Kingdom lives up to its hype, Titoudao: Inspired By The True Story Of A Wayang Star looks at the declining Chinese opera scene, and Loving You borders on creepy
Expectations were set high for the second season of Netflix's Korean period zombie epic Kingdom - which dropped on the streaming service last Friday - after a stunning debut last year.
Did the series live up to its own high standards? Very much so.
Picking up where it left off - villagers and soldiers led by prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), as well as physician Seo-bi (Bae Doo-na) and her aristocratic admirer Beom-pal (Jeon Seok-ho), fend off hordes of zombies - the series starts running and does not stop.
The show is heart-stoppingly fast-paced and there are rarely meandering bits of storytelling. The show boasts of confident direction and writing -it knows exactly which of its many compelling threads it wants to focus its time on and almost every scene is a meticulous step to get those stories told.
Screenwriter Kim Eun-hee told The Straits Times this season revolves around the theme of blood and that is conveyed with both clarity and nuance.
This season begins with the main characters running away from zombies yearning for blood, going into a story about how the vulnerable shed their blood to keep those in power powerful. It then examines what blood can mean in a monarchy - how bloodlines are seen, how they can be arbitrary yet manipulated.
The series also features some gorgeous pieces of cinematography. One scene in the second episode, featuring a narratively crucial zombie charging through a camp of soldiers, is, to me, the series' highlight.
And the acting is stellar across the board, especially Kim Hye-joon as the evil Queen Consort, who dominates every single scene she is in with her chilling eyes and small smirks.
But protagonist Lee Chang is overshadowed by the other characters - the weak but good-intentioned Beom-pal, the reserved but fierce fighter Yeong-shin (played by the magnetic Kim Sung-kyu) and the ruthless Lord Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong).
Ju is a competent actor, but he just does not have a lot to do this season. The movers and shakers of this season are other characters and he, despite being the lead, is often reacting to things happening around him and his character development is mostly stagnant.
And a side plot involving the prince's personal guard Moo-young, which was vital to the central story, was badly fleshed out and did not make an impact emotionally.
Still, Kingdom is an impressive piece of genre fiction that is beautifully shot and told. The ending, while wrapping up much of its story, introduces new elements that ensures the story can continue to evolve.
There are no seasonal arcs in the local English-language production, Titoudao: Inspired By The True Story Of A Wayang Star, but the 13-parter on Channel 5 manages to be affecting just three episodes in.
The story is based on theatre director Goh Boon Teck's best-known play Titoudao, which swept five awards including Play Of The Year in the inaugural Life Theatre Awards 2001 and is about the life of his mother Oon Ah Chiam, a popular street wayang performer.
The story of street Chinese opera, especially about Sin Sai Hong, the Hokkien troupe Oon performed with, is particularly poignant.
Sin Sai Hong shuttered in 2014, as the art grew less popular with younger generations who have a wide range of entertainment options - a decline the series, which spans decades, notes.
Malaysian actress Koe Yeet plays Ah Chiam with an air of innocence in early episodes befitting of a young girl in the early episodes, moderating her speaking voice and demeanour to come across as more mature as she ages through the series.
Credit for the wayang scenes looking colourful and authentic has to be paid to actor Nick Shen, who plays Sin Sai Hong's troupe master.
Shen is both a professional performer and advocate of the Chinese opera scene in Singapore, who has his own troupe Lao Sai Tao Hong - and it shows with his performance.
Still, the series is hard to watch at times. Ah Chiam is kind and uncomplaining to a frustrating degree, and the dialogue is often not subtle, hitting you over the head with whatever message it is trying to convey - be it personal strength or keeping traditions alive. The touches of Singlish and dialect do, however, lend it an air of authenticity.
It is overall a quality local production and a timely one, reminding viewers the little red dot has art and history worth preserving.
VIEW IT /KINGDOM
TITOUDAO: INSPIRED BY THE TRUE STORY OF A WAYANG STAR
meWATCH and Channel 5 (Tuesdays, 9.30pm)
meWATCH and Channel 8 (weekdays, 9pm)
The same cannot be said for Channel 8's new romance series Loving You.
Ostensibly a May-December romance starring Jesseca Liu, who plays Lin Li, a 40-year-old high-powered executive and new leading man Ayden Sng, who plays Dongsheng, a 22-year-old food delivery man - it is really not romantic.
In Episode 7, when the pair finally kiss, I yelled out "No!" at the screen.
The drama goes out of its way to make the central romance extremely creepy. Dongsheng befriends Lin Li's 14-year-old daughter through the Internet, which is already alarming, and that is how Lin Li interacts with Dongsheng when she meets him as her teenage daughter's friend.
Viewers later find out Dongsheng is infatuated with Lin Li because he met her when he was a child (the actor looks about seven) and she, in her early 20s then, had comforted him.
So, a 22-year-old man befriends a 14-year-old girl and develops a sexual and romantic relationship with her mother, whom he met as a child. Not romantic.
The central couple also do not get a lot of screen time - much of the early episodes feature the overlong demise of Lin Li's relationship with her husband Chen Shi (a bad pun on honesty in Mandarin), played by Darren Lim, and his extramarital affair.
It is an overstuffed plot and characters are all somehow connected - Dongsheng is the brother of Lin Li's co-worker, and Lin Li's co-worker has a romantic subplot with Chen Ming (James Seah), Chen Shi's brother.
The older woman/younger man relationship with an 18-year age gap in an Asian society has built-in dramatic tension - the story would be immeasurably better if Lin Li was just a competent single woman who meets a hot young man.
The acting, thankfully, is serviceable. Sng has potential as a young star and it helps that he is fluent in Mandarin. With more future roles, he might become a valuable leading man to Mediacorp.
The veterans are also pulling their weight here, especially Lim, who nails the portrayal of a weak-minded cheating man who wants to have his cake and eat it too.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2020, with the headline 'Walking dead, dying art, lifeless romance'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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