The Executioner (刀下留人)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 26 episodes
Producer: Law Chun Ngok
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Kenny Wong as Yip Sheung Luk
Maggie Shiu as Fa Yui Hung
Katy Kung as Chuk Siu Moon
Matt Yeung as Chek Chi Chau
Joel Chan as Sima Chau
Rachel Kan as Chek Ching Ha
Hugo Ng as Lee Chi Sing
Akina Hong as Consort Wan
Stanley Cheung as Emperor Chenghua
Jess Sum as the Empress
and Glen Lee, Elaine Yiu, Bowie Wu, Law Lok Lam, Roxanne Tong, Jimmy Au, etc.
What became the drama to fill in the final hole of the year became one of the most well-written and meaningful TVB series of the year. What a pity that this series aired right after the TVB anniversary awards which means it’s cast didn’t get a stab at the awards during the hype. By the time, the awards roll around next year, I’m sure we’ll have long forgotten about this series. I was so close to giving this series 4.5 stars, but realized the only reason I stayed away from the drama was due to the title of the series. I mean it’s the last thing I want to hear during the holiday season and springing into the new year. TVB’s titles are always either too long, flowery, and unnecessarily creative or too dull. The Executioner falls into the latter category.
The Executioner encompasses all the elements of a good series and this is not limited to having a well-devised and appropriately-paced plot from beginning to end. It’s also one of the fewer series that are character-driven with a good amount of foreshadowing, suspense, and mystery that keeps you engaged while the characters, along with yourself, unravels several secrets about one another.
The story takes place in the capital city of the Ming Dynasty during Emperor Chenghua’s reign. The main characters, Kenny and Maggie, are complete opposites: Maggie helps mothers in welcoming newborns to life while Kenny is an executioner that ends a criminal’s life. Being the most altruistic and optimistic person anyone can know, Maggie is the opposite of Kenny, who carries a dark, eerie, and unapproachable air wherever he goes.
The series does an excellent job of exploring beyond the superficiality of what a character does for living. It goes deeper into digging how an executioner (Kenny) isn’t a cold-blooded killer, but he goes to length to understand and grants every criminal their one last wish. It shows how a prostitute (Rachel) isn’t all about the superficial: money, appearance, and freeloading off some wealthy guy. Rather, she does it and sacrifices it for her family. She is childlike cute when she’s seen eating happily in the first scene she shared with Kenny. That’s all it takes to make her happy. Despite being an imperial guard, Joel wishes that he lived the simple life of a magician where he can put a smile on everyone’s face and call it a day. Matt, despite joining forces with Hugo’s people later on, still has a soft side in him where his innocence can be revived by someone special like Katy. The nuances that’s portrayed are very well-developed and not pretentious at all.
Another perk to celebrate is how many C and D-lister TVB stars had a chance to shine and showoff their talents here, most notably, Matt who was mostly casted in perverted, bad boy roles, Katy who is generally the super rebellious or super sweet little sister of some main lead, and Rachel who has played a variety of nameless, ke-le-fe roles. Matt and Katy is easily the second leads here, although it’s tough to say since most of the supporting cast had an adequate amount of screen time and character development.
On the other hand, Elaine who is usually the first supporting actress has been demoted to be almost a guest star, who appears every now and then. Despite the small amount of screen time, her character here garners more respect than either Raising the Bar and Captain of Destiny did, which favored her in no way. Roxanne Tong, who is deemed to be pretty and who TVB promoted briefly in Come Home Love actually had the shortest amount of screen time even though it was Katy who served as her maid and she could’ve easily had more attention. The oddest thing is that she had a grand entrance that amounted to nothing later on.
Characterization and Performances
Kenny Wong. Knowing that Kenny was the main lead, that was an automatic turnoff for me. While he’s always been a solid supporting actor, he simply lacks the charisma to lead a drama. And I still stand by what I say that he’s not charismatic, but also because of that reason, he was the perfect fit for this role as someone who has grit, principles, and doesn’t need external validation for his actions. While he has his own story of how he became an executioner, it’s an interesting story that I won’t spoil for everyone here. After all, unraveling the characters’ past is something I applaud the writers for doing well and a lot of here. The details aren’t just served upfront.
Maggie Shiu. Some people say when one is altruistic, kind, and happy, they are automatically more attractive. Maggie definitely lives up to that here and despite being 50, she still looks 30 (only with a few under-eye wrinkles when zoomed up front). Maggie’s character had the perfect balance of being kind without being a pushover as seen by her influence on Kenny over time. While everyone is paranoid and distrusting of Kenny’s background and coldness, she was logically skeptical. I have to admit that even I didn’t trust Kenny in the beginning.
Her unintentional bickering with Kenny is both entertaining and helps build character development. She radiates the right amount of optimism to counter-balance Kenny’s cautiousness of political conspiracies.
Many were disappointed and shocked at Maggie’s death and I applaud the writers for going through with it since female leads can never die in TVB’s book of fictional writing. While Maggie’s death demonstrates how she has positively impacted so many lives in the city, at the end, I actually found her death unnecessary, too impulsive, and completely not worth it. In hindsight, it was sloppily decided by Hugo to frame her as the one who murdered the Empress and Akina blindly agreed. I was hoping that Akina will at least come to her senses and call the execution off, but she didn’t. If Maggie’s death deepened Hugo and Akina’s list of sins, it would’ve made sense. After all the unborn babies that Akina indirectly murdered over the years, all she did was rescue a baby at the end to redeem herself. Isn’t that too easy?
Maggie’s character proves that good people don’t always get the happy endings, but she got what she deserved: the respect, gratitude and sympathy of all those whom she has helped over the years.
Katy Kung. When Katy isn’t playing someone’s little sister, she is playing someone’s maid. Here, she does the latter, but don’t be fooled by her status as she has a loyal, principled, and strong character. Katy’s performance is the most solid it has ever been and she has tackled all her emotional scenes very well. It would be wishful thinking that she is ready to take a leading role even and can even be the next Linda Chung, but with a spunky vibe.
Matt Yeung. Perhaps the most unpredictable character with the most ups and downs, I foresaw Matt’s lowest point coming following all his newfound success, pride, and slight arrogance. It was even predictable that his friend will deceive him in a business deal, but him murdering the city scumbag wasn’t something I expected. Though the annoying scumbag deserved it, Matt’s method of torture sent chills down my spine and having studied peoples’ bones and weak points before, why am I be surprised that he resorted to that method? If an executioner can understand all the pain points to make death easier for the criminal, of course, they knew how to make it difficult for them too.
Matt is a solid actor and I’m glad he has such a meaty role to prove himself. TVB wants to promote him again after a failed attempt during his prime years due to negative press. Matt has that energy in him where he can play both protagonist and antagonist roles equally well, just like Ruco.
Joel Chan. He first appears in town as a happy, optimistic, and lively magician who brings hope to people around the city. He befriends Maggie and Kenny instantly and secretly protects them on many occasions without revealing who he is. Eventually, he is revealed as an imperial guard who disguises as a magician so he can search for and protect the Emperor’s newborn son. He has all traits of skilled hero: patriotic, loyal, and a bit slick in his methods. As an orphan, he is also childhood friends with Katy and has protected her on many occasions.
He was my favorite character as well as the lighthouse of the series. Most of the characters goes through many obstacles as does his, but he has that ability to switch between identities like a chameleon. There is a reason why you can’t stay mad at him for his scandal with that wealthy heiress years ago. 😉
Rachel Kan. Perhaps the character who has the most unfortunate ending, she also has herself to blame. Her love for her younger brother, Matt, was touching at first, but it quickly got weary as her sacrifices for him are endless. Despite being a prostitute, Rachel doesn’t mind sacrificing as long as Matt is successful and safe. Her ability to withstand BDSM methods by her clients demonstrate the lengths she is willing to go for her only living family member.
Rachel has proven her talents before, but I applaud her for her ability to inject cuteness even during her most unfortunate and lowest points, including her crying moments.
Akina Hong. It was a bit sickening to learn that the young Emperor promoted a woman more than twice his age as his concubine (and this is according to real life history). The fact that Akina was casted to play the part eased me a bit since she still looks youthful and has that refined air to her. In fact, she looks more like a royal than did Jess, who played the annoying and jealous Empress.
I was quite intrigued by Akina’s character until the last five episodes when she resorted to nothing but another woman who yearned to keep the Emperor wrapped in her arms. She was motivated by fear and partially by love and affection, but if she was going to be evil, why did she only half-ass it? I wasn’t impressed by the writers attempt to redeem her character — and she shouldn’t be redeemable for being the mastermind of murdering all the unborn babies.
Hugo Ng. Although he appears early on in the series and has a great influence on the government and Emperor’s decision, it wasn’t until more than midway into the series did his character start picking up momentum. He wasn’t the most evil I’ve seen and seemed to be ambitious just cause, but it’s refreshing to see Hugo again. Also, his execution on the spot was almost a joke and too convenient. What are the chances that Kenny showed up in the right palace at the right time and how did the Emperor know Kenny was an executioner? I almost laughed.
Rarely do we see a character-driven plot by TVB these days. Within these deeply-explored characters, there are also mysteries to be unraveled, secrets to be discovered, and enough suspense to keep you tuning into the next episode. It does has a few flaws here and there that can be overlooked and the story is a bit darker than the average TVB series, but there isn’t an illogical loophole that the plot can’t tie together.
Also, I liked that despite being an ancient series, it doesn’t have the pretentious palatial drama that seems to find its way into every TVB series these days. While Jess and Akina did play catfight, Jess had every right to be angry for losing to a Consort who was twice the Emperor’s age. You would really wonder what went wrong there.
The acting is absolutely solid all around. Discovering that supporting stars like Matt, Katy, and Rachel can hold their own ground is a like discovering a diamond in the rough.
This is a solid and underrated series (most probably because the cast doesn’t have big names) and unless you are just not interested for no reason, it has an engaging story all the way to the end.