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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

Laugh Riot: Watching TVB’S E.U.

 EU

When I visited Singapore in the summer of 2009, I was delighted to have the opportunity to watch English-subtitled Hong Kong movies in theaters. One of those films that I went to see during my trip abroad was Turning Point, a 2009 undercover cop flick helmed by the prolific and underrated director, Herman Yau. Mostly out of the loop when it comes to the day-to-day pop culture of Hong Kong, I was surprised as heck that Young and Dangerous veteran Michael Tse was featured prominently on the poster alongside Anthony Wong and Francis Ng. More surprising to me was that not only was it a starring role for Tse, but that Turning Point was created expressly for him — that is, his character was meant to be the film’s primary draw. How the heck did this happen?

Well, as many of you might know, Turning Point is a prequel/spin-off of a popular TVB show called E.U. (”Emergency Unit”). Michael Tse played a supporting role as Laughing Gor, a triad heavy who ended up stealing the show out from under the leads and becoming the most popular character in the process.

Upon learning this, I really wanted to see the original show, and while television and DVD stores in Singapore proved fruitless, I hit the jackpot in Genting, Malaysia, as one of the stores (in a casino, no less) had an official DVD set of the entire series. Running thirty episodes, I was a little skeptical that I would be able to muster the strength to start, let alone finish watching the series. After all, my previous commitments to certain Korean dramas have always been a chore even if I actually liked the shows in question. To be honest, shortened series like Dexter and Curb Your Enthusiasm are more my speed.

Well, I had some free time, and on a whim, I popped in the first disc (five episodes) and have been watching them on and off for the last few days. I don’t know when I’ll complete my viewing, but I’m definitely gearing up to write a full review once I finish the series. But until that time, I thought I might share some initial thoughts about the program that may eventually form the basis for a more formal critique of the show. Some of you may have seen Turning Point, but not E.U., so maybe I can help fill in some of the gaps.

As I said earlier, Michael Tse is not meant to be the star of the series. He’s not even the third, fourth, or fifth lead as the series begins — those roles seem to go to Michael Miu, Sammul Chan, Ron Ng, Kathy Chow, and Elanne Kong. Heck, early on, it seems like the wiry Stephen Chow veteran, Lam Chi-Sin, plays a more important character than Laughing.

And yet, slowly, but surely, Laughing emerges — both in terms of screen time and presence — as a sort of undercover leading man, for lack of a better term. For those who only know Michael Tse from his supporting roles in the occasional Andrew Lau film, you might have a tough time figuring out what the attraction is. However, after a few episodes, it’s not hard at all for me to see why audiences fell in love with Laughing. Funny, unpredictable, and oddly righteous, he’s basically the kind of character that Francis Ng would play if E.U. were a feature film. That’s not meant as a sleight to Michael Tse, but just a “quick hit” descriptor. Tse thoroughly owns the role of Laughing — able to be magnetic and charming onscreen, even when his character is acting a little weird.

To tell the truth, watching the series after Turning Point only exacerbates the problems I had with the prequel film. You don’t have to have seen a single episode of E.U. to know that Laughing gets overshadowed in his own prequel film. It’s not just that Anthony Wong and Francis Ng are simply “better” than Michael Tse in terms of acting chops and/or name recognition, it’s that the script for that film simply doesn’t allow Tse to show off the kind of charisma he demonstrates on the TV show. The main problem with that film is that even though it’s meant as a kind of Laughing Gor Begins, the writers of the movie had nothing to do with E.U. and seem to fundamentally misunderstand the appeal of the character (and, as I’m finding out, they’ve retconned Laughing’s  backstory). The enigmatic Laughing has a swagger and personality in the show, but in the movie he’s a man on the run who seems almost like a blank everyman.

But back to E.U. — if the show is not expressly about Laughing, what’s it all about? Well, it’s actually the third installment  of The Academy TV series. I did not know this, so I had a very different impression of the show than fans of that series would.  Without the foreknowledge of the earlier series, the show seems to be about two gay police officers — Lee Pak-Kiu (Sammul Chan), a fussy, by-the-book neat freak, and Chung Lap-Man (Ron Ng), the sloppy and more butch, rebellious one — they bust perps by day in their respective jobs and come home with each other at night. The two bicker like a married couple and dote on each other in the same manner. As one might expect in a mainstream cop drama, it turns out that the two officers are not gay (or brothers), but two really good friends (as I said, viewers who watched the previous show in the Academy series would already know this! But for me, the ambiguity was definitely there, even if I knew on some level it wouldn’t pan out that way).

The other plot line involves Kong Sai-Hau (Michael Miu), an ex-con getting out of a Taiwanese prison after taking the fall for his buddy To Yik-Tin (Lam Lee) who’s become a triad boss. He’s married to Sam (Kathy Chow), who takes a liking to Hau and tries to help him reconnect with his estranged daughter, You You (Elanne Kong). She happens to be a counterfeiter of DVDs, who lives with a low-level triad named Speaker (the very funny Lam Chi-Sin), who just so happens to be a snitch for Chan Lap-Man!

As I quickly found out, the show is built on coincidence after coincidence — the way in which people bump into each other at fortuitous times seems to make Hong Kong look like a tiny village rather than a major metropolis. It amused me, but your mileage will vary.

I’ll hold back my full comments when I’ve finished the series, but even early in the show, I have to say that what I really like about this series is that THINGS ACTUALLY HAPPEN. That may seem like a low threshold for enjoyment, but I can’t even count the number of Asian shows (mostly Korean) that I’ve watched when absolutely nothing happens or stupid things happen because characters act like chess-pieces not real human beings. What’s refreshing about E.U. is that characters ACT on the information they receive — if they want to see someone, they see them; if they want to talk to someone, they talk to them. Things that I expected to get stretched out over the course of several episodes or even an entire season get addressed and/or resolved immediately. The show doesn’t spin its wheels much; there’s a real sense of progression, and I love it!

That’s all for now, but I’ll let you know how it turns out when I finish the show…sometime prior to 2011!

6 Responses to “Laugh Riot: Watching TVB’S E.U.”

  1. kylle Says:

    Laughing’s fan here, and I must say I’m very glad you found your way to EU after watching Turning Point — most people who watched the movie first would not have bothered, given how lacklustre it was!

    As you might have expected, Turning Point was a huge disappointment to most fans of Laughing. Not only did the script give Michael Tse little chance to *act* much less shine like he did in EU — given how movie Laughing was absolutely bland and void of personality — it totally massacred his backstory by making him a triad member in the first place. Adding insult to injury, it appears that the movie scriptwriters simply could not fathom an undercover cop that did not spend his days agonizing and angsting and being torn over divided loyalties!

    But the appeal of EU’s Laughing was precisely that he was a cop first and foremost, who had a bright future as a highly gifted student but made great sacrifices and never wavered in all his years of being undercover, who went about his duties with ruthlessness and flair! Set against all the usual brooding angsty undercovers that the movie industry has thrown at us all these years, Laughing was like a breath of fresh air… and it was really painful when the movie scriptwriters saw fit to ignore the original creators’ vision and destroy it like that.

    And after all the glowing praises of his performance in EU, poor Michael Tse had to endure unfair reviews about his acting in Turning Point when it was the scriptwriters (and director) that were mostly at fault — IMHO Michael Tse’s EU version of Laughing could have gone up against Anthony Wong’s and Francis Ng’s “acting chops” anytime.

    Well, I could go on but I probably shouldn’t let this be even longer than it is :p So anyway thanks for sharing your thoughts so far, and I’ll be looking forward to your finishing EU sometime and letting us know what you think :)

  2. Yinique Says:

    “Without the foreknowledge of the earlier series, the show seems to be about two gay police officers — Lee Pak-Kiu (Sammul Chan), a fussy, by-the-book neat freak, and Chung Lap-Man (Ron Ng), the sloppy and more butch, rebellious one — they bust perps by day in their respective jobs and come home with each other at night.”

    Haha, now *that* is a show I’d totally watch!

    I haven’t seen the series, but did happen to catch Turning Point the other day. Can’t help but thinking they could’ve done something closer to Once Upon a Time in a Triad Society rather than go all Infernal Affairs emo with Laughing Gor’s character.

    Btw, if you’re still in the mood for some Lee Byung Hun, Dramafever is going to have “Iris” online after Feb 11th ;)

  3. QQ Says:

    I’m excited that there will be fan crossover review of the tv show from movie person’s POV (I’ve found that people who follow HK movies avidly tend to avoid HK tv shows). EU happened to be great surprise for me 2009 as I didn’t like the previous 2 installments at all. Laughing Ge ended being my most beloved TV character (after Chai Gau in Rosy Business) for the year. Can’t wait to hear more/discuss when you are done!

  4. Timo Says:

    Retconning the TV show or not, Herman Yau’s movie outing by itself contains more craftmanship and acting prowess (thanks to Wong & Ng) than the whole of E.U., no wait, a whole annual TVB series output combined.

    Granted, I liked E.U. in the sort of “braindead entertainment” sort of way, but as with any other modern-setting TVB show, it’s very difficult to take seriously and I can’t really see it withstanding any sort of in-depth critical comment.

    Maybe it’s a cultural thing, I dunno…

  5. Sanjuro Says:

    Timo, I actually agree with you that Herman Yau’s film “contains more craftsmanship and acting prowess […] than the whole of E.U.” and that E.U is “very difficult to take seriously.”

    However, what’s become increasingly interesting to me as I watch the show is that I’m starting to ask myself, “What if we DID take this show seriously? What would it mean to take the show on its own terms?” As you probably know, many of the situations and subplots of E.U. are ludicrous on any number of levels, but somehow, I actually find it kind of fascinating. Hopefully, when I’ve finished the series (I’m pretty far along at the moment), I’ll have something interesting/amusing to say about the show. Heck, maybe I’ll revisit Turning Point, too, if I get the chance.

  6. Damn you, Kozo! Says:

    […] threw their hat back into the movie arena with this “prequel” to their hit drama E.U., which tells the backstory of Michael Tse’s undercover cop/gangster character Laughing Gor. […]

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