Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Between Love and Desire" Review

I had no particular desire (ha) to watch "Between Love and Desire," but the first half of the series is surprisingly probably some of the best written episodes of TVB of the year. It could've quietly gone under the radar as the best written series of 2016, but unfortunately fails to maintain its quality the second half.

The writers here finally grasp the concept of "show, not tell" with the use of flashbacks in the first several episodes. While there is a pretty heavy use of flashbacks in the first half, unlike in other series the device has been previously utilized in ("Burning Flame 3" comes to mind), they serve a purpose here, do not become irritating, and are executed well. They were interweaved seamlessly into the plot, allowing us to see Mose Chan's character in the present while also seeing flashbacks to the person he used to be and how he developed into the person he became. They also successfully built intrigue, and I loved how the flashbacks felt like they were slowly putting together a puzzle. I have to admit that while I have never been a fan of Moses, he proves here that when he gets good material, he is capable of delivering a good and nuanced performance.

However, once the flashbacks catch up to how Moses became the man he is in the present and he realizes the error of his ways, the series loses its intrigue and coherence. It was refreshing for the writers to focus their efforts on thoroughly developing one complex character, but once "Hugo" goes back to being good, the series loses its quality and direction. Moses' performance also becomes boring as a result.

Too much of the second half focuses on Brian Chu, who despite being presented with a good opportunity, is still very raw and unnatural. I understand that part of completing Moses' character arc was accepting that Brian deserves to pursue what he wants, but had no interest in the large amount of screen time his story line had and it was easily what dragged the series down.

In the process of this story line, the series' tone in the second half also shifts from a "show not tell" model to a "try too hard" model. Much of the dialog, especially from Moses, seemed like it was trying too hard to be deep and metaphorical, and instead came off as pretentious. The series suddenly went from being a meaningful drama to one that deliberately tried to be meaningful, by which time it had already lost its substance.

Like with Brian, "Between Love and Desire" overall suffers in the characterization department since the cast is so small and the bulk of the good writing went to early development of "Hugo." Maggie Shiu is good as usual, but makes no breakthroughs as the housewife who divorces her husband after realizing he's no longer the person she fell in love with. Ben Wong is likable as always and proves again that he can balance both being dramatic and funny and playful, but his character's pursuit of of Maggie was very confusing. He tries so hard to get her to go out with him while she is still married, yet as soon as she signs the divorce papers with Moses and he has a real opportunity, he suddenly backs off. Great strategy, Ben.

The resident scene stealer though is Roxanne Tong, who TVB needs to get on promoting. I found her good for a newcomer in "Come Home Love" though a little boring, but here, she is so much fun. She's natural, spunky, cheeky, and clever as "Hayley," especially in her scenes with Ben. The interactions between the two were funny and the highlight for me in the second half, and what kept me watching. However, their development as a couple was sudden (though predictable), and a little creepy too when you remember that Roxanne is Ben's dead wife's younger sister.


"Between Love and Desire" had been my biggest surprise of the year, as I had paid no attention to it when it was filming and had no interest in it when it was announced to be airing. I so thoroughly enjoyed the first half and how the flashbacks were executed to show Moses' development as character, and it should be commended for successfully showing instead of telling. Unfortunately, the second half descends into typical aimless TVB, made worse by the fact they tried so hard to make it deep and metaphorical. All that came out of that effort was dialog that was preachy and at times, slightly nonsensical. Luckily, Ben and Roxanne kept me entertained until the end.

Rating: 3.75 stars
(4.5 stars for the first half, 3 stars for the second half)

"House of Spirits" Review

"With or Without You" may not have made a splash in the ratings last year, but Bobby Au-Yeung proves he can still headline a talked-about comedy series. 

Supernatural comedy "House of Spirits" generated buzz and high ratings (in the context of today's Internet and streaming-based world), but most of the praises sung were for its cast, and for good reason. 

"House" is an average TVB comedy, which means there's some slapstick humor, but also some genuine laugh out loud moments with heartwarming moments. There is no concrete plot and t's really a family comedy drama with a supernatural twist. As a result, the 31-episode count is unnecessary and it often feels like the writers are just spinning their wheels trying to think of content to fill up the episodes, such as the subplot with Chow Chung and his cat.

All in all though, the series at its best is goodhearted fun. I found the early episodes where Bobby first gets to know the ghosts, played by Wu Fung and Helena Law, pretty funny despite not being a big fan of slapstick comedy. The series is however also a little grating in earlier episodes with the siblings, particularly Joyce Tang and Koni Lui constantly at each other's throats. Towards the middle though, as the family becomes close, the series is an easy and enjoyable watch.

This is completely thanks to the surprisingly great and unlikely cast ensemble, which is a mix of veteran actors like Bobby and Joyce, but also smaller names like Koni and Jonathan Cheung, who is able to take on his largest role to date. The chemistry between the siblings was wonderful and gave a feeling of warmth.

Bobby gets to show his usual lighthearted humor here. While some complain that Bobby's acting is the same in all his series, in this case, I enjoyed his natural and easygoing acting and playful demeanor.

Joyce plays a tough but caring woman working to balance her life as a mother and career woman. These tough and clever roles are a piece of cake for Joyce and what she does most well in, so it's nice to see she received recognition for this. She also has her own comedic moments as well. The scene where Helena possesses Joyce's body to apologize to Koni had me barreling over with laughter due to Joyce's acting.

I have liked Jonathan a lot in the series I've seen him in. He is a natural and likable actor who excels at comedic roles, but can also do drama, and this performance further proves that. I was so pleased to see he had such a major role here, and he had no problem holding his own against a veteran like Bobby. I'm thrilled for Jonathan, who just received his first acting nomination for "Best Supporting Actor" at the Starhub TVB Awards. I hope TVB will continue to give him larger roles and that this isn't just a one and done, even if he doesn't fit the handsome boy image they look for in promoting males.

Koni pulls off the spoiled princess character well, though that meant she could often be irrita
ting to watch, especially in the earlier episodes. With that said, she also has her own funny moments. Unfortunately, despite pretty natural acting, her high-pitched voice probably holds her back from getting more roles.

Nancy Wu serves little purpose here until the very end other than being Bobby's love interest and feels a little out of place, but is still likable as the tomboyish Chan-Chan. Bobby and Nancy sounded like a terrible pair on paper and are very physically incompatible, but luckily both are professional actors who make it work and are surprisingly funny and entertaining together. I actually liked seeing them become friends before slowly becoming more. 


Bobby, Joyce, Jonathan, Koni, and Bob Cheung play a very convincing family, in all its bickering, dysfunctional, but loving and warm glory. The combination felt like a bit of a random one other than the Bobby and Joyce reunion, but couldn't have worked out better.

With all the praise I can sing for the cast and the moments of humor though, I do have to reiterate that the series was occasionally (or often) grating in the beginning, with a lot of filler or boring subplots. It makes for a good lazy summer watch, but if it weren't for the cast, I probably would not have bothered to go all the way through if I had watched it during a busier time. However, it does still have laughs to offer.

Rating: 3 stars

On a side note though, "House of Spirits" must be the biggest offense of "overacting in a poster" I've ever seen for a TVB series...

Saturday, September 10, 2016

"A Fist Within Four Walls" Review

With the anniversary awards season quickly looming, TVB finally has a worthy contender in "A Fist Within Four Walls," which had all the makings of a great series: strong cast and characterizations, an intriguing storyline, and appropriate pacing. "Fist" is also the first notable series this year to receive positive reception that was a grander production. While a larger budget has never been a guarantee for an amazing series, this martial arts drama utilizes its budget to make it visually appealing and convincing to compliment, instead of try to compensate, for the script. After the mediocrity and endless disappointments TVB has been feeding us the last few years, who would've thought efficient utilization and good execution was still in their vocabulary?

Cast and Characters

It doesn't come as a surprise that Ruco Chan, as usual, gives another natural and emotive performance, with his dramatic scenes not being an obstacle for him at all. However, what makes him really shine here is the humor and playfulness of his character, which makes him so enjoyable to watch as "Kuen Lo." Kuen Lo could be a bit too naive and idealistic at times, but Ruco's charisma makes the kindhearted character endearing instead of annoying. It was especially cute seeing him slowly realize he was falling for "Tiu Lan" (Nancy Wu), as he started to act more and more shy around her.

It's a shame that Nancy won Best Actress a bit prematurely for "Ghost of Relativity" last year. While her character in the supernatural comedy shares similar characteristics to Tiu Lan, such as her stubbornness, Tiu Lan is a much more developed character that allowed Nancy to show off her range. Like Ruco, she does
very well in both dramatic and comedic scenes. She's feisty, bossy, and stubborn, yet funny, compassionate, upbeat, and fun. She was definitely the scene stealer here and this is her most memorable role of the last few years. This is the closest to a Best Actress-worthy performance from a young actress the last few years.

Ruco and Nancy have undeniable chemistry, and their relationship was also written well. The script really fleshed out their relationship while the actors brought it to life, allowing the audience see Kuen Lo and Tiu Lan go from being just friends, to caring increasingly more for each other, to finally starting a relationship. They were funny, sweet, romantic, emotional, and natural. The chemistry was easy and lighthearted when it had to be, and passionate when it had to be. Ruco and Nancy are respectively each other's best costar in years. It's been quite a while since I've really "shipped" and fangirled over an onscreen TVB pair, but Ruco and Nancy have definitely secured a place on my list of favorite onscreen pairs.

As much as I like Benjamin Yuen's personality and affability in real life, I continue to be disappointed in the lack of any drastic improvements in his acting. The character is a straight man type who is quiet and well-composed, which allowed Benjamin to get away with his stoic acting more, but his weaker acting really showed in more dramatic scenes alongside Ruco.

Grace gets to show off her seductive side as usual in this series, but this time in a role with much more substance. The character was quite intense as "Fa Man/Chiu Ha" was very much blinded by revenge, but Grace does relatively well. Her death was saddening and while it served as a catalyst to Benjamin realizing who the big boss was, probably could have been avoided.

Moon Lau is finally able to deliver a memorable performance portraying the sweet, bubbly, yet spunky and brave "Audrey." It's obvious that her emotional scenes need a lot of work, but she really does play her already likable character with such charm and brightness. I do hope that she gets more good roles such as this.

Philip Ng is very wooden in the beginning of the series, though it's fitting for the character. He seems to get more comfortable in the role later on, and the scene where he references his own lack of expression was hilarious. As expressionless as he could be at times, when he was able to be funny, such as when he practices what to say to his mom when returning her soup thermos, he was indeed amusing and endearing. His lighthearted scenes with his mother, played by Yuen Qiu (who was funny and bad ass), as well as Moon, were heartwarming and funny. While Ruco and Nancy were my favorites, Moon and Philip were very sweet and enjoyable to watch as well. It broke my heart when Philip died trying to save Moon, and his death was very unnecessary.

In addition to the strong performances and likable characters, "Fistful" has great action and stunt choreography. TVB for once did not slack off, investing in intensive training for its cast before starting filming, and getting Yuen Qiu and Philip, who is a professional martial artist and stunt choreographer. They did overuse slow motion in the earlier parts of the series, but the martial arts was overall still satisfying to watch.

For me, the series is not as "on the edge of your seat" good in the last 8 or so episodes, after the original three villains are all wiped out and the focus shifts to the real big boss. With that said, I don't think the series becomes draggy, as much as it's no longer as fast-paced as previously. It simply didn't grip me as much as before, but the characters and action were more than enough to keep me around until the very end.


"Fist" is not without its flaws, from its cartoonish portrayal of villains to Boss Yeung's inhumane body and martial arts talent (but hey, no supernatural element here!). However, with a strong cast and tight plot that spends very minimal time dragging its feet, I can easily look past these flaws to appreciate its entertainment value without feeling like I have to dumb myself down. "A Fist Within Four Walls" sets out to tell a story and develop its characters, and it succeeds to do so while using the time allotted, not more or less. That's an accomplishment for a TVB series in general, which is known for trying to meet specific episode counts, never mind in the context of TVB's usual quality these days. It's easily my favorite series this year.

Rating: 4.5 stars