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The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three edited by Ellen Datlow

August 21, 2011 1 comment

The beauty and value of a “best of” anthology is as a demonstration of the strength of the genre under review. Now let’s be clear about this and, in doing so, assume there are objective criteria for judging the quality of fiction. Yes, yes, I know. Please forgive my attempt at humour. There could never be anything even vaguely objective in the process of judging fiction. But suppose, by whatever criteria you apply, only ten of the thousand and more stories published in any year are worthy of being included as one of the best. To make up the page count, the rest will be valiant failures. But if a “best of” anthology contains significantly more great than merely good stories, and there are no bad stories, it suggests there were plenty of high quality stories to choose from. Yes, I know it ultimately comes down to the taste of the editor making the selections and whether his or her taste matches my own. But this year’s The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 3 (Night Shade Books, 2011) edited by Ellen Datlow contains such a range and diversity of different themes and prose styles that I’m reassured the horror (and fantasy) field remains strong. No matter what criteria you apply, this is a wonderful book.

Allusive stories are the most difficult to write because once you start putting words on a page you’re limiting their meaning and defining their message. “At the Riding School” by Cody Goodfellow is a particularly fine example of the art of suggesting the routine occurrence of terrible things in an exclusive gated community dedicated to the “schooling” of young women — or perhaps that should be rewritten to involve their induction into a form of religious cult rooted in classical mythology where the participants in the rites risk rape and death if they fail to control themselves and the animals they must ride.

Stories about death and an afterlife are always tricky things to write but, in “Mr. Pigsny”, Reggie Oliver comes up with something genuinely unique. This is a completely fascinating tale about a faun or, since he evidently speaks classical Greek, a satyr with possible leprechaun overtones given one of his dance styles in a pub. Although the changing picture has been done to death (pun intended) in this context, we should not care. This is simply a delight!

Ellen Datlow meets an admirer from Down Under

“City of the Dog’ by John Langan is also weirdly wonderful as our hero’s on-off relationship with his girlfriend is suddenly distracted by her admission of infidelity and, later, her disappearance. Of course, if you set off to rescue her, it helps if you believe the explanation of what’s happened to her. That our hero only later acknowledges the truth means he does lose her to the other man.

“Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls” by Brian Hodge reminds us that the power of our imagination is often strongest when we are young. Suppose all we needed to make a wish come true was the chance to draw it. That would make the power of the pen the ultimate weapon unless you tamed the savage beast of your childhood desires and reluctantly grew into a dull adult. Now that would be the real horror, just remembering what you might have lost.

“Lesser Demons”(1) by Norman Partridge makes you wonder what magic might lie behind the rise of the dead and the predators that eat their way out of their bodies. Except, of course, if you get too obsessed with questions, you might miss the simple solution at the end of a gun. “When the Zombies Win” by Karina Sumner-Smith is such an elegant idea, nicely expressed and admirably brief. It demonstrates a story does not need to be pages long to be a riotous success. “—30—”(2) by Laird Barron on the other hand remains a mystery to me. I was unimpressed when I first read it, and do not find it improves the second time around. Nevertheless, even though I feel it fails to focus properly, it’s beautifully written — perhaps that’s why I find the result so frustrating. It’s my sense of what could have been. . . For the record, I think the story listed in Honorable Mentions is far better.

“Fallen Boys” by Mark Morris strikes an interesting note with the annoying child. I’ve certainly met whiny kids like him and found the whole school trip beautifully balanced to set up the outcome when the lights go out. “Was She Wicked? Was She Good?” by M Rickert also sets up an interesting question about child development. It asks whether parents should discipline their children and, if so, how they should do it. Similarly, “The Fear” by Richard Harland creeps up on the reader as if you half-felt someone touch you on the shoulder but, when you turned, there was no-one there. It has a meticulously paced flow as investigators follow the trail of breadcrumbs to satisfy their curiosity about whether the horror director’s first film was ever finished.

“Till the Morning Comes” by Stephen Graham Jones encourages us to wonder what might be real in that half-waking time during the night when our bladder demands attention, but there’s fear in our heart. “Shomer” by Glen Hirshberg offers an insight into the ways of bereavement and death in the Jewish community. It’s always good when a story is both informative and potentially scary. “Oh I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside” by Christopher Fowler perfectly captures the hopelessness of life in a dead-end British seaside resort. It’s always amazing more of those imprisoned in these places don’t go on murder sprees to pass the time more interestingly. “The Obscure Bird” by Nicholas Royle is another of these weird ideas that works to inspire “horror” when you realise what’s going on. The last set of images is particularly striking.

“Transfiguration” by Richard Christian Matheson is powerful in a slightly off-beat way. It’s inclusion proves the admirable diversity of range in this anthology. This is another allusive story, this time about a trucker who, on his good days, thinks he’s an angel as he drives across the frozen landscape. “The Days of Flaming Motorcycles” is the best thing I’ve read by Catherynne M. Valente and one of the most interesting zombie stories of the year. “The Folding Man” by Joe R. Lansdale does a beautiful job in one of the most difficult tropes, namely maintaining the pace as the boys run for their lives. “Just Another Desert Night With Blood” by Joseph S. Pulver is as much about the writing as about the content. It’s highly stylised and somewhat poetic, but interesting. “Black and White Sky” by Tanith Lee is an outstanding story, beautifully evocative, recalling some of the classics of the early English natural disaster novels like J G Ballard’s The Wind From Nowhere. I’m not sure it’s horror, but it’s a superb read (who cares about genre boundaries, anyway?!). “At Night, When the Demons Come” by Ray Cluley continues a post-apocalypse vein with a story justifying acute misogyny. Who would have thought a few devils could cause so many problems when a few well-directed bullets can bring them down. There’s something disproportionate about the logic. Taking nothing away from the power of the story, it would be interesting to hear the author explain what happened to reduce the most gun-happy culture in the world to this sorry plight. And finally, “The Revel” is the second story by John Langan. This is wonderfully knowing, deconstructing the iconography of a werewolf story. It works beautifully both as a piece that could be used for academic study and for those who just want to read a very clever horror story.

Put all these elliptical comments together and you should get the message. The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 3 is a superb anthology, demonstrating just how well Ellen Datlow judges stories and picks winners.

(1) First appeared in Black Wings: Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

(2) First appeared in Occultation

Artwork by Allen Williams

For reviews of other books edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
Alien Sex
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
Blood and other cravings
Lovecraft Unbound
Supernatural Noir

Conan (2011)

August 19, 2011 6 comments

Well, if you’re going to write a review about Conan (2011), you have to start with the origin story, i.e. talk about Robert E. Howard. Now our Bob was not a run-of-the-mill spinner of barbarian tales. He could take everyday rubbish and elevate it to heroically bad rubbish. Because, not to put too fine a point on it, by Crom, he was a heroically bad writer. However, he did have one redeeming feature. He recognised that, if you’re to become a well-paid purveyor of heroic fantasy tales involving barbarians and their big swords, you must keep them short. Praise be to Bob the Merciful. Hence, almost without exception, all the Conan stories are thin adventure stories of only a few pages in length. That way we get the excitement before the boredom sets in. You see whereas ordinary humans have two halves of a brain to rub together to make fire, it’s doubtful Conan actually has a brain. He lives for his sword which, as those well-versed in metaphors will know, is that short, pointy thing you use to penetrate a woman.

Jason Momoa posing with his sword in Conan 2011

 

That said, I’m embarrassed to admit having read a fair percentage of the Conan stories (the best are those edited and/or written by Lin Carter, Sprague De Camp, Karl Edward Wagner, and a small army of others). Worse, I paid to see the Schwarzenegger films, the best of which is Red Sonja (starring Brigitte Nielsen) where Arnie played Prince Kalidor as if he was Conan. However, what remains in the memory is not our muscle-bound hero, but the voice (and presence) of James Earl Jones who was wonderful as Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian.

 

From all this, you will gather I’m delaying actually talking about Conan (2011). So, let’s put fear behind us and get to it.

 

After the voiceover monologue introducing the idea of wizardy goings-on in Hyboria, we’re led to expect a barbarian age. You should understand that all the worst sword and sorcery films have voiceovers. Just in case you don’t get the point, this film has two. The first bridges us from the great Darkness which is the cinema with the lights dimmed down, and introduces Ron Perlman who’s struggling in battle under the weight of too much hair. Having vanquished a few enemies with some swishes of his sword, he’s bearing down on his wife who, rather than go through labour in the heat of battle, insists on an instant caesarian section to bring Conan into the world. Fortunately Ron has also had a lot of practice with a knife as well as a sword.

Rachel Nichols looking virginal in Conan 2011

 

With the death of his mother, we move forward in time to the young Conan (Leo Howard). He’s a winner in the village fell running competition before the raid that will kill everyone else including his father. This is all mildly engaging with Conan displaying impressive fighting skills even before being taught to fight properly by his father — that’s Ron still sporting too much hair. Believe me when I tell you this is the only part of the film worth watching and it’s due in no small part to the screen presence of young Leo Howard. Then after another voiceover we’re into the main body of the film and we get our first glimpse of Jason Momoa. Essentially this is the same performance as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones but with a straight, not a curved, sword. I know Conan is supposed to be grim and somewhat unforgiving, but this performance is as completely humourless as it’s possible to get. I’ve had more laughs out of watching trees wave their branches about when a strong wind blows. To say this is a lumbering performance is to compliment the acting. To say this is a good fighting film is to praise the editors who managed to cobble sequences together where people die thanks to the sudden arrival of various weapons in their vicinity. Frankly, the Hollywood version of fighting is depressing when you compare it to the quality of work achieved in Hong Kong and China. It takes a skillful editor to hide the fact that none of the people on screen can fight properly using swords and the other weapons on display.

"Is this a mask I see before me?" asks Stephen Lang in Conan 2011

 

What passes for a plot is the usual episodic leap from one fight to the next. Conan shows he’s a good guy by rescuing slaves. Conan shows he’s a vengeful guy by rescuing a thief, allowing them both to be arrested and then killing all the guards in the slave camp (different slaves, different camp, you understand). Then he rescues the girl Tamara (Rachel Nichols) and just to prove love at first sight, he ties her up and stuffs a gag in her mouth as their first bondage session. The sex does come later but, in the version I saw, there was a very clumsy edit to remove the sordid details which, I assume, was the work of local censors.

 

Then we have a CGI-enhanced fight between Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), his witchy daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) and some sandmen. It’s at this point Tamara suddenly demonstrates she’s secretly been practicing self-defence because she pulls out a letter opener and proceeds to send a few sandmen back to ground. Later on in a fight on board a ship, she picks up a sword and kills a few highly trained soldiers with some timely thrusts. Her fencing coach would be proud.

Rose McGowan looking witchy in Conan 2011

 

After spilling all this blood, Tamara’s finally in the mood for sex but, after she’s reduced Conan to a slumbering hulk, she wanders into the forest where the witchy one (still channelling Charmed) captures her. Now she’s readied for the starring role in the big ceremony to bring back Mom from the underworld. Fortunately, Conan has time to drop into a nearby city, find the thief he almost got killed, and break in through the backdoor of Khalar Zym’s fortress. Having done so, our hero discovers the baddies have already left with their sacrificial victim. They must travel to the cliffs shaped like a skull — bit of a give-away that skull-cliff. It all comes out as you would expect in the big fight. Sorry, I should have put in a spoiler warning earlier, but I don’t think anyone will be surprised by the ending.

 

The best of the barbarian films are saved by their villains and some good fights. Stephen Lang makes a fair shot at being villainous until the director, Marcus Nispel, decides he should wear a balaclava — it’s supposed to be a bone mask come to life, but it just makes our poor villain look as if he’s wrapping up warm for winter. Rose McGowan is a complete failure at portraying evil. She’s just having a bad hair day every day. The fights are pathetic. So let’s say you don’t mind wasting your money, the thrill has gone out of knitting, and you feel the need for some real excitement in your life. Now, Conan is for you. Otherwise avoid it like the plague.

 

Categories: Books

Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2 (2011)

Do you remember how naïve we were when young? It’s so embarrassing to look back! All those weird and wonderful ideas we had before we were forced to grow up and join the real world. I mean, can you imagine how we used to think about sequels? That the story should follow on from where the first episode finished with the same characters! How stupid! How antique! Well we’re all postmodern now. So if our director makes Story and it’s a success, we’ll want to maximise our profit and draw the fan base into Story II. No-one will notice if it’s a completely different plot and doesn’t follow on from the first. We’ve got the Story brand, so Story II will sell like the proverbial hot cakes.

 

Welcome to Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2. As the name suggests, it’s a sequel to Overheard or Sit yan fung wan. Yet, the plot has absolutely nothing to do with the first. Well, that’s not strictly true. Both stories are about the use of surveillance technology in the corporate world. Overheard is about insider trading with a police investigation team losing its moral compass and wandering off the track of righteousness. Overheard 2 is about market manipulators who use their cash resources to drive target share prices up or down, depending on the futures contracts they have placed. To give the production team some credibility in using the sequel “trick”, there are some vital carry-overs.

Lau Ching Wan as a TV celebrity broker, Mason Law, in Overheard 2

 

We start off with the writer directors, Alan Mak and Felix Chong. They are the creative force behind the Infernal Affairs Trilogy and the free-standing The Lost Bladesman or Guan Yun Chang, and, to provide some continuity between Overheard parts 1 and 2, the producer brings back Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo and Daniel Wu who played the three police investigators in part 1. Louis Koo remains as a senior police officer called Ho with responsibility for overseeing the behaviour of the stock exchange and brokers. Lau Ching Wan is a high-profile broker, Mason Law, and Daniel Wu is Cho, the son of the man who, as leader of a group of market manipulators called the Landlord Club, first recruited Mason Law.

 

The theme is easily stated. The strength of society depends on enough good men accepting some responsibility for the community. If they act selfishly, exploiting their positions for personal gain, this corruption can wear down the fabric of society unless there’s a policing mechanism to catch enough of the dangerous men before too much damage is done.

Daniel Wu as Cho continuing the surveillance theme in Overheard 2

 

Mason Law is a top dealer, advising Hong Kong companies both in mergers and acquisitions, and in managing the defence to takeovers, hostile or otherwise. But there always comes a point when knowledge and experience are not enough. Sometimes, you can only win if you have the money in your hand. In one case, when his client has his financial back against the wall in a battle to keep control from a predatory American company, a local group called the Landlord Club steps forward. It secretly invites Mason Law to join and, with its money, he defends this and many local firms from outside takeover. Of course, the Club members benefit personally, but they start off as patriots. Mason Law and the leader of the Club are kindred spirits. They are fundamentally honourable men, but they bend the stock exchange rules to achieve the desired result of keeping ownership in Hong Kong’s hands. Then the Club gets into trouble. It has a rule. The oldest member must always assume responsibility, so Mason’s friend goes to jail. Subsequently, this man is killed in a fight.

 

Several years pass and, as the film starts, Mason finds himself under surveillance. He doesn’t know who’s responsible, but he’s afraid. Trying to evade this unknown pursuer, he’s involved in an accident. When the police look inside his car, they find some advanced surveillance equipment. In a follow-up, there’s a long chase when the watcher is flushed from cover. As the police investigation spreads, it becomes clear all the members of the Landlord Club are being watched. Except, that is, for their leader played by Kenneth Tsang Kong who now lives outside Hong Kong. No-one has seen him face-to-face for years.

Louis Koo and Michelle Ye decide marriage is a good thing in Overheard 2

 

So now we have our three players in motion. Louis Koo’s cop is waiting for his wife (played by Michelle Ye) to be released, having served time for insider dealing. Daniel Wu, when not watching the Landlord Club, cares for his mother who has Alzheimer’s. She misses her husband who died in jail and reminisces about the past with her son standing in for her husband. Lau Ching Wan finds the accumulated guilt of his role in the Landlord Club too much and wants out.

 

It’s a joy to see some screen veterans coming back into focus as the “villains”. Watch out for Kenneth Tsang Kong as the leader of the pack, backed up by Kong Ngai, Wu Fung and others. When you put this cast together, it represents formidable acting talent. It’s therefore a relief to be able to report this film an unqualified success. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it’s the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

 

This is a taut and economical thriller with just enough background information to give our three major characters the necessary emotional depth. The first major action sequence with Louis Koo in pursuit of Daniel Wu is a masterpiece of suspense which suddenly bursts into life as smoke and concussion grenades explode in the streets. But, overall, this is not a mindless action film. The writer directors have constructed a highly intelligent plot, focusing on how Hong Kong first benefits from, and then is endangered by, market manipulators. The main dynamic comes from whether Daniel Wu can achieve his aim. He has to fight but, in the main, it’s in self-defence. Fortunately, he finds both Louis Koo and Lau Ching Wan prepared to help, albeit for rather different reasons. In the end, manipulators are arrested, marriages may be saved, and mothers get the care they deserve. It sounds a neat resolution, but this film is honest. Debts to society are paid. There are no quick and easy answers. Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2 is a mature film by film-makers confident in their ability to tell a slightly complicated story with style, wit and panache. You should go out of your way to see it.

 

Other films featuring Lau Ching Wan:
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
The Great Magician
Life Without Principle
Mad Detective or San taam (2007)
Overheard

 

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
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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.