Review: “Men With No Shadows” (TVB 2011)
Men With No Shadows <不速之約>
Producer: Poon Ka Tak
Genre: Psychological Thriller
Number of episodes: 20
Who’s In It?
Cast in no particular order:
Bobby Au Yeung as “Kong Tung Kin” or “Dr. O”
Raymond Lam as “Toi Fung”
Tavia Yeung as “Fong Siu Fong”
Sire Ma as “Kong Wai Mui”
Gigi Wong as “Sung Chor Kiu” or “Dr. Sung?”
John Chiang as “Tong King Tin”
Power Chan as “Tong Wing Shun” or “Vincent”
Catherine Chau as “Man Ka Ling” or “Dr. Man”
and some other characters
What’s This About?
Kong Tung Kin, or Dr. O, is a caring doctor and highly praised pharmacologist. Several years ago, he happened to meet Fong Siu Fong in a chance encounter and it was love at first sight. Fong herself, has a skin allergy to “stuff,” and this has affected her livelihood since who knows when. Unbeknownst to Fong, Kong begins to develop a new drug designed to fight her skin allergy. Three years later, Dr. O bumps into Fong again, and is ready to confess his love, but along comes a mysterious character, Toi Fung, who appears to be something more than human. Dr. O soon finds out that Toi Fung’s appearance may not only be hostile, his motives may be more sinister than he could ever imagine.
Review Formally Begins Here
After 2010’s Fly With Me <飛女正傳> TVB had not ventured into more adventurous territory for its stories. Not that Fly With Me was particularly good since it lacked any direction one may call a “story.” In 2011, TVB releases the series under scrutiny here. So is the story adventurous? Not really, it is really just about revenge, and all revenge is partially prompted by delusion. Is the direction adventurous then? Even if it is revenge revenge revenge, it may unfold so suspenseful, so original and so unpredictable that it leaves audiences in shock and awe. Nope, not here. Events just occur one after another, with arguably lots of toing and froing. Are the themes at least adventurous? Is it about the entrepreneurial strife of the corrupted pharmaceutical industry and one man’s conflict within that? Of course not, or did you somehow forget who produced this series?
Now my main concern is not that this series was not adventurous despite how it was advertised. To be fair, TVB never promised it was about the supernatural. We just assumed it because we were wrongfully misled by our inner devil. My main concern is rather at the “tail on head” narrative device. This is when a story is premised on some fact or circumstances assumed by characters in the narrative that later reveal to be invalid. Another similar narrative device is when some genius intentionally proffers viewers an incorrect or partial version of the story. In both devices, there is a final revelation and epiphany for the viewers. The difference between these two devices is that, the first one is a deception of the characters within the narrative, while the second only needs to deceive the viewers. The second device is usually a more intricate type of storytelling but may totally alienate viewers. The first device is more easily understood but may frustrate viewers who have a keen eye for dumb characters. The well-known, and oft hated, narrative that uses both these devices is the “it was all a dream” extreme, and often leaves you asking: So I watched what?
But I have a point with this half-baked lesson on narrative aesthetics. Without revealing the guts of this series, I have resorted to being conceptual. The problem is when you start using the devices of deception in a narrative, you’re provoking viewers to react in two possible ways. Either viewers will think “this story is quite ingenious” or “this story is quite ludicrous”. This series employs said narrative devices, either one, two or both, and the consequences are not that amusing when coupled with the story direction. Why? Firstly, most of the characters, bar Toi Fung, should have made certain inquiries to clarify the deception. Second the whole “look and feel” of how the series, executed as another run-of-the-mill TVB drama, just does not fit with the somewhat more fantastical concepts. This is an artistic issue, but it is important to get the atmosphere right when we’re in the realm of angels and demons. Third, someone with a little academic stock knowledge on psychology may find the “deceptions” highly improbable if not outright implausible. All these issues flow onto the next major problem. Just what is the real genre here? For less discerning viewers this is a non-issue, but defined genres often help viewers interpret narrative events, and when something that was supposed to be fantasy dwindles into a mere modern drama, it really messes up the whole narrative direction and structure. So ingenious or ludicrous, take your pick.
Other Bits For Thought
Direction aside, there is the whole good/evil and human nature babble littered in the narration. It might be fitting while you watch the series, but on reflection, it is a lot of pseudo-philosophical meandering on issues most persons with the Internet should be socially aware. Do you really need to be told humans are disposed to asking for more? Embarrassingly, Toi Fung, the resident devil’s advocate, never pits Dr. O to the test. He merely makes Dr. O’s life more difficult, but never provokes Dr. O to face them in corporeal any format. Furthermore, Dr. O is essentially a good guy and he never loses our faith. What the series should tell me about is why Vincent and Dr. Man, two characters who seem to be logically functioning human beings, think it is appropriate for Vincent to betray his father by selling company secrets to “prove his aptitude.” How does this prove he is worthy? That he is simultaneously unethical, immoral and dares to break the law? How brave!
Then there’s the whole drug-research aspect. Are we convinced Dr. O is a qualified pharmacologist? This isn’t Bobby’s fault. It’s just that we are never shown what Dr. O actually does to make him so praiseworthy. He could have been a mechanic or electrician, and as a result of using dodgy tools, causes the death of say, someone, leading to revenge. The point is the pharmaceutical backdrop has only slight relevance. Further compounding this problem is Tong King Tin, who despite running an alleged billion dollar business, shows no signs of being thus rich or entrepreneurial. Instead he employs Toi Fung, someone who allegedly has no academic or work credentials. To make matters worse, his whole business seems to revolve around a handful of people. It’s hard enough to believe large pharmaceutical enterprises are born in Hong Kong, it is even harder to believe such an alleged leader in the medicinal market, has only a few great minds behind the gears. I would have preferred a series solely focused on this industry. It would be quite fresh. But given it’s likely to become a family feud power struggle in TVB’s hands, I guess any freshness will be slightly off by the end.
Acting, Acting, Acting
Do the characters save this series? Only if you’re a fan of sky-prince Raymond Lam, and it would be more blind adherence than anything. Bobby turns in, I believe, one of his most uninteresting performances in memory. Bobby has never been great in serious roles. His knack lies in “semi-serious affable prone-to-jealousy middle-aged little-man house-husband girlfriend-slave food-loving sarcastic-eclectic” roles. It is “his” personality. Here he is only channelling a third of that personality, and it really shows how less enjoyable he is. Not that he is “bad” here, it is just his usual personality was absent. This means Bobby’s value is greatly diminished. He has done ultra-serious before, like in Take My Word For It <談判專家> and it was good, but he is neither his usual affable self here nor did the story craft him into someone who is believably of the deadly serious type. Me thinks Bowie Lam or Steven Ma may have been an more appropriate fill for the role.
What of the sky-prince? As much as I want to desecrate his good name, there’s not much to say about Raymond’s performance. Raymond discharges his duty in an all-round manner as the sometimes aloof and sometimes intense Toi Fung. The character itself is a bit of a misfit, as one would expect Toi Fung to be affecting everyone else psychologically. However, Toi Fung only presents a mild physical obstacle to select characters, like an itch unable to be scratched. Personally I would have just run with the story premise and kicked out the downer ending to give Mr. Lam more room to flex his demonic tendencies. Oh and did anyone ever figure out why no one asks exactly what religion Mr. Demon belongs? Strange? Can’t really kill a “demon” if you don’t know its origins right? But I digress. One complaint though is Raymond isn’t particularly convincing when doing intimidation or sinister or just high-class cerebral. He makes either blank or polished expressions that makes you think he has a plan, but that it is probably only a sketchy first draft type plan. He can do trauma and explosive, but he has yet to hone his skills with tumultuous. Nor can he express controlled aggression. Perhaps part of the blame is the quick transition the character makes in the final episodes, and the other part on how the character failed to live up to expectations.
I can’t really say much about Tavia, a role, which I found to be quite unattractive. Her chemistry with Bobby is lacking as she seems to have the same happy-happy chemistry with all other co-stars, which seems odd. Her character doesn’t have much personality, other than she hates lies and liars. Tavia is a little better here than her other recent performances, as I feel she is marginally less robotic, and seems to embrace or “be involved” with her co-stars a little more, showing the weight of events impinging on her. But because her character is so uninteresting, I paid little attention to what Tavia did. Let us agree she did competently but nothing career-defining.
Mandy Wong deserves all the mentions here because she received an even smaller role this time round. I don’t know the filming order of Ghetto Justice <怒火街頭> and Lives of Omission <潛行狙擊> but she seems to be on a streak ever since her largest debut in Home Troopers <居家兵團>. Sire Ma was also quite likeable, but she has obvious difficulty with the more intense emotions, making her seem uneven and unnatural. She makes quite a convincing daughter and younger sibling to earn a mention. Her sub-plot with Gigi Wong is not as awful as it could have been given that TVB plugs in, at a rate of 40-60% of the time, a long-lost son/daughter sub-plot into its series.
There are some scripting flaws I wish to point out. One is why does Dr. O keep asking Toi Fung how he can be so “insensitive” and why he constantly wants to “take him away.” If he is the devil, the answers are implied Doctor! Two, show me a brand of motor vehicle that can lock passengers inside using a remote (see episode 12). Or is this one of those handy Chinese manufacturer faults? Three, Toi Fung never eats his apples in full does he? He just takes two bites and swallows it whole right? Four, since when do entrepreneurs go on live TV and openly taunt rivals the way Felix Lok does it? I could go on but you get the point.
While there is a reasonable storyline and no major debacles in the acting department, it will take a leap of faith to really buy the plot here. If you find yourself experiencing some emotion or meaning by watching this series, let me warn you, you may be injecting into the narrative with more content than it actually conveys. Finding meaning in a narrative can be done in many ways, and just because it somehow hits a nerve with you does not mean the narrative itself was well written. The story itself was paper thin, and the major characters don’t grow a brain about what to do with Toi Fung. Adding to this problem are the annoying episodic flaws I could spot, and the absence of defined momentum in a series that was billed to be anything but insipid, you end up with something that just doesn’t tickle any of the entertainment bones in me.
The series narrative will either be ingenious or ludicrous, though a disposition for Raymond Lam may help to move you into a third category of viewers, but in any case no praises are deserving.
Obligatory disclaimer: This article is not intended to be critical in any serious or partly serious and partly non-serious or any other remotely serious manner, and all readers must acknowledge and accept that the purpose of the article is not to prove or argue a point, state a definitively researched view, present a substantiated idea or one likely to be substantiated, or provide any reasoned or reasonable opinions, but to avoid any doubt, readers may still leave the writer all sorts of negative replies as if this article was written to further a cause.
This review was written by SDS, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com.