Archive

Archive for August, 2011

The Fugitive: Plan B or Domangja Plan B — early thoughts

Let’s say a television company recruits you to a team. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to put together a vehicle in which established stars can be shown off to their best advantage. You immediately understand the amazing responsibility handed to you. If the team succeeds, the television company will have a major commercial blockbuster on its hands. This program will generate fabulous audience numbers which, in turn, will drive advertising rates sky high, lead to spin off sales of the official sound track and possibly, even, sell a fashion line based on the clothes worn on screen. So you look at the names of the stars contracted to appear. The first challenge is therefore clear. How do you balance out each star’s virtues, give each a fair amount of screen time, and avoid having them do anything that would be bad for their image? Ah, yes, that intangible problem of image. Can one of your major stars be given the role of the “villain” (using the term to include both male and female villains)? This can be very problematic.

Rain in The Fugitive Plan B looking thoughtful

Suppose one of your stars has a squeaky-clean image with millions of doting fans praying for the improbable consummation of their heart’s desires. This star may project the idea he or she is “innocent” but available to the “right” partner. It would therefore be difficult for this star to play the role of an assassin who lures targets to bed and makes each kill by strangling the semi-naked victims with a silken garrote. Appearing even vaguely promiscuous or unfaithful or deceitful or. . . Well, you see the problem. If all your stars are expected to conform to their images, what kind of plot can you formulate that will allow them to interact with each other in a way their respective fan groups will accept? Remember, just having your stars stand or sit gets boring after a while. They must actually do things of interest and go places that are more than just a pretty view.

Daniel Henney as Kai, the sexy one in The Fugitive Plan B

Welcome to The Fugitive: Plan B or Domangja Plan B, written by Cheon Sung-il and directed by Kwak Jung-hwan. This twenty episode serial moves between Korea, China, Japan and the Philippines, and features a multinational cast of actors. From Korea, we have Rain (Ji Woo), Jeong-jin Lee (Do Soo), Na-yeong Lee (Jin Yi), Yun Jin-seo (Detective Yoon So-ran), and Yoon Son-ha (Hwang Mi-jin). Daniel Henney (Kai) is a kind of international nomad, adding Hong Kong’s Ti Lung (General Wei — old-school bad guy), China’s Josie Ho (Hwa-i), and Japanese actors Naoto Takenaka (Hiroki) and Uehara Takako (Keiko) the Japanese pop-star love interest for Rain to dally with. So Rain and Daniel Henney would be considered heart throbs. Rain seems mildly famous because he sings, dances about a bit and appears in dead-in-the-water Hollywood blockbusters like Speed Racer. After completing The Fugitive: Plan B and working on a film, Flight: Close to the Sun, he’s disappeared into the Korean army to do his national service. This is not before he and Lee Na-young sued the production company. Mysteriously, it seems this company neglected to pay its stars as it shot the series.

Na-yeong Lee as Jin Yi can defend herself in The Fugitive Plan B

Daniel Henney is there because of his good looks with and without his shirt on, and his ability to appear in foreign language films speaking English without looking a complete idiot. Giving more depth to the cast are Na-yeong Lee who’s more talented as an actress, having appeared in a variety of roles from gooey romantic to a deadly warrior, and Jeong-jin Lee who has also contrived to play most types. Completing the line-up is Yun Jin-seo (Detective Yoon So-ran), albeit she’s somewhat underused. In her life outside this series, she acts, writes and sings.

OK, so here goes on the plot so far. Jin Yi kind of hires Ji Woo to find someone called Melchidec. I say “kind of” because she doesn’t pay him and money only passes to Ji Woo courtesy of Kai in episode 4. That means Ji Woo is running around out of the kindness of his heart, trusting Jin Yi to pay at some point. I say running around because starting in Korea, we’re quickly whisked off to Japan where we meet Seong Dong-il 
(Nakamura Hwang) as a lightweight private detective who will always follow the money, and the delightfully villainous Naoto Takenaka as Hiroki, Keiko’s father.

Lee Jung Jin as Do Soo, the obsessed Chief Detective

There are numerous sequences where people fight, run after each other, and drive/ride a variety of vehicles and bicycles dangerously. It’s all done in a highly stylised homage to spy dramas or generic thrillers. With all the most overused camera angles and cutting tricks employed, everything possible is done to draw out these sequences. They pad out the extraordinarily thin plot (so far). In fact, I would be lying if I said I had a clear idea of what’s actually happening and who’s allied with whom. All I can say with any degree of certainty is that whoever the bad guys are, they are trying to kill Jin Yi. Rain’s performance is immensely annoying as he pouts and postures his way through the series but, so far, he seems to be one of the good guys — even though he’s not averse to cheating supposed colleagues and stealing stuff when it suits him. Then we have the clichéd team of cops led by Do Soo, the one obsessed with idea Rain is a dangerous criminal, who doesn’t notice the love in the eyes of his subordinate, Yoon So-ran, and Daniel Henney who stands and sits beautifully, looking darkly handsome and apparently helping Jin Yi while failing to get her into bed.

Remarkably, for all this is a complete farrago of rubbish, the first four episodes took off in Korea with unusually high scores for viewership turned in by Nielsen. Obviously, my inability to turn off my brain when seeing star power on screen is preventing me from seeing anything good. Although, cheating to look what happened to the numbers later on in the run, it seems the viewers also lost a little patience.

For all the reviews see:

The Fugitive: Plan B or Domangja Plan B — early thoughts

The Fugitive: Plan B or Domangja Plan B — second thoughts

The Fugitive: Plan B or Domangja Plan B — the third act

The Fugitive: Plan B or Domangja Plan B — the last act.

The Damned Busters by Matthew Hughes

August 15, 2011 1 comment

Back in the 1990s, I read a very good book in the style of Jack Vance. Fools Errant and its author Matthew Hughes stuck in my memory and once he began appearing in print more regularly, I ended up with all his Vancean books in my collection. It’s therefore interesting to read him in a style that I take to be closer to his natural voice.

The question with which to start this review is the deceptively simple, “what makes a good book?” For me, the rather complicated answer begins with the quality of the story. It has to have an interesting premise and then explore the implications of that premise in a logical way — or, if not a logical way, then a way that’s credible given the characters and the situation in which they find themselves. As you will understand, this is not necessarily a feature that will guarantee the book bestseller status. Too often books hyped to the top of lists like that run by the New York Times are populist drivel that somehow manage to appeal to a mass market lowest common denominator. When such books are read by their fans, they feel an emotional intensity to keep turning the pages. They feel a minor tragedy has occurred when the final page has turned. They look around in desperation for the next in the series — think Rowling and the schoolboy magic books, Dan Brown and the Robert Langdon books, and so on. The test is being wise after the event. How many books from the nineteen-fifties or earlier are still read today? It takes an outstanding book to transcend the limitations of its own time and appeal to readers who inhabit a new culture. Fad books rarely last more than a year or so.

Matthew Hughes — a man not afraid to show his age

So the book has to be a good plot with universal implications, and it must be well written. This is all highly subjective because the prose styles I may like may be the ones you hate the most. For me, the test is somewhat like sticking litmus paper into the book. If it’s good, a light comes on when I start to read and it illuminates the experience of devouring each page. As someone who writes, I declare a very good book when I smile and wish I could write that well.

With all this hype fresh in our minds, we come to The Damned Busters (Angry Robot, 2011) by the aforesaid Matthew Hughes. This is the first in a new series, appropriately titled To Hell & Back — pleasing we can hope for redemption. Now I’m not going to tell you this is a new classic of literature that awed people will be reading in a hundred years. It’s not going to be ranked as Earth-shattering (more’s the pity). Nevertheless this is very good of its type. Indeed, it almost does everything right. There are only two real problems. The first is that I’m less than convinced by some of the cause and effect, and some of the characterisation is a little on the superficial side. Now you could say that fantasy is never intended to have literary pretensions. Indeed, the fact Matthew Hughes actually serves up characters you can distinguish one from the other is a big improvement over the usual stuff where generic cardboard cut-outs are moved around the plot to suit the convenience of the author.

Anyway, let’s start with the technical stuff. This is a tale with metafiction overtones as various characters debate with themselves (and us) whether they are characters in a story. The point of the discussion is the possibility that, once they recognise their status, they might be able to influence the author into changing the outcomes in their favour. Indeed, they even talk about the possibility of hijacking the story and writing their own endings. This gives us a pleasing vehicle for the discussion of free will and predestination. Some characters start with no real understanding of who they are nor what they think. They are simply the author’s pawns who do his bidding without having to think. Yet, as the story progresses, some of these cyphers accumulate more heft. By the time the book finishes those few have actually begun to think for themselves, albeit only in a rudimentary way. This is not to say they have achieved free will, but their ability to take some control over and responsibility for their actions has improved.

As to the plot: the excellent cover art by Tom Gauld depicts our hero who, through no obvious fault on his part, summons a demon. In the traditional way, Hell’s representative offers the usual terms: your heart’s desires in return for your soul. Except our hero is not tempted and just wants the demon to go away. After some contortions of logic to get the plot underway, a grand compromise is reached. Our hero will get some powers sufficient to enable him to act as a caped crusader of the crime-busting ilk without having to give up his soul. But, as soon as he starts with the rescue of a damsel in distress, he discovers there’s more to this vigilante game than he had imagined. Worse, he soon begins to suspect he’s being manipulated. Perhaps Hell is being less than honest — a not entirely surprising possibility — or is Heaven trying to push him in a direction to suit its agenda? Once you get into the paranoia, it’s easy to see how his altruism might be seduced into prideful excess, how his innocence might be lost to lust, and so on.

Taken as a whole, I found The Damned Busters one of the best fantasy books of the year so far. Matthew Hughes has fun in chasing down all the wrinkles in the plot and then ironing them into creases we can all appreciate for their neatness. I admit to being excessively hard by saying some of the characterisation is a little superficial. Once you accept the metafictional conceit, this is a necessary device. The characters without free will cannot be anything other than two-dimensional. As to the slightly dodgy cause and effect, this is again justified by the metafiction. No matter how perfect the author may hope to be, there’s no guarantee the results will be perfect every time. That’s why we write a draft and then revise it until we are not completely unhappy with the text. In the process, the actions of the characters may have completely changed — a phenomenon that would be completely disorienting to those characters if they were conscious.

The Damned Busters is definitely recommended to all (even those committed Evangelicals who don’t like the name of their God taken in vain — this may not be “the” Good Book but it’s certainly “a” good book).

For reviews of all the book by Matthew Hughes, see
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent
Template.

Pâtisserie Coin de Rue or My Pâtisserie or Yougashiten Koandoru (2011)

The book I’ve just finished debates what, if anything, motivates us. It could simply be habit to continue existing or, more practically, to earn a living. The answer the author offers is that, at best, we’re selfish creatures and mostly driven by sins like pride or envy, i.e. we work because we want to show off our skills, we earn money because we can then buy the material things we covet. It was therefore something of a surprise to see the same questions debated in the new Japanese romantic comedy Pâtisserie Coin de Rue or My Pâtisserie or Yougashiten Koandoru.

 

Meet Natsume (Yû Aoi), who arrives in Tokyo from Kagoshima as a fish out of water. Her strong accent makes her difficult to understand and she’s generally less than couth. Such is the burden for any provincial who has the temerity to visit the capital where everyone considers themselves “sophisticated” and patronises newcomers. She’s actually been dumped by her boyfriend. He had grown tired of her dominating ways and decided to seek his fortune in Tokyo, getting a job at the titular Patisserie Coin de Rue. His ambition was to become a better baker of cakes than Natsume. He left her a “dear John” note which she carefully parsed to mean he was leaving temporarily and would be back to marry her — a promise given in the school playground when they were somewhat younger. When he failed to reappear, she made her way to the Pâtisserie Coin de Rue to collect him. Unfortunately, he’s moved on to places unknown.

Yu Aoi as Natsume growing more confident in her new role as a sous chef

 

Now stranded in Tokyo with no obvious way of finding her boyfriend, she begs for a job. She looks around, sees pâtisseries and, in all innocence, announces herself a maker of cakes. Prepared to give her a chance, the owner chef, the other staff and a customer called Tomura (Yôsuke Eguchi) watch her and then taste the end-product. They are unanimous. It’s terrible. As a parting gift, the chef offers her one of the pâtisseries from the display. This is a revelation to our country bumpkin. She had not imagined food could taste this good. She immediately demands they teach her.

 

So here’s that question again. Natsume is diffident but actually quite proud of her cake-making ability. When told she cannot bake to save her life, she reacts by demanding they teach her to be better. She’s prepared to start again to learn the difference between being a kitchen cook and a chef de pâtisserie — the classy way of describing a professional pastry chef. Fully expecting her to give up and go home, the chef gives her a sofa to sleep on and a chance to learn. For the first two or three days, this proves expensive as she fails to prevent pans from boiling over and forgets to grease the tins so the madeleines stick. But she spends hours secretly practising and, despite the fact this runs down the shop’s stock, she begins to show signs of progress. After a week, they can trust her to do simple things.

Yosuke Eguchi as Tomura still inconsolable in his loss

 

When she discovers that Mariko (Noriko Eguchi), the other young woman working in the shop knows where her boyfriend can be found, there’s a short sharp argument and Natsume walks out to reclaim her man. Unfortunately, he doesn’t want to be reclaimed. He has another girlfriend and is happier without Natsume telling him he’s a failure. Now she has a decision to make. Will she say she has nothing to keep her in Tokyo and go home? The answer is found in an alcoholic haze. She returns to the pâtisserie as if nothing has happened and, after a hungover apology to her fellow workers in the morning, she’s back learning her new “trade”. Motives are always complicated things to explain to yourself and others.

 

Meanwhile, we quietly learn about Tomura. He was considered one of the truly great chefs de pâtisserie but, eight years ago, there was a tragic accident. Because he forgot to collect his daughter from the school bus, she walked to his workplace, and was knocked down and killed while crossing the road. He’s unable to forgive himself and has never worked full-time again, spending his time writing guide books, teaching badly, and reviewing restaurants and pâtisseries.

 

When the chef of Pâtisserie Coin de Rue breaks her arm, she decides to close the shop. There’s no-one else who can make beautiful pastries so, rather than disappoint her customers, it’s better to shut until she’s recovered. This means sacrificing a major opportunity to cook for visiting royalty. Now energised, Natsume is out to save the day. In the process, she proves that a no-nonsense, if not aggressive, attitude can get things done. Except, of course, there’s actually a caring person lurking underneath the relatively unsophisticated exterior and, while she might not have made any friends, she has at least earned some respect.

 

Frankly, this film is a visual delight, every bit as tasty as the “cakes” and deserts shown on screen. This is a story about passion and grief. We build our lives around people. Even though they may not be who we think they are or they leave us unexpectedly, they give our lives purpose and meaning. So how do we react when they are no longer there? We could just run away and hope the world never bothers us again. Or we can fight. Yoshihiro Fukagawa directs the script he wrote jointly with Kiyotaka Inagaki. It’s a delicate affair, matching internalised desolation with an obsessional desire to be the best you can be in your chosen profession. It’s about the people and their relationships. How customers’ lives interact with the shop, how an outsider can provoke change, how new lives can emerge from the old when people work together. This is not a sentimental romance. It reaches an ending that feels right in all the circumstances. Life will go on. It will not be the same. Hopefully, it will be better than before. If for no other reason, it’s worth seeing for Yû Aoi’s performance which is a nicely judged journey from a provincial and somewhat narrow-minded cook to a potentially professional maker of pâtisseries. In this, the use of light in the cinematography by Hikaru Yasuda is carefully choreographed to capture moments of despair and hope. It matches the mood as Yû Aoi and Yôsuke Eguchi struggle with their inner demons. As a complete package, Pâtisserie Coin de Rue or My Pâtisserie or Yougashiten Koandoru is not something to be missed — sadly, we can’t have samples of the pâtisseries served as we watch the film to perfect our enjoyment.

 

Dong Yi — final thoughts

August 12, 2011 6 comments

It’s easy to dismiss shows like Dong Yi as being trite romantic melodrama. Worse, of course, is the cross-cultural factor. Not only is this historical romance, but it’s also from a foreign culture. So, before going any further, let’s put all our prejudices to one side and take a deep breath. Yes, this is a sageuk serial but, as in other countries, Korea has a fascination with its own history and, more importantly, likes to universalise events to make each retelling of their history relevant to modern viewers. The Joseon Dynasty has been a particularly rich seam for film and television directors to mine yet, as time has passed and sophistication increased, we’ve moved on from the versions based on folk tales or the strict historical record, to contemporary shows that mix folk tales, legends and pure invention into the history. For the Koreans, the quality of the drama is everything and, for a while, the viewers were distracted from the contemporary politics by the introduction of more sexual themes in their television dramas. Now, we’re back to the idea of history as allegory. Some like to call this fusion sageuk.

Han Hyo Joo carries the leading role exceptionally well

The problem for scriptwriters is always how to make a version of the historical record acceptable to modern sensibilities. If they take a literal view, they would be forced to show the patriarchy of earlier times with the only women rising above the fray being the concubines who were often power-hungry like Jang Hee-Bin. So creating female heroines to generate mass market appeal gets its first real boost in Dae Jang Geum or Jewel in the Palace (2003), where a commoner kitchen cook, Seo Jang Geum (Lee Young Ae), rises through the ranks to become Joseon’s first female royal physician. Thematically, this serial focuses on her strength to persevere no matter what the obstacles. This is not pure stubbornness. It’s the promotion of the notion of meritocracy — that those with ability will get on.

Ji Jin Hee proved to be the perfect foil to Han Hyo Joo

Which neatly brings us to Dong Yi, the latest version of this increasingly refined approach. This is a fusion between the traditional politics of court intrigue and an inspiring drama about a girl of common birth, but exceptional ability, who turns down the opportunity to become Queen. What clearly distinguishes this from the earlier dramas is the rather subversive subtext. This is a woman who beats the system by refusing promotion whenever possible, giving up her rank when she can, and thinking not of herself but only of others. Whereas the average court ladies would exploit the information they hold to blackmail or bring down their enemies, she prefers to sit quietly. Most of the blackmailing and disclosures in this serial are made by her supporters. The irony in all this is that most of those around her completely misjudge her. They believe she is either naïve and stupid, or has a hidden agenda they cannot immediately identify. As a result, they plan unnecessary countermeasures and are shown bringing ruin upon themselves. This is a very ASEAN or Chinese view, typified by the martial arts styles like Tai chi chuan where the soft movements beat the hard. In more general terms, it reminded me of the tactics of Alexander Nevski who led his more heavily-armed enemies on to the ice of Lake Peipus. He won just by retreating — well, there was some fighting as well, but you get the idea.

Lee So-Yeon as the scorpion unable to change her nature in the palace

In a predemocracy period when a dog-eat-dog political fighting style usually wins, it sends an interesting message to modern viewers when they see a major government institution reformed by soft power. To improve the lot of the common people all you need is altruism and a willingness to be self-sacrificing. Even the King gets in on the act, being prepared to abdicate in favour of his older son so that the younger can be named the heir apparent. In historical terms, this was not unprecedented but, in the context of this story, it reinforces the more pervasive message that even the most senior leaders must consider the country before their personal interests. In this instance, the stability of Korea was threatened. Should the Crown Prince be unable to produce children, he would become the pawn of those wanting to influence the succession. With a strong heir apparent and the King acting as regent to protect his weaker son, civil war would be avoided and the future preserved.

The irony, of course, is that Korea today is still strictly divided into classes based on family and the credentials the people obtain as they move through the education system. The Korean College Scholastic Ability Test replaces the rigorous Civil Service Examinations that were so important during the Joseon Dynasty. Without a high passing mark in a competitive field, there’s no chance of access to the better jobs. This is a Confucian view of what represents a just and fair outcome. The more objective the judgement of achievement, the more fair the exam is claimed to be and, therefore, the more access to the better opportunities in life can be controlled. In some senses, we may say little has changed since the Joseon Dynasty in which we had rigid class structures based on family and a rote-based learning and examination system. That’s why it’s all the more important to see figures like Seo Jang Geum and Dong Yi succeeding despite the lack of family and credentials. People today need to be reminded they too can beat rigid systems based on credentials, and succeed by setting up their own businesses or proving to others they have the skills. With the right attitude and an above-average level of ability, anyone can be a success!

Choi Jong-Hwan wonderful when on screen but underused

In a way all this allegory would be of little interest were it not for the quality of the performances from four of the actors. I cannot sing the praises of Ji Jin Hee too highly. It’s an immensely assured performance of great warmth, beautifully capturing the gentle man inside a ruler confident in his power. I prefer Han Hyo Joo’s portrayal of Dong Yi before she gets caught up in the end-game with the Jangs. Once the real fight begins, there’s a certain one-note quality to the acting. I think this is in part a problem with the script which makes her less positive and more reactive, but she does sit or stand around looking a bit lost for quite long periods of time. Lee So-Yeon as Jang Hee Bin remained compulsively watchable throughout. Even when she was on the ropes, she still managed to maintain a great public façade, only giving into frustrated tears when in private. Then, when Hee-Bin finally left, we could continue watching Choi Jong-Hwan as Jang Moo-Yul, the most interesting of all the court players. His chameleon-like ability to hide in plain view, not seeming to do anything but quietly advance his cause, was a delight. I was sorry he allowed himself to ignore the obvious. It was not wholly his fault. When you have been surrounded by people who consistently fit your model of how people behave, you can always be blindsided by the one or two who act differently. I hoped he would reach an accommodation much as Court Lady Yoo (Lim Seong-Min) took her second chance. It would have offered more hope for the future if an appeal to intelligence could produce an effective compromise.

It has been a wonderful three months watching this sageuk series unwind and my thanks go to the terrestrial station that screened it five days a week, albeit that it butchered the original episodes to produce more than seventy episodes. This confused me and all those who have been trying to relate my reviews to the original episode numbers.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end

August 11, 2011 46 comments

This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.

I suppose there should be rejoicing in the streets because the Jang clan has finally come unstuck. Their assassins have been captured and, with Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) undergoing treatment, Shim Woon-Taek (Kim Dong-Yoon) passes on the good news about the curse to the King (Ji Jin Hee). Needless to say, he’s very disappointed in everyone involved and suggests the interrogators ask a few pertinent questions. What makes this interesting are the reactions of Dong Yi, Crown Prince Kyung-Jong (Yoon Chan) and Jang Hee-Bin (Lee So-Yeon).

Shim Woon-Taek finally tells the King about the curse

For Dong Yi, there’s frustration. It need never have come to this if the Jang clan had made better choices. But it’s the old scorpion story of the animal that can’t change its essential nature. If you put a predator into a jungle, it fights for dominance. Sadly, the palace is a jungle where the most dangerous animals fight and kill. It should not be so but such is the way the power game is played. So Hee-Bin sees nothing wrong in trying to kill Dong Yi. That’s just the way the world works. Indeed, she has no faith Dong Yi can remain uncorrupted by those around her. As the threats to her son multiply, Hee-Bin expects Dong Yi to run into the arms of the strong as the only way of keeping the young Prince, Lee Geum (Lee Hyung-Suk) alive. Sooner or later, she opines, Dong Yi will kill or be killed.

This makes her realpolitik appeal at the last breath all the more calculating. Having said she will never apologise, she sees the only one left standing is the only one who might be able to protect the Crown Prince. So in the interests of preserving the Royal Succession, Hee-Bin falls to the ground and begs Dong Yi to be the Crown Prince’s mother. Hee-Bin finally goes with dignity, supping down the poison in a quiet ceremony in the palace. Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) and his mother, Lady Yoon (Choi Ran), have to face being carted through the streets where the likes of Lady Park (Lee Suk) can incite the crowd to throw stones — revenge is in vogue even though there may be karma involved.

Kim Yoo Suk as Jang Hee-Jae suffers a little torture before being executed

Wracked by guilt that his disclosures to the King have contributed to the uncovering of the family’s crimes, the Crown Prince wants to give up everything and die with his mother. Dong Yi and the young Prince are doing their best to rescue him from depression and there are signs of a thaw.

When Dong Yi refuses to become the new Queen, she avoids direct conflict with the nobility. The most extreme right-wingers are not only averse to bending the knee to a commoner, but even baulk at the notion of accepting a half-blood like the young prince. When Dong Yi also turns Jang Moo-Yul (Choi Jong-Hwan) away, he allies himself with the radical right who want to kill the young prince to avoid any problems with the succession. To achieve their aim, they plan to exploit the inexperience of the new Queen In-Won (Oh Yeon-Seo) and move the young prince out of the palace where he will be easier to kill.

Oh Yeon-Seo as the new Queen In-Won tries to ban the Crown Prince's porridge

The appointment of the new Queen is not explained. It seems to be a recruitment campaign where a few eligible ladies are headhunted into an interview panel with a winner eventually emerging. She seems to be a stickler for getting everything in the right place which makes the failure of the King to take her to one side to explain the situation all the more contrived. In their first serious meeting, Dong Yi warns her she will not get very far unless she quickly learns to distinguish truth from the more pervasive lies. In the lying corner comes Jang Moo-Yul who manipulates the Queen into marrying off the young prince. The court’s convention is that married princes have to live outside the palace. This threat shows Dong Yi at her most formidable. At the suggestion of Kim Goo-Sun (Maeng Sang-Hun), her exploitation of the local superstition about a kingly spirit potentially anointing the young prince is delightful. What’s also interesting is the new Queen’s incomprehension as to why Dong Yi should have selected the daughter of a scholar as the young prince’s wife. Jang Moo-Yul is quickly on the case, arguing this is obviously a deep-laid plot by Dong Yi to unseat the Crown Prince, but the Queen is showing she has a brain. A sign more obviously signalled when her attempt to turn away food prepared for the Crown Prince on safety grounds is rapidly rejected by the Crown Price who roundly asserts Dong Yi is the only one who cares about him in the palace.

The leader of the blood-thirsty right wing nobles

In the meantime, Jang Moo-Yul is struggling to understand the latest secret moves from the King. For him, it’s never appropriate to accept things at face value. A decision to confirm the Crown Prince as heir and throw Dong Yi out of the palace cannot be the real intention of a King known to be in love with Dong Yi. So, after killing a few guards, he knows the King intends to abdicate. He immediately jumps to the wrong conclusion, namely that Dong Yi would then have all the power and would come after him. So now, with the King out of the palace to talk with the Chinese about his proposed abdication, this is the time to launch a final attack to dispose of Dong Yi and the half-commoner prince.

Choi Jong-Hwan as Jang Moo-Yul arrested in his moment of triumph

It has been a delight to watch Jang Moo-Yul sitting or standing quietly as he calculates what’s happening. There’s a great calmness about him. But he’s hitched his horses to the wrong wagon this time. Even though it’s a well-crafted plot to threaten the Crown Prince and blame it on Dong Yi, and he thinks he can talk the Queen into arresting everyone (and hopefully executing them before the King returns), some of this is less than credible. Does he not think the King will see what has happened? Then we have the survival of Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) when he willingly runs into the trap. . . But, in the spirit of the program, this is a good way of ending all the conflict and giving the King a chance to purge all the most dangerous nobles. The new Queen turns out to be a human being behind her stickler facade and solves the problem of the royal succession.

I think we could have done without the marriage of Oh Ho-Yang (Yeo Ho-Min), the nutty son, to a Dong Yi look-alike, but it did provide some comic relief and tie up a script loose end. The final episode gives us a rerun of the original scenario of a murder blamed on an innocent commoner. But now Dong Yi has set herself up as a Champion of the People, all investigative hands are called into play and the King has fun stomping on the corrupt nobility and their lackeys. There are moments of sentimentality but it has a feel-good quality about it that celebrates the spirit of the show. It’s good to see Chief Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon) smile again. He went from happy minion to dour leader after the death of his father, but now can finally relax as he also leaves the palace. Uncle Cha outlives everyone and the Kingly kids look into the future with bright eyes thanks to the good upbringing from the King and Dong Yi.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

The Assault or L’assaut (2010)

When I was young, there was an experimental movement in film-making that we can now authoritatively call cinéma vérité. Both in true documentary and fictional forms, the director’s intention is to maximise the capture of reality on the screen. Some have believed the best way to do this is to hide the cameras. This would mean everything on the screen is unscripted and unrehearsed. All would, of course, be filtered through the director’s eye when it comes to cutting the raw images together and adding a soundtrack. But it would be “real life” on the screen. To a greater or lesser extent, other directors have moved away from this purist position depending on the extent to which they believe the known presence of the cameras affects the behaviour of those being filmed. Today we have “reality” shows on television where cameras follow groups of people in their “everyday” lives. We have been taught how to suspend disbelief given that many of those “captured” are behaving in a surprisingly uninhibited way. Ignoring the game-show formats, some of the more interesting are like Jersey Shore in which we watch people caught in an artificial situation. It’s a form of voyeurism albeit without the more overtly sexual content. Think of it being a voyeurism that breaches the usual presumption of privacy.

Vincent Elbaz as Thierry, a tired soldier stepping into the front line again

 

One of the features of all forms of reality filming is the use of the hand-held camera. This technique now appears in straight fiction where the intention is to heighten awareness of movement, to make the action feel more dynamic, if not real. One of the most interesting early examples of this style is The Battle of Algiers (1966) in which Gillo Pontecorvo made the film in the style of a documentary. Mostly shot in black-and-white, it’s considered one of the best of the early attempts to create a newsreel style portrayal of real events. Continuing in the theme of the conflict between Algeria and the occupying French, we now come to The Assault or L’assaut (2010), a recreation of the Christmas crisis in 1994 when four Algerian terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 8969 with the intention of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

 

There are several features which make this film by Julien Leclercq rather interesting. First, he knows his film will be compared to United 93 (2006) in which Americans were invited to confront a piece of their own history in the story of the real-life events on one of the planes hijacked on the 11th September. Both films carefully avoid sensationalising these events of national significance. What we might call melodrama has been limited. But, unlike Paul Greengrass, Julien Leclercq took the decision to include real newsreel footage. This takes us into the same territory occupied by Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), in which Michael Winterbottom uses both real and faked footage to enhance the sense of realism. The question, always, in this kind of film, is the extent to which it’s legitimate to fictionalise history. By definition, the moment you write a script, you are editorialising, deciding what to include or exclude, what emphasis to place on different events and characters. It’s so easy to lionise one side and demonise the other when it comes to stories about terrorism.

Aymen Saïdi as a man who passionately believes he is right

 

On balance, I think Julien Leclercq does a good job as director and joint scriptwriter with Simon Moutairou. The decades of conflict between France and Algeria showed both sides at their worst. That this film, as a French film, emerges with any sense of balance is a testament to the ability of a modern film-maker to forgive the enemies of his country’s past and to embrace both sides as warriors worthy of respect. I say this despite the lack of any background context for these events. I lived through this history with the Organisation de l’armée secrète’s campaign to destabilise the French government and frustrate the movement to independence eventually leading to the Algerian attacks on mainland France. I’m not sure whether this film would have benefitted from two minutes of historical introduction. Modern viewers are rather thrown into this story at the deep end knowing nothing of the background nor of the role of the French intervention force called GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale). Although we are now used to the idea of hijacking planes both to force governments to release political prisoners and to crash them into iconic buildings, I suspect a short introductory summary would have enhanced understanding of these events.

Mélanie Bernier, a victim of discrimination who still manages to tell the truth

 

The story takes three different strands. The first focuses on Thierry (Vincent Elbaz), a senior member of the elite commando force called the GIGN. He’s under psychological pressure, finding it difficult to cope with his shoot-first, ask-questions-later role. The relationship with his wife and young child adds depth to the character. We then have Carole (Mélanie Bernier) who’s struggling under the appalling weight of sexist discrimination in the Foreign Ministry. She has done the research and understands the risks rather better than her complacent male bosses. But she’s also not wholly ethical, being prepared to offer money to one branch of the terrorist group in the hope this will encourage them to call off the hijacking. Then we have the four terrorists led by Yahia (Aymen Saïdi). They come over as committed but emotionally vulnerable. The scene when Yahia’s mother tries to talk him into giving up is particularly telling. In another place, at another time, these would be good men leading ordinary lives with their families. Because of the lack of historical context, we are left to guess at what would have driven them to engage in this grand gesture of defiance.

 

The film leads us through the initial stages of the hijack as the four terrorists pray together, then just drive on to the tarmac and board the plane. These were the days before airport security was improved. At first, the Algerian government refuses to allow the plane to leave but, when a French citizen is shot, the French government insists the plane is allowed to fly into France. Now the stage is set for the countdown to the assault. The majority of the passengers were Algerian nationals. The terrorists made no discrimination between innocent and guilty. Everyone on the plane was a hostage. Remarkably, most survived.

 

There are several features in the final stages of this sad event that remain unclear. Why was the plane allowed to move from where it was first parked in Marseille? Why did the terrorists not simply start killing all the passengers. Why did the GIGN not shoot the terrorists through the windows of the plane? Such questions do not detract from the power of how the operation was concluded. Insofar as anything can be considered a triumph emerging from such a tragedy, this is what happened.

 

I’m not convinced this is the most entertaining of films. It certainly has no Hollywood pretensions to lift morale and show the “good guys” winning. Shot for much of the time in a pseudo-documentary “black and white”, it desaturates both the colour and, to some extent, the characters so that we can focus on the events as they unfold. This is not about the people so much as about the immediacy of what actually happened. This gives The Assault or L’assaut a raw intensity of emotional power. It commands attention from start to finish. I emerged from the cinema feeling saddened that humans can do such terrible things but heartened that, sometimes, people respond well in difficult situations. For those who enjoy realism, this is as good a film in the style of cinéma vérité as you are likely to see for a long time.

 

For a more general discussion of what constitutes a documentary, see Should historical films be like documentaries?

 

Out of the Waters by David Drake

Out of the Waters

Well here’s an author who’s managed to reinvent himself over the years. He started off life writing military SF in the Hammer’s Slammers series. Now he’s more a fantasy writer in a historical vein. Out of the Waters is the second in a new series called The Books of the Elements, and this sees us back in a Roman context. In fact my favourite book of this subgenre is Killer by Drake and Karl Edward Wagner which is an SF/horror/Roman mix. So it was interesting to come back to him with another classical mythology setting. Although, truth be told, we do get our mythologies rather mixed up in this series. Frankly, I thought the first, The Legions of Fire, was a mess with a hopeless conflation of different mythologies and universes, so I was not exactly looking forward to this second instalment. And, after some 100 pages, I was at the point of giving up. To say the characters are wooden and the plot leaden is to understate the level of boredom created.

The set-up is a stage spectacle that gets hijacked by supernatural powers. Instead of a tedious recycling of the exploits of Hercules, the crowd in this arena are suddenly shown what appears to be the destruction of Atlantis by a giant sea monster (or perhaps it’s really a very nice man having a bad day). Whatever the cause of the destruction, the city is very thoroughly flattened, leaving everyone suitably baffled as to what they have seen and why they have seen it. Now our key characters start independent investigations based on their interpretation of this vision. One can talk to trees. Well, to be precise, he can talk to the dryads who live inside trees which is very useful because ordinary humans never think that trees can witness a kidnapping or any other activity for that matter. Another can trip into another dimension and talk to a sybil who’s distinctly annoyed that her quiet life is disrupted by a not very bright human magician who refuses to get serious about his magical abilities. And the trippy guy’s sister goes flying off on the back of a gryphon and falls back through time. So it’s a routine day for most of them.

David Drake showing good things can come in little packages

Anyway, around halfway through the book it vaguely wakes up with two kidnappings. Now suddenly, we have glass men, flying ships, a cyclops and divers other magical inventions all competing for our attention. So let’s begin again. Once upon a time, there was a city full of magicians. One was a royal pain in the afterburner because he was forever messing around with people — just like he’d read The Island of Dr Moreau. None of the others could stand against him except, possibly, one. He’s powerful but gentle. This lack of a killer instinct is a worrying feature so he has to grow into his role as a warrior. Time after time he loses but he keeps on growing stronger. Soon the humans around the conflict will be collateral damage. But, hey, that’s all right as long as the bad magician ends up dead.

After this summary, you’re wondering what all this has to do with Ancient Rome — a reasonable question. The answer is we’re in a multiverse story. The battle from the past is not limited to one timeline or dimension. It can spread and threaten life in all the sequential times or parallel dimensions. Once our hero recognises the risk to his time in Ancient Rome, he’s joining the battle. He may not be the world’s greatest warrior in the military sense of the word, but he’s prepared to sacrifice himself if that’s what it takes to save his version of the world.

So let’s be clear about this. The heart of the story is a not unpleasing metaphor for the process a person has to go through to become a soldier. We’re used to reading about the psychological problems faced by seasoned warriors after they return home from extended tours of duty on active service. Doing what it takes to survive in a theatre of war requires adjustments that do not sit comfortably alongside civilian life. So if David Drake had been prepared to insist TOR publish something the length of Hammer’s Slammers, i.e. around 300 pages in a mass market paperback, we might have had a reasonably good fantasy tale. But this is a 400 page hardback. The result is a story padded out way beyond a sustainable length. Whatever emotional power might have existed in the final resolution is washed away by the blindingly dull recital of facts about the Roman lifestyle, class structure, freeman and slave upward mobility, and so on. We even get taken on a shopping trip to buy dresses and, as all husbands who’ve waited around while their wife tries on yet another dress will know, this is not the most exciting experience in the world.

So if you’re a long-time fan of David Drake, Out of the Waters is yet another book for you to savour. It has all the trademark detail on life as it was in Roman times, plus folk with supernatural abilities, plus a new kind of naval engagement, and some sword (and claw) fighting. But if you’ve not previously tried David Drake, don’t read this. Instead, you should go back to read his earlier military SF which is economically written, excitingly heroic in its action, and often interesting in its assessment of the politics behind the various conflicts.

For a review of other books by David Drake, see:
The Heretic with Tony Daniel
Monsters of the Earth
Night & Demons
The Road of Danger.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Blind Fury by Lynda La Plante

Blind Fury is a police procedural by Lynda La Plante. This is the sixth book in the Anna Travis series and it turns out to be a balancing act between detail and plot development. Any judgement you make about the credibility of a book depends on how well it recreates the atmosphere of the place and the work done by its characters. This is set in an incident room and allied support facilities occupied by a group of detectives tasked with investigating a murder. As the plot develops, it expands from a single into a serial murder investigation. So we can follow this development, the main character, Anna Travis, makes what will prove to be a number of key discoveries. As in any good procedural, we’re allowed to watch over Travis’ shoulder as the detail builds up. This is both good news and bad. In any investigation, the police have an iceberg problem. There’s a vast amount of potentially useful information, but only a small amount of it rises above the water level into view. Salience is everything. Without being able to understand which elements of information are significant, it can be a frustrating process, often leading the investigators down blind alleys as “clues” peter out. So the good news for those who enjoy this type of book is that the construction of the plot is very clever and the way in which we see each layer of the onion slowly peeling back is fascinating. The setting feels real and the behaviour of the characters matches the stereotypes we’ve come to expect in this type of book. The bad news, such as it is, comes in two rather different ways.

In the best procedural novels, our point of view is solely through the eyes of the investigating officers. Assuming the author wants to play fair with the readers, we should have the same chance of working out what’s going on as the police do. However, on a number of occasions, we’re given omniscient author information about whether a particular person is dishonest. Frankly, I think this is cheating. I don’t mind more vague hints when the detective’s gut or some other metaphor for intuition twitches and suggests the witness is lying. But for us to be told explicitly that a witness is withholding or disposing of vital evidence breaks a golden rule. Second, the volume of detail is actually a little daunting. This book weighs in at 492 pages of text and, just as the police get somewhat frustrated as their investigation periodically seems to stall, there’s a similar threat to the reader. The only thing that saves us is that the broader narrative context is actually quite interesting although the ending is telegraphed quite early on. The only issues left to be resolved after the halfway point are how Travis and Langton will prove whodunnit and exactly how the Cameron Welsh situation will be resolved.

DCS James Langton is an experienced detective and, even from his superior position, he’s still mentoring Anna Travis and encouraging her — this despite the fact he dumped her as a lover earlier in the series. Once we enter the end-game, we get a proper chance to see Langton in action again. Up to that point he’s been involved in a supervisory role, to some extent directing operations and controlling finance, but apart from demonstrating that one witness has been lying, it’s been a Travis show. Unfortunately, she’s not yet good enough to be able to run an interview to exploit the psychological weaknesses of the well-prepared accused. Perhaps in the next book, she will have refined her skills but, in this book, it’s left to Langton to show us the art of a revealing interview. He builds on the good work done by Travis, and converts the intuition and hard work of a woman struggling to be a team-player, and gets a team result. Many of the characters return from the earlier books: Mike Lewis, Paul Barolli, Joan Faukland, and so on. This gives us continuity and expectations as to how they will behave. In the end, Langton proves to be a rock of stability. For Anna Travis, this is a roller-coaster ride from slight professional disengagement to full involvement at a professional and personal level, and then a further promotion for good work in the review board at the end.

Linda La Plante with her pocket-sized panther

If there’s a weak element in the story, it’s the subplot involving Cameron Welsh. This is a replication of the trope made famous by Thomas Harris in which a convicted criminal offers advice on the case from behind bars. We are all aware of Hannibal Lecter who first appears in Red Dragon where he’s consulted by Will Graham. Blind Fury follows in the footsteps of the Clarice Starling consultation, with our convicted felon obsessed by Anna and determined to insert himself into her latest case. Structurally, the commentary offered by Cameron Welsh is a kind of mirror to the police investigation. He does make some shrewd observations but, as with all such dangerously unstable personalities, you have to doubt his motives. He’s also a necessary device to take Anna out of London and into the path of a handsome young man as the potential love interest. This gives her a personal high and, because she never actually stops thinking about the case, it also inspires one or two useful insights.

So there you have it. Blind Fury is a somewhat densely written police procedural novel that rises above the wealth of detail to build and maintain interest as more potential murders are identified. The narrative arc of the characters continues in this sixth in the series and Anna seems to come through the fire of this investigation and its aftermath a stronger person. It will be interesting to see where the relationship with Langton will go in the next in the series. So, whether you have tried any of Lynda La Plante’s previous novels, Blind Fury can be read as a stand-alone novel or represents another excellent contribution to the story of Anna Travis.

For a review of the next book in the series, see Blood Line.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69

This is a spoiler-rich discussion of what happens in these episodes so do not read this post if you want the experience of watching the serial unfold onscreen. Further, these episode numbers are based on the terrestrial broadcasts I have seen and not on downloaded or DVD episodes. It’s possible that these numbers do not match your experience.

It’s always sad when a major character dies and, in this instance, the death of Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha Sun) is thoroughly milked. The King (Ji Jin Hee) is particularly affected by guilt because, as a marriage of convenience, he never actually loved the woman and showed her little warmth during her life. As alway, this is futile remorse. After her death, there’s nothing he can actually do to rescue his failings except honour her memory. As a dying request, she asks the King to make Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) the Queen. She believes this is the only way to protect both Princes. This creates a problem for the King because Dong Yi is not of noble blood and, inevitably, the conservatives in the court will object. In secret he plans to raise Dong Yi to a position that can only be filled by a noble. If confirmed, this will pave the way to her becoming Queen.

Dong Yi has been rather passive of late. When she started off, she was rather more can-do. For the last few episodes, she’s been wandering the palace looking a bit helpless while the Queen finally stepped into the battle directly. With the loss of the Queen, Dong Yi has lost a key friend and must now resume her more active stance. Even the young Prince, Lee Geum (Lee Hyung-Suk), gets in on the act, making a wreath to drive away the Queen’s illness only to deliver it too late. However, the sprog did at least find the half-burnt “voodoo” doll while grubbing around for the right kind of grass, so he did prove useful.

Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) rescues Crown Prince Kyung-Jong (Yoon Chan)

So now we have Dong Yi offering a truce to Jang Hee-Bin (Lee So-Yeon). She thinks back to the time when, dressed in her silk dress, the young court lady recognised her as the fugitive but let her go. To prove her good intentions she hands over the voodoo doll and its associated name tag. This tempts Lady Jang. She half wants to believe Dong Yi will keep her word. Except, of course, the not very bright and emotionally paranoid Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) sees a plot everywhere. He persuades her that Dong Yi is not sincere in handing over the doll and offering not to reveal the nature of the Crown Prince’s problem. Later, Jang Hee-Jae sees Jang Moo-Yul (Choi Jong-Hwan) hand over the Royal Nurse to Chief Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon). After all, that’s what a loyal Minister is expected to do. This confirms Hee-Jae’s suspicion that Dong Yi is plotting to stab Lady Jang in the back. It does not occur to Hee-Jae that he has the timing the wrong way round and that, actually, it’s Jang Moo-Yul initiating the contact with Dong Yi yet to respond.

Jang Hee-Bin (Lee So-Yeon) and Jang Hee Jae (Kim Yoo Suk) plot their revenge

After bonding as brothers, the two Princes investigate the nature of the older one’s illness and crack the prescription. This creates an interesting dilemma for the Crown Prince Kyung-Jong (Yoon Chan). Whatever his faults, he’s sufficiently experienced in court matters to understand the significance of his inability to produce an heir. So then we’re back into melodrama with the two princes going walk-about in the marketplace and the Crown Prince being arrested as a pickpocket. This is resolved in the worst kind of deus ex way with Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) magically materialising in just the right part of the rural outskirts to pluck the escaping Prince from the jaws of recapture.

Now we’re into the more interesting political bit with the nobles up in arms that the young Prince was trying to get the Crown Prince killed so that he could take over the reins of power. Jang Moo-Yul is particularly exercised by Dong Yi’s continuing failure to exploit her knowledge of the Crown Prince’s condition. He understands the nobles would drop the Crown Prince in a heartbeat if they knew he was impotent. He doesn’t understand she’s protecting both Princes. When he takes the initiative and mentions the fact of an illness to the factions supporting the Crown Prince, Dong Yi is back to blackmail him over his capture of the nurse. If he gets more explicit as to the nature of the illness, she will produce the nurse and tell the King he was covering up the problem. At last a little backbone from our heroine.

Assassins manage to wound Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) (again)

When the young Prince is arrested for exposing the Crown Prince to danger and Lady Jang gets the campaign for expulsion from the Palace up and running, our Crown Prince demonstrates a high sense of morality. He’s been in training under an independent tutoring system to become a good king and now he finds himself unsuitable. Worse he sees his mother acting as a criminal to protect his position and undermine the future line of succession. Unable to stand this position, he goes to his father and tells him everything. Meanwhile the Oh family has captured the thugs who tried to hang Oh Ho-Yang (Yeo Ho-Min), the nutty son. When the beating starts, these spineless ruffians blow the whistle on Lady Yoon (Choi Ran). Ah, a perfect storm is breaking. The King is now on the warpath and discovers Lady Jang has been covering up the Crown Prince’s problem for a year. The whole carefully constructed web of lies is about to be exposed. The factions of nobles previously loyal to Lady Jang back away. It looks as if all is lost, so now’s the time for a last desperate strike. If the Jangs are going to fall, they decide to kill Dong Yi and the young Prince. They can pass on knowing they finally killed their enemies.

For once the melodrama is short and to the point. A fire is set in the palace and, during the confusion as loyal citizens are encouraged to enter the grounds as volunteer firemen, a team of assassins enters. Cha Jeon-Soo is on the job as he sees the men wearing sound-deadening footwear and he’s able to intervene. But not before Dong Yi has taken a sword cut as she falls on her son to protect him. Drama must be maximised. Then he’s quickly surveying those trying to leave the palace for the same footwear. This time they scoop up all the surviving assassins before they can get away. Now there must be consequences.

For more general discussions of the social and political context for the serial, see:
Dong Yi — the politics

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 70 to the end.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

August 2, 2011 1 comment

The question on the lips of every major studio executive with decision-making power over the projects that may be slated for release as a “summer blockbuster” is: what makes a good summer blockbuster? I guess, if you could put the magic formula in a bottle, those executives would batter down your door with wads of money to buy the bottle. It’s one of the great unexplained mysteries of modern society. Some films fit the bill, drawing crowds like bees to a honeypot. Others lie like rotting corpses and even the flies stay away. At one level, you could view the phenomenon as simple bean counting. The films that race to a billion dollars are the blockbusters regardless of their genre. They may be as exciting as toys coming to life or schoolboy wizards fighting to the death. This is a not unfair measure because, if the film really does a massive gross take, it must have mass market appeal. Yet there have been films launched as the next blockbuster only to be major commercial flops. They may have appeared to have all the right fast-paced action to qualify, but lack the magic ingredient to give them the appeal across the widest possible market. What makes this all the more fascinating is that, more often than not, the US market now delivers significantly less to the gross than the rest of the world. Take Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides as an example. At the time of writing, this has earned $1,032.8 million worldwide, but only 23.1% was box office in the US. That’s right: 76.9% of the revenue came from us folk living overseas! This has profound implications for the nature of a blockbuster. The script, casting and anything intended to catch the market must now reflect world taste (including the product placements). Hollywood on its own can no longer cut the mustard.

Chris Evans showing off his enhanced pectorals

 

This has been a year of alleged plenty with major studios lining up films, drumming out the loud message that each one was going to be the next “big one”. For me, this list has included some reasonably enjoyable efforts, but until Captain America: The First Avenger came along, I’d not felt I’d seen a blockbuster. Yes, I was thinking as I walked into the cinema, yet another Marvel Comics superhero brought to the screen. All this effort just so we can get to the first of what the studio intends to be the next big franchise: The Avengers — a group of superheroes hunting as a pack. And this is another grey-haired effort with our patriotic hero kicking off into action way back in 1941. What on Earth can a modern film make of a superhero fighting the Nazis in WWII?

Hugo Weaving before being forced behind yet another mask

 

Well, unlike Inglorious Basterds which went sideways into an alternative history so that Brad Pitt could win the war for the Allies, Captain America: The First Avenger makes it clear we are fighting Hydra which, for these purposes, is an organisation born out of the Nazi obsession with occultism, even prepared to bomb Berlin if it becomes necessary to achieve world domination. The leader of this Norse-inspired cult is the Red Skull or Johann Schmidt (poor Hugo Weaving, continuing his performances through layers of prosthetic make-up, from behind a mask or as a transforming truck) who was enhanced in an early experiment by Dr Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). This all leaves us with a series of actions fought alongside the conventional war against the Nazis. So we telescope geography to move us effortless around Europe and have major scientific advances courtesy of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) on our side and Dr Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) for the other team.

Hayley Atwell actually allowed to shoot a gun

 

At this point, I could say the entire project collapsed under its own weight as ponderous backstory and over-the-top CGI hit the screen. Except it doesn’t. It’s saved by three major elements. The script, the performances and the humour. For once, this avoids feeling like an artificial origin story. It has the same, more naturalistic feel that the first Nolan Batman had. It grows reasonably organically. Now we come to the script from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. This could have been “Captain America” as the worst of US chauvinism, yet the writers have elected to show him as a diffident man, rather gentle and certainly not in the rather triumphal spirit of US imperialism that would have killed its box-office appeal abroad. Indeed, as if to prove the point, the US government first elects to use him to pimp War Bonds. There’s no greater indignity to heap upon a superhero than to dress him in tights, have him prance in front of dancing girls, and shill for money. Even when he does start fighting for real, he remains a rather modest gentleman, content to take on a school bully and do no more harm than is strictly necessary to set the world to rights.

Tommy Lee Jones forced to sit through his own film

 

Secondly, the cast. Chris Evans as the titular Captain Steve Rogers is wonderfully reduced in size. Indeed, at one point sitting in the back seat of a car beside Hayley Atwell as the perky Brit agent Peggy Carter, I think the special effects team rather overdid the shrinking man bit. At other times, he really did look as if he would benefit from eating your last sandwich to bulk him out a little. Once enhanced, he’s taller. Fortunately Evans is able to put the awfulness of Johnny Storm behind him and deliver a performance of real sincerity. Tommy Lee Jones is intentionally hilarious as Colonel Chester Phillips which leads me to the third point. The entire cast looked as if they were enjoying themselves on the set. The chemistry between Chris Evans, Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones sets the trend of laugh-out-loud moments throughout. It significantly enhanced the packed cinema’s enjoyment of the film, avoiding the problems afflicting Thor which took itself far too seriously. All credit to Joe Johnston who directs with a sure, light touch emphasising the absurd with a series of knowing winks. The quality of the cast is also in its depth with seasoned pros turning up in the supporting roles — like Neal McDonough hiding behind an enormous moustache as Dum Dum Dougan. To complete your enjoyment, all you have to do is ignore the incompetence of the Hydra minions who couldn’t fight their way out of a soggy paper bag. Their inept reliance on superweaponry gets a little monotonous towards the end.

 

That said, Captain America: The First Avenger is quite simply the best of the summer blockbusters so far. For those who want uncomplicated fun while watching a story told well, you can’t improve on this.

 

This film has been shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation 2011 and for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation — Long.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor