Note: This critical commentary for “Gilded Chopsticks” is written by Funn Lim. Certain dialogue is reproduced with some creative license adopted.
Watched until Episode 17
Of the battle between 4th and 8th and Ben’s interpretation of Yongzheng
Spoilers alert, all opinion are my own and this was written before I watched Episode 18. See footnote for links to referenced and similar series.
No doubt Ben Wong has graced every role there is to grace in TVB which is mainly villain (Safe Guards and he was delicious!), nice guy (the nicest there is that is in Kindred Spirit) and the middle guy who does things because he had to (Gilded Chopsticks).
Whilst Gilded Chopsticks is promoted as Wong Cho Lam comedy series about food in the imperial palace, the more I watch this series the more I feel it is really about Yong Zheng. Food was just a sub topic and Wong Cho Lam merely there as comic relief. The entire series is more about the rise of Yong Zheng and perhaps the fall of the 8th prince. It is basically a simplified version of Yong Zheng Wang Chao. And anyone who watched that excellent CCTV series that is probably the first to portray Yong Zheng sympathetically without muting his harsh actions (as in showing him as a harsh emperor rather than a cruel emperor like they always do in the past and in history) will see many similar scenes. This is mainly because historically such things happened but more precisely, YZWC showed them the way they did in a grander bigger and more pressure cooker style whilst TVB, applauding their attempts to show imperial politics in a mature way took a more decidedly simpler route that still showcases Yong Zheng’s dilemma and manages to convey his difficulties but not the immense pressure he was in. In fact there are many characters in here that in previous TVB imperial palace series never really did mention but now you will see Mr Wu, Cheung Ting Yuk, 8th prince, 9th prince, 10th prince, 14th prince, Lee Dak Chuen, Lee Wai and many more. I bet you know Nin Gang Yew because he was indespensible in the history of Yong Zheng, much like how you can’t hear about Kangxi without hearing the name Aobai or Qianlung without hearing the name He Shen (eventhough TVB has never made any series with He Shen in it if I remember correctly) when depicting Qing emperors. The rest of the names are those you will hear when watching Bu Bu Jing Xin but frankly, it is obvious TVB is inspired heavily by YZWC for the politics, Duke of Mount Deer for the role of Ko Tin Po and his role in Yong Zheng’s rule and also Happy Ever After for the theme of food.
The more I watch this series (at present it is almost at half way I think), the more I like it. It is the first of a very long time that TVB ever bothered with a story. The casting may be disputable. After all this is a smaller production so to speak, because if any bigger, Him Law and Vincent Wong will probably be one of those princes respectively. However I am getting use to the idea of certain actors in certain characters and how they’re portrayed even if sometimes they’re quite confusing. I always feel only if TVB does remake YZWC seriously, I feel the actors will feel very challenged. After all, how can anyone make a comedy out of Yong Zheng’s story? Nothing funny at all unless you make it a situation comedy and throw Yong Zheng into the future (which TVB did to hilarious results). Other than that, can anyone laugh one minute at Ko Tin Po’s antics which will almost certainly follow up with perhaps the devious tricks played by 8th prince or the likes?
Acting wise, this is where this series shines thus far.
Ben Wong is a decent actor, that everyone agrees. I thought he was a miscast as 4th prince but that was at the beginning. He has the look of an intelligent ruthless emperor and for that he suits my idea of Yong Zheng. He has a few moments to shine when in confrontation with Louis Cheung’s 8th prince and many more. He looks good in the usually ugly Qing hairstyle and despite TVB’s wardrobe department falling into coma over the wardrobe selection to which you will see those that people often wear for play-acting photoshoot (like myself when visiting Forbidden Palace), he looks good generally. But this is not BBJX. BBJX made the costume part of the character. As 4th prince was thrown into the succession battle and sucked into a vortex of deceit and trickery, his clothes changed. When he was in self imposed exile, he was dressed simply eventhough quite obviously the fabric is still luxurious. You don’t see such fine attention to details in Gilded Chopsticks. They wear whatever they have and most often than not, only Ben, Louis and Wong Cho Lam have access to better clothes. The rest were quite hideous. Look at the crown (or emperor’s hat) for example; at least brush the darn thing. Qing dynasty never looked so poor than in Gilded Chopticks and funny thing is Tin Po on his ordinary days dress more luxuriously than the princes. Such lack of attention is not doing this series any favour. As well as the uninspired hairstyles for the female actresses, it shows this is a production that is placing their money elsewhere other than what we can see on the actors.
Anyway back to Ben Wong. Costume is not helping him so as an actor he has to help himself. He is rather good at those scenes where he has to defend himself, has to argue his way out, incredulous sort of expressions and what nots. But so far I can’t see him as Yong Zheng even if his reinterpretation is actually very decent. Somehow I feel his Yong Zheng is always waiting for Mr Wu to advise him, that he doesn’t make a solid decision himself. One particular scene where General Nin returned from war victorious and he toasted General Nin but General Nin’s soldiers refused to drink until General Nin told them to and cut to Ben’s Yong Zheng, he looked bewildered, cautious and a little fearful at General Nin’s influence over his men and his men’s loyalty not to the emperor but to General Nin. In itself this is a great scene even if unsuitable for what is supposed to be a comedy. However same scene also in YZWC but grander scale and with more back story which you see a little in Gilded Chopsticks (where General Nin rode a horse into the palace having rudely whipped one of the ministers away – I believe also in YZWC), however in YZWC the actor as Yong Zheng was very skillful in portraying resentment for General Nin’s action. After all, he is the emperor, his troops should owe allegiance to the throne and not to the general and so you get a sense that he is very very angry but had to suck it up because he needs General Nin. This is later reflected in a scene where he married Nin’s sister and made her strip in front of him and then without touching her angrily walked away. He releases his anger and resentment on the sister since he can’t do it on Nin as he has some wars he wants Nin to win. Much later when Nin was sentenced to death, as in after he died, Yong Zheng actually felt sorry for killing Nin because of the wars now the country faces without a capable general. Even how Nin died was peculiar. He seems rather loyal to the emperor (after all he was a servant in the 4th prince household) and yet he has this immense sense of pride, arrogance and self entitlement which ultimately led to his death. As opposed to Lee Wai who was loyal, street smart and knew his place, he never posed such a dilemma for Yong Zheng like Nin did. Now I wonder will I see all these in Gilded Chopsticks? Ben did very well but his Yong Zheng is at times too soft, too indecisive which I suppose is TVB’s way of explaining how he was wrongly made a scape goat for some atrocities he supposedly did. I always feel Yong Zheng was not a cruel man; he was a practical man and he was a very disciplined man and he was an especially harsh man, as he was also harsh on himself. Ben has the looks of a harsh man but the script does not allow that side of him in Yong Zheng to be shown, maybe not yet. But in TVB’s attempt to make Yongzheng the nice guy, I feel we will never see Ben given the free reign to interpret Yong Zheng like I know he could.
Louis Cheung is another one who impresses me as he goes along. I am sure his 8th is supposed to be noble, he has some grand ideas and he feels he is entitled to the throne because he thinks himself way smarter than everyone and way more capable than everyone and has the genuine support of major ministers and most of his fellow brothers. This is the interpretation Louis Cheung took and whilst he is not handsome enough, in scenes where he is lamenting or is devious, thus far I feel Louis Cheung is doing a splendid job. In fact there is a scene where Kangxi basically told 8th what he really thought of him (ambitious, devious, bad bad son) which is sorta like the one in YZWC except Elliot Ngok can never ever ever ever ever be Jiao Huang who is the definitive Kangxi. That scene was where Kangxi was on his deathbed and he explained why he felt 8th was not suitable to be Emperor. He basically said “He thinks he is most like me but the truth is he is least like me. Everything he does has an ulterior motive, that is for his own benefit and not for the people of this country”. True! Well at least in YZWC’s 8th that is true. Jiao Huang is to me the most elegant actor I have ever seen as an emperor. I can still remember him lamenting “I am all alone!!” to Zhang Tingyu (Cheung Ting Yuk). He basically made YZWC such an enjoyable series and he makes Kangxi such a skilled diplomat, sometimes a biased father and mostly a flawed leader because he is too nice and too entrenched in the establishment that at the end of his rule, he could not right the wrongs he did. But Yongzheng did, he owed no one for his succession except those few whom he later either demoted or sentenced to death. History tells us he was cruel, new perspective explains to us perhaps he had a very good reason and he was not a despot. Ahhh great memories of that series. Back to Louis. I feel he should be 13th prince but he manages to show the complexity of the 8th prince except what is missing is the elegance. Every depiction of 8th prince is someone who has great taste, who knows how to enjoy life and who is kind hearted and a man who is walking nobility, literally and figuratively. Whether he is genuine or not is up to interpretation but there is no doubt he was ambitious. Louis Cheung showcased all that but a pity he lacks the looks and the gentlemanly elegance one expects from 8th prince. In that regard about showing the good side of 8th whilst being ambitious without being cruel intentionally, Kevin Cheng in BBJX was the ultimate. But I feel you can’t show the good of 4th if you show 8th to be absolutely noble, something which BBJX almost failed spectacularly if not for the character of 13th prince who humanises the harsh 4th prince, both in BBJX and in YZWC as well the character of 14th prince who was steadfastly loyal to 8th prince which soften the whole ambitious ruthless 8th in a sense because he was genuinely affectionate to 14th prince. Gilded Chopsticks could do with a 13th prince mainly because poor Ben’s indecisive scared fearful wooden 4th prince needs a true friend that is 13th prince. In fact he also needs an empress and I think he has one or at least a crown prince because when giving merits to General Nin, one of the stipulation was that General Nin becomes a teacher to the crown prince (this was written before Episode 18 where it was revealed Yongzheng does not even have a concubine – see how restrictive the imperial household is in TVB’s world). Luckily in here, our 8th whilst is kinda ambigous is sometimes quite gentlemanly. I mean he need not tell Ah Suet that he wasn’t the one who found the 7 colours fungus and that it was 4th who found it and yet he did. I find that such a strange moment but does show 8th in a good light. In all Louis Cheung interpretes 8th as someone ruthless, ambitious and self entitled but deep down if he wasn’t born into the royal family, he might have been an artistic scholar liked by many. Quite a sad predicament for our 8th. Frankly I also think Louis Cheung will make a decent 4th prince and our Ben can play the noble 8th prince. It is to the credit of both actors that I can imagine them in various princes roles.
The plot thickens later on when Yongzheng marries Yeuk Pik and makes an enemy out of Tin Po but I feel Tin Po like Wai Siu Bo will always remain loyal to Yong Zheng and will fall for Siu Yu instead (this was written before Episode 18 and I was right as in Tin Po never quite blaming the emperor who was pushed into a marriage he did not want and foolishly wanted to marry Suet who is a commoner, a Han and later on obviously a spy of 8th Prince). Yeuk Pik herself in this version may also fall for Yong Zheng and likewise because right now Suet suddenly turns on the charm on Yong Zheng whilst 8th becomes a monk. My feeling is Suet agrees to assist 8th whom she feels is the rightful heir (she thinks Kangxi actually wanted 8th to be prince – she should have just asked Mr Wu and Tin Po for the real version of events) and she pretends to be with Yong Zheng to get information. I hope I am right because this will be exciting because if I am wrong, Suet is a very fickle minded woman (this was written before Episode 18 and I was right!! I think …)
As for Tin Po being Wai Siu Bo, there were some scenes that directly relate to that such as when 4th was battling Songottu (correct my spelling please!) and Tin Po helped to subdue him much like how Wai Siu Bo helped Kangxi to subdue Aobai except Tin Po did it with a fish I think and Siu Bo with his small knife. The former funnier but more dignified, the latter quite devious and more sneaky.
Are you watching this series? If not, you must! It is rather funny and very dramatic. Put aside the whole historical inaccuracy and you will definitely be swept away by the whole palace intrigue. Just bear in mind, it is simplified. For a more attractive and heart breaking version with less politics but more beautiful people and out of this world gorgeous costume, watch BBJX. For more Yong Zheng centred story, you must not miss Yong Zheng Wang Chao and try and see if you can get a good English subtitled copy. The mandarin and the dialogue almost killed me, so very level 10 Mandarin.
Originally posted at http://www.point2e.com/2014/03/o-gilded-chopsticks-tvb2014.html
Series referenced in this commentary
(1) Happy Ever After (TVB)(1999)
(2) Bu Bu Jing Xin / Scarlet Heart (China)(2011)
(3) Duke Of Mount Deer (TVB)(1998)
(4) Duke Of Mount Deer (China)(2000)
(5) Royal Tramp (China)(2008)
(6) Yong Zheng Wang Chao/The YongZheng Dynasty (China)(1999)
Series not referenced but highly recommended
Secret Battle Of The Majesty (ATV)(1995)
This commentary is written by Funn Lim, a Contributing Writer at JayneStars.com, and was originally posted at www.point2e.com.