Saturday, September 6, 2014

Review of Chu Han Chuan Qi

The Chu Han Contention, the story of the struggle for supremacy between two factions of a rebellion that resulted in the rise of the Han dynasty, is one of the great epics of China. It features a huge ensemble of complex characters, shifting alliances, and stunning battles that determined the course of Chinese history and became the sources for several idioms, folk tales and national legends. As such, it has been the subject of numerous TV series and films. I already have one of both, and my purchase of 2012's Legend of Chu and Han marks the first time I have procured a TV series about an historical period that I already have covered. Why not? After all, I have made the pilgrimage and all.

Me at Han GaoZu ChangLing (top) and HongMen (bottom)

It's also one of the longest historical TV series in my possession. Prior to ordering, I had read online of skepticism as to whether the history of the Chu Han Contention could really provide enough material to stretch into 80 episodes without taking significant liberties. I'm pleased to say that it was actually generally true to the source material, with only a few, mostly non-obstructive fictional bits of dramatic garnish thrown in. In fact, my other (and shorter) series about the same period, 2003's The Story of the Han Dynasty (which I am using as the standard henceforth), had left out quite a bit of the historically very detailed story. Legend of Chu and Han, on the other hand, covers all the bases, at least within the rebellion/contention period itself. If anything, they could have gone on a little longer (I'll get to that in a bit).

The scale of the series is also enhanced with the deeper treatment of the Qin side of the conflict; nearly all the characters in that camp are given a much larger slice of screen time, instead of turning them into caricatures or human plot devices. Zhang Han and Sima Xin, especially. A bit of license was taken with the whole (seemingly entirely fictional) Qin princess subplot, however, but it was not as bad as some romantic fiction I have seen in other series.

Lead characters are generally cast well. While there were some concerns online about whether idol Peter Ho could take on the role of Xiang Yu, I thought he did a good job with the brooding, stubborn warrior type. Come to think of it, I have only seen him play this role, specifically as Yang SiLang in 2006's Young Warriors of the Yang Clan and Lv Bu in 2010's Three Kingdoms. The eyebrows and hair helped with the "tiger look" too. As expected, Chen DaoMing also did well playing Liu Bang's flawed good guy role.

One character I liked a lot was that of Fan Zeng, played by Sun HaiYing. Strategists in Chinese TV tend to be articulate pontificators, whereas he would fumble and gesticulate now and then, yet maintaining dignity and wisdom in his portrayal. Even a little humor, like when he almost tripped while sizing up Liu Bang and Zhang Liang from a distance. Zhang Liang, his counterpart played by Huo Qing, was a little more traditional in that role, but still written and portrayed well. Members of Liu's Pei County gang was also given expanded roles, and a good deal of time is spent early on with introducing them and their relationship with Liu. Zhou Bo and Guan Ying were not only included, but had significant screen time, and Xiao He's screen time and importance was increased a lot (as should be the case).

Lv Zhi was written well too; a credible case for why she turned out so ruthless was offered in this series. Qin Lan, who also happens to be a real looker, did a good job portraying her transition. Conversely -- and this is not to justify her eventual fate -- consort Qi was portrayed as being not as innocent as she is seen historically. Connecting her to Battle of Dingtao, incidentally, is actually a good example of the keen sense of the writers. Another female character given more importance and time was Consort Bo; while a bit of license was taken with her early story, the writers did justice to her significance for the Han dynasty. Consort Cao was also given a much bigger role, although I doubt that this was necessary or even historically accurate. Overall, though, excellent writing that manages to fill 80 episodes without dilly-dallying.

Costumes and sets in the series are top-class, and armor/weapon design is very good. While the CGI battle/siege "bird's eye" scenes look a little, well, CGI, close-up battle scenes are executed well. The frequent focus on bloody soldier-to-soldier engagements and actual attack and defence techniques adds to the grittiness and realism of the war epic. The occasional focus on individual stories extended beyond the battlefield too. This may have not been executed perfectly all the time, however. For example, one thing that later became a sort of inside joke for me was the noticeably repeated use of two particular very recognizable extras in a number of different minor speaking roles.

Cinematography is overall extremely good, and I loved the inclusion of deep focus and tracking shots, including those on the battlefield. Thankfully, one of my Chinese war film/TV peeves -- wire fu -- was nowhere to be found.

It was impossible to not notice that English translation for subtitles had quite a bit of Engrish. Different episodes' subtitles seem to have been handled by different translators, because the same scene ending one episode and starting another often had different subtitles for the same lines. There were also some awkward machine translations that the editors didn't look at closely enough; for example, "韩国" kept getting translated literally, as opposed to in the historical context, which resulted in the odd situation of Zhang Liang trying his best to restore "Korea" in 206 BCE.

One thing I would have really liked is for the ending to have been less awkward. It would have been better to just end after Wei River with the coronation and an epilogue, because what happened after is a whole 'nother TV series (on that note, does anyone have a freaking clue as to where I can buy or otherwise get my hands on an English-subbed copy/stream of Da Feng Ge?). Also, the final battles that culminated in GaiXia were not quite historically accurate; Yu Ji, for example, was not used as bait by Han Xin, and there was no "song attack" either. Considering this, I have to wonder if the crew were under pressure to wrap things up earlier than anticipated. Anyway, this will only bother history geeks like me. Otherwise, Legend of Chu and Han is a winner, and I strongly recommend it.


  1. I also loved the series and yours is the first post I have been able to read that is not from 2013.

    1. Well, mine is also pretty old. I have not had time to watch Chinese historical TV series in a long time. :-(