Home > TV and anime > A Pillowcase of Mystery or Shi Gong Qi An

A Pillowcase of Mystery or Shi Gong Qi An

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.

Bobby Au Yeung dressed like a box of chocolates but stood up at the wedding

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.

Benny Chan and Tavia Yeung share a love of snacks on a stick

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.

Kenix Kwok as a modern vamp

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.

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