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.
Culturally, it’s fascinating to see how two different countries approach the same themes. The US has long been the market leader with the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation stable of series. This is part of an amusing strategy to lionise geek scientists as crime busters. Obviously, chronically underfunded policing agencies want more done to mythologise the power of science as a means of identifying criminals. This will maximise the potential deterrent effect in the real world. Potential criminals will now think twice if they believe Gill Grissom will come out of retirement and catch them. Of course the sad reality is that there’s little for the criminals to fear. Most laboratories are slow and inefficient. Unlike their fictional counterparts who must solve their crimes in the time represented by one days’s shift, the real technicians are not allowed to walk the streets with guns and break down doors in pursuit of suspects. If they are to have any credibility, they must be independent of the police, analysing the evidence submitted to them and offering dispassionate findings for the prosecutors to evaluate over a period of weeks and months. Try telling that to Horatio Caine as he poses, hand on his gun and staring off thoughtfully into the distance as he tries to remember his next pithy line.
Well, the original CSI has rivals, the Hong Kong, TVB version being called Forensic Heroes or Fa cheng sin fung — even in translation, this continues the trend of the Condor Heroes and other series, using the notion of heroism to show deeds above and beyond the call of duty in shaping societies. Under the leadership of Gao-Sir (Timothy), played with admirable restraint by Bobby Au-Yeung, there’s a joint team of forensic scientists and detectives who investigate serious crimes. The structure of the serial is not the same as its US counterpart. The first set of episodes ran for 25 weeks followed by a second set running for 30 weeks. In a sense this gives away its secret. Taking both together, it’s really a soap where the primary characters all work in law enforcement.
So the back-to-back serial episodes develop long narrative arcs. For example, Gao-Sir was married but lost his wife in an accidental poisoning. During the first set of episodes, he investigates her death and slowly emerges from mourning. There’s interest in Siu-Yau, played by Yoyo Mung, who’s in charge of the main team of police detectives. He marries her in the final episode of the second serial. Similarly, we get to know the pathologist Chak-Sam, played by Frankie Lam, as his secret life as a mystery writer is revealed and he comes out of his shell to get engaged to Ding Ding, one of the forensic analysts played by Linda Chung. Unfortunately, she’s killed in an explosion quite early in the second serial, just before they are due to get married, and we then are tantalised with the prospect of a love triangle involving the new head of the police unit, Madam Ma played by Charmaine Sheh, and Chak-Sam’s best friend Yat-Sing, played by Kevin Cheng.
At all times, everything is beautifully in context with us allowed to meet the families of all the major characters and watch how home and work interact. Indeed, many of the cases arise out of family relationships or connections with friends. In the second set of episodes, Madam Ma starts off estranged from a part of her family but, because her step-brother is kidnapped, she’s able to break down the prejudices, rescue him, and produce a happily united family for the final episode where she’s finally about to confirm her engagement to Yat-Sing.
By contrast, I suppose you have to admire the professionalism of the original CSI which continues to turn out stories so beautifully tailored to fit into the minutes allocated for each episode. There are rarely redundant moments with everything driving the viewer from one end of the experience to the other in discreet little packages. Although we occasionally bump into some elements of an existence outside the lab, such moments are peripheral and only present because they briefly illuminate some feature of one of our “heroes”. Yet in Forensic Heroes, there’s an even balance between home and work. We follow parents as they conspire to persuade a respective son and daughter to date, we see how casual remarks wound or spark interest. In the kitchen, some learn new recipes or try dishes to broaden their experience or as an application of TCM. They go into shops, cafés and restaurants where all become more three-dimensional as characters. Yes, the last episode has Gao-Sir wallowing in sentimentality as the entire tribe gathers to celebrate successfully negotiating 55 episodes with only a few of them being blown up or shot — all in the name of excitement as the characters in whom we have invested so many of our emotions are threatened with death by scriptwriter. Remember, even Gao-Sir had to survive a kidnapping and being hidden away without food and water in a shipping container before he could finally propose to Sui-Yao. The path of true love never runs smooth in these stories.
As a final point of contrast, CSI focuses on the technology with much of the work featuring cunning machines and sophisticated chemistry. While Forensic Heroes is rather more naïve when showing a crime scene. Gao-Sir frowns, cut to potential scuff mark on floor. Dramatic music. Gao-Sir’s eyes snap into focus, cut to fibre visible in a drain. More dramatic music. And so on. In this serial, a balance is being struck between a Sherlock Holmes style of observational detection and the scientific work in the lab. When the team discusses progress, there are always useful flashbacks to remind us what was seen. There are also convenient re-enactments to show what actually happened. Although this approach is sometimes laboured, it’s nevertheless pleasing to see a show prepared to spend time demonstrating the art of critical thinking and deduction. In all this, Bobby Au-Yeung is wonderful. He could have come over as overly serious and unlikeable, yet he manages to portray thoughtfulness and compassion as he runs the forensic department, recovers from grief, and embarks upon an emotionally uncertain courtship. As for his previous screen work, so for this show he was nominated for Best Actor. Mention should also be made of Charmaine Sheh who starts off in the second series playing Madam Ma as unsympathetic, apparently obsessed only with enhancing her own reputation to advance her career. But she slowly grows into an investigator with subtle skills as she unwinds socially and becomes altogether more vulnerable. It’s a well-judged performance over the 30 episodes, earning her a nomination as Best Actress.
So the result of this comparison is acceptance of the cultural difference between the two shows. The Americans don’t like their police procedurals bogged down with family baggage. They want something altogether more brash and pacey. The Cantonese approach is laid back, waiting patiently for drama to grow more organically out of a better approximation of real world situations. These investigators are not restricted to one-off crimes. Everything is linked together, with resonances from the past enlivening the present as criminal scenarios are investigated over multiple episodes and families resolve their issues. This is not to deny the Americans their Lady Heather, Miniature Killer and Dr. Jekyll story arcs, but they are more sporadically distributed across a season as stand-alones, rather than developing naturally from one episode to the next. Both approaches are entertaining in their own way, albeit the Forensic Heroes is quieter in tone and tending to the melodramatic if given half the chance.