like this in “Beauty at War”. Usually people will get attracted to the first 2 episodes and continue watching the drama series. Well, it is done and we just hope for the best.

    Maggie Cheung signed up with HKTV just around the filming time of “Beauty at War”. She was originally cast for “The Confidant” and TVB had to give her role to Michelle Yim. I doubt that it was Maggie’s attitudes that hindered her to act “Beauty at War”.

    Anyway, even if we had Maggie Cheung, Gigi Lai and Charmaine Sheh, they would not look the same …….young and beautiful. They are 9 years older now. Moreover, their characters were either dead or gone, and it is impossible to continue to keep their characters.

    1. agree sandcherry.
      Episode 2 and 3 are not too bad. The scene with the old eunuch and the young one washing dirty diapers were gross but kinda touching. Yeah the stuff people have to do to survive and raise their families.

      1. I also find the scene with the old eunuch to be touching. There was one scene in episode 5 with the old eunuch that I found particularly well done as well. This character is like a symbol of wisdom.

        I may be a minority here, but I find the series to be quite good so far. It’s starting to pick up pace, and the characters and their relationships with each other is developing quite nicely. Scriptwriter Chow Yuk Ming and producer Jonathan Chik never really fails to create meaningful productions.

      2. @ Cosette,
        I hear you.
        I watched only 1,2,3 so far cause I need subtitles 🙂 But yeah not too bad. So far so good. These type of series you need to give it time to understand whats going on.
        Yeah Ada Choi is one of the palace maid’s step-mom. The old eunuch is Kenny Wong’s character dad. I did not read the summary first so I had no idea who was who and it was interesting for me to find out their relationship and stuff.
        Christine Ng’s character is nice to the naive palace maid and I like the naive maid. She is very innocent. Also, I found out that Christine Ng is Sheren’s step-sister. And the reason why Christine has resentment towards Sheren.
        So, I like watching this series.

  9. Confused and annoyed at the poor casting, particularly Christine Kuo. Agree with Tony that her accent was unbearable. Enough of this giving her opportunities I say. Sure she should be given opportunity, but stick to modern series where there may be room or logic to speaking appalling cantonese, stay clear of costume series like this!
    Sorry… rant over…

    1. My sentiments exactly! How could they cast Christine Kuo as a maid in the feudal times? I cringe whenever she opens her mouth.

    2. Totally agree. Don’t know why Christine was given such a role in ancient palace-setting drama series with old classical Chinese dialogues, and she was a maid of Yu Fei (Sheren Tang is known for her good acting, and Christine Kuo’s poor acting shows off more).

      1. Good point re a maid of Yu Fei. The contrast really amplify Christine Kuo’s unbearable-ness…

  10. I try to imagine that Christine Kuo is a palace maid from another country like she was a servant from imaginary Korean concubine who fell out of favor and ended up working for the kindhearted Sheren. This way she it makes perfect sense that she doesn’t understand the culture or language well.

    1. Good imagination skill… Personally it’s very far fetched, implausible in that era…

  11. Putting age aside, Eddie Kwan feels to masculine to be playing female opera character – I see this role better for Pierre Ngo since my gold standard for opera actor is Leslie Cheung for Farewell My Concubine.

    1. Actually he would have been quite perfect when he was younger. Maybe the makeup was not thick enough. My concern is more with how not convincing they look. The camera should never have zoomed in, just far shot will do.

      Christine Ng sort of went OTT.

  12. I often hear about Maggie Cheung’s attitude being a problem for casting her, I feel like it’s very manipulating.

    1) Besides, Jessica Hsuan, Maggie is known to have a very blunt personality and high standard of expectations when it comes to her work. During a photoshoot, she will ask for a big mirror behind the photographer because she wants to see what her poses look like as the photographer is snapping away. She said this is because not all photographers hired are good artist and some don’t even know what they’re doing, so she has to watch her own back by taking control of the shoot. Same with shooting a series or a movie, she will need to understand the script, the purpose, first before she takes on. Sometime things do change in production, like the ending scene for The King of YEsterday and Tomorrow, she hated the fake Africa scene in the end and fought real hard to keep it out. She said in a magazine that it was pretentious, racist, and unnecessary to have a bunch of Asian kids paint their faces black to play African. She was outspoken about that and had a lot of argument with director and even Kwong Wa. So I see this “diva attitude” has more to do with professionalism and not willing to compromise. Maybe some people like to ride through their job and get paid, Maggie is among the few artists who would like to do a meaningful, thorough job.

    2) Even this so-called “attitude” is a problem, that doesn’t take into account the fact that she gets along with many well known filmmakers such as Stanley Kwan, and show producers such as Lee Tim Sing.

    I feel TVB leaked the rumors that she has a diva attitude because she has spoken out against them, still is, she doesn’t take their orders lightly. If anything she’s troublesome for TVB’s operation of mass brainwashing.

    1. harmful rumours existing in the Forbidden City as well as in TVB City… LOL.

  13. 鄧萃雯 is the older sister of 伍詠薇?? I cannot buy that. 伍詠薇 looks so much older. Bad casting.

    1. As per Wikipedia, Sheren Tang is 47 and Christine Ng is only 44. It is quite legitimate for Christine Ng to act as Sheren Tang’s younger sister. It just happened that Sheren looked quite young (for her age) in “Beauty at War” probably due to her good make-up.

      Agree that Christine Ng looked older than Sheren Tang in “Beauty at War”.

      1. It is logical as well because Christine is someone with so much hate in her, surely hate manifests itself in her looks as in much older than the much contented Sheren?

  14. I’m in the minority for this series because I actually get what’s going on. Very well-written episodes and very well thought out I must say for the 5 episodes I’ve watched so far.

    I mentioned before it would’ve been confusing for the average viewer watching episode 1 because it had quite some depth to it. But it was a great introduction even if it wasn’t appealing to the masses and episode 2 followed up on it really well. If episode 1 was a broader view on how gossip can affect and destroy lives (and even an empire) then episode 2 is a look into how gossp can affect the inmost parts of man.

    To me, this series is a slice of life. You won’t find your typical villain or hero and the show won’t hold your hand and guide you because it wants you to think and pass your own judgement. If anyone is familiar with HK office politics, I find the two similar but even something as simple as a circle of friends gossiping can be used to relate to what the show conveys.

    By episode 5, the same rumor has now been subject to a snowball effect and I’m delighted that so much has been thrown into the fray. You’ve got so many people with different motives trying to reason and discern the truth while fanning the flame and it all started with one simple gossip.

    Yu Fei pulled a smart move while trying to save her maid, an echo that she really feels that she’s a part of the family. She can be cunning if need ne and isn’t as nice as she makes herself out to be either by willing to sacrifice to Sheung Ling and her step-daugther’s relationship in the process in return for what Sheung Ling has desired all along.

    Most touching scene though was in the end. Such a short but powerful scene that summed up everything up till now. A clear reflection between child and parent in any era. The youth believing he has learned all there is and in his arrogance believes that he has understood the will of heaven, that this is divine intervention to guide him out of his miserable state. The father tries to convince him otherwise stating what he perceives as right maybe wrong in the eyes of the majority (modern democracy with the majority imposing their will on minorities).

    Youth storms out confident that he’s fated by the heavens while the father scrubs the floor having seen this before as he reflects upon his father’s own words when he was a youth knowing that his son isn’t fated but is walking his own path and creating his own fate just as he once did despite the nagging of his father. Turns out the concerns of his father were proven right and I suspect this will be the backstory of how this fortune telling family fell from power. His son now walks a path he once did not knowing that when he told his father “you don’t understand” it was really himself that didn’t understand.

    Then we end with the father’s father saying heaven and fate are nothing in comparison to humans who are the most dreadful. Fate is infinitely easier to understand because it’s less complex then humans. A reference to the Forbidden City.

    Forbidden City doesn’t drive people crazy.
    It’s the people inside that drive people crazy.

    Very nice ending to an episode.

    1. The end of episode 5 where the old man reflects on the words in the past is actually the audio playback between Bowie and Chan Hung Lit in WAB. Nice touch.

      1. Or are they riding on the popularity of the first series by straining for a connection?

      2. I picked up on that as well, but for this series since it takes place in a parallel universe then I would argue that it serves a double meaning. One to reference back to BAW and another as I mentioned above.

        I just wanted to elaborate on that in case anyone thought it was just a scene that only meant to make a reference. That’s one of the things I like about this series so far, it makes the reference but it doesn’t necessary go out of its way to do because it also serves as a means to progress its own storyline in the process.

        It was a nice touch.

    2. ^applauding^: I like ur brilliant elaboration for BAW, SD!

      1. Thanks!

        I tried to keep it concise but I may have ranted on a little too much.

        Overall, I feel if WHB can win best drama for 2012 then BAW will also have its own netizen cult following that can appreciate it even if the ratings maybe low like WHB was. However, that’s for the future episodes to decide as it has picked up in momentum as another poster has mentioned.

    3. I also enjoyed the first 5 episodes so far. Though the pace was not as fast as most people liked, I enjoyed the pace because it brought out the different thoughts and lives of people in the palace very clearly.

      The acting was good so far. I was able to get the storyline very easily through the acting of the artistes. Every artiste did a decent job, except Christine Kuo. Luckily she did not have much screen time yet. I think the best actresses in “Beauty at War” so far were Sheren Tang and Rachel Kan. Ada Choi was so okay but could be better. She spoke her dialogues a bit too fast and she was being a bit too demanding as a wet nurse. Christine Ng was good so far. I think she acted better in this character than the ones she acted in her other modern drama series.

      I find that the dialogues in this sequel were easier to understand than the ones in the prequel. As long as the artistes were articulate in their dialogues, it should not be too hard to understand them.

      1. As long as Christine doesn’t have too many complex lines with older dialect I don’t mind it too much otherwise it might be hard to follow her lines.

        Rachel Kan I agree with, she has a bigger role and I’ve enjoyed it so far.

        I’m not sure if Ada’s character was meant to be like that because of the great intelligence that her character possesses or she’s just speaking too fast. Probably the latter but I also wanted to point out that her character introduction was not pointless at all as the reviewer may have found.

        In EP 1, she teaches the young prince about deception and mentions how people who delude themselves into thinking they’re intelligent will be countered by true intelligence. This is followed up after she foils her rival plans to oust her, she had essentially setup the trap like in her game with the young prince. Her rival still thinks she won out in the end but Ada counters with “How do you know I haven’t concluded my business?” which is then revealed that she’s trying to form ties with Yu Fei after doing her a favor in EP 3 and by EP 5 she’s informally brought into the fold.

        This is what I meant by the series requiring attention and thinking. Something as simple and subtle actually helps accumulate into the plot and you have to catch on to these things in order to appreciate the series.

        Besides being a slice of life, I also think this series leans on more of an art form.

        For example, if you went to an art gallery and you walked by a piece of art then you probably won’t get it with a glance.

        If you come back and take another glance something may or may not click. If you start staring at it with patience and thinking then you might start to understand what the artist is try to convey and express through his art.

        Then again, you may also never get it at all.

      2. I almost forgot to metion, she mentions she doesn’t want to necessarily stay in the Forbidden City after her rival points her if the couple were willing to give up their profitable business.

        She re-confirms this with her step-daughter later stating it was her dad’s business. So I think she may just be plotting to get close to Yu Fei as a means to escape the palace near the end of the series but something is constraining her doing so currently. Perhaps the husband or something else yet to be introduced.

        Just a thought.

  15. I too have been looking forward to this series. Watched it in Cantonese and then in English subtitles again and still confused with the plot. Not enjoying this much. Must say TVB series has been poor for this year so far. With this and Bullet Brain..got a lot of free time in evenings now!!!

  16. I have given up I’m have no idea what’s going on

  17. Beauty at War – I am not expecting this to beat the original bec it boasts a strong cast and never-ever interesting story line.

    Cast – Very recommendable acting from Wai Kar Hung. I suspect he will win awards for this show. Sheren Tang and Ada Choi are as expected impressive. Moses Chan is too stiff for an opera artiste or perhaps his too made-up face or big physique don’t match. Kill Christine Kuo, she is still slanging for a traditional Chinese show…ohh please!!

    Story line – gotta watch twice to understand bec it can drift and drag but the follow up is too slow pace, thus can be boring at times. We understand but would wish if it can speed up to actions? Maybe expectations will be different if they did not bear the same name as the original blockbuster.

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