Tuesday, April 24, 2012

TVB: The Life and Times of a Sentinel (紫禁驚雷)(2011)

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Year Produced: 2011

Executive Producer: Leung Choi Yuen
Writers: Ng Siu Tung, Sit Kar Wah
Language: Cantonese
Country of Origin: Hong Kong

Theme Song: Bin Tin (變天) by Steven Ma

Imperial Palace
Steven Ma Chun Wai as Lip Dor Bou/Kei Chun Kit
Kenneth Ma as Fook Chuen/Prince Yu/2nd Imperial Prince
Ching Hor Wai as Grand Empress Dowager Hao Chong
Power Chan as Emperor Hong Hei/3rd Imperial Prince/Yuen Yip
Tsui Wing as Prince Kung/Sheung Ning/5th Imperial Prince

Selena Li as Cheuk Chi Ying/ Princess Tuen Man
Natalie Tong as Kwai Lun/2nd Princess Consort

Christine Kuo as Kin Ching/5th Princess Consort
Lo Chung Shun as Chiu Lai Wo

Imperial Harem
Elaine Yiu as Imperial Consort Wong/ Man Kwan
Grace Wong as Imperial Consort Wai
Rosanne Lui as Grand Consort Sau
Oceane Zhu as Consort Tung Ngok

Imperial Guards
Evergreen Mak Cheung Ching as Po Chai/Cheuk Muk Hak Po Chai
Deno Cheung as Sheung Chak Yi Tai Shek
Jack Wu as Ha Seen
Fred Cheng as Yan Chak

Imperial Court
Law Lok Lam as Lap Lan Ming Chu
Stephen Wong as Lap Lan Sing Tak

Sheung Moon Lau Restaurant/Lip Family
Samuel Kwok Fung as Lip Koon Yat
Helen Ma as Ko Choi King
Katy Kung as Fung Sheung Hei

Early Characters/Cameos
Ben Wong Chi Yin as Kei Tou Ting/Imperial Bodyguard
Chris Lai Lok Yi as Young Kei Man Cheong
Felix Lok as Kei Man Cheung/Sam Chin Yat
Matthew Ko as Ngai Chun
Sunny Chan Kam Hung as Emperor Shun Chi
Lau Kong as Monk Hin Yan

Anti-Qing Activists
Cheung Kwok Keung as Cheuk Shu Tong
Lily Ho as Sam Chui Yuk
Angel Chiang as Hor Yee


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The story starts with an intense scene in the Imperial Court, with exchanges of heated glances and words between the 2nd Imperial Prince, Royal Sentinel, Grand Empress Dowager and the reigning Emperor Hong Hei amongst the ministers standing watching. It appears to be a seizure of power by the 2nd Imperial Prince, and the Emperor is weakened by the strength of the Prince's support.

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Taking a step back into the past when the reigning emperor was Shun Chi (Sunny Chan), the father of Emperor Hong Hei who appeared to prefer the 2nd Prince over the 3rd Prince for the succession of the throne. However, his plans were disapproved by his mother, the Empress Dowager Hao Chong (Ching Hor Wai) who pointed out that 3rd Prince, Yuen Yip would make a better ruler due to his compassion and kindness, over Fook Chuen/2nd Prince who seemed to be more cunning in nature.
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Emperor Shun Chi then made a will to pass his throne to Yuen Yip, but was uncovered by the Empress Dowager and taking advantage of the Emperor's sudden retreat to becoming a monk following the death of his favorite concubine, Consort Tung Ngok, the Empress Dowager secretly changed the Emperor's will and announced for 3rd Prince Yuen Yip to ascend the throne.

Imperial Bodyguard Kei Tou Ting (Ben Wong), who was a loyal follower of the Emperor, knew of this secret and swearing to protect the Emperor, he shaved his head and joined the Emperor in his final days of contemplation in retreat, he was entrusted with a sacred letter which stated the will of the late Emperor. Returning to the Imperial Palace upon the Emperor's death and also upon summoning by the witty Empress Dowager, Kei Tou Ting pledged to bring the secret to his tomb and after handing the Emperor's letter to the Empress and asking for pardon of his family members, he took his own life before the Empress Dowager.
At the same time, the Kei family was on the run as the Empress Dowager did not want to take any risk in order to protect the new Emperor's ascension to the throne and ordered for them to be killed. Hin Yan, a monk who was a student of Kei Tou Ting arrived to escort Kei Man Cheong (Chris Lai), his only son along with his grandson to safety. In his desperate to bid to hide from the army, Cheong placed his infant son by the riverside a moment of anxiety but was alarmed to find the baby missing when he came out of his hiding place.
Discovering the baby's shoe, Cheong and Hin Yan decided that it was probably God's will and knowing that he cannot escape death, Cheong decided to return to the palace to end the mass murder of his own family.
Pledging himself to secrecy, Kei Man Cheong took to drinking poison to muting himself before the Empress Dowager who finally relented to spare the Kei's family from tragedy.

The 3rd Prince, Yuen Yip then ascended the throne and became Emperor Hong Hei at the age of eight and assisted by the Empress Dowager who became the Grand Empress Dowager.
This decision angered the 2nd Prince, Fook Chuen who believed that the throne was rightfully his and grew up plotting to take over the throne. Due to his aggressiveness, Fook Chuen, now Prince Yu (Kenneth Ma) never gained the trust of his own grandmother, the Grand Empress Dowager; especially after his unforgivable act 15 years ago and she banished him into seclusion and minor roles outside the palace.
Prince Yu remained determined as ever to gain the trust of the Empress Dowager and also of his own brother, the Emperor for him to be able to hold an important position within the court for him to execute his own plans. 

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Besides his political inclinations, the Prince also harbors hatred towards the Emperor due to his treatment towards the Imperial Consort Wong (Elaine Yiu), who was later revealed to be his romantic interest Man Kwan and that they were already acquainted in their younger days in Mongolia, until she decided to enlist for  the emperor's harem. Consort Wong was also the elder cousin sister of Prince Yu's wife, Princess Consort Kwai Lun (Natalie Tong), and the two were extremely close in their relationship, along with the 5th Princess Consort, Kin Cheng (Christine Kuo). Both princess consorts serve as the trusted allies of Imperial Consort Wong, who was constantly being bullied by her rival Consort Wai (Grace Wong) due to her kindness and unsuspecting nature. Consort Wai was the favorite of the Emperor, but was disliked by the Empress Dowager who favored Consort Wong as the next candidate to be Empress to Hong Hei. 
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Consort Wong was also a maternal relative of the Empress Dowager, besides her exceptionally good qualities and was highly recommended to assume the role of the Royal Empress which had been vacant for a while since the death of the previous Empress who was deeply loved by the Emperor.

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Consort Wai resorted to various evil ways to dispel Consort Wong, much to the displeasure of the Grand Empress Dowager, but she finally fell prey to her own trap when she suffered a miscarriage and was banished from the palace to seclusion. Her fall paved the way for Consort Wong to be named the successor to assume the role of the Empress.

Our main protagonist enters the scene way earlier, as a young and promising man of Han descent who helped his family to run the family business in the famous Sheung Moon Lau Restaurant in the city.
Following various acts of suppression and persecution by the arrogant Qing palace guards, Lip Dor Bou (Steven Ma), was determined to take up the challenges to be a palace guard to protect his family and also the Hans, in conjunction with Emperor Hong Hei's call to unite both the Manchurians and the Hans.
However, Dor Bou's path to becoming the royal guard was not an easy one and along the way, he courted the attention of Prince Yu, the Emperor and also the Grand Empress Dowager.
What seemed to be a simple gesture of kindness and friendship with the conniving Prince Yu soon turned out to be a web of deceit and lies which Dor Bou plunges into and slowly discovers as he cohorts to the Prince's evil schemes to ascend the throne. 

Along the way, Dor Bou befriends the sweet and naive Cheuk Chi Ying (Selena Li), who was the daughter of a pharmacy business owner, Cheuk Shu Tong (Cheung Kwok Keung). Though seemingly harmless, the business and Cheuk Shu Tong was slowly revealed to hold a much darker secret behind the doors, as Cheuk was actually the leader of an anti-Qing and revolution group and were secretly planning their acts of rebellion in the secret chamber of his shop which was discovered by chance by his own daughter. Chi Ying was coerced into joining the activities of the group upon learning the truth about her own parents and foster mother (Cheuk Shu Tong's wife), who were apparently killed by the evil Manchurians, as told by her father, who was also revealed to be her foster father.

Dor Bou's exceptional skills soon gained him recognition and importance in the palace as he was quickly promoted to third rank and then first rank officer after his proven dedication to his duties and saving the Emperor's life. His influence caused displeasure among the Qing guards who were previously his superiors and harassers. However, his favor in the Emperor's eyes made him almost invincible to the rest and was of immense value to Prince Yu. The Prince himself, had also gained the trust of the Grand Empress Dowager following his sacrifice to save her life, and had earned a position in the palace where he slowly planned his rebellion. The Grand Empress Dowager was still suspicious of Prince Yu, but was constantly assured by the Emperor.

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The sudden appearance of the long lost Consort Sau (Rosanne Lui) soon brought to light more complex stories of the past, and Prince Yu found, from the mouth of the Consort who used to be a favorite of the late Emperor Shun Chi, that he was supposed to take over the throne and resorted to protect her by all means. The return of Prince Gong/5th Imperial Prince (Tsui Wing) reunited him with his biological mother, Consort Sau, whom he thought had died when he was young, as informed by the Grand Empress Dowager. Although  now mentally unstable, Consort Sau slowly recalled that she used to have a princess whom she had lost on a trip to the temple and the Emperor ordered for a secret search for the long lost Princess Tuen Man who could be dead by now but seeking confirmation, the guards embarked on a search for the princess.
Dor Bou soon tracked the evidences to Chi Ying, and as the father and daughter pleaded with him to keep the secret, he was even more assured that she was indeed the lost princess and brought her back to the palace.

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Chi Ying then assumed her identity as the lost Manchurian princess, Tuen Man in the palace and reunites with her royal family. What Dor Bou did not know was that Chi Ying and Cheuk Shu Tong made it a plan to smuggle Chi Ying into the palace by masquerading her as the lost princess so that their group could find out more about the happenings inside the palace and assist in their plans to rebel against the government.
They even smuggled Chui Yuk (Lily Ho), another activitist, disguised as the princesss's maid, to aid her in the palace. Chui Yuk's identity was soon exposed by the intelligent Dor Bou and she then killed herself while Chi Ying was sent away in exile. Cheuk Shu Tong was then arrested by the Qings and the whole anti-Qing group was busted following their failure in their attempts to assassinate the Emperor.
It was then that confusion rise over the real identity of Chi Ying; was she truly the lost Princess Tuen Man or a nobody's daughter was just adopted by Cheuk Shu Tong?

Dor Bou gained the trust of Emperor Hong Hei and as they worked together, Dor Bou realized that he was truly a compassionate and just ruler. Prince Yu was, at the same time, creating so much drama in the palace to expose the Grand Empress Dowager of her past deeds, but also ended up hurting many others who were innocent. Dor Bou was also torn between his loyalty to both Prince Yu and the Emperor and his hatred for the Grand Empress Dowager after discovering his real identity as the grandson of Kei Tou Ting and reuniting with his mute father, Kei Man Cheong (Felix Lok). 
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The death of his father and foster parents, which were apparently orchestrated by the prince, made Dor Bou even more adamant to assist the prince in revolting against the Grand Empress Dowager whom he blamed for all the misfortunes which befell his loved ones.
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As Dor Bou learns the truth, he was burning with fury but yet continues to assist the evil prince in turning against the unsuspecting Emperor Hong Hei. Prince Yu finally gained the upper hand with the assistance of his brother, Prince Gong, who held command of the military along with the ministers and the scene from the first episode came into place as the prince announced his rights to the throne and exposed the Grand Empress Dowager of her act in changing the will of the late Emperor to pass the throne to the 3rd Prince at that time.
However, as Prince Yu thought that he had finally succeeded in his schemes, a truth was exposed which astounds everyone including Dor Bou himself.
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Christy's Review:
Excellent and definitely one of the best TVB series I have seen in years!
The interwoven plots were intriguing and provided more drama and complexity yet engaging interests in the series along the way. There was rarely any dull moment that I can recall in the drama, and I am truly impressed with the well-written story which astounds with the uncovering of each plot.
Unlike other TVB dramas, the ending was exceptionally good, and I found myself still gripping the edge until the very episode which revealed the end of the story whereas other dramas just makes most of us flop in disappointment.
There is a reason I maintained certain anonymity and secrecy in writing my synopsis, to maintain the originality and suspense of the story for those who have yet to watch.
It is definitely my vote for the best TVB series for the year 2011, if not all time!

Cast and Characters Analysis
This is a star-studded cast; and obviously everyone put in a good performance to make the drama successful. Most of the actors are also rather commendable in their past experiences but they have made it through various TVB dramas in their acting career.
I can't even begin with any one of them, but the veterans; Ching Hor Wai, Evergreen Mak, Samuel Kwok, Cheung Kwok Keung paved the drama for an entertaining watch with their subtle and believable performances.

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Steven Ma never fails to impress with his acting skills and his role here was another of his regular characters; righteous, brave and charming. His character in the drama, however, was one of complexity and Steven had to navigate his expressions as he discovers his own identity and also in dealing with the different people who are in favor of his service. 

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Kenneth Ma showed his major improvement in his acting although he still lacked control of certain emotions as evident in certain scenes. Playing a villain is never easy and Kenneth's usual charms were not properly masqueraded here as he plays the scheming and conniving prince.

Natalie Tong and Elaine Yiu were both playing adverse characters from their past experiences; with Elaine having to play a kind and compassionate concubine while Natalie is to be a jealous wife forced into evil yet struggles with her own conscience.
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Selena Li is just playing her usual sweet, naive and lovable self in her character here.
Image Hosted by PicturePush - Photo Sharing The rest of the cast, though not mentioned, deserves a big clap for their excellent portrayals of ministers and civilians in the Qing Dynasty.

My Verdict:
In my opinion, this is definitely a MUST watch for all the reasons above if not for my vote as the best TVB drama of 2011.

Rating: 4/5

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