Posts tagged ‘hong kong television’
I almost never watch American television, though I occasionally look at reality shows like Project Runway or Chopped when my daughters are streaming it on my computer, but I really can’t remember the last time I watched a U.S. drama on a regular basis. I have a hard time paying attention to anything more than 90 minutes long unless it includes singing and dancing in Hindi, so investing weeks and weeks in a TV show, no matter how good, is just too much commitment for me. Also, as an unreconstructed experimental film geek I’m very visually oriented, so I prefer my media to be less dialog and character-driven than is most television.
I’m not one for Asian dramas, either—again, the weeks and weeks of watching are just too much for me to do, and I find plastic surgery and eyeliner on boys a little distracting. That said, this past year I’ve watched two Asian dramas, but only because they starred two of my favorite actors, Lee Byung-Hun and Francis Ng. Last spring I watched IRIS (아이리스, 2009), the South Korean espionage thriller that stars the insanely hot Lee Byung-Hun as a special ops agent involved in various crazy political plots. Although much of the story strains credulity, LBH is quite good in it and the ample explosions, gunfights, assassinations, betrayals, and love triangles keep the show movie along briskly. I felt like I’d eaten too much deep-fried food after sitting through its 40+ episodes but it was fun to spend all that time watching LBH do his thing.
More recently, I’ve been wallowing in Triumph In The Skies 2, the sequel to the hit Hong Kong drama that aired in 2003 on TVB that followed the lives and romances of a clutch of HK airline pilots. I watched TITS 1 on DVD long after it first came out, but with the advent of online streaming I’ve been able to see episodes of TITS 2 with English subtitles on a day-and-date schedule with its airing in Hong Kong. Like its prequel, the series has been quite a sensation since its premiere at the beginning of August, drawing high ratings and inspiring a wave of pilot-mania among Hong Kong’s citizenry. It was great to be able to watch Francis Ng as the lead character, Sam Tong, an upstanding and heroic airline pilot who is a much beloved character in Hong Kong. The show is nowhere near as hyperkinetic as IRIS, depending on romantic entanglements and other interpersonal relationships for its dramatic tension, but Francis, along with co-star Julian Cheng Chilam, made the show watchable. A bonus to watching it online is that I could fast-forward through the extraneous side-stories and go straight to the Francis plotlines. The drama is no great shakes and in fact is pretty mundane, with vast swaths of filler focusing on minor characters, flagrant product placement, and way too many subplots that are transparently designed to showcase TVB’s up-and-coming starlets. But TITS is one of TVB’s premium franchises and the station threw a lot of money at it, by Hong Kong television standards. There are many cute young guys looking suave in cadet pilot uniforms, including the sweet and dreamy Him Law, nice scenery in London, Taiwan, and Paris, and upscale Hong Kong characters with huge fantasy apartments and luxury cars.
However, although it was a high-end, much-hyped TVB series, the drama exhibited sloppy plotting and dialog, pacing and editing problems, sketchy and uneven acting, and way too many extraneous characters and storylines. There were huge, illogical jumps in the timeline (to accommodate a pregnant character) and one of the main characters, Captain Jayden Koo (Julian Cheung Chilam) inexplicably disappeared from the narrative for many episodes. Of course television dramas are built around people behaving stupidly and making poor life decisions and this show is no different, with characters displaying irritating obstinacy, irrational stubbornness, and poor communication skills, and making bad, impulsive decisions. I suppose their dramatic idiocy is meant to make the viewer feel better about their own lives, but there’s a limit to how much illogical behavior is plausible. TITS 2 also suffered by comparison to TITS 1. If a love triangle or two worked in TITS 1, why not three or four in TITS 2? How about a weirdly obsessive, terminally ill ingénue chasing after a reluctant mate? TITS 1 had the deliciously agonizing dilemma of Francis Ng’s character, Sam Tong, in love with his best friend’s wife, so that the love triangle was truly triangular, with the relationship between all three characters holding significance. In TITS 2, the Sam/Jayden/Holiday triangle had much less piquancy because there was no deep relationship between Sam and Jayden, unlike Sam and Vincent’s friendship in the original series. It didn’t help that Fala Chen’s acting as Holiday, the fulcrum of the love triangle, was wildly inconsistent, though by the end of the series she had settled down a bit.
For me, the main draw of course was Francis Ng, and he didn’t disappoint. Although TITS 2 was by no means high art (or even competent storytelling), as an opportunity to watch hours of Francis Ng every night for six weeks it was a quite a lovely indulgence and despite the drama’s general silliness, Francis absolutely killed in this show. Francis is an outstanding big-screen actor but he’s also an excellent small-screen actor, due to his mobile and subtly expressive face and his huge repertoire of physical expressions. The way he stands, the position of his arms, and his confident rolling swagger when he’s walking around the airport in his pilot drag like he owns the place all add up to a very satisfying viewing experience. His character was by turns depressed, repressed, anal retentive, or controlling, but Francis managed to make him sympathetic with just a well-placed flick of his eyebrows or a meaningful sigh, and he is the king of the single tear sliding down the cheek. In one scene, where he recalls his remorse at disappointing Zoe, his late wife, the range of emotions crossing his face was pretty amazing, demonstrating his impeccable mastery of non-verbal acting. Francis also gets bonus points for flaunting an array of beautifully cut Vivianne Westwood menswear (including a $250 hoodie with hand-painted stars on the sleeves and a gorgeous black velvet tux with a satin shawl collar) and looking ridiculously fit and charming for a man in his early fifties. Depending on the lighting and the skill of the makeup artists, Francis alternately looked pretty good for his age or like a star somewhat past his sell date. Some netizens were less than kind about Francis’ fifty-plus years, and it didn’t help that his main love interest was a woman in her early thirties, which often accentuated Francis’ age to his detriment. But the man can wear a tailored suit like nobody’s business and his signature “airplane head” pompadour was impeccably groomed throughout the entire series—there was literally not a hair out of place and the sculpted fade of his sideburns was immaculately trimmed to the exact same length for the entire show. Way to go, continuity department!
Julian Cheung’s new character, Jayden Koo, instantly became a fan favorite in the sequel, though to me the character was a narcissistic bore who thought he was the schiznit. In the first few eps Jayden’s popularity far outstripped that of Sam Tong, making the proposed Sam/Jayden/Holiday love triangle a non-starter. In order to appease the disgruntled Sam/Zoe shippers and to level the playing field for Sam vs. Jayden, Julian Cheung’s part was ruthlessly trimmed down in the middle episodes of the series and Francis and Fala’s budding romance instead took center stage. When Jayden finally reappeared some weeks down the line, after the show’s editing had tilted the audience in F&F’s favor, he seemed more like an obsessive stalker than a viable love interest. My conspiracy theory is that the producers realized that the audience wasn’t down with Francis + Fala and had to fatten up their relationship in order to make the love triangle plausible, at the expense of Julian Cheung’s screentime. That and the fact that the show’s ending had been spoiled even before the series aired took a lot of the dramatic tension out of the storyline. Through the magic of google chrome’s instantaneous (if garbled) web translations, it was also fun to follow the media frenzy in Hong Kong as the show aired. Apparently Sam/Zoe is one of the most revered pairings in TVB history and the way that Zoe was ruthlessly killed off between TITS 1 and TITS 2 (appearing only in flashbacks in TITS 2) really rankled the viewership. After the Sam/Zoe storyline was resolved in episode 23 some viewers swore off the show, though their defections didn’t seem to affect the ratings as TITS 2 ended up the highest rated show of the year as well as racking up many hundreds of millions of online views in Hong Kong and China.
It was also pretty humorous to observe the stars’ various spats with each other via the media. Early press reports stated that Francis Ng and Fala Chen didn’t get along, but as the series progressed the purported tensions were denied, with Fala Chen at one point claiming “(Francis) just looks really fierce because when he furrows his brow, he looks very serious.” It was also funny to note is that many online commentators had very little sense of Francis Ng’s work outside of Hong Kong television, apparently not realizing the fact that he’s won several Best Actor awards for his film work, or that he’s known outside of Hong Kong primarily for playing badass gangsters, not lovelorn pilots, or that, as he says, “the majority of my fans have tattoos.” Despite all of its shortcomings the drama was a huge hit, with excellent broadcast ratings in Hong Kong. There’s talk of a feature film version of the show and all involved are scrambling to capitalize on its popularity. Julian Cheung has taken advantage of his increased profile by changing agents, recording a cover of the theme song from the original series, and buying a new Mercedes. Francis Ng has inexplicably signed an agreement to produce a cooking show for TVB. And Fala Chen is being touted by Eric Tsang as “the new Maggie Cheung,” although she has none of Cheung Man-yuk acting skills, charisma, or talent. Considering how meteorically fortunes can rise and fall in Hong Kong show biz, it will be interesting to see the lasting effects, if any, of the recent success of TITS 2. Related Francis Ng news: It was just announced that Francis Ng is attached to Sha Po Lang 2, the sequel to the 2005 Wilson Yip-directed Donnie Yen action/MMA film revered by many Hong Kong movie fanboys. Yip had wanted Francis to star in the original SPL (the part eventually went to Simon Yam) but scheduling conflicts prevented this happening, so it’s great that Francis will be joining the cast for this one. This installment will be directed by Soi Cheang (Motorway; Accident), who most recently worked with Francis on the film adaptation of the the ultraviolent Japanese manga Shamo (2007). It will be nice to see Francis in a real Hong Kong crime film once again, as opposed to the soapy melodrama of TITS or the dreadful mainland shlock he’s been putting out lately. Can’t wait–
UPDATE: Although google is mangling the translation of this article, I think that it says that Francis Ng, Chilam Cheung, and Louis Koo are now confirmed for the movie version of the drama and that, due to her clashes with Francis and other cast members as well as her Marilyn Monroe-esque behavior on set (i.e., being late and not knowing her lines), Fala Chen has been dumped from said movie and replaced by Taiwanese star Lin Chi-Ling. What’s more interesting is that Benny Chan is now attached to direct and that the film supposedly will be an “action” movie. Chan is fresh from one of the top-grossing Hong Kong films of last year, The White Storm, which was a manly crime film starring Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Nick Cheung. Having just watched Big Bullet again recently, I can only hope that news of Chan’s involvement is true and that the brave and handsome flight crew will face terrorists, bombs, and mayhem on the streets and in the skies of Hong Kong. I’d pay to see that–
UPDATE 2: After many casting and directing changes the movie version of Triumph In The Skies is about to be released, just in time for the Chinese New Year’s holiday on Feb. 20, 2015 with a day-and-date release in North America. The publicity machine has been in full force and the film is one of the favorites in the New Year’s slate, although it’s going up against a new Sandra Ng sex comedy, 12 Golden Ducks, and Chow Yun-Fat’s latest gambling movie, From Vegas To Macau 2, which also stars A-listers Nick Cheung, Carina Lau, and Shawn Yue. The new TITS movie, directed by Matt Chow and Wilson Yip, focuses on romance and relationships, as well as nice scenery and tailored clothes, with Francis Ng paired with Sammi Cheng, Louis Koo paired with Charmaine Sheh, and Chilam Cheung paired with Amber Kuo. Could be great, could be sucky, but I’m watching it either way.
Gotta say that, despite myself, I really liked this series. It’s one of the most popular dramas ever made in Hong Kong and it made stars out of several of its younger cast members (notably the Solar 4 or S4—Bosco Wong, Sammul Chan, Ron Ng and Kenneth Ma) when it was first aired back in 2003. But it also made Francis Ng into a major idol, which, although he’d won acting awards and starred in many HK movies, he’d never been before in his home territory. His role as Sam Tong, the principled and upstanding pilot of the fictional Solar Airways, was a killer star vehicle for him and allowed him to showcase his great dramatic range to a hometown audience who had been mostly “meh” to the idea of him as a heroic figure.
The show is pretty expensive by TVB standards, with location shoots in Italy, Japan, and Australia, and has a huge and fairly decent cast including TVB queen Flora Chan as well as Francis as star-crossed lovers. Cinematography, art direction, lighting, and direction are all solid and the storyline isn’t too cringeful, although of course there are classic melodramatic moments including several hospital and near-death scenes, many love triangles, and various other common soapy contrivances. But a lot of the show concentrates on the professional training of airline pilots, which is presented in a surprisingly gripping manner and is deftly interwoven with the crisscrossing romantic storylines.
The plot revolves around the lives of various people working for Solar Airways in Hong Kong’s International Airport, including pilots, flight attendants, and ground crews. Sam (Francis Ng) and Belle (Flora Chan), the main characters, meet by chance in Rome and, after chasing through the city in a series of coincidental meetings, hook up and have hot (off-screen) sex. But a plot contrivance drives them apart and the next time they see each other Belle is dating Sam’s best friend and fellow pilot Vincent (Joe Ma). The rest of the series pretty much follows Sam and Belle’s attempts to resolve the mess of their relationship and their unrequited desire for each other.
Francis Ng puts in an amazingly disciplined performance—he sustains his character over the course of 40 one-hour episodes and actually shows a believable growth and change, while remaining true to the character’s organic persona. He also proves that he can convincingly play a romantic lead and it’s difficult to imagine that this is the same performer who tore up the scenery playing hard-ass killers in movies like The Mission, Exiled, and Young And Dangerous. The character of Sam could have been an insufferable, controlling bore but Francis makes him intriguing, sympathetic and ultimately loveable despite his restrained personality. This is most evident in Sam’s relationship with Zoe, the younger woman who chases after him and eventually wins his affections. In the hands of a less skillful actor this May-December relationship could have gone horribly wrong but Francis convincingly moves from a reluctant target of Zoe’s affection to gradually becoming a willing partner in the relationship. The show also directly addresses the fifteen-year age difference between the two characters, with running commentary throughout the series on the difficulties of this seemingly mismatched pair finding harmony.
At some point the series basically becomes The Francis Ng Show, with long stretches of the plot devoted to his character’s activities. But it’s a credit to the screenwriters that when the focus shifts to other characters and their storylines the show remains engaging. Francis is clearly the best actor in the program but for the most part the rest of the cast holds up pretty well to his star-power and acting chops. He has an uncanny knack for intently listening to and playing off of his fellow actors, elevating and enhancing their performances by his subtle and effective responses. This almost seems to make the other actors get better as the show progresses, as they rise to the occasion of working with a truly talented performer. Ron Ng, one of the young turks who became a star after appearing in this show, starts out the series as a stilted and wooden performer. By the end of the series he’s learned some skills and exudes a decent amount of on-screen presence. Likewise, Myolie Wu as Zoe, one of Francis Ng’s love interests, begins the show by ceaselessly mugging and overacting her ingénue role–by the series’ end she’s become a much more nuanced and affecting performer. Her concluding scenes with Francis are fairly moving and I can’t help but think that she learned something by working with him. Francis gets to cry a few times, too, which he does with absolute conviction.
There is also an absolutely fabulous cameo by veteran HK actress Helen Law Lan, who was so great in Bullets Over Summer, as a complaining customer of Solar Airways. She and Francis have a couple divine scenes together which showcase their sublime comic timing and acting skills. Young and Dangerous fans will also spot Jerry Lamb, aka Piggy, who is very good in a supporting role.
SPOILER: Francis also gets the opportunity to be happy at the end of this show, and his joyous smiles at the program’s climax made me realize a couple things: a.) he’s got a really nice smile, and b.) I really can’t think of any movies I’ve seen him in where he gets to be genuinely joyful. I’ve seen at least fifty Francis Ng flicks by now and most of them are dark, violent crime dramas where he comes to a bad end. Even the ones where he doesn’t die don’t necessarily end happily (see The Mission; A War Named Desire; A Gambler’s Story). His comedies are a different story, but even so, being in a funny movie doesn’t necessarily mean that you get to be happy. I’m actually getting a little tired of seeing Francis die or be tormented at the end of movies and I definitely don’t want to watch any more movies where he’s the bad guy. Thankfully, he seems to be through with playing villains, though I suspect he’ll die in a few more of his films in the future. So it was great in TITS when he not only survives but lives happily ever after, and he gets to flash his beautiful, happy smile. END OF SPOILER
Strangely enough, the show also addresses, in a soap-opera fashion, the tensions between destiny and free will, delivering a surprisingly cogent and deeply felt commentary on the subject. It was interesting to find thoughtful observations on fatalism versus self-determination in a pop culture production but this was one of the strongest themes running through the show. One of the show’s characters, Belle, believes that life and love are preordained, but it is only through her attempts to take control of her life that she can save herself from despair. Another character, Zoe, feels that she can wrest control of her destiny through the sheer force of her will, but she has to give up control and surrender to her fate before her ultimate triumph. Sam, the character caught between them, is agnostic and rational but he too learns to balance between steering his own life’s path and giving in to forces beyond his control. Not only that but the show also has no real villain to speak of. Instead the characters struggle against their own inner demons and conflicts, and in the end most of them make choices that show honor and growth. This is a refreshing change of pace and, along with the show’s examination of fate and destiny, adds another level of pleasure to the viewing of the program that elevates it beyond the typical television drama.
Apparently audiences throughout Asia felt similarly enthusiastic about Triumph In The Skies. In its first broadcast in Hong Kong in 2003 it had more than a 35% share throughout the run of the series, meaning that more than one-third of all households watching television at the time were tuned in to it when it aired. During its rebroadcast last year in a late-night slot it gained almost a 10% share, nearly unheard of for such a time slot. In most polls it’s consistently rated as the favorite show of Hong Kong television audiences and rumors of a sequel (nixed by most of the cast, including Francis Ng) continue to swirl six years after its debut. It also finally made Francis Ng into a romantic leading man.
NOTE: Francis Ng has a hella weird hairstyle in this show, kind of an asymmetrical pompadour that looks like a throwback to the 1950s crossed with a poodle. It gets a little less absurd and more toned-down as the show progresses but it’s definitely funny to see, especially in contrast to the ultrahip shaggy and dyed-out coifs of the rest of the cast. Of course Francis makes the retro hairdo work, and ultimately it becomes an unspoken commentary on the character’s somewhat anachronistic sense of honor and the way that he’s out of step with many of the other characters in the show. Not surprisingly, Francis purportedly designed the hairstyle himself–
UPDATE: Apparently back in December 2008 TVB put both Ron Ng & Myolie Wu on what they call the “retrenchment” list, which means they’ve moved back from lead to supporting roles. I’m not sure about the specifics but it looks like their fifteen minutes are over. Hasta la vista, baby–
UPDATE 2: For my comments and review of Triumph In The Skies 2 go here.
Learned a new phrase today that I love—salty pork hand. It’s the literal translation of the term for pervert in Cantonese and it’s been featured in the latest television idol kerfuffle in Hong Kong, wherein a blind gossip item has implicated a mysterious male TVB “artiste” in groping a couple female starlets. It’s got the internets abuzz over there, with top male stars like Joe Ma and Moses Chan avidly denying that they are the salty pork hand in question.
So who else is a salty pork hand?
Edison Chen? For being a raging exhibitionist and non-consensually exposing his many girlfriends’ ungroomed pudenda to international scrutiny?
Father John Geoghan and too many of his fellow priests, for serially molesting little boys?
Sen. Larry Craig, for denying he likes sex in public toilets?
R. Kelly, for liking it like that with underaged girls?
Who’s your nominee for salty pork hand?
UPDATE: Looks like whistleblower Kingdom Yuen (gotta love those English names the HK stars pick) has backed down from her original accusations and that TVB is trying to sweep the whole salty pork hand incident under the rug. Which means the speculation can continue unabated, of course, since Hong Kong pop culture loves a sex scandal. But it seems like without solid incriminating evidence this one may not get as much mileage as last year’s Edison Chen sex picture incident, which was the best scandal to come along in decades.
UPDATE 2: If anyone knows the Cantonese etymology for the term “salty pork hand,” please let me know. We are all dying to find out.
UPDATE 3: Looks like TVB’s Salty Pork Hand is Ellesmere Choi.
And my friend Jay Chan in Hong Kong translates the term as “salty wet hands.” Eeeewww.
UPDATE 4: Another “salty pork hand” has emerged on the Hong Kong scene, through another mysterious blind item. The start of a trend?
UPDATE 5: Wongsaurus over at LoveHKFilm breaks it down like this:
Not familiar with “salty pork” only “salty wet” but this sexual harassmen thing is obviously about non-consensual touching and groping.
Salty = Hom
Wet = Sup
Sow/Sou = Hand
Hom + Sup = Compound word (slangy) for Horny, Dirty (as in sexually dirty), pornographic, lewd and lascivious. [There are other more proper terminology for tawdry and sexual nasties and one example is uttered in the movie Crazy “N The City during the double-decker bus scene with Eason Chan, Chloe Chiu, and the masturbating pervert passenger.]
Please note that my romanization of Cantonese may not be accurate Yale or Wade-Giles.
Thus Hom + Sup + Sou suggests that someone did some nasty fondling. We’re all adults here so we leave it to your imagination.