[Review] “Noblesse Oblige” (By Funn)

Noblesse Oblige <宦海奇官>
Hong Kong TVB Drama 2015

Producer: Lee Tim Sing
Genre: Mystery
Number of Episodes: 21

Kenneth Ma
Tavia Yeung
Benjamin Yuen
Cilla Kung
Joel Chan
Yoyo Chen
Lau Dan
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.

Noblesse Oblige Kenneth MaBack 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.

Noblesse Oblige Joel ChanTherefore 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!

Nobless Oblige 1Ram 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.

Noblesse Oblige Tavia Yeung 2Tavia 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.

An Observation
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.

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  1. “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.”

    totaly agree with that,i hope your advise will be heard,the kung fu fight styles of two female warriors are really a joke,how they fight….jez,it looks like little children fighting for a doll.

    1. Yeah what happened to all the Wuxia type series that TVB used to make.

      That Lee Sing Cheung is the go to guy, I like how he was Edwin’s dad in Overachievers and Madame Cutie lol, and his security outfit in Cutie is similar to his drivers outfit in OA haha.

  2. Yeah I was disappointed with this series, it could’ve been so much better. I just feel that TVB is limited in what they can do, I mean on Lee Tim Shing’s part anyway with whatever budget they have. Unless the script it fantastic and/or they invest a lot of money, otherwise costume shows in TVB is either dead or forever set in that shangha-esque set.

  3. Entertaining & Enjoyable Drama =) … although not really stellar performance, but sometimes simple and light-hearted dramas like these is very easy and relaxing to watch which makes one happy.

    enjoyed watching the whole cast, besides tavia and kenneth i also quite like the story between joel and yoyo as well as the entertaining benjamin and ram chiang character … the only cast that looks out of place seems to be the emperor, by the way the guy who acted as the emperor is Gary Chan Ka Fai, he acted in many TVB series in the 1990s, the only show that i remember he acted in as the male lead is The Kung Fu Kid 螳螂小子

  4. i keep getting this feeling that when i watch tvb series, no matter what it is about, cop show, lawyer show, ancient series, whatever show…keep feeling that every show is filmed by the same person, nothing is new or refreshing to me, same style, and mood

    1. Like all K dramas actually. Eventually it is about love.

      TVB at least not about love but the process is the same. K drama is the purpose is the same.

  5. Funn, I agree with you, I watched this on plane. Had a lot of long trips recently so hours to kill. Yes, watch this because of Tavia and Cilla even if they are supporting Kenneth, love Tavia’s performance.

    I’m watching Wu Mei Niang and the costume is breathtaking. But a real shame that once it got censored they show a lot of shoulder up or back shots of the female actresses. So the costume didn’t get the proper display in its true glory. Real shame.

    1. Where do you watch WMN? I was watching it then all the eps got deleted off youtube and I can’t find the full eps now, only the 30min version.

      1. I have a gadget that allows me to watch most Chinese series via streaming. So didn’t watch it via YouTube

      2. what do you use? it’s not available on fengxing, haven’t checked sohu, letv and pptv cuz I wanted to download the eps

      3. It’s not download it’s a gadget that stream videos online, WMN is streamed from sohu

  6. I’m at the stage of refusing to watch TVB… If it wasn’t for the difficulty I had in saving the files for mainland series for plane ride.

    Mainland productions especially the ancient series are just way way way better than TVB. Even live or staged shows from mainland are much better like 我是歌手 or I’m a singer!

    One issue with mainland series is it can drag on a bit, so I’ll do my own editing by fast forwarding. Sound of dessert is amazing, but it got draggy towards the end. Wu Mei Niang suffered the same issue, her relationship with the first husband dragged on and on and on. The great find last year for me is 情定三身 (not sure what the English name is) and cosmetology high. Even those two less high profile productions have way better costume and sets compared to TVB.

    1. Yah, my mum would say the mainland series looks very nice and pretty but its too long for her to watch it.

    2. You must watch My Sunshine by Wallace Chung and Tiffany Tang. It is very good mainland series. Tiffany Tang and Hawick Lau is pairing together in Lady and Lair in another mainland series. You can watch it on Viki

      1. Yes JD I’m a fan of Wallace after watching amazing race china! Been looking for my sunshine but can’t find it. Where are you getting the videos, YouTube?

      2. Theres 1 more good ones I van recommend. A Chinese Immortal Story, 3rd part, that made me cry when he had to kill his own brother. But it can get very draggy.

  7. getting really tired of recent tvb shows too, just d same people, same stories, that same studio and same sets, see the same things…tvb needs some new ideas and some new life i think

    1. At least they fixed the camera angle, whenever they are at the chinese garden, no more showing fence in the background hehe.

      1. Meme, you just noticed that. It’s the same actors over and over again since 2008 or 09 cannot remember. If you want new stuff, switich to american show and movies. At least hollywood and other american companies have at least millions of actors

  8. N.O. is certainly not one of the better dramas put out by TVB. But compared to Tiger Cubs 2, it looks very much an Oscar Award winning show! Haha! Furthermore for her role in N.O., it was just a walk in the park for Tavia and yet her performance was a million miles ahead of Linda Chung in TC2 despite the latter trying so damn hard.

    1. “It was just a walk in the park for Tavia and yet her performance was a million miles ahead of Linda Chung in TC2 despite the latter trying so damn hard.”

      Well said! Tavia is such a versatile actress and I love how she can pull off all roles.

  9. Overall this series is so/so not like Line Walker or BHWS like im always chasing for it Tavia did do a good job in actions roles she did the movements smoothly like i said I will and always support Tavia!!!

  10. Kenneth Ma is not a good actor, acting is way over exaggerated and there’s always that awkward look on him like he doesn’t know what he should be or do. My sister was watching Three Kingdoms RPG last week, Kenneth was just awful in there. He’s ok in modern dramas but he should stay away from ancient dramas.

    1. Agree. His acting is bad. Comedy doesn’t suit him.

      Ending was terrible. All they had to do was kill the big bad villain. Same ending as Overachievers.

  11. The scene where Kenneth Ma was being shipped into the jail and citizens are asking for him to spared. Kenneth Ma exclaims “don’t hit them, don’t hit them!!!”….the guards weren’t even hitting the people…GEEZ.

  12. As much as I like Tavia Yeung’s acting, I couldn’t get myself to finish even the 1st episode of Noblesse Oblige because Kenneth Ma’s performance in N.O. is such a turn off. Thanks, but no thanks to N.O.

    Actually, after watching HKTV dramas, I lost much interest in watching TVB dramas.

    1. can’t even finish one episode of the so called hktv drama, it’s really really boring that i rather watch old b/w chinese films

  13. Lousy ending!!! I always hated it when Christianity appears at the end of tvb plot! !!! Its like they are religion jumping with ease!!! And the scriptwriters does not help in making the series better to watch. Tvb dont have talent anymore??? I agree with what funn mentioned.

    1. tvb is so bad with endings, i mean really bad…most are all rushed and typical endings

  14. i dont think tvb gives there writers enough freedom to explore different avenues…seems like we been waiting forever for tvb to make a series thats unique and fresh

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