The series chronicles the ups and downs of the various members of Yi family through almost 3 decades during the turbulent early 20th century in Shanghai. Through the gloriously luxury of a cosmopolitan Shanghai city, to the ever-changing political landscape of China during the period, to the deep sufferings during the war.
The Yi patriarch Yi Xing Hua has the business acumen to build the Tsing Hua departmental store from scratch. He is supported with a loving wife, 3 daughters and a son. Each of the younger generation of Yi member is a personality to reckon with, and tribulations of their own.
The eldest daughter, Zhong Ling (portrayed by Qin Lan), is soft-spoken, dutiful and responsible. Always dependable and elegant. The 2nd daughter, Zhong Yu (portrayed by Wu Jin Yan), is wily as much as she is stubborn. Rebellious since young, she has a bone to pick with both her father and her step-mother, whom she blames for her birth mother’s death. The youngest daughter, Zhong Xiu, is a little spoilt and outspoken, but equally righteous after some time out. The only son Yi Zhong Jie is righteous & naïve, but pursues a totally different career in saving people’s life by being a doctor.
The early part of the series explores the background of each of the characters, painting their own history which helps to shape their personality and outlook in life. The focus is mainly on the misunderstandings plaguing the family
- Zhong Yu’s long drawn separation from the family and her anger towards her father and stepmother for cheating on her birth mother
- Match-making for Zhong Xiu with the diplomat & son of old family friends Tang Feng Wu, which ends up weirdly with Zhong Yu and Feng Wu falling in love with each other
- Zhong Ling’s secret of being adopted, and her obedience to gain acceptance
Pursuant to the various misunderstandings, the family especially the sisters have a better empathy of their own issues and where they stand. Throughout these journeys in life, they band together especially in time of crisis to protect their own family & the legacy left by their father.
The middle part of the series re-focuses the family issues to the bigger political landscape. With the many challenges of a potential war looming with the Japanese, the Yi family finds themselves facing both internal and external sabotages. Yi Xing Hua’s elder brother plots to take over Tsing Hua businesses, pushing for a collaboration with the Japanese businesses. When that backfires as Yi Xing Hua is a patriot at heart, he is murdered in cold-blood. The family bands together indirectly to take revenge against their uncle & cousin brother.
As the war commences, the remaining Yi family takes slightly different route & stand towards the political situation. Kuomintang, Communist party, international diplomats. While the Japanese invades the country, Shanghai included, the remaining Yi family faces the full destruction imposed by the Japanese.
The series is a Yu Zheng production, with high-quality props. You will also notice that there are many recurring actors and actresses from Yu Zheng’s usual production.
Band of Sisters
I love a good series with great characters especially in sisterhood. The 3 sisters are born of different circumstances and different mothers, and have very different personalities.
Of the 3 sisters, I like Zhong Ling’s character the most. Seemingly the most agreeable and always a smiling face in any difficult social situation, she is soft spoken and demure to reduce any tension in the family. Her relationship with the husband chosen by her father – Xi Wei An (portrayed by Nie Yuan), the uncouth army general who is brutal but dotes and adores his wife Zhong Ling, is an interesting backstory. She agrees with the marriage to Wei An, and has been a dutiful wife but has always harboured resentment. She believes her obedience to marry Wei An is the ticket to her acceptance by the family due to her own status as the adopted daughter. She also misunderstands that her then fiancé Wang Jian Chi is killed by Wei An. During the confrontation between the couple, both are finally able to say their piece and are matured enough to empathise with each other. As Zhong Ling alluded, a marriage is a journey and there will always be ups and downs. Although seemingly of very different temperament, Wei An’s infatuations and love for Zhong Ling finally wins her over with his protective stance and actions. Their shaky start at the beginning is always cute to watch, especially with Wei An’s bumbling harsh way. But it is so nice to see their love blossoms over time, with their concerns for each other in times of crisis.
Muse #1 – Both Qin Lan and Nie Yuan portrays the Empress and Emperor respectively in The Story of Yanxi Palace, and it is really nice to finally see them as a proper couple herewith.
Muse #2 – Personally, I find Zhong Ling’s character mesmerising. An outwardly demure and agreeable person does not necessarily mean they do not harbour any intention. Qin Lan brings out this very effectively in her tasks in “finishing off” his uncle at the hospital. I love it better when Wei An confronts her and admonishes to always discuss with him, but reassuring her that all loose ends will be tied.
Muse #3 – The “tiff” when Xi Wei An comes back from Nanjing’s defeat is quite funny to watch, although I thought Xi Wei An only has himself to blame for not trusting and sharing with Zhong Ling.
Muse #4 – Xi Wei An’s character is originally a Kuomintang army general, who is portrayed as turning over to the Communist Party at the later stage of the Japanese occupation. I guess it is a convenient way to ensure the series portray the right kind of historical background under the current Chinese government.
Muse #5 – Their ending is sweet, with the couple settling in Beijing and adopting two children.
Zhong Yu’s character is a difficult one to like. Outwardly selfish, immature and with a temper to match, her only saving grace is she has a little righteousness in her bone. If you are her benefactor, she repays you in kind. If you are her enemies, she will not rest until she gets her revenge. Tit for tat mentality. Her original intention to get back at her father backfires when she actually falls in love with Tang Feng Wu (portrayed by Han Geng), who reciprocates her feelings. One a diplomatic ambassador, another a volcano waiting for explosion. When given an ultimatum by her father, it is surprising that Zhong Yu chooses love over her inheritance in the family business. But her path towards chasing love is not as easy, as there are more winding roads for her. Tang Feng Wu, being a principled diplomat, is totally smitten by Zhong Yu. However, Zhong Yu’s rival in Feng Wu’s love is not another woman but his own principles. Feng Wu’s rival in love is the even wilier Shen Bin, a cunning but hardworking guy trying to make it big in the difficult business world in Shanghai.
Muse #1 – Wu Jin Yan who portrays Zhong Yu has been playing a number of characters similar to this, it is not difficult to find her familiar traits. Playing too many of similar roles will probably stereotype her future acting, but more importantly I see no improvement and diversity in her acting prowess. Her portrayal of Zhong Yu is also a little hit and miss, sometimes carrying through the character easily, but other times not really getting the audience to empathise with her.
Muse #2 – This is my first time watching Han Geng who is portraying Tang Feng Wu in a full series. I must say the character suits him, and he has managed to pull through the character wonderfully. Principled but in love a fool.
Muse #3 – In the later part of the series, especially in the couple’s interaction at the Red Cross Refugee Settlement and upon the loss of their home to the Shen Bin, Zhong Yu has quite funny reactions especially in her smile. I thought it is not befitting of the situation and looks totally weird.
Muse #4 – Their ending is a happy one, whereby they are re-united. Their eventual settlement in Singapore is befitting and expected especially for a diplomat. My only grouse, Zhong Yu never seems to learn her lessons of being the temperamental lady of leisure especially at the poor husband.
Zhong Xiu (portrayed by Zhang Nan) as the youngest and a spoilt child. Loved by both parents and family, she is used to the ease of luxury bestowed on her. When facing the rejection of Tang Feng Wu, she breaks down but picks herself up without much of her ego. When more difficult times come knocking, she rises to the occasion. Her love interest Lu Pei is a little understated and the character is not really eye-catching especially in lieu of the 2 excellent brothers-in-law. His later “sacrifices” being the assassin and eventual flight army is too little, too late to provide an impression of the character. Zhong Xiu’s altercations early on with Zhong Yu is expected as their characters are both direct and always want to have the final say. Their sarcastic comments to each other are often ladled with deep concerns.
Muse #1 – Zhang Nan as the actress is quite believable in portraying a spoilt young lady of leisure, immersing herself in Shanghai’s high society. I like the character at the beginning. However, in the later part of the series upon their suffering at the Japanese invasion and losing their businesses and home, she is still the naïve young lady who is prone to crying. It gets a little cringy to empathise with her in view of all the sufferings of war.
When watching the series, I fell in love with all their beautiful fashion especially the classic qipao or cheongsam. No words can be used to identify how beautiful these are. The 3 sisters also wear slightly different style of qipao. Zhong Ling with the more traditional simple types, Zhong Yu with the bolder fashion with bigger geometrical prints, while Zhong Xiu wears the qipao with laces and puffs representing the girlie style. Personally, I think Qin Lan carries through the qipao very well. Matching the qipao with a sweater or the cover is simply elegant. While the qipao accentuates the body shape nicely, it is not very forgiving with even a little bit of bulging stomach. In the meantime, I shall go online to search for more “forgiving” qipao to wear. 😀
Another thing that I observed is the very opulence depicted in the series – big mansion, cars, tens of servants for the rich Shanghainese. And the rich society socialises within their community, hardly expanding beyond that. In fact, it is the looming uncertainty of war that pushes them to take a hard stance to mix.
One funny thing that I also find is the hairstyle given to the characters. It looks so difficult to put on and not realistic! I really wonder whether these are the type of hairstyle the high society of Shanghai puts on during those historical period. 😀
With Shanghai as the base of the series, I find the backdrop interesting when it comes to the old quarters eg international settlement, British quarters, French concession. Even in current developed Shanghai, you can still see remnants of the architecture and its link to these foreigners. Another eye-catching items to watch out for are the props. Luxurious antiques, cabinets, fixtures and furniture. So beautiful. A great pity that so much has been lost throughout the war.
The series also take a serious jab at the Kuomintang party, especially as the corrupted party with officials betraying the nation during the critical period.
Series is fast-paced, with well written storylines. The focus is on family – carrying on the legacy of the family, trusting each other, staying together to get through the crisis. The love pairing is interesting enough for the daughters.
The early part of the series is actually good and deserving of a higher score. Unfortunately, I really got lost at the last 5 episodes of the series. In HBO Asia, the series end at 40-episode while the original is supposedly 45 episodes. There seems to be major disconnects in some scenes with a lot of loose ends which could not be tied.
One glaring loose end is the endings for some of the earlier characters. One major perplexing ending that I do not understand is Ying Ru (the Yi matriarch). In the 40-episodes, I could not find the ending for her! It is as if she vanishes into thin air. I repeated a few scenes to really assess what actually happened to the character, and obviously to no avail. It is such a waste as the character is really interesting. In the midst of the series, I was so looking forward to her development with Wang Jian Chi as there seems to be something simmering between the two, albeit very subtly.
Another perplexing ending is Yi Zhong Jie and Nie Fu’s pairing. Nie Fu’s character brings out the worse in a woman, always longing for her love ie Zhong Jie. And I got really lost when she asked when Zhong Jie will return when it is informed that he has probably perished in duty.
Well – if you do not mind such glaring loose ends, the series is an interesting watch especially for a difference in mood during the republican period of China. Opulence, corruption, shock of the war, the international exposure.