Noblesse Oblige <宦海奇官>
Hong Kong TVB Drama 2015
Producer: Lee Tim Sing
Number of Episodes: 21
Lee Sing Cheung
In the end, however wonderful the performances are, however one note the story is, the ending is just what makes me breath fire. The ending is absurd.
The Title Deciphered
I scratched my head at the weird title so I googled it.
“Noblesse oblige is a French phrase literally meaning ‘obligation of Nobility’. It is the concept that nobility extends beyond mere entitlements and requires the person with such status to fulfill social responsibilities, particularly in leadership roles.”
Oh I seeeee!! Deeeeep! The title makes sense even in the context of the series which features a lot of super rich politicians and that in itself is such an oxymoron. Good title even if one that forces many to err… google it/find dictionary/ask someone smarter.
Released in 2014… but finished airing in 2015.
An illegitimate son of a super rich banker inadvertently becomes a magistrate of 7th rank in the district of Shanyang and with the help of Duke Yu, his 2 female bodyguards Wai Yu and Wai Lam and his best friend, he goes about fighting the corrupted officials who have secret agendas of their own.
Set in the later years of Kang Xi in Qing Dynasty.
In retrospect I just realised the English title is N.O. Does it imply that NO, do not watch this series?
It depends on what you are expecting. It does have a bit of everything; comedic moment, lively banter moments, love, dilemma, family conflict, imperial struggle, corrupt officials, horrible deaths, etc etc. It in fact has a little of everything that in the end it became a master of none. I would really love to say this is the series that marks the return of the Kenneth Ma we thought we once knew; a dependable actor so to speak. Less with the puppy dog eyes and pouty mouth and more with the sincere likable nature. In retrospect his best role is in The Other Truth as the creepy accountant and there he was not the main focus. In this series he is. You may see Tavia in the cast list but believe me, she is the sidekick. Poor Tavia, one minute the bona fide lead and the next back to being the sidekick. But Tavia is the reason why this series is enjoyable. Kenneth sometimes exceeds my expectations; that man can be funny. He is rather good as the guy forced to doing something he thinks he does not want but in fact is born for it; in this series he plays the reluctant magistrate who once is given a task is hell bent on completing it. His To Chan Fung is weird; in one sense he is the most incorruptible nicest bloke ever and at the other, he doesn’t always play nice. In one case the corrupt officials kidnapped the children of a village to steal rice, and he in turn kidnapped their children to steal back the stolen rice that was rightfully his in the first place! He will not hesitate to use torture as a means to extract confession and he doesn’t lose any sleep if his enemies die or is suffering due to his actions. He even accepted money to pay for the food for the disaster victims since he couldn’t think of a way to earn money legitimately. He will lie, cheat, pretend, kill, anything to get his way just like how the corrupt officials will and get this; he is the good guy. So he is the sort of guy where the end justifies the means and sometimes I wonder if he had been the bad guy, there goes the district of Shanyang.
There is never any doubt his To Chan Fung is the good guy with his sincere effort in helping the very poor by opening a bank called Cheh Chin Yih (a play on the words “Borrowing money is easy”) where he lends you not money but tools for a trade to survive. He also believes that poor people are dependable; you treat them well, they will repay you. Imagine Hanzawa Naoki but in Qing Dynasty. Remember in Hanzawa Naoki who is a banker and he approves a loan to a small company that produces great products but is going under against all advice and in the end the owner helped him when he had been blamed for a bad loan which he didn’t give. The trust in the ordinary folks to do the right thing and that is Chan Fung’s philosophy in life. By the way if you haven’t seen Hanzawa Naoki, please go get the series. It will be the best 12 episodes you have ever spent your time watching and in 12 episodes it will finish a tale that will take TVB 20 episodes and the Koreans 30 episodes to tell and the best thing is no silly love story to side step the actual story of a man struggling against time and the top brass to clear his name in the cruel world of banking in Japan.
Back to our N.O, my main struggle to love this series is Kenneth Ma himself. We know TVB series is always a mix and match of everything and hoping to hit a target somewhere. No doubt every viewer will find something to like about this series but for me, however much I like it, I never quite love it because of Kenneth’s uneven portrayal of the incorruptible but harsh judge who .. yes.. pouts a lot. I never quite take him seriously because he never really tell me to take him seriously. I find his performance neither here nor there and I don’t think Kenneth ever do understand if he was supposed to be funny, cute, harsh or super serious. In the end he was just someone I find difficult to accept as the harsh man as he was in his actions. Not when he shouts like a kid and pouts and what nots.
For a series about justice and fighting corruption, it presents a dilemma without really meaning to; everytime our hero wants to uphold justice, his family members will come into the picture and suddenly we see him wheeling and dealing with his older and much higher ranked brother, To Chan Ming for the sake of filial piety and family unity. And this is where this series just screws up its own agenda; it is against corruption and yet here our hero is somewhat corrupted too when it deals with his family. He doesn’t take favours or money for the sake of it because that is too obvious but he lets some family members go lightly in sentencing because of them being family. Isn’t that a form of corruption in a way even if it is favouritism? He allowed his brother to do the sentencing when he should be the one doing it. He would admit defeat to save his mother and then once his mother is saved he will find ways to fight back but to me there can’t be like be corrupted and fight corruption and claim to be incorruptible along the way. It doesn’t make sense. If you want to be incorruptible, be Justice Pao who will probably hack off his own mother’s head if she ever killed someone without cause.
Therefore to me To Chan Ming is a more realistic even is useless character. He had so much promise and he allied himself with powerful figures and that is the difference with Chan Fung; Chan Fung did not depend on anyone or rather on anyone corrupt to get where he is. Chan Ming, even before he stepped into politics is already in debt to these people. He went along with it, reluctantly but he didn’t fight hard. In the end the only reason he stepped out of it is because his own gang betrayed him and throw him into prison when he found out his father’s death and ruined family business had something to do with them. He did not take any proactive action in regaining his pride; he was just forced into it. But he portrayed those who have too much debt in favours very well. In politics we all know you need favours to succeed but perhaps you need to be alone and a loner to be more effective. I remember a scene in Yong Zheng Wang Chao where Kangxi explained to the then 4th prince that he will have to be very lonely in his fight against corrupted officials. He can’t befriend anyone, he can’t owe anyone any favours, he can’t mingle, he can’t be the popular guy, he will in fact be the most unpopular and most hated guy and 4th prince hesitated and then took on the most unpopular job on one promise; no matter what happens, his father will have his back. Chan Fung has the same backer in the happy go lucky Duke Yu, the older brother of the emperor who against the popular knowledge of everyone, is very close to the emperor when everybody thought the emperor was giving him the cold shoulder.
But that was in the beginning. By the middle of the series, there were no secrets. Everyone knew who was working for who and for what. This series ties in well with the unseen imperial fight between 8th prince and 4th prince where Duke Yu is for 4th prince whilst the rest of the corrupted officials work for 8th prince, famous for having lots of friendship debts so to speak. And that’s where the tie in stops. We never get to see the 4th or 8th prince, their struggles were off camera which made it more of a footnote and when we do get to see Kang Xi in his rather nice and new golden robe (probably newly commissioned by TVB’s wardrobe dept), it was such a non event because the actor was such a nobody who lacked every kingly manners. It was such a disappointing sight. And for everyone hoping Chan Fung will assist in investigating corrupt officials and the famed “Book of Hundred Sins” (not the actual name, I just simply give it one) where it lists the corruption or wrong done by each official, he was just a measly 7th ranked magistrate. I was thinking wouldn’t it be more effective to just make him the 1st ranked? Ahhhh but then the series has to shift to the Forbidden Palace and I suppose the producers don’t want another palace intrigue. But don’t mistake this series as some mystery investigations; it isn’t. For more than half the series we see Chan Fung pitted his wits against the cunning officials in Shanyang who are hell bent on stealing government aided rice meant for disaster victims. After a while it became so repetitive I was wondering will it ever go beyond rice. Yes it does, it then moves on to a prostitution/gambling den/exclusive club for the corrupt officials and we are introduced to a spy named Pak Hau Ling who is supposed to be very beautiful. Yoyo Chen is pretty and compared to many actresses in this series, she is the prettiest but is she so beautiful so as to make men fall to their knees? Fala Chen has a better chance at that in Songs Of The Desert. But this is small production so everything, including beauty has to be scaled down. Pak Hau Ling doesn’t make for an interesting character until the end. There is never any doubt how her character will end up, just a matter of why and her end was rather sad.
The best elements in this series are the veterans and some.
Susan Tse was marvelous as the most hateful and hated character, the 1st wife of the To family. Her sudden change in behaviour in the end is not explained at all and I was hoping there will be either comeuppance or redemption for her character but we get neither. However she was one of the bright sparks and my god, that woman can argue!
Ram Cheung is also marvelous as the playful but honourable Duke Yu. However his character was not developed well and in the end he was more caricature than a character proper. But he was fun to watch.
Lee Sing Cheung is now the A List amongst the veteran actors. He was in fact the most talked about character and practically the lead in Return Of The Silver Tongue. This man is a chameleon. He can play nice, he can play evil, he can play oily, he can play anything except emperors perhaps? In here his villain is strange; I am just not sure how to describe him but performance wise, even if he is burdened with one note character, he gave a wonderful performance as the manipulative villain of this series.
Cilla Kung was cute and gave a fantastic supporting performance to the more subdued and serious Tavia. I really liked those scenes where she was brutally honest, at times I wonder maybe she will betray everyone but in the end she remained loyal to her friends and quite wise in dispensing observations and advice. By the way this actress will probably never grow up. She is the new Leila Tong except she speaks too loud and less boring. If she tones down a bit, she will be a wonderful supporting actress even if she is typecast as the playful lazy loud cute younger sister of the lead. I love her banter with Kenneth though; it felt genuine and sincere.
Benjamin Yuen is effective as the dependable loyal friend of Chan Fung even if he didn’t have much to do.
Joel Chan is back with TVB and he looks like he is ready to work his arse off. He was effective as the hypocritical Chan Ming who was never really the villain he should have been. He was just there, doing nothing much but looked stressed a lot. But you know what, I welcome Joel Chan who is a far better actor than Kenneth BUT his looks lack the sincerity of a really good guy that Kenneth has.
Yoyo was effective. I always find her a cute actress before she gave birth, now she looked rather haggard but she is a better actress than she was before.
Tavia Yeung is the best in this series for a variety of reasons. I love how she speaks; softly, almost a whisper at times and that suits me just fine. She looks pretty as she can possibly be even if I am frank here, she is no great beauty. She is still putting on too much make up. Yes I got used to her nose so let’s move on. I was at first worried she may have worked herself sick because she tends to sound like she has a bad sore throat in every series she is in and I bet she was but I saw that green vein on her forehead and I thought poor woman, she is overworked. Nope, that was make up intending to be part of her character so fans of Tavia can breath easier. She may not be believable as a nun in training but she is believable as the soft spoken kind hearted person that her Wai Lam is. I enjoyed her nuanced performance so much, I do feel sorry that she is again probably the biggest A List actress in a supporting role but thank god she is in here, if not I think I will have to look at Kenneth Ma and I will just switch off the TV. Her story in this series is very very sad which I won’t reveal and the ending for her character or rather those related to her is also very very dramatic which again I won’t reveal here because you just have to watch it. My problem is this series is supposed to be semi comedy and I don’t think anyone can make a comedy out of Titanic, don’t you? It is that level of tragedy.
Everybody else, including the villains save for the god knows who the heck is the familiar looking actor as Kang Xi were effective but most were one note character.
In the end, however wonderful the performances are, however one note the story is, the ending is just what makes me breath fire. The ending is absurd. I don’t mean the final ending or the last act, I meant the one before the last act. There is one thing unusual about this series and that is its portrayal about religion that is Buddhism and Christianity. Rather it is the non difference between the two as highlighted at the beginning where Wai Yu and Wai Lam coming to see Chan Fung to borrow money to renovate their temple, in the end we see 2 nuns coming to see Chan Fung to borrow money to renovate their church. The series tries to do away with any differences between these 2 religions and I do find it rather amusing. I am however not amused when it shows Wai Lam seeing Chan Fung again after 1 year and he was in priest robes but once he knows she is not a nun, he quickly abandon the notion of being a priest. Ok I do find that funny in its own funny way but I just find this series doesn’t really try to break down barriers, it just reaffirms the disrespect people have for religion. Like how Tavia in one scene hacked off the head of a Buddha statue in anger. I know it is part of a scene to show her emotional anger or her one moment of lapse of better judgment and control, but nowhere does it tell me she ever stopped believing in the Buddhist teaching, so why that scene? Because to the director, it didn’t matter. It shows to me a slight contempt for religion if you ask me. Maybe I am reading too much into it but it would be nice to show a bridge between that act and Wai Lam’s anger; show Wai Lam not believing in God anymore or such stuff.
Also one minor complain; in the last few episodes one scene our hero and everybody was cornered and it was fight to their death and our 2 female warriors were fighting and losing and our guys just stood by the side gripping their luggage hard. Hey men, why don’t you try to help by, I don’t know, throwing rocks or something. It was annoying to watch.
But apart from that, apart from the constant fighting about rice and disaster victims and the ever unrepentant corrupted officials and the unseen imperial struggle and the inadequate ending, this series isn’t so bad.
Watch it for Tavia, watch it when nothing good is on TV, watch it because of the seriously lacking ancient costume series in TVB today.
China has moved on from Qing Dynasty to Han Dynasty and now to Tang Dynasty and I bet soon we will see Sung and Ming and whatever else. TVB probably not wanting to disturb budget constraints is still going about Qing dynasty. That is progress for TVB. Please TVB, move on from Qing dynasty. Stop shaving the actors’ heads. Ditch the recycled boring costumes. The only new one is the emperor’s yellow robe, the rest looked just taken out from cupboard and dusted after 100 years in storage. The ladies’ hairdo and costume for this series looked uninspired, dull and did nothing to add to the actress’ looks if any. Some actors are perpetually in the same costume throughout. I find the make up, costume and overall character conceptualisation for this series to be very very poor. Of course I was spoilt for choice; I just finished The Virtuous Queen of Han whose costumes were very nice and now I am watching Sound Of The Desert which was just awesome. I am sure once I see Fan Bing Bing’s Wu Zetian series, I will just refuse to watch another TVB costume series because I heard great things about the costumes (but the make up is so scary looking, I wonder do emperors in Tang Dynasty ever wake up to see their consorts looking that way and just scream in fright?). TVB these few years have been declining in terms of costume and kung fu styles. Not even a decent fighting scene, definitely none in this series where we have 2 female warriors and some uninspired kung fu styles.Maybe it is time to go back to the trampoline years. At least that was entertaining and funny.
And TVB, please oh please stop with the awful CGI. That marble/stone boat that our villains have their evil meetings together is just so out of proportion in size, it is embarrassing to watch.
This review is written by Funn Lim, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com, and was originally posted at www.point2e.com.