Friday, March 20, 2015

FILMART 2015 Commentary

FILMART was today, and you can watch the clips now on Casual TVB! Keep reading for the thoughts that went through my head as I watched the clips...

"Vampire": Uh... If I want to watch a vampire drama, I think I'll just rewatch the first two seasons of "The Vampire Diaries" before the show started going downhill. I like Kevin and Kay, but this looks cheesy and like there is way too much going on here. Joel's look here is very creepy.

"Brother's Keeper II": For the sake of supporting Edwin and Kristal, I'll probably at least give this a try when it comes out. However, a sequel, even if it is indirect, seems redundant and bound to flop. Looks like it'll be another drama claiming to be full of business wars to end up becoming underwhelming ala "Overachievers." Grace's scenes provide a strange contrast to the clips of Edwin and Kristal. 

"Limelight Years": I like veteran actors Damien and Liza, but this looks like another cheesy family drama and none of the rest of the cast draws me in. Don't have anything against Alex Fong, but his incorporation of English lines already has me cringing as well as his and Linda's messy looking relationship. The only thing that looks refreshing is the filming of the series. It looks like they did a lot of outdoor and location shooting.

"Lord of Shanghai": I've never liked premodern dramas and probably never will, save for a few exceptions ("Bottled Passion" and "A Fistful of Stances" come to mind). It has a good male veteran cast but uh...Anthony Wong and Myolie Wu?  I'm also not interested in seeing Wayne Lai in another screaming match.

"Captain of Destiny": Oh Tony... I love you, but still don't think you're ready for a leading role, never mind in a role like this (maybe in a lighthearted modern series). If I watch this series, it'll be a constant struggle for me to not laugh out loud at his mustache and pirate get up. This clip does nothing to further sell me on the series. Grace appears in three out of six of these clips. And the year of getting her shoved down our throats continues...

"Under the Veil": It's amusing how I'm seeing this clip now, as Niki and I were just talking the other day about TVB hasn't done a mythical/fantasy ancient series since 2008's "Legend of the Demigods." I feel like this series will remind me of why... But hey, Sonija's back and she's looking lovely.

Side note: I hope fans will start subbing TVB series again soon. While I understand enough to still follow the plot without subtitles, they're helpful and let me pay more attention to the story as opposed to comprehending the words.  Ancient series are also much harder to understand, so I usually skip them altogether if there are no subs.

Most anticipated: None.

Least anticipated: Pretty much all of them.

This is a time TVB gets HK audiences excited for what series are coming. So did TVB pick the worst of the crop or is just telling of how bleak the future is looking for them?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"Raising the Bar" Review

I knew going in "Raising the Bar" would not be case-driven, which allowed me to enjoy it a lot more. However, as a heavily character-driven series, there was very little character growth despite the great potential for it.

First, let's look at the titular "four girls"…

After having experienced sexual harassment by her former mentor, Giselle Tong gave up the year of training she already completed to pursue her ultimate dream of being a barrister. Of all the girls, the real female lead Grace Chan had most potential for a dynamic storyline. I had looked forward to see the intelligent, sweet, ever hardworking, but somewhat reserved Giselle mature and become a great lawyer throughout the series. However, after the first few episodes which heavily focus on Marcus (played by Ben Wong) teaching new pupils Giselle and Quinton (played by Louis Cheung), this storyline is thrown into the background and largely implied. By the end, we don't necessarily feel like she hasn't grown as a person or lawyer, but that we had just missed out on seeing it, and that is a shame.

As an actress, I did not find Grace to be bad in her debut performance in "Overachievers. Yet, she and the character left a sour taste in my mouth and I dreaded seeing her here, especially as she was paired up with one of my favorite actors. Thankfully though, I liked her much more here and only had one major problem with her performance. Giselle did not learn English until she was in 8th grade, yet her English is perfect. I have a lot of trouble believing she could learn at such a stage without even a hint of an accent.

Coming in second in terms of screen time is Brittany Fok, played by Jeannie Chan, who surprisingly went from my most disliked character to one of my favorites. This is mainly because in the episodes that focus on her, Brittany is really the only one who goes through any substantial character development. This is rather ironic as she is the only girl already practicing at the start of the series. Starting off as a spoiled rich girl who treated her friends like dirt (especially Yiu Chui-Fa), midway through the series she matures to become a much sweeter and considerate person while still being assertive and confident. It is quick, but still happens reasonably. I absolutely hated watching Brittany in the early episodes, but enjoyed seeing her become humbled at work, and having that spread to her personal life as well.

Jeannie comes off heavily pretentious in her performance early on (then again, it is in-character) but becomes likable and more natural in the second half. I also loved the character's fun but still professional wardrobe the times her outfits weren't dominated by huge bows.

Newcomer Moon Lau is the most pitiful - and by pitiful, I mean I feel bad that Moon got a character that has no personality for her debut performance. Holly Tsang is nice, is said to be diligent at work, and seems to be a pretty good friend. However, there's really not much else to her. She is bland and boring, and though Moon was decent for a newcomer and neither wooden or exaggerative, there isn't much anyone could do to save the dull character.

The wedding storyline with her and Jayden is the most jarring of the series.  Holly already knew Jayden was cheating. Even more confusing was Jayden's perspective. He did not get Holly pregnant, is a self-proclaimed player, and was not a rich son being pressured to get married by his parents. Why marry her then? What gives guys? I am however vey relieved the writers did not put her into the love triangle with Grace and Louis, instead opting for her to be the friend who observes the obvious attraction the two had for each other and trying to push them together.

The most underused female character is Stephanie Ho's Yiu Chui-Fa, who is mostly around for comic relief. Following her and Lincoln (King Lam) becoming a couple, her screen time becomes virtually nonexistent (Apparently in this series, once you had a storyline that focused heavily on you, you got banished to the sidelines). While Ah Fa may have been irritating played by another actress, Stephanie is absolutely adorable and hilarious, shining in her few scenes. I loved any scenes or interactions that featured her with her mentor Duncan (Timothy Cheng) and love interest Lincoln. Unfortunately, she has absolutely zero development, especially as a lawyer. She's just the funny and cute short girl that fades into the background the second half. My favorite part about the series though is her ridiculously catchy and fun theme song, which is reminiscent of those for older warm and lighthearted TVB series from the 2000s.

Now the titular "Three Bars"...

The three bars refer to the three law firms, headed by mentors Ben, Elaine Yiu and Ram Chiang, and Timothy. All have minimal screen time, and unfortunately the one with the most is also the most irritating and unnecessary to watch.

Ben surprisingly has a few very comical moments in the series, but for the most part has little to do. I did like the balance between him being shown to be very professional and intelligent at work, yet still rather laid back with friends and at home.

Portraying the funny and charming Duncan Yam, Timothy's character and performance was a nice change of pace for an actor who is usually stuck in evil roles. He had great comedic timing in the few scenes that allowed him to show it. On his own, he is great. Yet his and Natalie Tong's storyline is left mostly vague only to be suddenly put together in the end. Natalie is given too "cool" and mature of a character here, and the result is that the usually youthful and natural actress comes off as pretentious and cold instead of professional and reserved due to her tough childhood.

No complaints on Ram's character and performance as the kind and lighthearted solicitor Woody Lam here, other than he does not get enough screen time. But then there's his firm partner Elaine Yiu

Elaine wins the award for least likable lead. On paper, the character is already hard to warm up to, always giving everyone including her own husband the stink eye, except bookstore owner Don. Vivian is unsympathetic, cold, and treats an otherwise great and understanding husband unfairly. Their affair was incredibly unnecessary and a waste of time that could have been allocated to the development of the four girls instead. Performance-wise, she perpetually gives everyone the resting bitch face and like Natalie, seems to think acting professional means acting cold and pretentious.

And finally, the two guys…

It would have been amusing if the Chinese title was translated to "Four Girls, Three Bars, and Two Boys." It is not, which does not seem fair to Louis and King's characters, but I digress.

Aside from Giselle, Louis' "Quinton Chow" also had the most potential for great character growth. He is implied to be around 30 years old and having already worked in the construction and engineering field for several years. Despite this, he gives up what he already has worked for in favor of pursuing his dream of becoming a barrister. It sounds like the story of considerable sacrifice, hardship, and questions of whether Quinton made the right choice. He breaks down once early on as he starts to follow Marcus and becomes overwhelmed with his new path. However, afterwards, he seems to easily float through. By the time he becomes a barrister, we are under the impression his career change was a piece of cake. I didn't want a bunch of emotional scenes, but I did want to see Quinton grow as a student of the law and eventual barrister and feel at least a little rewarded at the end when he is finally shown in the wig and gown.

With that said, Quinton is still perfectly lovable enough. Having portrayed many heavy semi-vilain roles lately, Louis appears very comfortable and laid back here. It was nice to see a quirky and playful side of him, especially when he would lovingly talk to his plants and speak about aliens to his parents. I enjoyed his scenes with Grace. The friendship turned mutual romantic feelings came about rather organically. I loved when he playfully pushed Grace to admit she is "Black Angel" with the stuffed bear (which ended up in hilarious awkwardness for him when she gives it to Brittany). Louis makes Quinton a very endearing character to watch even though the writing of the character leaves much to be desired.

"The Voice" alumni King Lam is a surprising treat to watch as the slightly goofy but goodhearted and
blunt lawyer with a crush on Ah Fa. I loved whenever he wasn't afraid to speak his mind in situations even when not exactly appropriate. (For example, the scene where he suddenly yells at the girl who flushed her baby down the toilet that she had given birth to a kid, not a piece of BBQ pork honestly had me laughing so hard). I was sad to see his screen time was significantly reduced by the final episodes.

Louis and King round out the dominantly female friend group well, and make the friendship aspect more dynamic. I loved the scenes the two shared together, especially whenever they would make fun of each other about the girls they had feelings for.

Overall Thoughts

The few cases that the series manages to churn out are either boring, convenient (such as the case of Brittany's family friend getting acquitted of assault against his mistress with CCTV footage), or sloppily concluded (such as the compensated dating and rape case). As a result, I'm still looking for another great legal drama from TVB.

As for the series itself, the script apparently decides they want to focus on the friendship of the four girls and to a lesser extent, the two guys. I would have been welcoming of that, only this focus on friendship is largely on superficial things like them going on trips together (Do pupils and trainee lawyers have that much free time?). I don't doubt they are all great friends, but it is all skin deep and fails to show any deep connections. This is not necessary for a series in general, but I believe this is necessary for a series that decides to be so character and friendship-driven, or else you have little of any substance.

"Raising the Bar" ends up being the stringing together of some entertaining and fun scenes between the core friend group and some bad story lines. The cast is too large, which led to a strange allocation of screen time. After 23 episodes of not doing much, the finale also strangely decides to shove in a large rape case against a main character, a parent's death, another parent dying of illness, a wedding, and two surprise cameos from Tony Hung and William Chak. Other than that, the series is easy to watch while easily forgettable. This is the norm for TVB lately, but what makes it disappointing in this case is that it could have been something much more.

Rating: 3 stars