Review: “River of Wine” (TVB 2011)
River of Wine <九江十二坊>
Producer: Wong Wai Sing
Genre: Ancient Series
Number of episodes: 25
Who’s In It?
Cast in no particular order:
Bowie Lam as “Sung Ching Yiu” or “Leung Ching Yiu”
Sunny Chan as “Leung Ching Hong”
Nancy Sit as “Kwan Wai Lan” or “Leung Dai Ma”
Linda Chung as “Sung Chi Ching”
Pierre Ngo as “Sung Chi Tsun”
Elena Kong as “Ting Ka Pik”
Sire Ma as “Tsang Yuk Fong”
Lau Kong as “Tsang Kin Leung” or “Magistrate Tsang”
and other miscellaneous characters not worthy of mention (the joke continues!)
What’s This About?
Once upon a time there was boy, Ching Yiu, who had a mom, Wai Lan, a younger brother, Ching Hong, and two sisters that shall remain nameless. One day Ching Yiu resolves to disown his own bloodline to adopt the Sung surname. Years later, Ching Yiu, now a grown man of uncertain age, runs the Sung family wine business, the most prosperous of the wine businesses in town. However, Chi Tsun, the rightful heir of the Sung family, who was believed to have perished with most of his family after a shipwreck years ago, now returns and wishes to reclaim all that he had lost.
Review Begins Here
First, I want to congratulate those of you who finished watching this series and got to this review. You indeed have patience of the tortoise, tolerance of the hippopotamus, and the unwavering ability to focus like the ostrich. Second, I want to show my utmost approval to those who didn’t finish watching this series and got to this review, because either way you got here right? No! The reason I approve, is because you lot did the right thing. You lot have good foresight, much like the mantis or whatever animal that has good foresight.
Now there are several reasons for my negativity, and it’s not because being negative is trendy when writing an alleged “review.” If you ever wondered whether TVB’s ratings were indicative of anything greater than one city’s esoteric attitudes, then the answer is a resounding “yes” here. If you realize the story premise, you will have realized two things about this series: a plot that is done to death,csome heir returns from somewhere and wants some thing(s) and another plot that is not unfamiliar, but not yet infinitely abused – a person who had disowned his family that wishes to be redeemed. Why TVB decided to emphasize the first plot over the second is a mystery. A mystery so stupid and costly, that even TVB did not bother making excuses for the dismal ratings.
What is the major flaw in the series? It is just not very entertaining. It is flat. It is not suspenseful. It is not even funny. And it is near impossible to empathize with any of the characters which, I think, is one way to produce a series that weakens its lasting appeal. If you watch the first 10 episodes in marathon, it may produce a warm fuzzy feeling. This is produced largely by the wonderful location the series is shot (especially at the end of episode 6), the soothing music and the ability of the cast to act on target (minus two offenders I will mention later). Watch this series episode by episode daily, I guarantee, you will not remember what happened in episode 14 when three-quarters the way through episode 15. Try it. You won’t be disappointed.
Good or Bad?
The series is, in fact, somehow, executed quite solidly. The narrative is structured, coherent and easily consumed with little plot holes you could stick a foot in, at least if you didn’t do any research on the medicinal properties of Chinese wine. Besides the appropriate pacing, there is also the sub-themes in this series. One of these is Linda, who plays a woman with unequal leg lengths, having difficulty finding a suitor in a society that is overzealous on appearances and proper walking. Another of these is Bowie and Elena, who have a deep platonic love towards one another despite being non-biological son and mother. Then there’s returning heir Pierre, who has a shady past and may have been involved in crimes ranging from fraud to murder. All these sub-themes are only treated in passing, a means to arrive at the done-to-death plot of the series, the greedy-jealous heir. Throw in a corrupt government official and we are ready to fill the next 15 episodes. Splendid.
What I don’t understand is why, when such a nice story could have been centered on Ching Yiu’s conflict between honouring his duty to the Sung family and his longing to return home, did the writers believe making Chi Tsun the focal point was wise. It definitely is easier to write about, but it also feels like a definite waste to superimpose the plot devices of a million other TVB series onto such nice scenery. It is like throwing clay onto water color artwork. Any other story about the characters struggling to be honourable to both others and oneself would have matched the languid and generally melancholy mood of the series perfectly. Stories about competing wine brewers, conspiring heirs and how to expand a business, are stories better left for Rosy Business. In fact, towards the end of this series, I began to see the ghost of Wax and Wane in many thematic and narrative aspects, and not just the ratings.
In a bit of relief, Linda gives quite an endearing and charming performance, the only performance I cannot fault, whether from angles of emoting, characterization and interaction with other cast members. It should be mentioned, her role was not difficult, for her, to convey. After all Linda has been playing and replaying such characters over and under, again and again. That said, she is still the most pleasant character in the entire series because the rest of the series is just that lacklustre. However, she isn’t entirely charming. Some of that charm begins to deteriorate over time, much like the rest of the cast and plot.
Then there’s Bowie, who is serious, mellow and earnest rolled into one. His character is so flatly characterized, a fault of the scriptwriters, that he appears more to be part of the serene environment then a living breathing human being. His character also becomes extremely annoying, because he is shown none other than someone who is blinded by his own righteousness, to the extent his displays of virtue become repulsive. Altruistic people are likeable, but there comes a point where you have to say no, you are not God, you cannot rescue everyone, and not in the least, an ignorant and arrogant heir who likes cutting people’s hair when drunk. Ewww.
And so we get to Pierre, who should be considered the female version of Linda. Why? I cannot recall how many times Pierre has played these types of roles: the ignorant-arrogant or the kind-dumbfounded. But wait, wait! This time Pierre is better than before. He has rolled his previous characterizations all into one. He has done the impossible and begun acting in Rosy Business 3, ahead of both Wayne Lai and Sheren Tang! Scheduling conflicts? No way. Demands for higher salary after getting multiple best actors awards? No way. Pierre has somehow been given a role that requires him recall his characters from Rosy Business and No Regrets. Wonderful! This, of course, is not a critique of his acting abilities. Pierre himself is fine. Fine, but boring.
But when we are in the realm of “fine and boring,” there must be Sunny. You say that only because of Wax and Wane. In fact, Sunny is the most consistent performer and character here. Bowie is also consistent, but he is consistently mellow, and I don’t like mellow. I’ve seen Bowie in many more masculine, energetic and charming characters to really enjoy his performance here. Here, he just seems to be permanently on Valium. Sunny, on the other hand, as I have little to no expectation of, seems to have proven this time, that he can act. There’s no overacting, no underacting, he simply portrays his character as how audiences would expect his character to react. You may whine that this is expected, but no, that is not the case.
The two principal offenders of the “acting as expected” rule in this series are Nancy Sit and Cilla Kung. The latter plays, and it literally took me 4 to 6 episodes in to figure out, the younger sister of Bowie and Sunny. Why are these two characters so annoying? Why do they both overact? Why are the majority of their facial expressions the same frustrated, constipated look? Why are they even in this series? The last question may be more relevant to Cilla, since Nancy does, admittedly, play her part in “bringing Ching Yiu home.” However, Nancy’s overemphasis on her dialogue, her tendency to cause harm to the quiet ambience with her voice, and her seemingly endless aura of agitation, all combines to an agitating performance. Cilla squarely commits these crimes. I suspect she took from Nancy, and now the pupil has truly exceeded her mentor.
Elena Kong alone deserves to be especially mentioned. After filling in the role of an entirely redundant character in Lives of Omission, she has now filled the role of a character that is seemingly important to the series, but who is in all practical respects, another dud role. Her character is nearly a female carbon copy of Ching Yiu, which may account for why they both are having feelings for each other. However, she has successfully played the love interest of two rather mellow slow-talking male characters. The third time is a charm.
How long did it take viewers to realize that there are actually four siblings in the Leung family? I for one only suspected there were three maybe 4 to 5 episodes in. I don’t know when I realized there were actually four, but I did by episode 25. My question is, why were there four? I can understand having Cilla Kung to round out the Leung family, and to give Nancy a “maid” because she needs someone to hold her hand. But why fourth sister Leung X Y – I still haven’t totally figured out her name, and if I resorted to searching it, that would take the force out of this paragraph. Unnecessary.
This series is not for everyone. I would say it is not for anyone, but given the otherwise solid acting and execution, coupled with an attractive setting, there are redeeming qualities that make it worthy for watching by those with too much time on their hands. I cannot stress this enough, but there is absolutely nothing novel on display here. This is truly an amalgamation of TVB’s recycled plots. I’ve said there is nice scenery, but we could easily go watch many mainland Chinese productions if we really wanted to see a dramatized version of National Geographic. Even if you are a fan of any of the actors here, you will have a hard time convincing anyone else that you felt that actor or actress turned this series around.
Those of you with trouble getting to sleep may find this series a wonderful TVB entry. All others who prefer to watch their TV dramas awake may need to go elsewhere, fast.
Obligatory Disclaimer: The writer of this article openly acknowledges there were several scenes and sequences which the writer was unable to view in its entirety due to reasons mostly within the writers’ control, but this acknowledgment is not to be taken to be any admission of incredibility, inaccuracy or other liability on the writer because you should try sitting through this entire series before you speak!
This review was written by SDS, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com.