Archive for May, 2011

The Chaser or Chugyeogja or 추격자 (2008)

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.

Yoeng-hie Seo knows she's in trouble


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.

Jung-woo Ha keeping steady under pressure


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.



Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

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.

Ian McShane reminding us the size of a man's sword is directly proportional to. . .


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.

Geoffrey Rush all dolled up for the royal garden party


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.

Sam Claffin and Astrid Berges-Frisbey enjoying a quiet moment


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.


Micmacs or Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009)

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.

Danny Boon and Julie Ferrier wondering if sex will disturb the bullet


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.

Julie Ferrier getting her knickers in a twist


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.

Dominique Pinon preparing to get high


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.

André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié consider their own revenge


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.


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.

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