Sunday, July 15, 2012

first impression: Three Kingdoms RPG (Hong Kong)

First of all, I think I’ve seen plenty of time-travel drama series lately to realize that the mechanism for time-travel is really hard to grasp in each series. The only storyline in which I can one-hundred percent agree with the time-travel mechanism is TVB’s A Step Into the Past. At the very least, in this particular storyline, we aren’t dealing with some strange mystical magic that causes the main character to time leap for “some writer/producer given reason that still needs a lot of explanation.”

A Step Into the Past involves futuristic technology wherein our main character is asked to return to the past, take a simple picture, and then return to his present-day. We make use of scientific methods to force the time-travel storyline. Sure, the fact that this technology was tested on HIM of all people is highly for story progression reasons, but it still makes more sense than a mystical, magical explanation. In this case, Hang Xiao Long (main character of A Step Into the Past glorified by Louis Koo) being sent back in time by some rich man and his team of specialized scientists propels the story, then further stabilizes it by instigating that our time-machine instrumentation still has some imperfect kinks (a more realistic gesture) when he is sent three years earlier into the time period that everyone was hoping he’d land in. When his time-machine remote’s battery dies, he realizes that he’ll probably have to wait three years to get to the correct time frame while he tries to figure out how to make his remote time machine work again. And so the adventure begins and we all end up loving it (save for a few cliched and blocky moments in his journey).

Thus far, I’ve been watching time-leapers go from the Korean Joseon time period into modern society. The mechanics of that time-leaping is still undeterminable, usually some sort of magical sleight of the heavens, or the like... I haven’t finished watching Queen In-Hyun’s Man, so I really don’t know if they talk about the time-traveling mechanism; but I know for sure that in Rooftop Prince, the time-leaping isn’t even really explained, but is blown off with an indirect explanation: That this was a decree of fate.

Operation Proposal (which I also haven’t finished watching) makes use of a human conduit who creates the opportunity for our main hero to leap into the near history of his younger high school life topped with a lot of non-explanation save for the word “miracle”. On some levels, it works, but on others, it’s still a little sketchy.

Other time-traveling series I haven’t quite bothered with: Time Slip Dr. Jin, Bu Bu Jing Xing, Palace... etc...

Coming back to Three Kingdoms RPG, I had been looking forward to this series for a LONG time (BIG emphasis on the word “LONG”). We were talking about combining an obsessed gamer as the main lead with the historical Three Kingdoms MMO that he loves playing so much and a time leap back to that exact era. In essence (if games are as historically accurate as gamers believe them to be), then throwing this guy into the time period he plays with regularly would be kind of awesome. After all, he gets to show off his strategic gaming skills in a real life situation (and in this case, he gets to meet his most revered idol, Chu Kot Leung of historical infamy). I was always a fan of A Step Into the Past, and to be honest, if TVB sticks with their normal chops, then the storyline of Three Kingdoms RPG could be a good one.

And then we also combine Raymond Lam, Tavia Yeung, and Kenneth Ma into one setting and I’ve got all my favorite cast members in place (well, at least two of them).

And so we step into Three Kingdoms RPG with a lot of hype (at least on my part) and expectation. Kenneth Ma is the main character who gets sent back in time to the Three Kingdoms era and meets his revered idol Chu Kot Leung (Raymond Lam) and shares a romance with a character role played by Tavia Yeung. And technically, this is the only summary anyone can really dig up at this point. What the main reason for his time-travelling is, I’m not sure anyone knows yet. At least in A Step Into the Past, Hang Xiao Long’s time jump was due to human means, although the fact that he landed three years prior to the target time and ends up needing to “make history or cease to exist” when things in history seem to go wrong tells us that there may have been some sort of heavenly interference in his initial mission.

The first episode of Three Kingdoms RPG took me 40 minutes to actually start enjoying. This is actually a first for a TVB series. Typically, TVB is really good at hyping up the introduction and then giving you a great impression from Day 1 of broadcast. The first episode for most TVB series is usually the best one. If it’s one thing that TVB knows how to do, it’s hooking the viewer with that very first episode as well as doing their research wonderfully for the series to take off without a hitch.

Okay, so they did their job... they just did it kind of half-assed.

I will admit that TVB has a good idea of what its viewers like to see. And thus, they know that we don’t like to spend too much time dragging on with build-up. So I expected that by the end of the first episode, we would be time-leaping to the past with our main lead, which is accomplished quickly. Unfortunately, all of the build-up for our main lead, Sze-ma Shun (Kenneth Ma) was so agonizing to watch that I almost gave up. I mean, this is the first episode. I should not be rolling my eyes and “meandering” through it while playing Minesweeper. My attention should be completely focused on the storyline and its opening (though for its benefit, the opening sequence had a good theme sung by Raymond and the first few frames depicting the actual Three Kingdoms RPG game was pretty neat). For TVB, this was actually a little disappointing, because even with series that I have no intention of watching because it sounds stupid, the first episode is STILL a hook-line-and-sinker type.

I dread the rest of the series because I don’t know if things will just get worse; but then I also anticipate watching the rest of the series because maybe TVB’s writing and production man-power was placed in the rest of the story and things will get better. Maybe that expositional build-up was simply a quick hash together to get the main lead where he needs to be. But then the production staff is really going to have to put in beyond 100% effort to make up for it in the long run. Especially explaining the time travel mechanism which already didn’t make any sense.

For the first 40 minutes of this episode, I found that I absolutely do NOT like our main character already. He’s a game obsessed lazy layabout who feels like he’s entitled to luxury just because... well... just because. He doesn’t even have a good reason for being a bad son who has no stable career at his age (which I’m assuming is somewhere nearing his thirties, because, let’s face it, there is no way that Kenneth Ma is getting away with being an early twenties), spends all of his days playing MMOs, online chatting with several web-girlfriends, and just being a pain in the ass to his family. He’s fortunate that, at the very least, his little sister (played by Cilla Kung) seems to think he’s a decent human being. I feel sorry for her already, because she’s either going to figure out that he’s a leeching worm and disown him which will break her heart, or she’s going to forever idolize him for some unknown reason other than the fact that he’s her big brother.

I’m not saying that Sze-ma Shun is a bad person. On the contrary, I’m sure he IS a decent human being underneath all of his lazy, good-for-nothing immaturity. At the very least, he won’t leave a stranded stranger to die on the side of a mountain, and he values his friendships. He’s not the type who will go out and commit illegal acts even for his own benefits. But let’s face it, he’s a thirty year old man stuck in a sixteen year old mindset. He thinks he should be entitled to being a lazy teenage boy when, at his age, he really should be getting a job, making his own money, and at least NOT giving his family any grief.

But this might be the standard immature asshole to noble hero trope as our character plot device. Sze-ma Shun, through time-leaping backwards into the Three Kingdoms era, learns the values of family, ambition, and maturity before he gets catapulted back into his own time. So this, my friends, is more than likely a lovely TVB-ified story of one man-child’s growth in character. I see nothing less happening because TVB is predictable.

The entire first episode of this series had been a little hard for me to swallow, probably because Sze-ma Shun is made out to be such a spoiled brat. I welcome the fact that he’s got SOME appreciation for history through his gaming, and the fact that he values his friends and the code of brotherhood honor (this will all come in handy for his convenient time-leap back into an era where brothership is extremely significant; especially during war). At least he’s got something he can play off of. I mean, we can’t ALL be Hang Xiao Long and start off as the genius warrior who just keeps getting smarter and stronger as the show progresses. (Also, Louis Koo is a much better actor than Kenneth Ma, by all standards).

So here’s a quick run-down:

Sze-ma Shun gets into fights regularly with his father who tells him he needs to work to earn money while the guy practically scolds his father for not straight out just giving him money. Sze-ma Shun spends his days slacking off from work, treating his friends to his father’s restaurants good food, and works as an extra on filming sets (you know, the type who play a random citizen or soldier and die in multiple frames but no one ever notices the same guy playing different roles who appear for a whole of two seconds). Sze-ma Shun has slacker friends as well and together, they spend their time playing video games, slacking off together, ogling girls' and their legs, and making trouble like putting sticky rat capture glue on an expensive car after breaking into it and finding a little packet of illegal substance. And then this is where we find the value of Sze-ma Shun’s friends who both point fingers at him dealing in the illegal while getting themselves off the hook. And believe me, I don’t feel sorry at all for the rat bastard, though I kind of wish he was being punished for his own wrong-doings rather than being framed for something some other asshole in the present did.

Basically, if Sze-ma Shun’s entire progression is to become a better man, then he has A LOT of work to do; otherwise, I may not be able to relate with his plight at all.

Finally, while on the set of an historical drama and/or movie playing the role of a soldier who probably dies after his scene is over, that freak storm hits Hong Kong and magical stuff happens. Due to being framed for possession of illegal substance and obstruction of justice, Sze-ma Shun runs away from the police who are trying to arrest him and ends up in some mountainous cavern where our time-traveling mysticism takes affect with some shoddy CGI (and some shoddier acting from Kenneth Ma where I wince and cry at the same time, because, Dude, I know you can do better than that!). The last five minutes of the series shows Sze-ma Shun walking around thinking that he's still in filming set when he runs across others in historical garb and speaking in historical tones (and he's still in his historical soldier get-up as well). And when people are killed and an army rushes passed his line of vision on the trails below, he finally realizes that he's probably not in modern-day Hong Kong anymore.

Clearly, the series has a direction. It just had no idea how to get us there without pleading that we give into a full-out suspension of disbelief at all costs. We have a despicable main lead who is being over-acted to death by someone who knows better what acting should look like; and then there are shoddy CGI and really cruddy magical components at play. I'm not sure I'll be able to get over the magic bubble thing being a time warp portal. But I'll persevere...

Fortunately, there’s also Raymond Lam who is more than likely the other main male lead (as per typical TVB standards, they wouldn’t cast this guy aside for the other one so easily; and also, his character is the first to be presented in the opening theme sequence which usually means that he's the true main character). He will make his role bearable, at the least, and maybe now that we're in the proper era of the series' setting, the story will take off with better pacing.

The last five minutes of the first episode is what actually got my excitement all hyped up finally, bringing me back to where I’ve been standing all this time about Three Kingdoms RPG. Sze-ma Shun, by some strange force of nature (literally some freak storm approaching Hong Kong and what looks like magical force field bubbles and some terrible directing and acting conveyance), somehow gets sent back into the Three Kingdoms era. We don’t know how or why this happened, but it does, and as far as time-traveling series goes, I would bet big bucks that the time-travel mechanism will be left in the dust as the series progresses. TVB’s aim is to get the hero where he needs to be, no matter how tacky or unbelievable. Explanations will either take place a lot later on after we quit caring about the whys and the hows, or they will never be addressed again.

But anyway, I’m excited because the adventure is now about to begin. I expected no less of TVB, but I had at least expected to be able to relate with the main guy from the beginning. I guess that plot point will just have to be addressed later. I also expected a little more from Kenneth Ma as well, but it seems like he’s in that “the director needs over-extreme comedic acting exaggerations NOW” mode; which is painful coming from him when you know (and I repeat again and again) he can do better.

For the meantime, I look forward to seeing my beloved Raymond Lam in his revered Chu Kot Leung role -- a man who was known throughout China as the best war strategist... well, EVER. And then once Sze-ma Shun learns how to man up and mature, I expect some good old lovey-dovey bromance to take place. Ever since their last series together (The Four), I’ve missed seeing some of these young TVB stars gather in one series to present their bromantic awesomeness-es. (Okay, enough of the fangirl-ing.)

As far as cast goes, I’ve been a little wary of Kenneth Ma taking center-stage next to Raymond Lam. For one, Ray is going to outshine Kenneth Ma no matter what; no questions. Kenneth Ma isn’t a terrible actor or anything, but he’s also not the most natural either. He has his moments. He settles into his characters really well, and he conveys emotions decently. But sometimes, he tends to flatline it and I’m forced to ask myself “Does this situation suddenly feel like he’s trying too hard to convey his character’s feelings?” In other words, if I have to ask that question, then the answer is most likely a big fat “Yes.”

A lot of TVB actors and actresses have a tendency to overdo their acting a little bit under certain circumstances (especially comedic situations). I don’t know if this is something to do with the directing or maybe a misconception of what is acceptable as a form of acting. But even the best of the best have had their flaws, and the ones who manage to break out of that mold usually end up leaving TVB in pursuit of movie roles (others just get lucky that I can still suspend my disbelief that he or she is in character). Kenneth Ma has his bumpy moments when he can get so into character that I appreciate his rapport with his role, but then sometimes he falls out of sync and I’m shown that he’s just some actor doing his job.

Oh... but it would appear that he is definitely in character this time around. Unfortunately, the agony of his character is probably part of directing and writing flaws. Too tacky, too fake, and too much... so I hope the atmosphere of the series tones him down a little bit now that he’s done his time leap.

I’ve gone and watched a couple other series from TVB recently, and Three Kingdoms RPG is the big one I’ve been anticipating. So maybe my love for this little station’s productions will be rekindled soon. It’s not like TVB has dropped off of my radar; I just wish that they would return to their former glory from back in the 90s to SOME of the early 2000s productions. Or maybe my ranges have just expanded way too much now that I’ve included Korean dramas, Taiwanese dramas and Japanese doramas into my scope.

We will see how this works out as I have my eye on two other TVB productions that are currently airing as well. On the other hand, there are a slew of Korean dramas that are about to premiere in the next month and I don’t know if I have that kind of time to try appreciating everything.

As far as Three Kingdoms RPG goes, it seems like the next episode is really where the story’s adventure will begin. The first episode spent its entirety building up our main character to be the lazy, immature sleaze bag we will learn to either hate or love, depending on his development. Not much to go off of, but maybe by the third or fourth episode, I’ll have an idea where this series is heading.

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