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Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 12 to the end

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

With the help of a little brandy in my coffee, the story trudges on with a new theme as locusts threaten the crops. Naturally, everyone except Hong Bo Kei, (Sheren Tang), Chai Kau (Wayne Lai) and a few old farmers in the fields who remember the last plague, want to see the warning signs. So Hong Bo Kei orders an early harvest even though this will mean losing about 80% of the planting. She reasons it’s better to have something than nothing. Everyone else thinks she’s nuts and ignores the threat. Chai Kau and the loyal workers then build decoy grain storage to deceive the local people into thinking there’s enough rice to feed them all. In the midst of all this, Cheung Kiu (Elliot Yue) revives and, as the locust swarm descends, listens to the lies of Yan Fung Yee (Susan Tse) about how Cheung Bit Man (Pierre Ngo) has been the saviour of the business. As intended, the local people are deceived by the granaries and the panic subsides. A friend then tells Chai Kau it was Cheung Bit Man who engineered his capture by Pang Hang (Lee Sing Cheung). Now, in the midst of all the chaos, Chai Kau is out for revenge.

Sheren Tang and Wayne Lai join the rebellion

In due course, Pang Heng catches his nephew and mistress without their clothes on. He then blackmails Hong Bo Kei into paying a large sum of hush money. She obviously wants to avoid Cheung Kiu being upset. Unfortunately, Cheung Bit Man gets all excited when he gets home and blurts out a completely distorted version of reality. At this point, his mother takes matters into her own hands and beats him black and blue — a remedy that should have been routinely applied from an early age. This keeps him in the home although he’s hanging by a thread. Meanwhile, Chai Kau and Hong Bo Kei conspire to displace Pang Heng’s monopoly on the river route. Fortunately, the Prince (Kwok Fung) reappears to find out why rice is more expensive when it comes from this part of China. When he discovers the protection racket, he orders open competition on the river route. For different reasons, this leaves both Cheung Bit Man and Pang Heng plotting revenge. Meanwhile, even though he’s only got a few episodes left to live, Cheung Kiu goes off into the countryside to get his third wife Lau Fong (Kara Hui) to come back. Pang Kiu (Kiki Sheung), the second wife, decides she can’t stand living in the same household as Hong Bo Kei so, when Cheung Bit Mo (Kelvin Leung) her son is due to take the exams to enter the civil service, she goes off with him.

The mountain men are now paying Chai Kau to plot their dominance of the water route and, to rub Pang Heng up the wrong way, our hero takes in the ex-mistress who is out on the streets begging. Wedding bells are in the offing here as for Cheung Bit Ching (Ron Ng) who’s lining up to marry the confidence trickster who cheated him when they first met. Meanwhile, Cheung Bit Man has hired three assassins who wait in the shadows to kill Chai Kau. On the night of his wedding celebration, they carry his drunken form to the lake, stab him and throw him in, weighted down with a rock. Back in the mainstream plot, Cheung Kiu has formally made two wills and left them with the Price while, in an adjoining province, the Taiping Rebellion is starting and the Longhairs have begun their onslaught. This now threatens the second wife and her son. With Chai Kau still missing, the mountain men rally to fight Pang Heng, but Hong Bo Kei talks them out of a direct attack. When she confronts Pang Heng, he tells her of the three assassins he has seen about town. Further investigation finds Cheung Bit Man paying them off. The problem is evidence. As the Qing Dynasty sends troops to confront the rebels, the local Magistrate tries to extort rice from Hong Bo Kei. She refuses, but Yan Fung Yee and Cheung Bit Man offer him a bribe to help them grab the business when Cheung Kiu finally dies.

Pierre Ngo sets fire to the grain store

With Cheung Kiu finally dead, the corrupt wing of the family now tries simple fraud to seize the business, but the Prince is on hand to see Hong Bo Kei remains in charge. Chai Kau now re-emerges (how disappointing he didn’t actually die) and promises revenge. With Cheung Bit Man released from jail for lack of evidence on the murder charge, Chai Kau is plotting a murder of his own despite Hong Bo Kei’s attempts to dissuade him. The Longhair rebels may be coming our way having incidentally killed the second wife. With any luck, they will kill the entire cast before things get any more awful. While we wait for the rebels, Cheung Bit Man finds out Chai Kau is alive and sets a trap to kill him, but our hero turns out to be bulletproof as well as stabproof. The Longhairs kill the leader of the mountain men so the wounded Chai Kau is promoted to Boss. He’s determined to make a profit and keep Wuxia safe. He makes another attempt to kill Cheung Bit Man, but Hong Bo Kei persuades him not to do it and the boy runs into hiding. When the rebels finally arrive, it turns out the General is a childhood friend of Pang Heng who’s put in charge of the local militia. A trap is set by Yan Fung Yee to get Hong Bo Kei out of the way but, not surprisingly, it fails. Nevertheless, the calm following the General’s arrival is disturbed.

Anyway, it turns out these rebels are awfully nice chaps (not at all as portrayed in the history books) and, once Hong Bo Kei and Chai Kau have set the General straight on who the good guys are, Pang Heng has to do the dog walk (albeit with pig bones), while Yan Fung Yee and Cheung Bit Man run off with the money they had buried under a tree in the family house’s garden. As the troops loyal to the Qing Dynasty approach, the General shoots himself in the head and those who have been collaborating to ensure the safety of Wuxia debate how to avoid being killed. In the end, they run off with the retreating rebels except the Qing troops come prematurely and they are cut off.

Now comes retribution from the Qing troops and, with the corrupt magistrate’s return, the Yan Fung Yee and Pang Heng show is running again. This time, Hong Bo Kei and Chai Kau are hauled off to jail. This prompts the mouse-like Lau Fong to make the dangerous journey to Nanking to fetch the Prince. She gets the message through but dies in the attempt. The Prince’s arrival sees everyone back in the right place except Chai Kau now has consumption and feels like death is imminent. Cheung Bit Man is out of control and, egged on by Uncle Pang Heng, they decide the raid the family home and burn down the rice stores. Unfortunately, Bit Man contrives to mess up even this simple task and burns to death. The robbery is more successful and Pang Heng briefly escapes with the family jewels. There’s then a terrible melodramatic ending as Yan Fung Yee raves in front of what’s left of the household, explaining how her son burned himself to death but was not a bad boy. This leaves her less than fully sane in her mother-in-law’s care. For us, there are just two things to resolve. The keys get handed over to Cheung Bit Ching, allowing fourth wife to retire, and Chai Kau goes off with Father Brown. It seems Western medicine is arriving in China and may be able to save him. At the last moment, his wife tells Hong Bo Kei to go in her place and the two soul mates have two years of happiness before the consumption finally drags him off.

Frankly, this has been an embarrassingly bad serial with the thinnest of plots and everything apart from an opening sequence showing the Prince travelling across country and the ending by the river done on the cheap in the same sets. This seriously limited the scope for drama with hammy acting coming to the fore with Pierre Ngo as Cheung Bit Man growing more obviously insane as the episodes passed, Lee Sing Cheung as Pang Heng rolling his eyes, curling his lip and trying to look tough as the local triad boss, and Susan Tse as Yan Fung Yee contriving to look like the wicked witch except when her hair got all mussed up at the end. Ron Ngo wasn’t given much to do and poor Wayne Lai had a thankless role with him running hot and cold at the beginning and then getting all noble at the end. Only Sheren Tang emerges with any credit. She did at least come over as sincere.

For the review of the first episodes see: Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 1 to 11.

Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 1 to 11

November 20, 2011 2 comments

Far be it for me to start off along the expected route but, as I begin watching this series, I’m immediately reminded of Safe Guards or Tie Xue Bao Biao, which was aired by TVB in 2006. This is a story about a family running a successful business with succession issues. It’s always the way when you have sons, in this case, the competent one who can save the business is adopted and so hated by the natural heirs. Perhaps this overlap in my mind is inspired by the presence of Kwok Fung who was the patriarch of the family in Safe Guards and plays the pivotal Prince in the first episodes of Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (broadcast by TVB in 2010). Another figure reappearing is Wayne Lai who was the patriarch’s brother in Safe Guards and now appears as Chai Kau, an inexperienced and temperamental man learning fast how to survive in a big city. When we get to the third wife, Lau Fong it seems she was an armed guard and uses the same knife-in-the-shoe trick. There’s an amazing loss of confidence in this character who’s shown physically fighting in a flashback, but has become a frightened mouse by the time this series starts.

Hong Bo Kei (Sheren Tang) as the loyal matriarch

Yes, in Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong there’s already something deeply familiar about the set up with three stepbrothers — Cheung Bit Man (Pierre Ngo), Cheung Bit Mo (Kelvin Leung), and Cheung Bit Ching (Ron Ng) — one of whom is obviously devious and somewhat corrupt, the dim one and the competent one. At the start of the first episode, there are three wives — Yan Fung Yee (Susan Tse), Pang Kiu (Kiki Sheung) and Lau Fong — for the wealthy rice producer and dealer Cheung Kiu (Elliot Yue) and a fourth Hong Bo Kei (Sheren Tang) is added. Needless to say, this fourth wife is obviously going to be the saviour before and after her husband falls into a coma. This is not to predict this is going to be a boring rerun. In fact, Safe Guards was somewhat poor so it’s not a high bar to jump over.

The mainland Chinese are also fairly contemptuous of this new serial, seeing an overlap with The Grand Gate Mansion or Da Zhai Men which is also about a Qing Dynasty family business dealing in TCM. It ran for some 80 episodes and followed the generations through to the 1950s. In that it has a matriarchal rather than a patriarchal figure, it’s perhaps slightly closer to Rosy Business in style but rather more ambitious in coverage through time. The mainland dramas tend to focus on the historical period as much as the drama, ensuring we get a good view of the struggle the characters have to survive. The Hong Kong equivalents pay less attention to the history and just get on with the story.

Chai Kau (Wayne Lai) running hot and cold

So here comes that story. Hong Bo Kei is the only survivor of a magistrate’s family who took the Emperor’s rice to feed the starving poor. She’s been working in the Prince’s home as a cook but now marries into the rice magnate’s family. As the first-born son, Cheung Bit Man thinks he’s entitled to inherit, pays the men below market rates and cheats them whenever possible. When he asks the men how to increase rice production, Chai Kau tells him to kill all the birds. Fortunately, Hong Bo Kei is able to stop this and so avoid the inevitable famine. Cheung Bit Man son took the credit for the idea and so gets the blame. Kidnappers then take Cheung Bit Mo (only his mother would notice this loss). Hong Bo Kei takes command and, with the help of Chai Kau, tricks the kidnappers into running away. When Cheung Bit Man tries to take yet more credit, his father gets so angry the disinheritance now looks a certainty. With famine in adjacent provinces, the local triad run by Pang Hang (Lee Sing Cheung) the brother of the second wife, demands a 30% increase in shipping costs. Chai Kau has been humiliated by the triad boss three times and wants revenge. He proposes to move the rice across the land. It’s more expensive but better than paying more to the triad.

Yan Fung Yee (Susan Tse) as troublemaker in chief

Except it would be wiser to contact known gangsters on the route before setting off. That way, you can buy safe passage. What we actually have is a stupid attempt to run the blockade and have the rice stolen. Now our intrepid Chai Kau has to use his wiles to get the rice back. Frankly, this is tedious and uninvolving. But, when the new armed guards bring the rice into town, it sets up the potential for intergang rivalry. Yet this fizzles out as a compromise is reached with the delivery being split between the two gangs. We then get into the tired plot situation of the owner of the business dropping into a coma without making a definitive arrangement leaving control of the business to Hong Bo Kei. Yan Fung Yee convinces Pang Kiu into turning against Hong Bo Kei. Lau Fong is, as usual, annoyingly weepy and submissive. After some interminable twists and turns, Hong Bo Kei is confirmed in charge. This is a serious waste of two hours.

Ron Ng and Kelvin Leung: the good and the dim

At this point, we get into a tiresome subplot involving Chai Kau. Pang Heng has a mistress who is routinely unfaithful with Cheung Bit Man. He persuades her to seduce Chai Kau and then summons Pang Heng so the man can be caught in flagrante delicto. Yet again Hong Bo Kei has to save him. This time Pang Heng and his gang propose to torch Chai Kau. Once the immediate threat is over, the town shuns Chai Kau as a rapist so he’s thinking of running away to hide with the gang in the hills. This gang is proposing to go straight and run a haulage business. They want Chai Kau’s skills to make it a success. Yan Fung Yee then incites the second wife to frame some servants for theft. The idea is to drive out everyone loyal to Hong Bo Kei. Meanwhile, the old master just lies there with an occasional twitch of a finger to prove he’s still alive.

I take it back. Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong makes Safe Guards or Tie Xue Bao Biao look good. Both TVB serials are made on the cheap with threadbare stories. The reason for giving the nod to Safe Guards is that it was first in time with this plot and it did have slightly better production values. I suppose I will watch this to the end — I am, after all almost halfway through — but I will need plenty of alcohol to get me through.

For the review of the second half see: Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 12 to the end.

The Four or Shao Nian Si Da Ming Bu (2008)

The Four is a 24 episode drama series made in Hong Kong, retelling the restoration of the Divine Constabulary by Emperor Hui Zong under the leadership of Zhuge Zhengwo played by Dominic Lam, and the stories of four constables: Heartless played by Raymond Lam, Iron Fist played by Kenneth Ma, Chaser played by Sammul Chan, and Cold Blood played by Ron Ng. It plays a standard game of wrapping up a mixture of detective stories in court intrigue with TV-level kung fu characterised by poor wire work, second-rate cutting, and slow motion to create a risible effect. That said, the story is actually quite interesting even if the production values are poor.

We start with Zhuge kicking his heels for ten years. The Divine Constabulary has been closed down and corruption is now rampant across the Empire. His friend, General Shu Mo-Hei played by Ram Tseung, gets him a commission to carry a sword to Price Qi. He takes his foster son, Heartless, with him. At the mansion, the three most prized swords are stolen and there are three murders. We meet Iron Fist and the man who will become known as Chaser. A rapid-fire investigation follows to show how a locked-room murder can be done, explaining why it can be necessary to move a body and showing why knowing everyone’s history can be important when it comes to solving cases. On their way to the capital to petition the Emperor to reopen the Divine Constabulary, they see an assassin kill the leader of one of the pugilist sects. A second murder by the same assassin follows in the capital. Chaser has already seen the assassin’s face and Iron Fist is on hand looking for a job. The seemingly indestructible assassin will become Cold Blood and complete the quartet.

Zhuge makes a deal with the Emperor to reopen the Constabulary if the team can find the treasure supposedly stashed away to pay for a rebellion plus a medallion that obliges the Emperor to grant one wish to the holder. In a race with the clans who also want the medallion, the solution depends in part upon understanding a riddle and being able to put a map together. However, we get into the realms of wuxia fantasy as following the movements in a kung fu manual provides written instructions. When Zhuge fulfills the promise and returns the medallion to the Emperor for destruction, he is allowed to reopen the Constabulary and informally resume the fight against the corrupt Prime Minister Cai Jing.

This is not the place to discuss the fantasy elements permeating wuxia storytelling, but in this series, there are two continuing sources of amusement. First is the militarised wheelchair and general fighting techniques used by Heartless. Second, who would have thought that 12th century China had so many beautifully paved roads across the countryside and ramps so conveniently placed to enable wheelchair access to buildings. Only when the Constables get into the stone forest is he defeated and it falls to Iron Fist and his “partner” to run around until captured by the group using fake supernatural events as a cover for embezzlement. In the end, the constabulary is able to protect the villagers, so drawing the lines of battle more clearly with corrupt officialdom.

Lau Kong and Dominic Lam pretending to enjoy the show

There’s then a particularly weak story element about a plague of zombies, the only real benefit being to encourage the formation of closer bonds between the constables and the women who are “obviously” intended to become their partners. This trend is further reinforced by the next story element which has a merchant scamming armed couriers. In fact, he’s fronting for the corrupt leadership of the clans. By coincidence, the daughter of the clan leader is the love interest for Cold Blood. The plans of the corrupt Cai Jing, played with over-the-top evil enthusiasm by Lau Kong then more clearly come into view with a faintly weird story about weapons that can effectively decapitate their victims, while paid agitators ferment yet more trouble between the clans. The return of those and similar “invincible” weapons at the end gives a pleasing structure to the whole with the origin of the weapons showing how long Cai Jing has been planning rebellion.

Now Cai Jing moves to the next phase of his slow-burning plan by staging a fight between warring clans which threatens the Emperor. This persuades the inevitably dim leader to organise a knock-out contest to unite the pugilist clans. All the major clans will enter a representative and the winner will be accepted as leader of the pugilist world. Needless to say, the Prime Minister’s puppet pugilist needs to eliminate the one real threat before having to fight him. So explosives are placed on the boat bringing the righteous contender and two of the Constables to the villa where the contest is to be staged. Believing him to be dead, Ruo-Fei, his daughter, takes his place and, through blind luck, wins the first round fight. The remaining Constables decide to train the daughter to give her a chance of winning the next round. Meanwhile the survivors of the explosion are trapped on an island with what may be a dangerous animal (possibly mythological) — as you can see, no stone is left unturned for plot elements.

Kate Tsui comes good at the end

The story of events twenty years in the past comes back into focus as the man causing trouble between the clans turns out to have been involved in a death investigated by Zhuge. This leads to a reconciliation between Zhuge and Yan Hong, the daughter of the apparent suicide and now the wife of Prince Qi. In due course we have Cold Blood rehabilitated as his previous status as assassin is revealed. In the process, Cai Jing’s son is implicated in running an illegal gold mine and banished, in part because those managing the mine raped the women including Iron Fist’s sister and the woman intended for Chaser.

Zhi Yan played by Kate Tsui, skilled TCM practitioner and undercover operative for Cai Jing is becoming more active which complicates her relationship with Heartless. Heartless and Iron Hand finally identify their fathers who were set up and destroyed twenty years ago by Cai Jing so he could steal the designs for the “invincible” weapons. Iron Hand also discovers he has a previously unknown brother who is later killed by Zhi Yan.

In the end game, it all comes down to a battle between Cai Jing and the Divine Constabulary with everything turning on the loyalty of Zhi Yan. The plotting and counter-plotting is pleasing as we watch Zhuge’s plans go awry. The fighting against the invincible weapons is more than a little silly but, in the spirit of the show, the team responsible for special effects and fight choreography do their best on a limited budget.

Indeed, taking an overview, the series manages to transcend the weaknesses of the individual parts and become quite consistently entertaining. The only serious narrative weakness lies in the “love” element. With the exception of Kate Tsui’s Zhi Yan which is a well developed role, most of the other women are either decorative or not so gently mocked — Lam Ruo-Fei played by Selena Li is first presented as a spoilt child before being allowed to become something more than merely ineffective as a fighter. In an extended postscript to the battle, our brave heroes are rewarded by the Emperor but, despite their best efforts, all love is doomed by the script writers in this era of Chinese history. Hilariously, Zhuge sets off on a lechery tour of China, using his wuxia skills to seduce young maidens. The only one allowed any dignity is Zhi Yan who rides off into the sunset on a medical mission to improve the health of the poor. At the end, the Four are left holding off invading Jin troops at the pass and facing certain death — just as well there are no women around to slow them down as even Heartless jumps into the air in excitement at the thought of the expected slaughter.

There’s also a cinema version showing the Four come together. See The Four or Si Da Ming Bu (2012).

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