As I was getting into The Dead Path by Stephen M. Irwin, I vaguely began wondering whether this was an example of what we might properly call luminous prose. Not, you understand, that the words literally give off light, although that might be useful if ever you wanted to read in the dark. But that the experience of reading it was enlightening (pun intended). As the mild rumination persisted through the page turnings, I reached the conclusion that I’ve read work that was more brilliant — not always something I enjoy unless the consumption of ageing brain cells is actually justified by the story being told. Sadly, too many intellectual books are self-absorbed and intended merely to impress the readers impressed by brilliance for its own sake, or something. But, returning to the original sentence, this book strikes me as a good balance between some excellent prose and a story about ghosts, inklings and the kind of runic stuff we associate with druid tree-hugging types.
On the jacket, I notice another reviewer compares this first novel to the work of that King fellow. I suppose I should admit a prejudice at this point. Although Stephen of that ilk has a good ear for telling a story, he lacks discipline and writes at excessive length. I love his short stories. Some of the ideas are very elegant. But, when he sets his face to writing a novel, he comes from the spirit of the old pulp tradition when authors were paid by the word. I always wait for the Digest version or read the Wikipedia summaries. Whereas Stephen Irwin tells his story very economically and, to my mind, is all the better for it.
Starting off in London, we then switch hemispheres and, in an Australian suburb still retaining its green lung of trees, play the hero-as-boy-and-returning-widower backstory game as the plot thickens. Put simply there seems to be something killing off children over time and it may not be too pleased our hero avoided being one of these victims as a boy. Why did our boy survive? Well, he and some of the more fortunate in his family have some mild supernatural talents. This enables them to see ghosts and, perhaps more importantly, sense when they might be in danger — a useful digital pricking when something wicked their way comes.
I suppose if I wanted to be cruel I could list all the plot ideas that have been well-worked through the pages of horror and supernatural writing like spiders which I first remember encountering back in the 1950s when studying classical mythology including the story of Arachne, and then in novels like The Haunting of Toby Jugg by Dennis Wheatley. In this story, we are back with the idea of the Goblin Spiders who help witches steal children away, this time with the primary familiar being a large shapeshifter called Garnock. The name sometimes refers to those who live by a river flanked by alder trees, much loved in Celtic mythology — one of these happy coincidences much beloved by authors. Yet such explanations in a listing are unhelpful. All they do is allow me to show off a certain encyclopaedic knowledge without advancing us very far in reviewing this book. So let’s content ourselves with a general assertion that, although we may have seen some or most of these ideas elsewhere, The Dead Path ends up being a strikingly original work.
From an early stage it’s fairly clear who’s “responsible” for all the bad stuff, although the why is less obvious until basic research delves into the past and we get the more definitive explanation at the end — villains must always taunt their helpless victims with confessions of their clever wickedness. As a piece of writing, I cannot remember a recent work that has managed to create and sustain such a sense of menace. It’s beautifully done by deft touches in the descriptive language and then, as the person finally breaks into view, we see malevolent effectiveness as opponents are attacked and casually laid low.
So who should hunt this killer? The answer comes when two share the same feature. That they have both escaped the lure? Well, that’s not quite right but, when people have been so close to death, it gives them a bond. They find the way, the path that leads to the cottage. No one says the gingerbread house has to rely on an oven. It can have a grove just outside where the children can sit waiting for their death. A place where the trees can watch. Perhaps even the Green Man could put in an appearance.
Overall, The Dead Path is one of the best supernatural horror novels I’ve read for quite some time and it’s well worth you tracking down a copy.
For those of you who might be tempted to think this man has sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus or some other god better associated with fiction. Stephen Irwin has been writing for some years both as a “conventional” author of fiction and as screenwriter, currently writing for the Australian television drama series, Crosswires. He has paid his dues and, hopefully, seeing the general reaction to this novel, he can be persuaded to write at least one more.
Reality is all in the eye of the beholder. So if you see someone behaving very oddly, how would you interpret the behaviour? An atheist might see a person needing medical attention. A Christian might see someone possessed by Satan and call for an exorcism. A Shamanist might see a spirit taking human form and fall down in worship. Our culture conditions our responses. Indeed, in any multicultural society, there’s always a chance of confusion between different groups of people as their responses to the same stimulus overlap.
So here come a series of simple propositions. Some people may see or interact with the ghosts of people who have just died. With the appropriate ritual, you could persuade a spirit to give you a talisman that would cure a serious illness. A person who has died can be brought back to life. Of course, a rational person would be rightly sceptical, but would there come a point when even the most determined of secularists might wonder? Particularly given the power of modern medicine to keep people alive or even snatch them back from death.
We need to start this review of Possessed or Living Death or Disbelief Hell or Booi-sin-ji-ok (the Korean does not translate directly into snappy English film titles) by thinking about the stork. Most early cultures have their own mythology relating to these rather magnificent birds. The Egyptians associated it with the ba or personality, matching the stork’s seasonal migration to the soul’s nightly movement on to the spirit plane during sleep. This also led them to believe the ba could return to the body after death because that was where it was used to living. Korean mythology involves different types of bird, one of the most powerful being a three-legged crow known as Samjok-o. By one of these coincidences much loved by conspiracy theorists, Shamanism believes the soul can leave the body and travel around. In the other direction, spirits can influence the living. The power of the Shaman is to mediate between the human and spirit worlds to achieve the best outcome for the living.
Appropriately, this film is framed by the appearance of a stork, planting the suggestion we are about to see spirits enter the human realm. So, let’s take two families. A detective’s daughter is dying in hospital. He promises her she will recover but, in his heart, he knows this is nothing more than empty words of reassurance. Some years earlier, a father and daughter were involved in a car crash. He died immediately. She may have died and then been resuscitated in hospital. She was left intellectually disabled. Her Christian mother believes she has brought her daughter back from the dead through the power of prayer. She believes her little girl is now the Saviour. Today, the shaman in the block of flats believes the girl is now the vessel for a returned spirit. She convinces three neighbours they can all benefit by persuading the spirit to create talismans for them.
One night, the phone rings and wakes Hee-jin played with quiet power by Sang-mi Nam. It’s her young sister So-jin played by Eun-kyung Shim but the call is cut off. The following morning, their mother, played with manic intensity by Bo-yeon Kim calls. Apparently So-jin has gone missing. Hee-jin returns home and contacts the police. An uninterested detective, played by Seung-ryong Ryu comes, but his usual dismissive references to a runaway are contemptuously rejected by an aggressive Hee-jin. Provoked into some action, he talks to the caretaker who thinks the family are “freaky”. During this conversation, a body crashes to the ground. A woman has committed suicide. Curiously, Hee-jin sees the neighbour through the window before she completes her fall.
This sets the pattern. Hee-jin may see and briefly talk with people just after they have died. In total, four people from the apartment block commit suicide. So, having observed all this, what is the detective to do when Hee-jin talks to him as if she is his daughter in hospital? Perhaps, if he forgets his scepticism, he can invoke the spirit and produce a miraculous cure.
It would be wrong to call this a horror film. It has no real boo moments as the director plays tired tricks on us by having a sudden image appear on screen. Yes, it’s shot in an atmospheric way with the patterns of light and dark emphasised in the common passageways and individual flats by some degree of colour desaturation. Some of the camera angles are not uncharacteristic of the horror genre. But the whole is actually a meditation on belief. The mother believes anything is possible if only you believe in God. The detective’s lack of belief is disturbed by a sequence of events for which he has no rational explanation. In such a case, should he not also believe his daughter’s life can be saved? The shaman who lives in the block of flats believes that, if you sacrifice a hen, the spirit will be appeased and do what you want. This leaves Hee-jin. She knows her sister needs help, but can she really believe her sister is still alive?
When a reluctant but competent detective and an intelligent and motivated relative set off to find the missing sister, you know they will not allow superstition to stand in their way. Let the Christians and the shamans believe what they want. Their search will ultimately reveal the truth. And, in a way, that’s what happens. From the point of view of these two protagonists, they do “solve” the case. Except, as viewers, we are invited to see a different possible interpretation. That perhaps there is a cycle of death and return. If you are lucky, the stork may guide the original occupant of the body back home. As a shaman, you might think it lucky if the stork guides a different spirit into the body. A Christian might think the child is capable of miracles if only you believe in her. Who knows which one might be right.
Possessed or Living Death or Disbelief Hell or Booi-sin-ji-ok is a fascinating film and, so long as you are not expecting it to be a horror film, you should sit and let the debate unwind before your eyes. The performances of Sang-mi Nam and Seung-ryong Ryu give the film real conviction. Both must make a journey from disbelief to belief. You can see it in every gesture. You can watch their eyes change. You feel they are credible when all around them are acting irrationally, as if they are the anchor that will hold firm even with the storm breaking around them. This gives the film a significance — a sense of weight. Director Yong-Joo Lee is to be congratulated for offering human drama that flirts with the horror conventions and decides to play it more or less straight.
As a film or television company, you look at investment in backlot with some degree of caution. If you’re really going to spend all that money in building a generic period city/town, then all your scriptwriters and directors must be put to the grindstone to maximise the use of these “expensive” sets. So it is we come to all these programs in which we see real drama, romantic drama or straight comedy playing out against the same background of buildings, slightly redressed and/or repainted between each new series. This represents a major challenge to our valiant scriptwriters who must continually reinvent the wheel with plots to cover up the unchanging locale.
In A Pillowcase of Mystery, TVB has gathered a cast from its repertory company and, led by the indefatigable Bobby Au Yeung as Sze Sai-lun we have a detective, supernatural fantasy, romantic comedy. As I said, when you get instructions from above, you mix as many elements together as possible to keep the resulting program fresh. For Western readers, I should explain that period Chinese pillowcases were effectively firm or solid headrests, and not the variously shaped cushions stuffed with feathers our richer ancestors enjoyed as a support for their heads. In this case, we have a small shaped support, made out of china with vents at both ends to allow a free flow of cooling air to pass through.
So what’s the plot? Sze Sai-lun is appointed as Magistrate to Kong-do County. He’s a fairly worthless mother’s boy who gets a headache whenever asked to think. This may be a result of a head injury when young or it’s a defence mechanism to avoid work. Anyway, no matter what the reason, he’s remarkably self-satisfied and, thanks to his determined mother, he gets ahead and, perhaps more importantly, is kept in line by a wife and two concubines. As is almost always the case when it comes to TVB serials, there’s absolutely no sign of any sexual activity, particularly when there are noodles around, and no children to slow down the “action” onscreen — we do get a parrot at one stage, the only breach of the rule first stated by W. C. Fields that stars should never work with children or animals.
We quickly see Sze Sai-lun is useless as an investigating Magistrate, relying on his head constable to keep everyone in order. Except, he so publicly drops the ball when confronted by the theft of some steamed buns, followed by the apparent suicide of the man accused, not even his constables can save his face. There’s some amiable slapstick as Sze Sai-lun blunders around, accidentally setting fire to different parts of the set — the really big fire burning down a hut just outside the city to avoid damaging the main sets. Out in the countryside, he’s running away from further shame and embarrassment, when he falls down a bank and hits his head on a china pillowcase. When a drop of his blood spills from his nose on to the pillow, he meets the Pillow Spirit played by Lo Hoi Pang. So begins a game. The Spirit is not allowed to tell our Magistrate whodunnit, but can give him clues. We get to see or hear some oblique hints, and watch as our not completely brainless Magistrate tries to work out what they mean and solve the cases. At first, it looks as though the only way our hero can contact the Spirit is to knock himself out. Fortunately, the scriptwriters see this repeated joke would soon grow tiresome and sleep is quickly accepted as a substitute.
The first mystery of the buns allows us to meet the people of the town including Mai Heung-yung played by Kenix Kwok as the court’s local organising power behind the throne, her foster mother Siu Kau-leung played by Mary Hon and brother Wong Tin-bah played by Benny Chan. The solution is actually pleasingly gruesome even though the statistical chance of the evidence being in the remaining bun is vanishingly small. As we move into the second mystery, Sze Sai-lun’s god-sister arrives. She’s Princess Tsanggak Ming-chu played by Tavia Yeung and there’s quickly chemistry between her and Wong Tin-bah, setting up later conflict when her father arrives to announce his choice of a ghastly husband, thereby provoking an elopement. Anyway, the second narrative arc involves the Golden Fox, a famous thief. The head constable has been chasing him for years which is why he never settled down to marry Siu Kau-leung. This provokes a general mash-up when the question of an old armed robbery resurfaces. The victim was the family of the second concubine and the man accused and imprisoned was Wong Tin-bah.
So that all the right people can be set on the track for a successful romantic engagement, Sze Sai-lun and the Pillow Spirit must prove Wong Tin-bah innocent and link ants to a chronic case of diabetes which, if nothing else is ingenious. However, when it appears the Golden Fox may have links to the family of the Princess, everything gets further confused as is always necessary. The path of true love can never be allowed to run smooth. Also sneaking up on us is the real relationship between Sze Sai-lun and Mai Heung-yung. Unlike his wife and current concubines who are either mousey or fairly unlovable, Mai Heung-yung is a positive force for good in the Magistrate’s life, except she’s kidnapped on the day of their wedding.
At this point, the scriptwriters suddenly wake from their slumbers and produce a nice variation on the theme. Up to this point, our Pillow Spirit has been restricted to brief meetings with our Magistrate on the spirit plane. Now he begins to appear in the real world. This liberation allows us yet more flashbacks to show everyone’s relationships in a new light. Even spirits deserve their own backstories. What keeps the serial interesting is the increasing access to the ghost as the question of who was responsible for a past massacre interferes with current relationships. Mai Heung Yung and Wong Tin Pak get into yet more trouble, Siu Kau-leung is killed by assassins, and what should have been a happy marriage for our Magistrate comes completely unglued as it appears his father may have ordered the massacre. It’s all resolved with much drama and a surprising number of children (obviously they changed to a better brand of noodles), leaving Kenix Kwok to pick up prize as Best Actress in a Leading Role.
A Pillowcase of Mystery is what you would call a light confection, a dish of sweet ingredients spun out to just the point where it might all become just a touch tiresome and then pulling back. At twenty episodes it almost outstays its welcome but Bobby Au Yeung manages to keep smiling and the scriptwriters contrive just enough interest in the mystery elements to keep us watching. Although, truth be told, Sze Sai-lun jumping out of the coffin to make the arrest is hilariously over-the-top.
For those of you interested in such details, Benny Chan demonstrates his versatility and sings the theme song.
Words is funny things and to a Brit whose old bones have washed up on a foreign shore, it’s always interesting to find my vocabulary increasing. Since Wearing the Cape is a first-person narrative, I now know teen American girls use words like “woogy” and “nuggying”. OK so that’s an unfair early comment because it might suggest this book is YA and pitched at readers who nuggy each other every other Tuesday when there’s an “r” in the month. But, actually, it points to an interesting truth about the language used. It swings quite violently from thoughts appropriate to a bimbo to highly sophisticated thinking a sufficient number of grades above bimbo to qualify the thinker as a superhero. Indeed, one of the fascinations of reading this book is to watch the usages and grammar switch from simple and elegant, to complex and academic. Put another way, Marion G Harmon has had fun writing this. There’s some sly humour at work as Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials becomes Barlow’s Guide to Superhumans, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall becomes Charles Gibbons, The New Heroic Age. And, yes, some moments made me smile. Harmon is prepared to bushwhack the reader with a nice turn of phrase every now and then.
So this is a coming-of-age, rite-of-passage frame that’s rather dismantled as our young heroine suddenly “comes out” of her wrecked car as a superhero — staying straight, of course and not suddenly embracing homosexuality. Left at this level, it would have simply shown how she learns to control her powers and does good stuff for the benefit of humanity. But this adopts the strategy of Tim Kring’s TV series Heroes as there are multiple hero “types” including one with the ability to travel in time. Ah, time travel, that bear pit of lost ventures as mere mortals wrestle with paradox and learn all there is to know about predestination. So key events in this book are shaped by surveys of the future suggesting there are “dangers” to be avoided. No surprise there and, not unnaturally, our heroine is at the heart of the struggle to keep the world on the straight and narrow path, avoiding as much destruction to life as possible.
A part of the test of a good science fiction book is the willingness of the author to work through the logic of the situation, picking up the details and fitting them together into the jigsaw of the world he’s created. In this case, we have an unexplained worldwide “event”. Many die but one of the more hopeful consequences is that a few people develop superhuman powers. So some are literally quick off the mark and start using these powers for good, rescuing people from the wreckage, while others go out and rob the nearest bank. This immediately raises the question of what you do about the superpowered with criminal tendencies. The idea of an Elizabeth Arkham Asylum is good enough for human villains in other contexts, but superhuman villains. . . Well, they need to be taught a lesson and if that means a few must die, that’s all part of the deterrent function of policing.
This is the turning point in the novel and marks a change in tone that elevates all this from the routine as the author demonstrates an increasingly unsentimental view of the world he’s created. In so many contemporary novels, we must see everything pass through a period of uncertainty only for us to emerge into sunshine at the end. This seems to reflect a modern entertainment convention that focus groups must approve the work before release to the public. Should these groups disapprove, key scenes in the film or television show will be reshot, passages in the book will be rewritten. This is creativity by committee, everything conforming to whatever these randomly selected groups assert represents the majority’s sensibilities. Supposedly, this consultation process produces work likely to sell in numbers to the target niche rather than common denominator pap — your chance to express an opinion. Although I don’t think Harmon goes far enough towards the edginess that would make this a great novel, there’s some darkness in this tale of superheroes. He has the book going in the right direction.
So is Wearing the Cape great literature? Sadly, no. Does it have the most original plot of all time? Again, no. But it’s got a lot of heart, rearranging some fairly standard superhero tropes into new patterns that make it a genuinely entertaining read. Sure, it’s unpretentious but all the better for it. So, all in all, this is a very good value ebook, available in a Kindle edition for download to a reader like you. For the next books in the series, see Villains Inc and Bite Me: Big Easy Nights.
A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review.
It would be easy to dismiss Dong Yi as yet another Korean historical with romantic overtones sageuk serial. It is, after all, no more than a rerun of familiar themes with a story about a brave young girl, blessed with surprising intelligence and a winning personality. So, although she starts with a lowly position in the court of King Sukjong in the Joseon dynasty, she rises through the ranks as her true qualities are recognised. We might recognise this as the script for Jewel in the Palace or Dae Jang Geum. Indeed, by some strange mischance, that was also directed by Lee Byung-hoon. Yet, for all this is kdrama recycling tried and trusted tropes, this 60-episode serial contrives to be fresh, highly watchable and genuinely addictive.
We start with the young Choi Dong Yi, winningly played by child actor Kim Yoo-jeong. She escapes a massacre of her family and entire clan with the only other known survivor being Cha Jeon-Soo, played by Bae Su-Bin, who is left for dead after falling from a cliff into a river and, possibly, Ge Dwo Ra, a childhood friend. You will benefit by taking notes during these early episodes. It all becomes highly relevant later on. Some six years later, we find Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo making the transition from a supporting role in Iljimae via Shining Inheritance or Brilliant Legacy) has been hiding in plain sight inside the court, working as a serving girl, most recently in the Department of Music. As we might expect, wherever she goes, she manages to befriend and entrance even the most curmudgeonly of peers and bosses. Being immediately identified as trustworthy, she’s commissioned to carry some herbs into the palace and, by an unfortunate accident, is embroiled in an early plot to discredit Lady Jang, played by Lee So-Yeon. Rising to the occasion, she not only outfaces the Surveillance Bureau, but also investigates in the best spirit of a young Miss Marple and proves the Lady Jang innocent. In doing so, she comes to the attention of Seo Yong-Gi, played by Jeong Jin-Yeong, who, as Chief of Police becomes pivotal in future investigations and defending the kingdom.
This marks a clever blending of court politics and more traditional detective or investigation themes. The Joseon court is disrupted by serious in-fighting between four factions, all vying for power. This is made possible because the majority is hidebound by tradition and fixated by questions of birth and status. This is not a meritocracy. The factions plot for position based on family ties rather than ability. This gives real power to those with the intelligence to see through these manoeuvres. For almost all inside the court, no-one survives without a patron or being able to physically threaten or blackmail enemies into submission. Dong Yi’s virtue is a certain innocence. She uses her powers of deduction in pursuit of truth rather than for her own advantage. This makes her particularly dangerous to the plotters and a target for disposal.
The King, played by Ji Jin Hee this time overcoming his past role in The Man Who Can’t Get Married with a wife and concubines, is fascinated by what life might have been like had he been born into an “ordinary” life. He therefore plays at ordinariness by walking through his capital city, dressed as a mere judge. In this he not only breaks tradition, but also gains an insight into life beyond the walls of the court. On some of these ventures he meets Dong Yi. The journey through several meetings until the final unmasking of his identity is well handled. The uncertainty of how they should then talk to each other is masterful. In this, the actors are wonderful, both achieving an almost luminous quality on screen as they struggle to reconcile an increasing level of personal affection with the impossibly wide gap in social status. There’s absolutely no precedent for anyone apparently so lowly born to be accepted in “Royal” circles. Unlike Lady Jang who becomes a Fourth Level Concubine when biology triumphs and a pregnancy is announced, there’s no immediate prospect of Dong Yi making progress on the heir front. For now, both King and Hound Dog must maintain several degrees of separation.
This does not prevent the King from helping Dong Yi advance. As a reward for rescuing the Lady Jang, Dong Yi is elevated from slave to lady and given a position in the Surveillance Bureau. This is taken as a step too far by most of the ladies and, by a dishonest manoeuvre, they trigger a rule requiring her to be dismissed from service. This shows no-one in a good light. If the girl was not worthy, why did the Bureau have to resort to trickery to eliminate her? When the issue is forced into the open, the Bureau must give her a second chance. With the secret help of the King, she passes and is immediately sent undercover to investigate alleged smuggling by one of a visiting Chinese trade delegation. This is also nicely handled as Dong Yi lives up to her reputation for tenacity and independence of thought, first sneaking herself back into the compound to continue the investigation when the cover of the Surveillance Bureau is blown, and later surrendering herself to the Chinese and avoiding an international incident. Fortunately, her investigative skills prevail again.
It’s fascinating to identify the members of the warring factions in the court and to see how incompetent so many of them are. People get high-powered jobs by grace and favour, which is deeply frustrating to the competent. Indeed, key decision-makers see the security of their nation threatened by the dead wood at the top of all ministries and bodies supplying essential goods and services to the community. Yet, without plotting a revolution, it’s difficult to see how reforms can be introduced. In this, we may be witnessing the transition of Lady Jang from victim to a possible co-conspirator with her brother, Jang Hee-Jae, who is played as a laughing villain by Kim Yoo Suk. While Queen Inhyeon played by Park Ha-Sun is a somewhat distant and tragic figure, childless and cast aside in favour of Lady Jang. So far, she is marginalised in court affairs.
One vague concern is that the “detective” elements require a certain suspension of disbelief. Although she’s the daughter of a coroner in a commoner’s village, it’s not clear how Dong Yi could have acquired such wide forensic knowledge and skills. Nevertheless, the whole program is carried off with such style and panche, we can easily forgive the more fantasy-based elements to watch the court plotting at work.
Then one year passes and a male child is born to Lady Jang.
For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics
Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:
The first two volumes in the trilogy, Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water, were impressive. Indeed, the quality of both the narrative and the writing were, if anything, improving as the story moved towards a climax so nicely poised. So there was a moment of trepidation as I picked up the final volume. Would Hidden Cities maintain the momentum? Could Daniel Fox weave all the hanging threads together just so and leave us all satisfied?
Let’s just cast a brief glance back at Jade Man’s Skin. In a way, that’s all about the big stuff of people going to war and a dragon bringing destruction from the skies. It reaches a high point and then, because of the typhoon, everything finds an unexpected point of balance. It’s yin and yang between the earth and the sea, between the warring forces and the dragon. It’s time to hunker down and wait for the rain to stop. Only then can you review where you are in the campaign and decide what to do next.
Except the moment you stop running after the enemy, all the details come back into focus. What do you do with all the wounded? Can you feed all the surviving troops? Can you defend the city you so recently captured? What about the people who’ve been caught up in all the fighting? Even more importantly, the personal relationships intrude. There’s no time to think of your wife or lover while you’re fighting. Survival is all in the moment. So when Emperor can sit down with Mei Feng, and Jiao can observe Yu Shan with Siew Ren, the realities of pregnancy and of lost love become all too clear. Such recognitions change people’s emotions, perhaps even reshape them as individuals. Later, Tien can meet up with Han, that’s when Han is not riding the dragon and talking with her, of course. And then there’s Ma Lin and her daughters who now find themselves in service to Li-Goddess. Yes, it’s always important that people talk to each other, and with their gods and monsters.
As an aside, we should note a more general point about war. From time to time, there have been real attempts at total victory. Think about the destruction of Carthage where not only did the Romans pull down the city, but also salted the earth so no-one could farm there for generations. But few military campaigners have gone beyond the literal decimation, i.e. a reduction in the opposing forces by ten percent. You always need a core of competent people to till the land and run a range of manufacturing and service industries. There always comes a point when stability is more important than the egos of the leaders who would prefer to fight on. Except fighting is addictive, just like hunting. Addicts do not stop voluntarily. So the people have to save themselves. There’s a tipping point when enough of the people grow tired and hungry, where they run away or resist the call of the generals to attack or defend. If there are not enough soldiers, this forces an accommodation. The fighting stops.
In Hidden Cities, our interest must spread beyond the human. Think about a tiger who has lost his mother, but may have found another to take her place. Think about a dragon who had an agreement with the people but was betrayed by an Emperor and chained. These animals have a right to be angry, but how do you negotiate with them? What might they want or desire as the price of peace? Perhaps they might answer the question through a lesson for all of us: that every creature comes to a better understanding of the world and universe around it by coming to a better understanding of itself. What will that introspection produce? Will it keep a dragon or even a jade tiger happy enough to coexist with the people around them? And what of Li-Goddess? She has the endless power of the sea but no dominion over the land. Can a being so powerful have any interest in the ordinary run of humans, particularly when the majority has grown lax in worshipping her?
Overall, this trilogy is rooted in Taoism, a belief system that aims to reconcile yin and yang whenever possible. This is action through inaction, a relativism of inherent flexibility. In nature, the reed bends before the wind and survives the typhoon. Scaled up, this is the way of the universe. Like water, it has a natural flow, finding a path of least resistance through the land. Our eyes may be caught by the excitement of rapids and waterfalls. Eddies and whirlpools may appear chaotic. But there’s always some level of order and purpose to the direction of the flow. It may only be gravity in untamed nature, but when humans organise, those who show the virtue of integrity will find a way through the chaos, identifying the potential harmonies and building on them to direct the flow. In Hidden Cities, it falls to the characters with humility, to those who are sufficiently self-sacrificing, to see a way of negotiating an accommodation between warring parties. Now it’s their turn gently to adjust the situations so that those with the trappings of power may see compromise as both achievable and desirable. And because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, this may involve betrayal of long-held beliefs as individuals take sides and push for peace. Surely, it’s worth sacrificing some of your principles if peace is the prize you seek.
In the end, perhaps some of the “traitors” must perish so that the innocent may survive. So where does this leave the people? Well, in the hidden cities, the next generation is waiting to be born. Before, during and after wars, relationships flourish. Soon wombs fill with new life, confirming the cycle of destruction and renewal — the persistence of life.
Although there are some alarums and excursions as generals try out new technology to attack the dragon while keeping old knowledge as Plan B to restore the chains, the overall tone of this concluding volume is deliberately muted. There has already been too much death. Despite some new military skirmishes, the final resolutions must ultimately depend on the people deciding what they want and who they should follow. Daniel Fox continues to produce some fine prose and, in the end, there is peace. Perhaps that’s as much as anyone ever deserves.
Overall, Hidden Cities is the final volume in one of the best trilogies of the last few years, providing thoughtful fantasy against a background of war. Unlike other fantasy authors who leave bodies littering the landscape, this is unflinching when it comes to describing the conflict, but then considers the aftermath with empathy and constructive compassion. In the Taoist sense of the words, Moshui, the Books of Stone and Water is a well-balanced trilogy. So don’t even think of picking this up as a stand-alone. You will not know who anyone is nor understand their motivations. This is a book best savoured after first devouring the first two.
Jacket artwork by Robert Hunt.
The other day, I was browsing Craigslist, as you do when it’s slow news day, and I came across an interesting ad. “Looking for governess prepared to live with an older man and cranky housekeeper on a desolate moor. Must be quiet yet obviously have repressed emotions of a sexual kind. Preference will be given a candidate who has suffered abuse as a child.” It reminded me how difficult it has been for our culture to get past Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It must be one of the most influential Gothic Romances ever written with an alarming number of big screen and television versions, and a whole shelf full of prequels, retellings and general literary inventions. What makes this all the more impressive is the way the story has crossed over cultural boundaries with screen versions from Mexico to Hong Kong to two different Indian language versions from Bollywood. Few other books can claim to have been the source of such a river of work.
So here comes a new cinema version, this time with a new and relatively untested director at the helm. For such a “traditional” piece, it’s modestly daring to pick Cary Joji Fukunaga, an American of mixed Japanese and Swedish ancestry. The cross cultural influences grow even more marked with the casting of an Australian in the title role. Mia Wasikowska has been transplanted from Canberra via Wonderland to Yorkshire. Joining her is Michael Fassbender who manages to combine Germany and Ireland. The only principal character that’s been typecast is Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax. At least she could do the Yorkshire accent as if she’d been born to it.
As an aside, it was a delight to see Judi Dench in a full length role. Given her age at a sprightly 76, we’ve been limited to a few film cameos as she nuzzles Johnny Depp or sends out random actors to play the part of James Bond. Allowing for her continuing reputation as a great actress, it’s good to see her allowed to prove the point by occupying a pivotal role in another film destined to be “important”.
There’s little point in talking about the plot. If you haven’t got it by now, you’re unlikely to be queueing up to see this version. So let me make two mild observations. I’m not a fan of the framing device to come in two-thirds of the way through the action and then show the audience how we got there, before proceeding on to the end. In this case, it’s particularly inappropriate. It would have been better to show her arriving at Thornfield and then have flashbacks to show relevant parts of her childhood at Gateshead and Lowood School. Having a flashback to her arriving at Thornfield and then further flashbacks overworks the conceit. Second, it’s always a struggle to know how to edit the story down to a reasonable running length. Moira Buffini has produced a script that shoots at 120 minutes which is probably about right. But it emphasises the Gothic. In particular the portrayal of Lowood School is positively Dickensian and anyone not familiar with the original would wonder how Jane could emerge from such a place with anything other than physical and emotional scars. Yet she has the knowledge to work as a governess, speaking French and being well-versed in geography and other areas of human knowledge. There’s also no explanation of where she is staying with her cousin St. John Rivers and his two sisters. We might assume all Jane did was run a few miles across the moor. And talking about the running, the print of the film I saw had a very shaky hand-held capture of Jane running out of Thornfield. Hopefully, that will be remedied by the time the film gets to the UK.
So where does all this leave us. Well the answer comes in two words, “deeply impressed”. I confess to going not expecting anything special and emerged feeling I had just seen something quite special. Mia Wasikowska gives a riveting performance as the conflicted Jane — she of the high moral standards but burdened with a heart that would melt for Rochester. The highlighting of Mr Brocklehurst as the chronically hypocritical headmaster of Lowood School gives a nicely balanced counterpoint to Rochester’s failure to be honest with Jane about his marital status. This is a very intelligent piece of acting as Mia Wasikowska contrives to make her silences eloquent, the camera always lingering long enough to catch every nuance. The relationship with Mrs Fairfax is also wonderfully filled out. Judi Dench was very generous when partnering Mia Wasikowska on screen. If there is a weakness, it’s in the time given to showing Rochester unwind. Physically, Michael Fassbender is exactly right and in so many ways, he picks up what he’s given and does it very well. But the development of the relationship with Jane is rushed. We know she’s supposed to fall for him and that’s what she does.
The house is wonderful as candlelight flickers and wooden planking creaks. Distant laughing and screams also disturb the nights. It’s nicely atmospheric with Rochester falling off his horse with great style. It honours the tradition of Jane Eyre as a Gothic Romance. More importantly, there’s at least an effort to deal with the Rivers situation, although the placement of Jane’s schoolroom on a blasted heath is a curious decision.
Overall, this is a terrific version of a classic piece of English literature. It’s properly respectful, but triumphs by allowing us a clear sight of Jane’s journey from repressed creature to warm human being. With more time, we could have seen more of Rochester and understand his motivation for courting Blanche Ingram. With modern attention spans being somewhat limited, we can understand why this version of Jane Eyre was cut down. Perhaps the Director’s Cut will have more when the DVD appears. Definitely recommended if only to watch Mia Wasikowska and Judi Dench fill the screen with quiet warmth!
I suppose every country gets the police force it deserves. In places where there’s true democracy and everyone is considered equal, the police will objectively investigate every allegation of wrongdoing without regard to the position or status of those accused, while impartial courts, presided over by incorruptible judges, make exemplary decisions based on the evidence. In all the other countries, the police are affected by different levels of corruption. Some will take money, some will merely be asleep at the wheel, taking their salaries and looking the other way lest they be caught up in work, while others simply use their positions to accumulate power. Perhaps I grow too cynical as I age but, having visited many countries and lived in a few, I’ve yet to find a society with a police force free from corruption.
All of which brings us to The Chaser or Chugyeogja or 추격자 (2008), a powerful thriller from Korea, written and directed by Hong-jin Na, with help on the script provided by Shinho Lee. For Joong-ho Eom, played by Yun-seok Kim, business is bad. He bit the bullet for many of his corrupt colleagues in a special unit of the police, taking early retirement and becoming a pimp. Business used to be quite good but, slowly, he’s been losing girls. Initially he thought they had just run off. Now he suspects something more serious. As an ex-detective, he takes a professional interest in trying to protect his girls. He’s usually in time to rescue those that get into trouble. Except he recognises the telephone number of a caller who was asking for a girl to meet him on a street corner. The number is associated with a previous disappearance. Convinced this is the man kidnapping and selling on his girls to prostitution rings in one of the larger cities, he tries to follow the increasingly cold trail.
Driving round the area where the girl Mi-jin Kim, played by Yoeng-hie Seo, was last reported, he collides with a car driven by Young-min Jee, played by Jung-woo Ha. His suspicions are roused and, after a chase, he makes a citizen’s arrest. This is problematic for the police because they must either come up with evidence in twelve hours or let him go. Now our hero must try to find Mi-jin (or her body) before the supposed killer is released. Except the police may not be able to hold the suspect the full twelve hours because our hero was less than gentle during the arrest. Beating up a suspect is frowned on, even when the one responsible is a member of the police force. When it’s an ex-police officer turned pimp, this all begins to look like a big law suit waiting to happen and some very bad publicity. The powers-that-be want to cut the suspect loose and hope the problem will go away. The few real detective are convinced they have a serial killer in their hands.
Let’s make a list of Joong-ho’s qualities. He may act tough, but he’s actually a conscientious man just trying to make a living as best he can. Armed with the skills he developed as a detective, he’s a shrewd judge of character and determined to solve the case. As circumstances conspire against him, he becomes genuinely concerned for Mi-jin. Guilt builds up when he discovers Mi-jin has a seven-year-old daughter. Now he’s doubly motivated to find “his” girl while protecting her daughter. What makes the film so interesting is the difference in approach between the official and unofficial investigations. The real police make very little progress, spending a lot of time arguing among themselves. Although there’s a futile wander through the wooded slopes on a nearby hillside in the dark while its raining, there’s no sign of any bodies and the suspect claims a bad memory on where they may be buried. Joong-ho actually tracks down the suspect’s family, gets background information suggesting multiple murders, and finds one of the places where the killer stayed. No matter what his faults, he has arrested the right man and he’s close to finding out what this killer has done with his girl. Except, of course, the prosecutor in charge orders the premature release of the suspect and now the race is on.
This is a film of passion and intensity. Our hero may have a background suggesting a lack of morals, but he’s ultimately heroic in the efforts he makes to find the girl. Unlike Hollywood, no-one pulls out a gun and leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Yun-seok Kim is unable to engage in CGI-enhanced fights or demonstrate the driving skills of a rally-driving, demolition derby expert. Instead, he chases after suspects down dark alleys and struggles to subdue them when both chaser and chasee are struggling for breath. The realism of the entire venture is a virtue in its own right. We always have the sense that, if only he had a few more minutes or could push just that little bit harder, he would succeed. As it is, he’s distracted by the daughter and hung out to dry by his ex-colleague on the force. Who could possible succeed with such odds stacked against him?
It’s fascinating to watch Yun-seok Kim’s façade of indifference crumble as time begins to run out, while Jung-woo Ha remains emotionally disconnected from events despite being seriously battered by our hero. He seems not to fear admitting his status as a serial killer when he knows there’s no immediately available evidence he is telling the truth. The Chaser or Chugyeogja or 추격자 is a film you should watch. It’s gritty and passionate, and reaches an entirely unsentimental ending that feels right in all the circunstances.
The question, I suppose, is what we should expect from yet another runner from the Pirates of the Caribbean stable? If it’s simply going to rerun the same tired plot, we’ll have Jack on a quest of some kind. There’ll be ships sailing, cutlasses cuttling and general mayhem as required. And soaring above it all, as if high on magic mushrooms, comes Mister Pirate himself, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s weirdly disconnected from everything happening around him and yet benignly interested in how it’s all going to turn out. You get the feeling he’s as much a spectator as those of us on the other side of the screen, forced to go through fantastic manoeuvres in the spirit of the moment, supremely confident it will all come out right (sooner or later). Well, On Stranger Tides is your average curate’s egg. For those of you not into idioms, that now means there are some good bits and some bad bits. If you’re prepared to enter a different dimension while the boring bits are on screen, the whole experience is not unpleasing. If you expect a taut and exciting narrative that’s going to pick you up at the beginning and sweep you through to the end, find another film to see. Although, if you’re a Pirates fan, there’s more than enough of Johnny Depp doing his usual schtik to keep you happy. No matter what anyone may tell you to the contrary, Penélope Cruz is just there to help sell the film outside the US, contributing little to hold our interest. Her lack of impact is explained by her wooden English accent which kills any life in the intended banter with Johnny Depp.
Looking back, director Rob Marshall has done an unnervingly good job of recreating everything that’s so characteristic of a Pirates film (including the boring bits). This is a missed opportunity. There’s a wonderful story buried in the middle of this complicated excess. If we sent Jack and no more than one villain off to chase down the fountain of youth, we would potentially have economy and tension. Let’s just see what elements we have to play with here. The mermaids are wonderful and by far the best thing in the film, but the zombies are woefully underused. There could be lots of magic and, of course, we’re all going to end up at the fountain of youth where someone may get young all over again.
I suppose On Stranger Tides pulls all its punches on the supernatural side to keep the film children friendly. Everything on Blackbeard’s ship could have been genuinely scary. The fact he can raise the dead (and may even have raised himself), manipulate the rigging, summon wind, and belch fire from the bows of the ship makes him one badass pirate. Even better that he can capture the ships he fights and put them in bottles. Now that’s high class magic and this could have been exploited as a serious threat to all and sundry. Yet the zombies are not at all frightening. Rather, they’re quite chatty for dead folk and, even when spitted on swords, seem remarkably even tempered, being prepared to accept a little bondage rather than bite, claw and generally maim any of the living within reach. And Ian McShane. . . Well, let’s say he’s just a big teddybear. This is the least menacing pirate captain of all time. You can see him laughing at the thought, “evil is my middle name” as he stomps around doing bad stuff. It’s a sad reflection that Geoffrey Rush as a reformed Barbossa is more interesting, although perhaps only because he’s lost a leg and has a bad case of sunburn.
So what are the good bits? I liked the opening sequences in London. Individual scenes threatened to go on too long — inside the court with the King and incompetent guards, and the redundant scene with Keith Richard being the prime examples. There’s the usual sword play, recreating the fight with Will in the smithy. But getting Jack on to the ship and away is all done with reasonable pace. Thereafter the failed mutiny is unconvincing and we have everything on hold until the magnificent sequence to capture a mermaid. Then we drag around the jungle, have a couple of fights and end up in a cave repeating the idea of Jack switching the goblet just as he stole a gold coin at the end of the first race against Barbossa.
Except as a mechanism for ensuring no-one will ever return to the fountain, the inclusion of the Spaniards is a waste of time. There’s too much exposition early on, too much talk in the middle and a redundant epilogue at the end. The highlight is the central relationship between Sam Claffin as a man of firm religious convictions and Astrid Berges-Frisbey who plumbs tragic depths as an abused mermaid. This gave emotional heart to an otherwise dead landscape (allowing for the zombies). It’s a shame this one shining thread gets lost in the drab tapestry formed by the rest of the tired plot devices and acting by the numbers.
So if you enjoyed the last two Pirates films, this positively zips along, being far shorter at a mere 137 minutes running time. But if you were bored to tears by the last two outings, this is only marginally better and a classic example of how to take a really good story and throw it away. If you want a better overall experience, try the source book, On Stranger Tides by the impressive Tim Powers. Now that really is a good story about pirates and the fountain of youth. If only Hollywood could have made a film based on this rather than trying to shoehorn everything into the Pirate‘s formula.
Let’s start with the title because, at the end of the day, this helps set the tone for the film. This is called Micmacs in the English version. The full French title is Micmacs à tire-larigot. All languages have their nuances and micmacs is quite a pleasing slang word, suggesting in a faintly derogatory way, that we have some jiggery pokery going on. The usual translations will refer to some kind of underhand, perhaps even faintly illegal, chicanery or trickery. Except, in this instance, we depart from the mere hanky-panky (which has more of a sexual overtone), avoiding skullduggery because that might suggest some level of violence, and ending up in a scrapyard with a genuinely pleasing French artifice perhaps best captured in the more earthy English, “A shitload of trouble”.
So here comes the typically Gallic plot, i.e. somewhat subversive, tending to be dark, and inherently farcical. Having been deprived of his father by a misplaced landmine and finding a bullet in his brain courtesy of a freak accident during a drive-by shootout, inoffensive Brazil played by Dany Boon, is thrown on to the streets of Paris to fend for himself. Fortunately, he’s endlessly resourceful, able to mime his way to enough to eat even if pride prevents him finding somewhere to stay. Come the winter, lying on on the Rive Gauche is not going to work. But he’s rescued by Slammer, an aged criminal played by Jean-Pierre Marielle and inducted into the French branch of the Wombles who make good use of the things everyday Paris folk leave behind and live in a warren under a scrapyard. Here there’s as engaging a bunch of misfits as you could hope to find. The female side represents necessary mothering skills (Yolande Moreau serving up fodder from her indoor BBQ), Julie Ferrier’s ability to double up as the chiller cabinet in a fridge, and Marie-Julie Baup with her instinctive grasp of numbers. The male side contribute Dominique Pinon’s ability to fly further than anyone else as a human cannonball, Omar Sy’s fluency in idioms and complete rubbish (acting not unlike Stanley Unwin but more coherent if you’ll forgive the paradox), and Michel Crémadès’ manic skills rivalling W. Heath Robinson, recycling to make sophisticated animatronic fantasies out of society’s cast-offs. Needless to say that, once they are motivated, these Wombles are also organised, work as a team, and utterly devious.
It’s Brazil’s arrival that offers them the chance to bond into an elite squad of urban vigilantes when our hero sees the chance to finally get an accounting from the two armament companies that respectively supplied the fatal landmine and bullet. As always happens in films like this, the two companies are sited on opposite sides of the same street and are run by pathologically competitive CEOs — André Dussollier whose hobby is collecting body parts, and Nicolas Marié who never gets Rimbaud and Rambo confused when the bullets fly. The plan is therefore to engineer the most elegant revenge possible using only the rubbish they have to hand. The first step is to provoke both companies into more obvious hostilities. As it happens, a team of three African mercenary leaders is in town to equip their forces with the latest weaponry. They are prepared to offer some cash up front and then endless blood diamonds when the President-in-waiting has nationalised the mines. No manufacturer can resist offers like this.
Now comes the plot, so precise with every cog and gearwheel meshing into place. The whole comes as a blend of sight gags, outrageous verbal prestidigitation, and some deeply cunning manoevres. Take the first need — to take the real African mercenaries out of the picture. You need some drugs to plant on them. You know where a dealer keeps a stash of something narcotic, so you must distract the dealer and his minder, get into the hallway, seal the mailbox, pour water into the box and float up the packet. Then all you need is a sausage and the ability to talk a police dog into barking at the Africans after you have planted the now dry plastic package into a convenient pocket.
Then when you want to persuade our two CEOs to confess their villainy, you remember all those Mission Impossible capers where the target is encouraged to believe in one reality whereas the situation is completely different. Given the quality of our team, you can imagine what they come up with when all they have is the contents of a scrapyard and their own twisted ingenuity.
In every respect, director and scriptwriter Jean-Pierre Jeunet has contrived a masterpiece with his fellow writer Guillaume Laurant. I note with sadness the English slogan for the film is better than the French. “It’s better to be odd if you want to get even”. In our fantastical world of perverse values where armament manufacturers can be lauded and courted by top politicians, it’s refreshing to find a film prepared to unleash a blast of destructive whimsy to bite the hand that arms our own soldiers and those of our enemies so long as the price is right. Although the humour swings wildly from the crude to the sophisticated, and the targets for satirical reinvention are moving, this is the kind of film you might want to see twice — catching all the jokes and visual elaborations the first time round is a challenge.