Archive for May, 2011

Lost and Found or Sweet Lies or Dal-kom-han Geo-jit-mal (2008)

When we are young, everything is new. Most of the time in the earliest years, the novelty is exciting, but interest and excitement is soon crushed out of us by our peers and the education system. There are new emotions to explore as we get our first taste of love or experience fear as bullies torment us. We lack balance. Emotional security is threatened. Because we have no perspective on the passage of time, it seems each day will never end. Looking back, time is telescoped and only the “highlights” litter our memories.


One constant affecting most of us is that we go through periods of painful shyness around the opposite sex. Annoyingly, there are always those who seem so assured and self-confident. Jealousy makes us hate those who seem so “adult” before their time. We hide away, fearing people will guess our secret crushes. There’s nothing worse than a class at school suddenly echoing with delight at a new love to proclaim.


It’s always a mystery how we manage to come through all this and grow into adults. What’s less surprising is we usually bring our childhood experiences into adulthood with us. What happened to us then is a part of us and colours our view of the world. This encourages some to walk away from school without a backward glance. That part of life is over. All the pain and embarrassment can be locked away and they need never remind themselves of the awfulness by meeting up with “old friends”. Others stay in the same part of the town and the circle of acquaintance moves from classroom into the adult world. This is a kind of trap for some who are never allowed to forget what they were like. For others it’s rather liberating because they need never pretend to be someone they’re not. They can be true to themselves and not care what people think. This is how they’ve always been and they’re not going to change for anyone.

Park Jin-he finds a moment of happiness


So imagine a medium-sized town or small city where most people stay on. Not all stay in touch, of course. Class and family circumstances can encourage people to drift apart. Years may go by before they meet up again.


In Lost and Found or Sweet Lies or Dal-kom-han Geo-jit-mal, Han Ji-ho, played by Park Jin-hee, and Ko Eun-sook, played by Choi Eun-joo are best friends at school, sharing all secrets and confidences. Both are shy, but Ji-ho has elevated it to epic proportions. She’s desperately in love with Kang Min-woo, played by Lee Ki-woo. He’s walking round in a kind of dream that’s only punctured by a girl who keeps throwing herself at him, grasping his arm as if it may fall off at any moment. Then there’s Park Dong-sik played by Jo Han-seon, the boy from next door, who always seems underfoot, and the weird one with glasses who’s probably stalking her. Worse, there are all the embarrassing incidents she would rather forget like the time she put her head through the bars at the elephant enclosure in the zoo. . . Like Ji-ho, we tell ourselves lies about what it was like, editing our memories so we can live with some peace of mind.

Lee Ki-woo and Park Jin-hee suspending disbelief


Now we move forward ten years to find a fundamentally unhappy Ji-ho. She gets massively drunk because the TV show she helped create has just produced some of the worst ratings since record-keeping began. When she arrives at work late the next day, she’s fired. As she leaves the building, a snatch thief separates her from her bag and all tokens of identification, and then she’s knocked down by a car. On days like this, it might just be better to forget who you are, particularly if you recognise the driver as Kang Min-woo. Except, if you start off this second chance with a lie, how will it end?


Lost and Found is the type of romantic comedy it’s very easy to get wrong. You make the heroine too eccentric or the boyfriends too desperate. You relegate the best friend into stereotypical cameo appearances, while other walk-ons ham it up in the hope casting directors will notice their performances and invite them to play in their next films. In fact, Park Jin-hee is very restrained, lucky to find herself with a second chance as an adult and not quite sure what to do with it. Jo Han-seon could have become very melodramatic with jealousy, yet he manages an almost surreal detachment, playing with his own lies, but nevertheless showing commendable restraint when engaging with his rival. While Lee Ki-woo is the least changed from the rather fey boy who walked around as if in a daze. Now he’s a successful interior designer who brings light into his clients’s darkness but leaves little of himself. He’s jolted out of his serene solo progress through life and forced to ask himself who he is and whether he actually wants to find a partner.

Jo Han-seon thinks about joining the army to escape


Everyone lies to themselves and to others when it suits them. The question is how far the lies stray into self-indulgent fantasy and mislead us. For example, Lee Ki-woo may have a Cinderella complex, finding a waif by the roadside, picking her up and then wondering whether the shoes will fit. Jo Han-seon has been the steady, quiet presence in her life. He may dream they will gradually come together, but this passivity may equally cause him to lose the girl he has always loved. And she? Well she has never forgotten her first love and, through the lies, she gets close to him for the first time. But there must always come a moment when the perspective changes. What we see as children is not what we see as adults. What looks attractive from a distance may not be quite so attractive when seen close up. Reconciling truth with fantasy and deciding what we want is not something to put aside for too long. Otherwise we may plunge headlong into situations where we lose sight of what’s important to us, trapping ourselves in unhappiness when it’s too late to change course. Indeed, think about their lives. She’s drifting, never really making a success of her job, drinking too much. Lee Ki-woo may be a commercial success, but moves in a circle of wealth where snobbery and superficiality prevail. Jo Han-seon is making a living selling women’s underwear but is not a commercial success. All three are lonely. It’s like they’ve been caught in aspic — three specimens needing just the right incentive to break out of their respective prisons.


Lost and Found or Sweet Lies or Dal-kom-han Geo-jit-mal is an intelligent romantic comedy, treating the characters as human and giving them a chance to grow into their roles on-screen. Jeong Jeong-hwa (정정화) directs the screenplay he wrote with Yoo Seung-hee and produces a very satisfying human drama. Lies may get all of us into trouble and it’s only when we are mature enough to understand the process of growing up and what it does to us that we can see the way out of these problems.


The Bards of the Bone Plain by Patricia A McKillip

May 13, 2011 4 comments

What is language other than words on a page, letters conspiring to be meaning for us to decode. It can be formal and factual, or poetic and evocative. In the hands of the right author, it can be a rapier weapon of wit or cross-examination, or a defensive shield of lies and obfuscation. In short, words can dance to the tune of whoever is paying the piper.

From these idle thoughts, we make the intellectual leap to The Bards of the Bone Plain by Patricia A McKillip. Let’s dispense with formality. Through all these reviews, we know each other well enough by now to be straightforward with each other and cut to the chase. This is an old-school fantasy. Old school, you say with a faintly puzzled look, not intending a question, but testing the sense of the words on your tongue. When I was younger, people used to write books like this all the time. Now younger authors are seduced by the blandishments and cheque books of the publishers, and churn out feeble urban fantasy in which women battle against magical and elemental forces in the dark crevices of our city streets.

The Bards of the Bone Plain also describes a battle with magical and elemental forces, but it has more profound intentions. In a way, it’s about the soul of a nation. You and I might take the idea of a nation state as an abstraction. Yes, we might play with metaphors and clever pieces of imagery but, when the dust had settled, we would see only facts about the geography and the people who live there. But for McKillip, a nation is found in its culture and behind the denotational meaning of words, there’s a deeper connotational magic. All you need to communicate with a nation is the ability to see through the scratches we might make on stone and, later, paper, being prepared to let the words speak to us of life and death, of treasure and terror. But, above all, there’s the need to give sustenance to the people in times of need. This is not just food, although a cauldron that might be a cornucopia would always come in useful. This is also about poetry as a food for the intellect and the soul. We need meaning to inspire us, to give us the strength to go on with the drab business of living.

So the question naturally arises as to who should have the right to mediate between the nation and its people. This is not merely about power, you understand. Many people may have power, but not understand how to wield it wisely. This is about how leaders should go about selecting just the right person to set the tone of the discourse for all that may access it.

Musicians have the power to move us emotionally. Drums may encourage us to tap our feet to a martial beat. A harp may pluck at our hearts with lyrical melody. But the rare combination comes when a voice matches the instrument in quality and skill. For then new shades of meaning may entwine the melodic line as the words of the ballad live in the hearts of those who hear the bard play. Such virtuosity is rare and, sometimes, the only way to decide who has the right to sing the nation’s songs is to hold a competition. Who knows what magic we might hear when the best have the chance to play.

Patricia McKillip and her poet husband, David Lunde

Not entirely changing the subject, there are many who argue that history repeats itself in great cycles as civilisations rise and fall. You only have to think of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and others whose ideas on metahistory have alternately frustrated and amused historians with their various attempts to find “real” cyclical patterns. McKillip is also interested in cycles where older, darker ideas may surface from time to time and threaten the status quo. In some respects, this is always a good thing. Societies can grow stagnant and need a revitalising stimulus to wake them up and send them dancing into the future. Except this brings us back to the more black-and-white issue of who has the better right to provide that stimulus. Someone with the power of a Hitler can rouse a nation from its torpor and send it on its way to war. Such destructive impulses are not desirable yet, if they arise through a manipulation of the discourse in a democracy and the ideas gain power through the ballot box, who is to say the nation has found the wrong voice singing the wrong tune.

Here McKillip plays the game of showing us a “modern” and an “older” world facing the same challenge. Obviously, it’s in the interests of the modern world to learn what happened in the earlier cycle, but history is a slippery set of interpretations pretending to be facts. When your primary historical sources are the verses and poetry of the bards, how reliable can the historical record be? Oral traditions, even when written down, are notorious for speaking truth in both what is said and in what is not said. Listening to the silences between the lines is the most difficult of arts to learn.

All in all, The Bards of the Bone Plain is a wonderful piece of writing, managing to combine mastery of some sophisticated ideas from semiotics with the language of casual poetry written down as prose. It’s everything you would expect from Patricia McKillip. She shows consummate mastery of the form we call fantasy, telling a tale of universal significance to those of us who can decode its meaning for today. Perhaps it’s about love. Or does the spirit of the land somehow need to renew itself, reminding itself that individuals move on in the material quality of their lives but, when grouped together, essentially stay the same as people. Or perhaps the message is that time eventually heals all wounds. I think it’s for every reader to make up his or her mind. Whatever you decide, the process of arriving at the end of this delightful book is like drinking a rich, full-bodied wine, full of subtle flavours and heady fermentation. The Mayo Clinic and other medical authority voices on human health declare red wine in moderation is good for the heart. So lay in several bottles of McKillip and live a longer, more healthy life.

As a final thought, the jacket artwork for this book produced by Kinuko Y Craft is rather fine. Take a moment to browse through the gallery of recent work and you will see some beautifully fey work.

This has been shortlisted for the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Literature, 2011 and the Endeavor Award, 2011.

Forensic Heroes or Fa cheng sin fung

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.

Forensic Heroes II Poster

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.

Yoyo Mung and Bobby Au-Yeung waiting for the script writers to give them permission

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.

Charmaine Sheh waiting for word from her agent on the next part

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.

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente is the first volume in a trilogy titled A Dirge for Prester John. I should have drawn a warning from the title. This is a real dirge in that the book mourns the death of Prester John. It certainly reduced me to a state of grief and lamentation. I got about halfway through and then threw it on the ground in disgust.

Let’s back up a little bit. As I worked by way through school, I read Xenophon’s Anabasis in the original Greek. Now you may think this a silly boast but, as anyone who has struggled through a book about a group of mercenaries tramping across an empty landscape can tell you, some journeys are good for the soul. It may have passages of great tedium, but there are some interesting discussions on leadership and philosophy on the way. So, I can forgive an author for boring me to tears if, as in Xenophon’s case, it’s worth it to get to the sea and safety.

Catherynne Valente sees the world of Prester John in black and white

So in our frame story, Brother Hiob is tramping across the countryside of Northern India, leading a pilgrimage in search of Prester John. In a small group of native huts, he meets a woman. She takes pity on them and leads him to a tree. Perhaps our hero is unfamiliar with the story of Eden but, when it appears this tree sprouts books rather than apples, he never hesitates. With shaking hand, he pulls down a volume only to find a worm eating its way through the pages. Ah, such are the metaphors when words may fall prey to the worm as it snakes its way through the letters and devours meaning.

Curiously, all this and the following triptych of narratives are written in some fascinating, not to say exquisite, language. Rather like Xenophon who could turn a phrase in perfect Greek, so Ms Valente can write some mean sentences. You find yourself stopping, caught by a clever insight or wanting to take a moment to appreciate some deeper meaning. Except all this brilliance seems to have been put in service to a narrative vacuum, supposedly enlightening us about Prester John and the magical world he accidentally stumbles into. Put another way, very little actually happens and what does happen is not interesting.

As a passenger, you can be in a wonderful seat with a fantastic view as your means of transport wends its way through the countryside, but if you don’t want to get where the transport is taking you, nothing is going to make you feel any better.

I wondered if my atheism was a factor in the invincible prejudice I found rising in my gorge, so I passed the book over to my wife. She’s as pious a Catholic as it’s possible to get this side of the pearly gates. But she only lasted some thirty pages before giving it back to me, demanding to know whether I had paid out good money to buy this s***. I smiled in apology and admitted my error, pointing out in my defence that Ms Valente is considered one of the best of the newish crop of writers. She snorted derisively and went back to browsing the Bible.

As a family, we are unanimous. The content of The Habitation of the Blessed is completely indigestible to the godless and pious alike, and no amount of pretty writing can hide it. It’s entirely possible that, in her other books, she harnesses her undoubted talent for words to tell a good story. Sadly, I have no enthusiasm to find out.

For a review of another book by Catherynne M. Valente, see Deathless.

Mother or Madeo or 마더 (2009)

It’s always interesting to watch yourself as you watch a film. So often your mind takes off in unexpected directions as what you see and hear triggers associations. In Mother or Madeo or 마더 (2009), I found myself compiling a list of stories about mothers and wondering where I was going to place this latest contribution. It’s rather like watching the latest sad alien invasion of Earth film and wondering whether anything will ever replace the excitement of seeing Earth vs the Flying Saucers when it first came out in 1956. There are times when the excitement you felt as a young man puts everything else into the shade. So, among the “mother” films, we might think of Forrest Gump where Sally Fields will do anything to ensure her boy gets ahead in life, or would you rather have Diane Wiest as mother to Edward Scissorhands? Perhaps my all-time favourite is the completely obscure Gorgo in which a mother monster is distinctly displeased when humans accidentally capture her baby and put him on display in London. She and her babe finally leave smoking ruins behind them as they wander back into the sea. But, being serious, the real favourite has always been The Causasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht based on a Chinese play by Li Xingdao in which the love of a “real” and adoptive mother are tested. True love triumphs in this remarkably unsentimental piece of theatre.


So, in 2009, Korean director Joon-ho Bong advanced from The Host, writing and directing Mother. Although conventional wisdom would have us say the main protagonist is the Mother, played with magical intensity by Hye-ja Kim, the main character is actually the small Korean town in which these sad events take place.

If there was a time you gave up, now is the time to keep going


Imagine a town on the verge of becoming a small city, nestling in the countryside and deceiving itself into believing it’s somehow civilised. The streets are still roughly paved with slightly vertiginous side alleys, some neighbourhoods are in need of renovation while professionals drive their Mercedes through the streets like Kings and Queens, enjoying the local golf course and sending their children to the modern school. There’s a police force, of course. There must always be someone tasked with keeping order. But they are overworked and underpaid. They must defer to the new privileged middle classes while being uncomfortably aware of their roots in the now oppressed local community. There are lawyers whose role it is to defend the innocent except they’re as corrupt as the police and, if there’s insufficient money to interest them, they throw their clients to the wolves.


And at the bottom of the heap in towns like this are the older poor. Except, even they may be rescued from the real bottom by the intellectually disabled. Somehow, no matter where the community, there must always be the misunderstood and often feared people whose brains are not quite wired in the same way as everyone else. Without a public defender, their lives are usually brutally short. But some young men like Yoon Do-Joon, cleverly underplayed by Won Bin, are lucky. They have mothers to look after them.

Won Bin finds himself in jail


The day starts badly for Yoon Do-Joon. He’s knocked down by a Mercedes on the way to the golf course. He picks himself up and, with a friend to keep reminding him why they are on the golf course, they confront the driver and passengers. The result sees everyone in the local police station. The disinterested police watch the arrival of the Mother warily and shortly after her arrival send everyone away. Mother and son are well-known quantities in a small town that would be a city. Feeling angry, the son drinks heavily in a local bar and walks off into the night to find his way home. On the way, he sees a girl and follows. But when a stone is thrown. . . Well, let’s leave it with a shot of him walking away. In the morning a young girl is found dead. Near the body is a golf ball that Yoon Do-Joon had picked up and written his name on while he was in the police station. This is all the evidence the police need to charge him with murder.


At first the Mother tries to go through the system, using savings accumulated over the years to pay a lawyer. But it’s soon obvious that no-one’s going to save her son unless she finds the killer herself. It would not be fair to discuss how well the investigation proceeds. Suffice it to say, it soon becomes obvious the victim had multiple enemies, any one of whom might have killed her. There’s always a seamy side to every small town with some young girls prepared to offer favours to the young adults and men around her. All I can say is that it all becomes clear how and why the girl died. Even more importantly, the town stays true to itself and, when evidence of the right quality presents itself, there’s only one possible answer.


Mother or Madeo or 마더 is a completely absorbing study of small-town politics, showing how a Mother balances love and guilt, right and wrong in trying to protect her disabled son from a police force that would accept the first piece of evidence as conclusive and lock him away rather than actually investigate. Rather in the same way that Brecht frames a story about the power of a mother’s love in a dispute between two Russian communes as WWII is coming to an end, so Joon-ho Bong frames his story in a dark town and its surrounding forrested landscape where the retard will always be first one blamed. In the final circle, the Mother holds one hand and the police the other while we watch knowing what has happened. It’s a sobering moment, forcing us to ask and answer the question of what would happen if there was no mother to step in to rescue her son. Mother or Madeo is now second in my all-time favourite list of Mother stories. Perhaps nothing will ever beat Brecht but this came very close. Make every effort to watch this. It’s worth every minute of your time.


The Four or Shao Nian Si Da Ming Bu (2008)

The Four is a 24 episode drama series made in Hong Kong, retelling the restoration of the Divine Constabulary by Emperor Hui Zong under the leadership of Zhuge Zhengwo played by Dominic Lam, and the stories of four constables: Heartless played by Raymond Lam, Iron Fist played by Kenneth Ma, Chaser played by Sammul Chan, and Cold Blood played by Ron Ng. It plays a standard game of wrapping up a mixture of detective stories in court intrigue with TV-level kung fu characterised by poor wire work, second-rate cutting, and slow motion to create a risible effect. That said, the story is actually quite interesting even if the production values are poor.

We start with Zhuge kicking his heels for ten years. The Divine Constabulary has been closed down and corruption is now rampant across the Empire. His friend, General Shu Mo-Hei played by Ram Tseung, gets him a commission to carry a sword to Price Qi. He takes his foster son, Heartless, with him. At the mansion, the three most prized swords are stolen and there are three murders. We meet Iron Fist and the man who will become known as Chaser. A rapid-fire investigation follows to show how a locked-room murder can be done, explaining why it can be necessary to move a body and showing why knowing everyone’s history can be important when it comes to solving cases. On their way to the capital to petition the Emperor to reopen the Divine Constabulary, they see an assassin kill the leader of one of the pugilist sects. A second murder by the same assassin follows in the capital. Chaser has already seen the assassin’s face and Iron Fist is on hand looking for a job. The seemingly indestructible assassin will become Cold Blood and complete the quartet.

Zhuge makes a deal with the Emperor to reopen the Constabulary if the team can find the treasure supposedly stashed away to pay for a rebellion plus a medallion that obliges the Emperor to grant one wish to the holder. In a race with the clans who also want the medallion, the solution depends in part upon understanding a riddle and being able to put a map together. However, we get into the realms of wuxia fantasy as following the movements in a kung fu manual provides written instructions. When Zhuge fulfills the promise and returns the medallion to the Emperor for destruction, he is allowed to reopen the Constabulary and informally resume the fight against the corrupt Prime Minister Cai Jing.

This is not the place to discuss the fantasy elements permeating wuxia storytelling, but in this series, there are two continuing sources of amusement. First is the militarised wheelchair and general fighting techniques used by Heartless. Second, who would have thought that 12th century China had so many beautifully paved roads across the countryside and ramps so conveniently placed to enable wheelchair access to buildings. Only when the Constables get into the stone forest is he defeated and it falls to Iron Fist and his “partner” to run around until captured by the group using fake supernatural events as a cover for embezzlement. In the end, the constabulary is able to protect the villagers, so drawing the lines of battle more clearly with corrupt officialdom.

Lau Kong and Dominic Lam pretending to enjoy the show

There’s then a particularly weak story element about a plague of zombies, the only real benefit being to encourage the formation of closer bonds between the constables and the women who are “obviously” intended to become their partners. This trend is further reinforced by the next story element which has a merchant scamming armed couriers. In fact, he’s fronting for the corrupt leadership of the clans. By coincidence, the daughter of the clan leader is the love interest for Cold Blood. The plans of the corrupt Cai Jing, played with over-the-top evil enthusiasm by Lau Kong then more clearly come into view with a faintly weird story about weapons that can effectively decapitate their victims, while paid agitators ferment yet more trouble between the clans. The return of those and similar “invincible” weapons at the end gives a pleasing structure to the whole with the origin of the weapons showing how long Cai Jing has been planning rebellion.

Now Cai Jing moves to the next phase of his slow-burning plan by staging a fight between warring clans which threatens the Emperor. This persuades the inevitably dim leader to organise a knock-out contest to unite the pugilist clans. All the major clans will enter a representative and the winner will be accepted as leader of the pugilist world. Needless to say, the Prime Minister’s puppet pugilist needs to eliminate the one real threat before having to fight him. So explosives are placed on the boat bringing the righteous contender and two of the Constables to the villa where the contest is to be staged. Believing him to be dead, Ruo-Fei, his daughter, takes his place and, through blind luck, wins the first round fight. The remaining Constables decide to train the daughter to give her a chance of winning the next round. Meanwhile the survivors of the explosion are trapped on an island with what may be a dangerous animal (possibly mythological) — as you can see, no stone is left unturned for plot elements.

Kate Tsui comes good at the end

The story of events twenty years in the past comes back into focus as the man causing trouble between the clans turns out to have been involved in a death investigated by Zhuge. This leads to a reconciliation between Zhuge and Yan Hong, the daughter of the apparent suicide and now the wife of Prince Qi. In due course we have Cold Blood rehabilitated as his previous status as assassin is revealed. In the process, Cai Jing’s son is implicated in running an illegal gold mine and banished, in part because those managing the mine raped the women including Iron Fist’s sister and the woman intended for Chaser.

Zhi Yan played by Kate Tsui, skilled TCM practitioner and undercover operative for Cai Jing is becoming more active which complicates her relationship with Heartless. Heartless and Iron Hand finally identify their fathers who were set up and destroyed twenty years ago by Cai Jing so he could steal the designs for the “invincible” weapons. Iron Hand also discovers he has a previously unknown brother who is later killed by Zhi Yan.

In the end game, it all comes down to a battle between Cai Jing and the Divine Constabulary with everything turning on the loyalty of Zhi Yan. The plotting and counter-plotting is pleasing as we watch Zhuge’s plans go awry. The fighting against the invincible weapons is more than a little silly but, in the spirit of the show, the team responsible for special effects and fight choreography do their best on a limited budget.

Indeed, taking an overview, the series manages to transcend the weaknesses of the individual parts and become quite consistently entertaining. The only serious narrative weakness lies in the “love” element. With the exception of Kate Tsui’s Zhi Yan which is a well developed role, most of the other women are either decorative or not so gently mocked — Lam Ruo-Fei played by Selena Li is first presented as a spoilt child before being allowed to become something more than merely ineffective as a fighter. In an extended postscript to the battle, our brave heroes are rewarded by the Emperor but, despite their best efforts, all love is doomed by the script writers in this era of Chinese history. Hilariously, Zhuge sets off on a lechery tour of China, using his wuxia skills to seduce young maidens. The only one allowed any dignity is Zhi Yan who rides off into the sunset on a medical mission to improve the health of the poor. At the end, the Four are left holding off invading Jin troops at the pass and facing certain death — just as well there are no women around to slow them down as even Heartless jumps into the air in excitement at the thought of the expected slaughter.

There’s also a cinema version showing the Four come together. See The Four or Si Da Ming Bu (2012).

The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg

Well, with The Soul Mirror by Carol Berg, we’re into the second of the Collegia Magica trilogy and the pace is holding up well. For those who like warnings of future events, the final instalment is titled The Daemon Prism and it’s due in 2012. Since we’ve not ended the second on a cliffhanger, I imagine the wait will not be a great strain although I confess my curiosity has been quite seriously piqued.

In the timescale of the trilogy, four years have passed since the trial of Michel de Vernase who was convicted of treason in absentia at the end of The Spirit Lens and we start with the dramatic news of Lianelle’s death. She was the younger daughter of the traitor Michel. With mother confined in a hospital and son Ambrose held in the Spindle, it falls to older daughter Anne to go to the Collegia de Magica de Seravain to gather what information she can. Upon her return to the family estates, she find Portier de Savin-Duplais waiting for her. She’s summoned to Merona to act as maid of honour to the queen. This brings Anne’s reclusive life to a sudden end and forces her out into the world where she must defend her family’s name and her own life in what proves to be a potentially deadly game.

As in The Spirit Lens, we have a mystery played on the stage of a world on the cusp of Enlightenment. Except, full Enlightenment is not going to be achievable — rationality cannot prevail in the face of real evidence of the irrational. Despite coming to court a confirmed sceptic on the question of magic, she’s soon forced to admit that natural laws can be bent in rather unexpected ways. Being of a practical disposition, she suspends judgement, collecting information from all sources open to her. In this, she proves unexpectedly efficient and she’s soon embroiled in the continuing investigations of Portier and Ilario while fighting off the threatening advances of Mage Dante.

Carol Berg enjoying a rural moment

Following on from my previous review, I’m pleased to report the context for all this manoeuvring grows more clear. It seems the Blood Wars were fought over control of Ixtador. There were two families. The Montdragons may have created Ixtador by mistake or somehow separated it from its usual place in the “supernatural” order. The Gautieri were jealous and wanted to usurp control. In effect, the families were disputing title to what we might call Limbo, a place where the souls of the dead go. But it’s not clear whether the souls can go on from Ixtador to a Heaven, potentially creating a form of Hell for the accumulation of spirits while they are inside it. More generally, from the moment of its creation, magic seems not to have worked quite as well. It’s as if its existence somehow distorted the usual order of things.

From this, you will understand the primary motivation of those now jockeying for power is literally a matter of life and death. The hope or expectation is that, by breaking down the Veil currently separating the living world from what lies beyond, the natural order will be turned on its head and a new form of existence will be created. With such high stakes, Anne must adapt to a new life in court, protect the Queen and work out exactly caused her sister’s death. For it’s this death that forces the conspirators out into the open slightly earlier than they had planned. This is the chance to identify the Adept and avert all danger to the world.

Most of my reaction to this book is positive. I feel it’s rather better than the first. In part, this is because Carol Berg seems more comfortable writing with a woman’s point of view. With The Spirit Lens so strongly favouring Duplais’ point of view, we were caught up in the mind of a somewhat pedantic and inflexible man who was unwillingly dragged into the first phase of the investigation and had to make the best of it. The same set of circumstances beset Anne in this volume, but although she’s also somewhat introverted, she comes over as entirely more sympathetic. Both prove brave and tough minded, and with Ilario slightly less prominent, it’s Anne whose strengths prove the difference between success and failure.

Now that more of the historical and political context is laid out for us to see, the two volumes taken together have a better focus and the essential mystery of who is doing what to whom and why, can take centre stage. I don’t think anyone will fail to identify the key players. This is not a classic mystery with a large cast of characters being whittled down to a hard core of suspects. As we come into this second volume, we’ve eliminated enough of the options so that a few moments thought allow us to point the finger of accusation with some degree of certainty. With everyone unmasked, this leaves us with an extended ritual as the climax to this phase of the adventure, followed by our heroes finding moments of peace. As a final thought the title to this book is quite pleasingly ambiguous given that mirrors never lie about what they show us about ourselves or those we see in the glass.

All in all, The Soul Mirror is a satisfying read and I look forward to the final instalment, The Daemon Prism, to see how it’s all resolved.

For reviews of a duology by Carol Berg, see Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone.

The Lost Bladesman or Guan Yun Chang (2011)

It’s always interesting when history collides with fantasy and our modern sensibilities. In one sense, The Lost Bladesman is a glorification of fighting skills seen through a lens now more comfortable with arcade and online games where our hero must navigate various levels, using different weapons, to reach the winning destination. Yet, for all the virtuosity of the set-piece combat elements, the film transcends mere fighting with sword, spear and guandao, and becomes an interesting examination of what it means to be righteous.


This is a part of the story of Guan Yu Chang who was a sworn brother to, and general for, Liu Bei. It focuses on the crossing of the five passes and the slaying of six generals as described in Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, coming before the battles portrayed in Red Cliff and Red Cliff II.


In this, it’s important to recognise that Guan Yu was deified not long after his death. He’s still respected in the Confucian religion and worshipped as a guardian deity in Taoism and as a bodhisattva in Buddhism, becoming a more general figure of worship in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and other places where Chinese culture has gained a foothold. So when you bring this character to the big screen, you have to show his primary features as loyalty and righteousness.

Donnie Yen wondering why his horse is the wrong colour


I suppose we don’t have to worry too much about the historical accuracy of what’s shown save that most of the military tactics and the basic fighting skills are realistic. Even the repeating crossbow, capable of being fired one-handed, is accurately reproduced. Whether Guan Yu invented and used the guandao, aka podau, rather than the more likely dagger-axe — a form of halberd — is also irrelevant. Long pole fighting was common at the time. The key to understanding the film comes from the contrast between Guan Yu, played by Donnie Yen, and Cao Cao, played by Wen Jiang.


Let’s think of Cao Cao as a pragmatist working towards the unification of the kingdoms. He has captured Guan Yu and wants to recruit him. Almost without exception, all the other senior officers who surrender or are captured, are mercenary and agree to fight under new colours. Such is the practicality of the day and fighting men of skill do what they must to survive. But Guan Yu is not an ordinary man. He confirms his primary loyalty will always be to his sworn brother Liu Bei. It’s clear that, as soon as Guan Yu finds out where his “master” has gone, he will leave Cao Cao’s service.

Jiang Wen congratulates Shao Bing for looking good in the armour


Because Cao Cao is willing to accept even temporary allegiance in the hope of eventually convincing Guan Yu to give up Liu Bei, he introduces the man to the Emperor Liu Xie. Unfortunately, Guan Yu soon learns that Liu Bei has moved south to join Yuan Shao. Despite Cao Cao’s attempt to use Guan Yu’s sister-in-law Qi Lan, played by Betty Sun, to keep his allegiance, Guan Yu sets off to find Liu Bei with Qi Lan in tow. Cao Cao is content to let him go, believing it better to have an honourable opponent than a forced servant. Unfortunately, Liu Xie, played by Bo-Chieh Wang, refuses to accept this decision, challenging his position as the puppet Han Emperor. His role in the kingdom is equivocal. In theory, he’s the ruler by divine right, but all the Ministers and senior officials accept Cao Cao as the de facto ruler. The Emperor fears Guan Yu will resume his status as a military tiger and, without Cao Cao’s knowledge, orders the man’s death. When first attacked, Guan Yu simply intends to fight his way south but, with Qi Lan later recaptured, he sets off on a revenge trail north again, believing himself betrayed by Cao Cao.


First the fight choreography by Donnie Yen under the overall direction of Felix Chong and Alan Mak. This is spectacular and, although one part of the sequence involving Han Fu’s ambush in a building with a waterwheel is shot in partial darkness, and the fight against Ban Xi’s troops is out of sight behind closed doors, the overall effect is simply wonderful. This is one of the best martial arts films of the last year. But it’s the interplay with Cao Cao that gives the film depth.

Betty Sun worships from afar


Planning the military campaigns in their country retreat, we can watch the inner circle formulating policy. When Cao Cao discovers the Emperor has overruled his instruction to grant Guan Yu safe passage, his initial anger is calmed by the thought, “It’s better to be wrong than wronged.” When you have the power of life and death over others, there’s no penalty if you are merely in error. But there can real problems if others wrong you, for then you have to decide whether to accept the “injustice”. He realises that, to the Emperor, he’s simply considered mistaken — a view actually accepted by most of his inner circle. The Emperor does not intend Cao Cao to lose face. In reviewing the decision, he decides he will probably win without Guan Yu on his side and so changes his mind. If Cao Cao was righteous, he would have been honour-bound to insist Guan Yu be allowed to leave without further action against him.


The second pivotal scene is the discussion between Cao Cao and a monk who berates the Prime Minister for being more interested in personal power than serving the needs of the people. This does not mean Cao Cao is not generous to the people. He feeds them and, when prompted, finds work for them. But this is only a way of buying their peaceful submission. It’s not done to empower them or to improve their position in any real way. Indeed, arguably, their position grows worse through their dependence of Cao Cao’s generosity. Having nothing to lose, Cao Cao accepts the monk’s view as correct and leaves with a smile.


Taken as a whole, this is a thoughtful martial arts film with Wen Jiang finding real depth in his portrayal of Cao Cao. This is not the simple black-and-white, evil prime minister who traditionally graces the screen as the manipulative back-stabber. This offers a real counterbalance to Guan Yu’s code of morality requiring loyalty to his brother and virtuousness in support of the people. If it was left to Guan Yu, there would be no fighting or, if it was unavoidable, it would only be on the battlefield. Cao Cao is more practical and kills anyone who gets in his way, no matter where they are. In the end, they go their separate ways because that’s the fairest way of resolving this episode. It may not be quite the same as written by Luo Guanzhong in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but that doesn’t stop The Lost Bladesman being one of the best “historical” dramas of the last year.


For reviews of other films directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, see Overheard or Sit yan fung wan and Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2.


Tempting Providence by Jonathan Thomas

So there’s me, sitting with a copy of Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror and I come across this story by Jonathan Thomas called “Tempting Providence” and it’s so good, I immediately get hold of a copy of the collection, appropriately titled Tempting Providence (published by Hippocampus Press, 2010). So now I have the chance to take the measure of Jonathan Thomas at greater length.

Let’s start with a few thoughts about what it means to write weird fiction. The use of the word “weird” to describe strange or unusual events has been around for centuries but, as a description of a style of writing or the content, it spins off the concept of Gothic by dropping the romantic element, refining the terror element, and occupying a niche between the rock of horror and the hard place of fantasy. As the Enlightenment took hold and we came to value rationality over faith, there was still a need to discuss the inexplicable — those situations in which the primitive flight or fight instincts were roused. No matter how tough we like to think ourselves, there’s a limit to what materialism can provide and cynicism may help us believe. Hence, fiction that described events going beyond what we can easily understand grew in popularity as a kind of safety valve to release our more primitive fears. Characters on a page could engage with the unknown and offer us vicarious thrills as they survived encounters with the eldritch. Except, of course, many turned out to have no defence against these dark forces. This proves the old adage. Without deaths, there can be no terror.

“Dead Man’s Shoes” shows this in action. A casual walker gets off the beaten track and finds himself caught up in a funeral. For reasons he cannot explain, he goes to the wake in a small village. People talk to him as if he’s the dead man reincarnated. He plans to leave. He wants to leave. But something, perhaps it’s fear of the village headman, or something they put into the wine, or something unknowable, keeps him there. He feels his old identity slipping away. Jed is dead, long live Jed. Except our hero never acknowledges himself as Jed. He refuses to be sucked into what he considers a group delusion. Yet he stays. Time passes in tending the land to provide food. Although this is displaced into a weird context, we all know what it’s like to be trapped by circumstances in a role we never looked for. Think of all those who wake to find they are suddenly carers for family members. All it takes is an accident or illness. In this story, all it takes to change the role from civilised man to country bumpkin is an accidental meeting with a funeral cortège. Now that’s weird!

“Into Your Tenement I’ll Creep” is more overtly supernatural in that a man who worms his way into the affections of an accommodating young lady learns something new about his vocabulary. Most people use “tenement” as referring to a building or piece of land which has multiple tenants. Yet there’s no reason in principle why the word should not apply to any vessel that may hold many different occupants. This may seem, at first sight, to be unremarkable until you remember how destructive some tenants can be. Some have no respect for the buildings they occupy and allow everything to fall into a great state of disrepair.

“Tempting Providence” appealed to me so strongly because it roused a memory of a story I read back in the 1950s in which a man awakes to find a really strange-looking new toaster on a work surface in his kitchen. Rerunning the same idea in an elegantly described Providence with recognisable academic characters produces an entirely more satisfying result. “A Different Kind of Heartworm” asks and answers an uncomfortable question for all of us who marry or enter what we hope will be stable relationships. Must there be a full disclosure of all our faults and weaknesses, or can we hold things back? More importantly, should a failure to disclose creep like a worm into our heart and kill the love that was there? “Gumball Man” also tackles a difficult subject. Parents who shout and scream at each other create the wrong environment for a small boy growing up in their home. With role models like that, could the boy develop real social skills as the years go by? Perhaps he would stay an alienated outsider or become an axe murderer. Who can say. . .

“The Silence in the Copse” is a beautifully atmospheric piece in which we speculate on genetic heritage. If we are predestined by our genes to particular likes and dislikes, it’s only a matter of time before they manifest themselves. For me, this is the stand-out story. “The Lord of the Animals” is less substantial although it’s an interesting example of minimalist weird, doing no more than is needed to introduce the uncanny and then move on. “The Salvage Saints” is a more or less straight piece of historical fiction where one of the corrupted looks for wealth in the incorruptible. It interprets and so fictionalises the past in a way allowing the sea to judge saintliness for the benefit of those who follow the faith of the day. It’s altogether more arbitrary than the modern system for assessing sainthood, but no less reliable. “Passenger Bastion” is a kind of future steampunk where the oil has peaked, but air travel is still desirable. It ponders on what makes a hero and what rewards are reaped for those who answer the call.

“Power of Midnight” takes us back into the distant past where we were young and obsessed by the obscure in music, always pawing through boxes of LPs in the hope of finding that one rarity. But suppose that ultimate grail was inherently evil, a gateway to doom. Would we be cursed if we found it or, worse, were given it? Would our world end immediately or would the destruction of our world come more slowly? “The Men At the Mound” catches the Anglo Saxons on the cusp between the old religion and the invading Christianity, between different times and different perspectives. Finally “Three Ounces over Advent” provides us with extremely unreliable narrators, one of whom may be in possession of more than a few ounces of street drugs.

This is an elegantly restrained book both in terms of the content, and as a physical production. Indeed, it’s pleasing that a small operation like Hippocampus Press can make a good job of design. Overall, this is a very interesting collection and signals an author to watch.

Home Fires by Gene Wolfe

The mark of a good author is to be able to take a rather tired trope and breathe new life into it. I suppose I should not be surprised that Gene Wolfe can do it but, in Home Fires, he has not only contrived to reanimate some old favourites, but also to do so in one of his more accessible novels. Frankly, Wolfe can be heavy going. He tends to write rather dense prose. This level of complexity is sometimes matched by the subject matter. So, for example, The Shadow of the Torturer will remain a classic for decades to come. But there have been times when the reading effort required was not rewarded by the quality of the content.

Here, we have an inversion of one of his characteristic literary devices. Wolfe is particularly associated with the unreliable narrator, leaving it to the readers to puzzle out which of the possible variations of reality might be true. Yet in Home Fires, we have the epitome of rationality — an expert defence attorney, skilled in the art of cross-examination — surrounded by a crowd of people, all of whom may, to some extent, be unreliable. It’s therefore left to him to try puzzling out who each person actually is and what their motives may be for being there.

To make all this more challenging, Wolfe reuses the standard brain mapping/recording trope. In this future world, the technique may be used in a number of different ways. A person going into hospital or, say, a combat situation will be recorded. Depending on what happens, the recorded version may be replaced in the same body, or it could be transplanted into a different body. It’s also possible to edit the memories in recorded form so that, as transmitted to the body, key events may be erased. At the two extremes, this could be a therapeutic device intended to relieve a patient from post-traumatic stress or some other psychological disorder, or it could potentially create the perfect spy. Imagine you wipe the mind of a key person and insert the mind of a spy. . . In this novel, we also have the technique used for reanimation with a person employed by the reanimation company used to become the carrier — the body survives as the mind of the former occupant goes through a form of suicide and a second mind awakes to the news she died some years earlier and is now in a younger body. Of course, no-one ever manages to make an infallible machine when it comes to dealing with the human mind. The editing or wiping process may not be as complete as the manufacturers promise in their ads.

As a variation on this theme, let’s take a secondary “ghost in the machine” question. If you have the medical technology to graft a large enough portion of one dying person on to a wounded soldier, does anything of the previous owner of the body parts pass with the flesh and bones? It might, of course, depend on exactly which part of the body was replaced. Acquiring someone’s legs might not have the same effect as acquiring some of their brain.

Gene Wolfe shows his inclination

To add depth to this thoughtful exploration, the four central characters are father, mother, their daughter and her “nominal” husband. The daughter enlists to fight in the alien wars. Because of the time dilation effect, the short tour of duty is twenty years of Earth time. During her absence, her mother dies, her father becomes an enigmatic figure, and her husband becomes a highly successful defence lawyer with a long-term mistress. When the daughter is seriously wounded and rebuilt, she returns to Earth. Her husband has her mother reanimated as a Welcome Home gift. Her father observes events from a distance for the first half of the novel. So, as a good Catholic author, Wolfe assumes the nominal marriage will survive the twenty year hiatus. Our hero dutifully sheds his mistress and prepares to court his wife a second time on a sea cruise. But what of her parents? Does the wife’s reanimation in a younger body also resurrect her marriage? And, after twenty years, how should a daughter who divorced her parents before she left now relate to them on her return?

To make all this fun, the sea cruise turns into a murderous voyage as, first, pirates take over the ship and, then, various secret agents and spies make their presence felt. It seems some of the different Earth factions and the aliens have an interest in what our returning heroine may know following physical and mental reconstruction. To make matter even more exciting, the body now occupied by the mother’s mind also seems to be a target for murder — finding out who first occupied this body is therefore essential before the wife dies again.

Although this sounds like a seriously tangled web, it’s actually fascinating as our cool lawyer interrogates everyone and speculates on exactly who everyone is as the body count rises. Indeed, you have the sense Gene Wolfe was having fun when he wrote this. Dare I say, he actually made me smile several times. This is not an author cracking jokes, but it’s as close to it as Wolfe ever comes.

So, as we have the crackle of gunfire and explosions disrupting the quiet waters of the Caribbean, Home Fires contrives to produce an interesting discussion of what it means when two people make commitments to each other. For once, I can positively recommend a Wolfe book to almost everyone. Although this is set in a future where we are fighting aliens for the rights to occupy life-supporting planets, it’s simply an excuse for humans to engage in the usual spy/undercover agent roles on a sea cruise — with pirates taking over the ship, holding the passengers for ransom, and creating enough mayhem to keep us entertained. This is a vessel for a thoughtful exploration of ideas in a sea of confusion, told with a general sense of fun and followed by a more or less complete explanation of what’s happening as our heroic lawyer makes his best guesses.

For the review of another book by Gene Wolfe, see The Land Across.

This book was sent to me for review.

For the record, this book has been nominated as one of the 2012 John W Campbell Memorial Award Finalists.


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