So frankly I know that I’m really not the type of person who perseveres with any of the spontaneous ‘great ideas’ I embark upon. Nevertheless, recently I decided to ‘return to my roots’ and pick up some Hong Kong dramas again, given my Cantonese has gotten a little rusty and the influx of intriguing Korean dramas lately has left me a little overwhelmed by choice.
As a direct consequence, with no-one to really gush about these HK dramas to and time to spare – or more accurately, time I refuse to use ‘unproductively’ by just sleeping – I figured, there’s no harm in trying my hand at a little ‘drama recapping’. After all, I’ve always been one to ramble and I’ll rarely give up the opportunity to do just that!
Once Upon A Song (AKA Fantasy Love Song 201314)
Once Upon A Song is a HKTV drama touted as a one of the first, if not the ‘first musical in the history of Hong Kong television’ and a ‘touching love story’. Synopses describe the plot as following the love triangle between a young CEO and two musically-gifted (spoiler alert! although in all fairness this is strongly implied in Episode 1) half-sisters.
Given it’s genre and compared to many of the other dramas announced for release by HKTV, the response towards and appeal of Once Upon A Song may be relatively modest. Nevertheless, with my own love for all things musical and romance and captivated by its aesthetics (a drastic improvement upon the cinematography of run-of-the-mill HK dramas I personally think), I decided to watch the first few episodes to weigh in.
Episode 1 Recap
We open to a landscape of extravagant white architecture by the seaside and just five seconds into our opening episode and I’m impressed. I’m assuming this is somewhere in Okinawa and whilst it does seem a tad CGI-touched-up, the sounds of the ocean and gentle piano BGM have got me, I admit.
Surely at least, against this backdrop, our leading man falls into a reverie of his own. This is HONG LING HEI (Kelvin Kwan), who shall be referred to by English name KEITH for convenience, and in voiceover he asks that a particular somebody never forget him (as in ever, for all of this lifetime).
He vows to never let go and a female replies that what she really wants is for him to do just that – to leave her and return to his rightful position as CEO. Being without him is what would make her happiest. Rightttt and so they all say.
Pensively, Keith sits at a table covered in fancy attire. As we hear his proposal, a song filled with undertones of longing plays in the background. We see him dressed in a very different white tux, regarding a silver ring and then it’s a back in time we go.
One year ago. Along busy streets we get our first glimpse of our heroine, YAN CHI CHING (Evelyn Choi). Stopping in front of a bear-costumed figure to take a call from her aunt, she unknowingly finds herself within the radius of our hero. Coincidences, coincidences. Whether these characters are acquainted with one another at this point in time however, we don’t yet find out.
As Chi Ching passes a TV screen mounted upon the side of a city building though, she does show recognition for YAN JADE (Kate Yeung), the idol gracing our screens. Given the disc she holds in her hand at the same idol’s fan signing, it can be assumed, she’s a fan. Also a spectator to the event? Keith.
Night falls and two cars pull up the drive to a mansion. As the occupants step out, Keith greets his grandfather warmly. He fist-bumps friend Kevin and the group, along with Keith’s mother, make their way inside. Propped-up family photos suggest this is Jade’s residence and her mother’s entrance to welcome the guests affirms this. In the pleasantries which ensue, she reveals that her son Jonathon is abroad with business and Jade, currently busy with dance practice.
Enquiring if Keith would like to say hello, she adds that it would be a helpful reminder to Jade to take a break. Immediately Keith’s grandfather expresses concern for the idol’s health, hinting that as the new company CEO, Keith could easily take measures to prevent heartache for all, by marrying Jade. Kevin fidgets and Jade’s mother averts her gaze.
Back at her aunt’s dessert shop, Chi Ching insists that her injured foot is fine and she doesn’t need to be coddled. At this her aunt retorts that she’s plenty aware and her concerns lie elsewhere. Behind the scenes, Chi Ching’s Uncles Do, Re and Mi eavesdrop and cringing, best friend Karlie watches on as Chi Ching’s aunt dishes out the reprimands for Chi Ching’s use of her delivery as an excuse to drop by Jade’s fan signing. Exasperated, her aunt exits and the uncles scramble to offer her desserts to cool her temper, haha.
It’s day once more and Keith pulls up to his newly-inherited company to jump straight into a meeting about the company’s present and future plans. At Jade’s concert he’s informed by Kevin that all preparations are complete. Could this be his proposal after all? Keith settles in for the show, Jade does her thing on-stage and across the room we see Chi Ching and Karlie, ever the faithful fans, in attendance also.
As Chi Ching steps out of the auditorium to take a call from Uncle Mi, Keith once again, also happens to step out with his phone. He walks past the costumed bear and does a double-take to realise it may merely be a figment of his imagination. Doing so leaves him face-to-face (at last?) with our heroine and the two exchange looks (his sheepish, hers almost confusingly disdainful?) before returning to their respective seats inside.
Turns out Keith hadn’t planned a surprise proposal (at least we’ve dodged that cliché); rather, as Jade gives her thankyou speech, the surprise is revealed to be a guest appearance by her dad. He plays the piano, she sings Eason Chan’s Shall We Talk and Chi Ching cries; in her perspective it’s her on-stage with her dad and we hear part of her singing also, as she plays the piano during a delivery.
Jade : “Radiant moonlight, why do you shine on the earthly paradise again?
I’d rather hide in the park than drink my soup
Allowing my gaze to remain on the corner of a comic
Why does looking at my mother seem like a punishment?
Children only hope for fun, adults only know of the future
Why don’t we comprehend the need to work harder to sympathize with one another?”
Chi Ching : “If silence is golden, why do we yearn for love
I’d rather stand before the speakers, busy smiling
Adults only hope for success, lovers only hear promises
Why don’t we comprehend the need to work harder to cherish one another?
The praying mantis confronts the cricket; the echoes are also like an illusion
Shall we talk, shall we talk
Even if your jaw begins to tremble, don’t tell a lie
Say it with me, say aloud with me that in the end we can become estranged
Who’s afraid of speaking? Who will be saddened by the lonely tango?
It’s hard enough for us to get together, must we avoid baring ourselves?
If the sounds of the heart really have a healing effect, who fears to reveal even more?”
(Translated lyrics found online)
The store owner praises her talents to which Chi Ching is thankful but she also asks that her slacking on the job be kept a secret from her aunt. Unbeknownst to Chi Ching, outside someone has recorded her solo (and the impossibility of this, I guess we must cast into the vast library of ‘feats only possible in dramas’ LOL).
As she leaves the store, Uncle Do calls with news that Cheong Tao Group (Keith’s company) is knocking on their doorstep looking to acquire their land and negotiations will need to be had with the CEO himself. Seeing her opportunity to sight Jade, Chi Ching heads out with Uncle Do to the company; as she reasons, Jade and Keith have been declared an official couple by the media, so certainly she’d be able to run into the CEO by locating Jade.
Meanwhile in their car, Jade asks that Keith not misunderstand their dinner plans. She merely hopes to thank him for his surprise at her concert. Likewise, Keith assures her, his surprise was merely out of his duty to his contracted celebrities, to help them build their best possible public images.
From her taxi, Chi Ching succeeds in spotting Keith and Jade and she attempts to intercept the couple by running in front of their car (why she’d think that’d be a smart idea, I have no clue). After narrowly avoiding hitting Chi Ching, Keith finds himself once again hallucinating that he sees the costumed bear. This time his swerving leads to a collision into a road rail.
Chi Ching quickly calls the police and flustered, Keith attempts to explain his situation to the officer who arrives. With neither Chi Ching or Uncle Do able to attest to his sighting of the bear however, Keith finds himself the suspect of substance abuse. Increasingly agitated at the false charges, Keith pleads with the officer, in the process, pushing him over and being charged instead with assault.
At the hospital, Chi Ching is relieved to hear that Jade has sustained no major injuries from the accident and it’s at this point that it becomes pretty clear she’s not merely a fan but nor is she a sasaeng. On her way to find Karlie, she bumps into Keith and can’t help but snark that for someone of his calibre it seems foolish for him to be a drug user. His vehement denial gets her to concede that fine, sure, he’s not! Not got his fly done up that is. Ha!
Karlie’s insistence that Chi Ching at least pay a quick visit to Jade before they leave – as she was the idol’s life-saviour after all – works and Jade gets up from her hospital bed in seeming recognition of Chi Ching’s name. When asked if they’ve met before however, Chi Ching quickly proffers that she’s merely an avid fan and drags Karlie away.
On their way out, Chi Ching is bumped into by Jade’s mother who hastily apologises before proceeding on her way. Chi Ching’s father on the other hand, pauses to pick up Chi Ching’s dropped phone. From their interaction, it’s hard to tell if the two keep in touch or if her father even recognises/acknowledges her. Regardless, Chi Ching excuses him knowing he’s in a hurry.
As she walks along the streets she watches news coverage of Jade’s hospital release and thinks back to when she was younger. In her flashback we see her and her birthmother watching her father at a recital. At Chi Ching’s exclamation that it’s her daddy however, her mother shushes her, only able to watch on sadly as her husband is joined by Jade and his other wife on-stage.
It’s thus in a sombre mood that Chi Ching walks past a young man giving out free hugs on the streets. Registering her dejection, he describes his return to Hong Kong from Canada as being a quest to find his roots and emphasises, “the world is full of love, you’re not alone”.
Irritated, Chi Ching asks, “Why should we hug? At birth we’re alone. In death we’re alone. Even after we hug we’d be alone.” Pushing him aside she passes and the young man is left to be hugged by an intercepting stranger.
It’s only after several beats that our naïve Canadian street-hugger realises he’s been robbed and he chases after the thief, only to have his camcorder stolen as well. This time back in the bustling city square, he implores that somebody call the police for him.
Rather than being able to help however, the grandma who approaches him creates a scene, crying that he’s the thief for stealing her cardboard (to cover up) LOL! In his sticky situation, a hand extends a cardigan towards him.
It’s Chi Ching (of course) and noting how despondent the boy looks now, she gives him the hug he had been offering her just earlier. He lights up (cute) and she asks if the sentiment was anything to be so touched by.
He teases that in any case, now she’s smiling again she looks much prettier and then finally formally introduces himself… as Handsome (ha!) but if (we, and) Chi Ching feels too tacky calling him that he says, his Chinese name is CHAN YING JUN (Jason Chan).
At the same time, Keith finds himself patient to a psychologist and even an acupuncturist (the uneasiness with which he regards the needles in his scalp, hahah), to verify his state of health and capacity to be serving as the company CEO. Luckily for him, all is deemed well and he muses that doing community service to absolve the charges held against him should be interesting.
Back at aunt’s dessert shop, all the employees are gathered to watch the news, relieved to hear that when questioned by reporters, Keith’s company representatives had firmly denied they had/would threaten shopkeepers in their attempts to garner acquisition rights.
Chi Ching’s suggestion to celebrate is quickly overturned however, when a series of other recent misfortunes to their neighbouring business owners are brought up. Everyone calls for compensation and Chi Ching sighs that it seems it will take a long time before everything is resolved after all.
Meanwhile, through some sneaky machinations by our bear-costumed friend, Keith lands himself his 100 hours of community service at a local child care. It’s here, whilst painting a mural (well, before he actually even holds his brush anywhere near the wall) that he hears singing in the distance and finds the voice to belong to none other than Chi Ching.
After her mini concert to the children, Chi Ching’s off to run her next errand for a friend. On her way with dog in tow though, she happens upon Ying Jun whose antics today involve a public search for her. Overjoyed at succeeding in his latest venture, he thanks Chi Ching once again and tells her that his renewed faith in the city is all thanks to her.
With the distraction of their exchange, it’s only belatedly that Chi Ching realises that her friend’s dog, Milk Tea, has run off and though DAI WEI GOR (William So) sees a suspiciously familiar dog run past on his way home, by the time he comprehends the situation, his beloved is gone. As witness to Chi Ching’s profuse apologies, Ying Jun hastily steps in to claim responsibility, swearing to be Milk Tea’s replacement.
Readily he agrees to fetching Dai Wei Gor’s slippers, TV remote and newspapers for him and even being his cuddle buddy at night. Hilariously, when Dai Wei Gor gives his final condition – each month he’s paid for mating Milk Tea with other dogs – and Ying Jun, not understanding, exclaims it’s a condition he’s also ready to fulfil, Dai Wei Gor drily cautions Chi Ching that she’s old enough to be wary of who she associates with.
Things are equally problematic for Keith and Jade, with the video of Chi Ching’s Shall We Talk having gone viral. Whilst Keith takes out his frustrations on Kevin, Jade channels her anger into her piano. She’s reassured however, after hearing her father’s advice that the talented need not worry about competing with others but only with themselves.
In spite of his brusque exterior, we also learn that Ying Jun has not only been given a roof over his head but has been hired to work at soft-hearted Dai Wei Gor’s café. Dai Wei Gor jests that Chi Ching should be careful now, walking on the streets, as even he knows she’s a hit online now. Seeing the chance, Karlie probes for praise and tips on her friend’s behalf (as Dai Wei Gor is a renowned musician himself) but the man simply jokes he knows nothing about singing and redirects the conversation.
Sometime later, Keith returns to his mural to find curses against him scrawled across the wall. As Chi Ching strolls by she feigns shock at his paint-job turned calligraphy-practice and insists upon her innocence. That is, until she’s caught, literally red-handed, by Sister Teresa and is ordered to help in painting over her vandalism.
Keith smirks at Chi Ching’s immaturity and advises that she should remember to wash her hands next time. He tells her to find substantiative evidence before making baseless accusations, of his being a heartless business mogul and having pushed a grandmother down the stairs to achieve his ambitions. As he points out, engaging in such bullying and threats wouldn’t be profitable to him.
He takes a seat, per doctor’s orders that his blood sugar levels are low and Chi Ching begrudgingly offers him a candy she usually hands out to the children to ensure they behave. Keith accepts the truce and returns that he’s already fired the responsible company supervisor; he’s also ready and willing to compensate all parties affected by Cheong Tao Group’s acquisition measures.
Upon returning to the task at hand however, the two find bear paw-prints now painted on the wall. Claiming to hate bears, Keith turns the prints into flowers. He studies Chi Ching with interest as she paints butterflies beside the flowers and explains, “where there are flowers, naturally there are butterflies”.
Hours later at aunt’s, the employees once again gather but this time, to praise ‘Chi Ching’s CEO’ for keeping good on his word. They’re interrupted however, by questions from reporters who have identified Chi Ching as the face behind the online hit of a cover. Similar questions irk Jade’s mother whose complaints to her husband – that Chi Ching must be jealous of Jade and is trying to bring her down – are overheard by the star.
Much controversy is instigated online and anti-Jade cafés even begin to crop up. As a means of taking things into her own hands, Jade arranges with Kevin to have Chi Ching invited to a recording session. When the latter enters, she hums Somewhere Over The Rainbow to herself and we see Keith, now almost finished with his mural, regarding the painted butterfly thoughtfully.
Jade arrives shortly after, enquiring as to why Chi Ching didn’t sing Shall We Talk instead, especially as netizens seem to so prefer her rendition over Jade’s. Chi Ching apologises that as a dedicated fan, it was never her intention to be Jade’s competitor and Jade remarks that Chi Ching must just be/always have been jealous.
Her smile dropping immediately, she points out, “You could never like me. Just as I’d never like you either. [Because] it was my Daddy who threw away your mother. You’ve both always been losers. How could you possibly like me? And yet you’re still pretending? How could you not want me to just lose everything and die?”
And to Chi Ching’s protests, cue, enraged b*tch slap.
Having had to watch this episode a few times to put together this recap, I’d say it was a decent first episode, given I rarely, if ever, repeatedly watch an episode of anything. I find the opening sequence and the fact that our story begins from one year ago to be most intriguing and though the general narrative sounds rather trite, I’m pleasantly surprised that I can’t say for certain I know where our story will take us.
My second skim-through of the drama certainly afforded me the opportunity to pick up little details I hadn’t paid much attention to before and allowed me a greater understanding of exactly what was going on. Nevertheless, my one enduring complaint would have to be the time-skips throughout the episode, which aren’t given much context. Being unable to discern whether events where unfolding within the same day, or days or even weeks later, did leave me feeling slightly disorientated.
The relationships between characters (for example, between Chi Ching and Keith, Jade’s parents and Chi Ching and the true feelings between Chi Ching and Jade) also compounded upon this confusion. As it stands, I can’t say I feel any particular emotional connection with the characters on-screen or the plot as a whole; honestly I’m more invested in the implied future romantic conflicts (cliché as they may be) than I am in the clash between the half-sisters which we’re already beginning to see.
Contemplating this, I’d say it probably has to do with my disbelief that one, Chi Ching is aiming to usurp her half-sister’s place and two, that Jade is a hateful character (because it’s too early to really say, in the case of analysing both/any of these characters). In the space of forty-five minutes though, I do think that the drama did well in setting up the overarching premise and introducing most of the primary players to our story.
The musical aspect of the drama so far, has also been commendable in its mostly subtle integration into the plot (granted, I should sound much more enthused that a spontaneous musical number on the street, at the airport or in a shop hasn’t been thrown in yet just for the sake of it); the efforts and skill underpinning both the aspects of singing and dancing are apparent and whilst the acting may mostly be mediocre, it’s not terribly unwatchable.
Perhaps it would be unfair to compare Once Upon A Song to the likes of say Dream High (a nostalgic favourite), Monstar, Step Up or High School Musical but it seems almost inevitable that being tagged a romance and musical, this drama will be redolent of such other titles. It’s quite apparent at the least, that this drama would be much more appealing to, if it isn’t explicitly geared towards appealing to, a younger audience.
Yet, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for these exact two genres; in due time, I’m also both hopeful and relatively confident that things will be fleshed out more for us and I’ll be perfectly honest – if nothing else, this drama can be quite pretty to look at.