Curse of the Royal Harem <萬凰之王>
Producer: Chong Wai Kin
Genre: Historical Fiction
Number of episodes: 27 in Hong Kong (29 Overseas)
Who’s In It?
Cast in no particular order:
Jessica Hsuan as “Yee Lan”
Myolie Wu as “Yuen Yuen”
Nancy Wu as “Choi Lam”
Sunny Chan as “Emperor Do Kwong”
Joel Chan as “Min Yan”
Gigi Wong as “Empress Dowager”
Cheung Kwok Keung as “Wai Fuk On”
and some other characters
What’s This About?
In the Qing Dynasty, during the rule of Emperor Do Kwong (which according to Wikipedia should be somewhere between 1820 – 1850), a spate of imperial intrigue and palace conflicts ensue as the incumbent Emperor decides to go against the wishes of the Empress Dowager and the Empress Consort (aka Yuen Yueng) to marry Yee Lan. Part of the reason for the marriage was to save Yee Lan, but the other part was because the Emperor actually fancied Yee Lan. However, little did the Emperor know, the woman he saved is not as weak as he believed her to be.
Review Formally Begins Here
Once a while there comes along a series in which you cannot quite put your finger on. It’s similar to those occasions when you have an itch but attempt to convince yourself that from sheer will-power you can withstand not scratching that itch, only to think, seconds later how silly it would be to place your will on the line over an itch, and proceed to scratch. It’s one of those iffy moments where your mind flickers between do or don’t. Normally after 5 to 10 episodes, you form an impression of the series and it builds as the series continues. For this series, any impression you may come to may be premature. Why? Let’s investigate, shall we?
The plot at first glance isn’t new. Stories about in-fighting between imperial consorts have been featured in most TVB series that revolve around the palace in some form. So that’s already minus one point for creativity (although in TVB’s defense, somewhat, this deduction is more a formality since I’d probably deduct it for most TVB series anyway, so peace). Now I would gladly minus another point because I personally don’t think the title of the series is accurate. Whether in English or Chinese, the title seems to suggest a lot of in-fighting between a lot of consorts. Truth? No. The harem is largely confined to a few who seem to claim a stake, and that is only two and a half consorts (minus Empress Dowager cause I don’t really think she’s part of the harem; I hope not). I would have liked to see a bit more variety in what motivates the consorts–maybe because they run some secret sect after the potion of immortality or operate an underground printing business out to overthrow the Qing Dynasty–but as in-fighting goes, this series treads the same old motivations. Minus another point.
Now, I said there were two and a half consorts in on the fighting, but you say three. One is Myolie Wu, whose character is motivated by obtuse motivations. If she wants to do Jessica in because she’s afraid of her power being usurped, she should realize that being Empress Consort already means her power is fairly secured. Besides it’s not as if the Emperor doesn’t hold her in his favour; he just has a case of one too many hearts (aka emperor-sickness). If she’s doing it because she dislikes his favouritism towards Yee Lan, then I could accept this. Funny thing is I doubt this is the case because the intimacy between Myolie and Sunny is so superficial that it would require another dose of “reading into” the story to make this case believable. Myolie’s character comes off childish who just wants her toys. Second there’s Jessica Hsuan, who for most the series was on the receiving end of the court, playing defensive. Which is, as you imagine and as all white roles demand, suitably boring. Her motivations are clear though: to survive (besides that she tries to kill herself 2 episodes in). Later this shifts to protecting the Emperor and her child. By the end of the series, it warps to one of revenge and power consolidation. Finally, there’s Nancy Wu. A major flaw in her character lies in that the reason behind her entry into the “harem” is a bit forced. The Emperor is basically forced to induct her into his harem, which is slightly unbelievable given that no one really wants her to be in the harem anyway. Nancy’s character is the devious one here. She’s not wicked though. Wicked is probably Jessica towards the end of the series (and we really needed more of that wickedness). Nancy’s just devious; whereas Myolie is bossy?
Acting As Usual
While we’re on the three (or two and a half) leads, we might as well discuss their acting. Myolie’s Empress is not convincing. She lacks any air of the regal, coming off as prissy and whiny. Her death stares are exaggerated and inflexible, showing that Myolie hasn’t had enough experience in such roles. Her acting is much more pleasant as time goes on when she eventually changes into a empathetic person. Jessica’s initial persona is also not well suited for her. Jessica has never been the go-to actress for goody-goody-nice roles. She has always been the incisive talker, the one taking initiative and control. Aside from the actress-character mismatch, Jessica fails to convey her softer, more endearing emotions. It may be the script at these places that are weaker, I assume. Jessica does get better as her character becomes vile and assertive–a character Jessica grasps much better. Myolie would likely have done the early Yee Lan role better than Jessica, just as Jessica would have done the early Yeun Yeun better than Myolie; however, things as they are aren’t that bad either.
Then there’s Nancy Wu, who is far more consistent than both Myolie and Jessica. I do confess, acting ability aside, her character is one easily disliked. Apart from her actions, but because Nancy gives the character a face that is easily detestable. This isn’t an insult, it’s more like saying Nancy fills these devious-despicable roles well on both the surface and substantive levels. My only critique is that her character goes from devious to seemingly reformed within little screen time which once again requires audiences to “read into” the story. Gigi Wong deserves a mention too. Her vaguely pleasant and vaguely sly expressions tend to reveal acting maturity. However, as the series goes on, you find she keeps recycling these expressions at the same amounts, as if she’s somehow attached strings to her facial muscles onto a wooden stick: one pull, and identical expressions return. Her puppeteer mastery is commendable but sadly she fails to show more diversity, especially given her character’s complexity. I confess “complex” is a nice way of describing Empress Dowager. “Muddled” or “senile” is probably more fitting. Why she raises Sunny (despite offing his mother) to be king, only to plot a revolt is quite a mystery. Mystery to her as well since she herself later explains that the palace is a never-ending game of tidal warfare. Given that, I sense she never had a grand scheme at all!
What to Do and Not Do in a TVB Series
In most TVB series nowadays, characters don’t really develop. They follow a course of action and stick with it, and whilst things occur that create practical changes, we rarely see characters change in persona, attitude or philosophy. This is one of the major flaws in TVB series, especially when most series have defined endings unlike USA dramas that go on for seasons; there is ample room for dramatic changes to characters within bounds of the story. Funny enough the characters in this series do change, both in terms of their living and their style of living. Myolie goes from bossy to vengeful to empathetic. Jessica goes from a tragic, to protective, to wicked. The other characters also change except the Emperor. Now I’m not going to bother commenting on Sunny’s performance only for the reason that this Emperor is really a non-Emperor. He is weak in all respects. He has no leadership qualities. He is not intelligent. He is not tactful, and not even particularly benevolent as shown by his readiness to off people before actually investigating matters. Given that his rule was ordained rather than by show of skill, I guess his not to blame, and since he himself feels this way towards the end, we should show a little more pity towards the guy. I mean look at his weird hat! Fashion disaster or Public Relations folly?
Plot-wise, this series is a bit unfocused at the start. Only about halfway in do things pick up and a defined trail of events begin unfolding. Now that’s a rather long narrative orientation; it added little to the thematic context as we all knew the following: Myolie dislikes Jessica who dislikes Nancy who dislikes Myolie and Jessica while Gigi hates them all whereas Sunny likes them all. The problem is weak execution. The story is solid, although I would rather see Sunny deal with the wicked Jessica beyond episode 30. TVB proves it prefers its normal matter-of-fact artistry that kills all elements of surprise and skips delving into more dramatic moments of the story that deserved more than fleeting treatment. One oddity is the fact that TVB keeps playing inappropriate background music. When Nancy is lying, we don’t need that warm fuzzy cello (or it could be a fat man blowing on a leaf of grass (I don’t know my instruments) music. We also don’t need any love themes playing while knowing a particular character is only faking their love. It messes up the scene and detracts from the performance of the actor/actress. It cheapens the whole experience.
Notable mention must go to Cheung Kwok Keung’s Fuk On, who is such a loyal eunuch, if ever there was one. As if cutting off one of your fingers is not enough to show one’s loyalty, he goes for gold by plucking an eyeball and places it in a box as a present for the Empress Dowager. Now there’s an employee all employers can hire. Lucky for Empress Dowager that no employee safety laws are in placed back in the Qing days, or worker’s compensation, otherwise, law suit! Joel Chan’s Min Yan is also one of those characters we can sympathize with. He is a righteous man, one of action and emotion, the one who should have been king. However, the fact that he wasn’t king and the fact that he became torn between his own conflicting loyalties to Sunny, Myolie and Gigi, made him quite an interesting character to watch. Joel is still not capable of emoting a rage that is born from conflict, which makes his ending a little less persuasive. However, I’m sure we can all “read into” his story a little so we can accept the series finale.
-1 for plot creativity, -1 for inappropriate title, -1 for character devices, +1 for the acting, +1 for character development and +1 story development. Now that equals 0. This is why I cannot place my finger on this series. However if I were to award points for execution, music and aesthetics I’d probably go 0, 0, 0.5 respectively. Which means places the series comes out on positive 0.5! Okay so -1 for the title is a bit harsh, but I could easily make it fair by deducting points for the lack of salient themes. This brings me back to the starting problem: who can figure this one out?
This is far from War and Beauty <金枝玉葉> but were you really expecting it to be with such a cast? Enjoy it for what it is or let it die where it lies.
Obligatory Disclaimer: The writer of this article did not intentionally write a neutral article to avoid being overly harsh. In truth, the writer truly (for the first time, possibly) felt for what is written in this article, but in the event that the words herein do not record the writer’s wishes, you readers acknowledge and accept that the writer is under no obligation or liability to you to provide a truthful account, lest even watch this series at all (joking).
This review was written by SDS, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com.