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Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan (2011)

November 30, 2011 2 comments

Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan is a film that could have been very good with a large cash fund made available by producer Jackie Chan. It’s is set in a period of Chinese history where myths combine nicely with what we suppose was the reality, and gives film-makers the chance to really get their teeth into a good story. Set in the eleventh century, we follow on from the television series, the Young Warriors of the Yang Clan where most of the male line of Yang Generals has been wiped out thanks to the usual duplicity of senior court officers. The only General left is Yang Zongbao (Richie Ren) and he’s apparently cut down in a border confrontation with the army of Western Xia at Tianmenguan Pass when Pang (Ma Wu) refuses to send reinforcements (the standard way of disposing of a rival). With the invading army looking a real threat, the corrupt Emperor sends out all the widows plus a token army of men to defend the Song Dynasty from ruin. For those of you not into this particular piece of history, legend says the women of the Yang family were efficient and effective fighters, equally as good as their husbands but, because of the usual sexism of the day, they were always left behind to guard the children. In this case, however, there’s no choice when the Emperor’s command comes in. To protect the last of the male line, Yang Wenguang (Xiao Ming-Yuh), who is designated the leader, Taijun (Pei-pei Cheng), Mu Guiying (Cecelia Cheung) and the legendary Amazons set out for war.

Richie Ren as a warrior and before becoming a guerilla

 

At this point, I would like to be able to say we have an intelligent use of military strategy through which the outnumbered and physically weaker Amazons slowly wear down the invaders, pulling them into situations where their physical superiority will not overwhelm the women. Except the initial battle featuring Yang Zongbao set the tone for the rest of the film. The invaders pulled up just short of the city and attacked it with trebuchets. A few well directed stones brought down the walls at a conveniently limited point and out stepped the Yang hero to keep the invaders at bay. He whirled his guan dao around a bit, seemingly invincible, then ran back inside so he could send off a carrier pigeon to tell his wife he’s in trouble. During this time out, the enemy waited respectfully outside the city. When the bird was released, the enemy also released two predator birds, but two convenient archers on the city walls shot them down. Our hero then walked back out and started fighting again. In other words, it’s laughable as a siege. The walls are breached in minutes and then a few soldiers come forward to fight one man. I hadn’t realised battles were spectator sports for both sides.

Cecilia Cheung as a warrior at bay

 

Anyway, this sets the trend for fights to be very small scale, with ludicrously inept wire work and almost no martial arts skill on display. Wherever possible, these fights seem to be shot on a sound stage with green screen generated scenery around the actual fighters. Frankly, I can’t remember seeing a war film being shot in this incredible way. Under normal circumstances, you have waves of soldiers, backed up by cavalry, charging at each other and generally hacking each other to pieces. These have to be the worst choreographed battle scenes I have ever seen on a big screen. Indeed, most efforts for made-for-television series are better. To add further embarrassment, television companies are usually too professional to speed up the action. Not our director Frankie Chan. Here we have obviously trotting horses moving rapidly across the screen and, wherever possible, the fight scenes are accelerated and cut in a vain attempt to hide the fact most of the women couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.

 

But the real highlight comes when a section of our Amazon army gets itself caught in what should be a kill zone. This is supposedly a dead-end canyon. They are herded in and the enemy roll down burning tumbleweeds. Fortunately, the Amazons can retreat into a massive cave system — no attempt has been made to block the entrance. It’s sufficiently massive that everyone can run through it and all the burning bundles can bounce their way through after them. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more silly, the Amazons run out on to a ledge. There’s a chasm to cross. So, quick as a flash, they take off their chain mail and unravel it, platting the chains into two ropes. Archers then shoot these cables across the chasm, soldiers inch across and lie on top of these wires as the aged Pei-pei Cheng and others walk across their backs to safety.

Pei-pei Cheng as a matriarch getting ready to march to war

 

To cut a tediously long story short, it inevitably turns out that not only did our Yang hero survive, but he was also able to recruit and train guerillas who infiltrate the enemy and cause havoc in various unlikely ways. There’s a little incomprehensible politicking as Pang threatens not to send any reinforcements (again) and then victory as the enemy leader is cut down (although many of the Amazons and the older Yang hero die).

 

Frankly, I can’t imagine what the production team thought they were doing. Absolutely everything is at an unprecedented level of amateurishness. It’s cringeworthy from start to finish. The acting is wooden and, to be honest, I gave up trying to work out which Amazon was which. In any event, the individual characterisation was irrelevant. All the women were required to do was kill a few men, often with blood spurting out from unexpected places, and then perish in these individual acts of heroism. Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan is the second worst film of 2011 and you should only pay to see it if you can find humour in completely inept film-making.

 

Darkness Falling, Forever Twilight: Book 1 by Peter Crowther

November 28, 2011 Leave a comment

The initial set-up of Darkness Falling, Forever Twilight: Book 1 (Angry Robot, 2011) by Peter Crowther is not unlike the Seahorse in the Sky by Edmund Cooper where a group of people who start off on an international flight suddenly wake up in coffins on an island. If you think this is as dramatic as you can get, Mr Crowther has a flash of light and then just three people on the plane. Fortunately, one of them can fly although the landing proves more challenging than expected. So, at a stroke, we are presented with a puzzle. Where did all the people go? As the multiple points of view unwind, it seems this is a worldwide phenomenon. No matter what they were doing nor where they were, all but a handful of people have been left surrounded by wreckage. Why wreckage? Because our world is constantly in motion. Planes fly, trains whizz along tracks, and vehicles of all shapes and sizes move across the landscape. If you remove the controlling minds, all you have left is momentum until the inevitable crash.

At this point, I want to remember another book. I suppose I should apologise but, much as Mr Crowther populates his text with all manner of literary and film references, so I need steady points of reference to keep me on track. In Blue Light by Walter Mosley we have a kind of fantasy/horror novel about the transformative effect of a blue light that emanates from outer space. Each person touched by the light gains a special power. They are, if you like, elevated to a higher state of being with interesting abilities. Mr Crowther has a different coloured light and the effect is somewhat more powerful in removing the majority of the world’s population. It’s rather as if Scotty had beamed everyone up except for the valiant crew that would go to infinity (and, if necessary, beyond). But in drawing from some interestingly diverse sources, we have ourselves a rather pleasing, if somewhat old-fashioned, Rod Serling type story in which our survivors must find each other and then band together against adversity.

Peter Crowther — a Brit with American leanings

What makes all this intriguing is that there’s also a physical effect on the world. Whereas we would expect the sun to keep on rising in the East and falling gracefully out of sight into the West, there may be evidence of more tinkering on a cosmic scale. Since gravity seems unaffected, the world probably continues turning on its axis, radio signals initially seem to carry music to nearby radios, but there’s something distinctly wrong about the more usual cycle of day and night. And then, of course, there’s the Dark itself. Instinct is never completely reliable in books like this, but there does seem to be something to feared. . . Not that there appears to be anything particularly supernatural out and about, albeit the world has just experienced something inexplicable in current scientific terms. Then there’s a second light. Ah, now that may be a game-changer.

As to our cast of characters, we have a diverse bunch. With the exception of a serial killer and a woman with multiple personality disorder, they seem a random selection of the great unwashed but, I suppose, there will later prove to be some common factor that caused them to be saved from this mass extinction event (my apologies, I should have mentioned that all life seems to have disappeared from the land and air). For now, the survivors are moving across the landscape, aware of others who may, when they feel the time is right, more actively pursue and destroy them. It’s not a situation in which it’s easy to hope, and the fact one of their number is a killer does add an edge to the proceedings.

Which leaves me with two quite different thoughts with which to end. Peter Crowther is a man much to be admired for all the good work he has done with PS Publishing, the multiple award-winning small press. He also has a good editorial eye and, in this and other works, writes well. Darkness Falling is a substantially expanded version of the two novellas already published under the Forever Twilight shingle. They appeared in 2002 and 2009 respectively. I will refrain from spoilers because the underlying idea is actually an ingenious inversion of an old trope and you should read this first book in the new trilogy without preconceptions to see if you can solve the puzzle. As a piece of writing, it’s also interesting to see how the initial ideas have evolved over the years. Peter Crowther, the author, specialises in something mildly tricky. As a Brit he writes stories set in the US using the American vernacular. He does it rather well. This expanded version focuses on the characters of the survivors with the occasional omniscient authorial contribution. The prose style is slightly dense but there are odd illuminations of wit to ease us along. I feel it has spread itself out a little too much, but the overall result is pleasing and it leaves us set up nicely to investigate exactly what’s going on in the remaining volumes.

For an excellent anthology edited by Peter Crowther, see We Think, Therefore We Are. There’s also an excellent collection Jewels in the Dust.

The Dark at the End by F. Paul Wilson

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment

Mao Tse Tung once said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.” And then there’s that old Irish joke about the visiting American lost in the countryside who asks a farmer how to get to Dublin. The farmer advises, “I wouldn’t be starting from here if I were you. . .” All of which is a first step to a review of The Dark at the End by F. Paul Wilson (Gauntlet Press, 2011).

In my previous reviews I’ve been confidently writing the “news” that this volume completes the narrative arc to link up with Nightworld and so will be the last Repairman Jack novel. Yet, it seems pressure has been applied to Mr. Wilson (in the nicest possible way, of course, and probably involving the transfer of dollars) and the latest news is there will be three more books. This time he intends to fill in the gap between Jack’s arrival in New York and The Tomb. This will then be the new end and Jack will not be pining for New York. He will be no more. I’m not quite sure what I think of this. I suppose it will make a change to go back to his early days as an adult fixer — remember we’ve already seen him fixing a couple of things in Johnson which were a little tame — so it’s going to be all about Jack picking up experience while living under the radar. I’m not against the idea of Jack without the supernatural trappings. Some of the early novels do work well as almost pure thrillers. But we’ll have to wait and see how Jack’s moral code forms. One of the problems with the YA trilogy is the tendency to explain Jack’s early evolution. The difference between showing and telling led to some slightly soggy passages. As a mature fixer, Jack is formidable and just gets on without thinking to hard about what he’s doing. I fear we may meet a Jack who’s overintellectualising his development into a “hero”.

F. Paul Wilson dashing off another Repairman story

Which is my way of filling in before starting the review of The Dark at the End. The opening sections are actually rather flat, slightly lacking the characteristic Wilson sparkle on the prose front. There’s a rushed feel to it as if he’s working hard to summon enthusiasm for finishing this grand project and just wants to see it done. After a while, it settles down and gets more of a flow to it, but it’s not quite as smooth a read as some of the earlier books. As to the plot, we see everything now poised for Rasalom to unleash “Hell on Earth”. The Lady is no longer broadcasting and Jack’s attack on the One has failed. The way all the pieces are moved around the board is pleasingly precise, ensuring we get where we need to be for Nightworld to work — although, truth be told, Wilson has been at work revising the original which first appeared back in 1992. At lot has been happening in the intervening years and getting all the dots on the “i”s and crosses on the “t”s will take some tweaking. The definitive version is due out sometime in 2012.

So there you have it. For those of you who, like me have been waiting for this book, it delivers a good ending of the narrative arc. For everyone else, don’t start reading this series here. You won’t know who anyone is nor why they are acting in sometimes bizarre ways. If you genuinely want to be completest with Jack, start with the YA books and then get on to the series proper. If you want to big picture, follow this link for the storyline.

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
Bloodline
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

Circle of Enemies by Harry Connolly

November 24, 2011 2 comments

In the distant past when idioms were being formed out of the chaotic maelstrom of inchoate language, we lifted ourselves out of the slough of despond with thoughts like, “. . .with friends like this around me, why does it feel like a circle of enemies?” So here we go with the third (or fourth) outing by Harry Connolly in the Twenty Palaces series for Ray Lilly. As you will gather from the intro, it’s titled Circle of Enemies and it represents both good news and further fuel for my pet peeve.

So Ray, our wooden man, is provoked into action and, for once, initiates contact with the secret society, asking for help from his “boss”, Annalise Powliss. Having sent out the SOS, he jumps in his car and drives from Seatle to LA, a journey that takes him back to his old stamping ground and to the people who were variously friends and/or accomplices. Once he arrives, the action comes thick and fast as he navigates the narrow path between past friendships and current enmities. In part the moral conundrum for him to resolve is whether he should kill his erstwhile friends if he cannot save them (from themselves as much as from the predators). However, there are so many people who wander in and out of view during this novel that there’s little time to get to know any of them and no incentive to invest any empathy in caring what happens to them. There’s a lot of action, as I said, but although we are advancing steadily towards the end, this book feels less satisfying than the other two.

Harry Connolly giving his PC the finger

I suppose we see Ray developing his use of the ghost knife but, even though it’s applied in a slightly different context and against different predators, it getting to be repetitive. Ray can slash with it and, now with the power of his mind, make it whoosh around and so fly through “things” at a distance which is convenient. But the fighting is always set up as a kind of Jim Bowie encounter with our hero wielding a fixed-blade knife against various armed (or tentacled) enemies. The development comes in two different ways. He’s given a major new spell. This is like the existing tattoos in being essentially passive although, over time, it’s going to give him more resistance to injury and expend his life expectancy. Secondly, he’s making progress into the Twenty Palaces Society. This is not before time and, even now, it’s just a promise of a more detailed understanding in books to come. But Harry Connolly has at least realised the series will die unless he gives Ray Lilly better skills and some insight into exactly what the Society is and what it’s really fighting for. I think we’re rather past the altruism in defence of the planet stage. Everyone has their own agenda and keeping the world safe is certainly on their list of things to do, but. . .

Now we come to my continuing frustration with this series. As I have been at pains to point out in previous reviews, this is actually the fourth book but, so far only three have been published. In this episode, we are back in the place where it all started and meet some of the people who were involved in Ray’s initial trip into Empty Spaces, his creation of the knife spell and his first meeting with Annalise. Yet we are expected to swallow the usual backstory references without being given the basic courtesy of reading the first book in which it all happened. My reason for being particularly depressed is that, to my knowledge, two offers have been made to publish the first book, but these were refused. Frankly, I cannot imagine why this author should have such a reluctance to get the first book out of his bottom drawer and into the world as a published book.

The result of all this is a book with a lot of pace and action, but little involvement. There’s real hope for the metanarrative’s development if Harry Connolly carries through with his promise to allow us inside the Twenty Palaces Society and Ray learns about how to create and use more spells. Simply repeating the same fighting technique is already boring. We positively need something new. So, if you have not already done so, read the first two published books in this series. They are genuinely worth the effort. If you do choose to read Circle of Enemies, see it as marking time until the author moves the plot along into better pastures to explore. Hopefully, everything will get back on track in the fourth (or fifth) book as and when it appears in 2012. I will certainly read it, but the luster has started to come off the brand image.

Here are the reviews of the first two in the series: Child of Fire and Game of Cages.

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 26 to 32

November 22, 2011 2 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 I’m the wrong gender to appreciate this but if I found out I was a royal princess, the last thing I would do is sit on a rock for 24 hours and howl like a banshee. First, people would think someone had died (banshees have a terrible reputation) and second it might attract the wrong people to find out who was making such a racket. I might get a bit upset that people were trying to kill me but finding out I was brought up by a palace maid does not seem to justify this degree of despair. But if that’s how the script writers want to keep Deokman (Lee Yo-Won) out of the palace for a day, I suppose I’ll just have to accept it. While she’s away, everyone works out who she is except King Jinpyeong (Jo Min-Gi) who seems to be living in a bubble protected from outside influences by Eul Jae (Shin Goo) who, if I understand him properly, is one of these guys who will stop at nothing to defend his view of what the royalty should be, no matter what they think about it. Queen Ma Ya (Yoon Yoo Sun) meets her other daughter and is now lining up to protect her as best she can.

Kim Nam-Gil and Uhm Tae-Woong lining up with Lee Yo-Won

Meanwhile, Juk-bang (Lee Mun-Shik) gets kidnapped and spills the beans to Seol Won (Jeon No-Min). It was Doekman wot made me plant the petition, the battered figure gasps. Chil-Sook (Ahn Kil-Kang) conveniently gets his eyesight back just in time to see Deokman riding out of the palace with Kim Yu-Sin (Uhm Tae-Woong) pursued by Al-Chun (Lee Seung-Hyo) and Im-Jong (Kang Ji-Hoo). Passing on the news of the surviving twin to Mi-Sil makes it another perfect day for her.

So now everyone has to decide what to do. Eul Jae decides Deokman has to die so that the line of succession can be maintained. He therefore plans to marry Princess Cheon-Myeong (Park Yeh-Jin) to Kim Yu-Sin and offers this as a bribe to Kim Seo-Hyeon (Jeong Seong-Mo) to track down his son, rescue him and resolve the problem. Reluctantly to protect the interests of his clan, Papa Kim agrees. Mi-Sil decides she wants Deokman alive so that the whole story of the twins can be exposed, the King deposed and the country fall into her hands. She has spies everywhere and follow Papa Kim as he sets off to meet his son with loyal mercenaries by his side. They are poised to wait at a hut close to villages where the plague has hit. Papa Kim will send Deokman there to hide.

Kim Nam-Gil deciding who to support

Now Bi-Dam (Kim Nam-Gil) wanders into view (it’s about time we get to meet him) and, more importantly to catch a glance of Moon No (Jung Ho Bin) trying to help those sick with the plague. Now with everyone converging on the hut, battle lines will grow more clear. As befits a pupil of Moon No, Bi-Dam drives the first wave of kidnappers away and rescues Deokman. However, when Seol Won offers him access to a quantity of wild ginger, he agrees to deliver Deokman. He therefore locks up Kim Yu-Sin and ties Deokman to a tree.

Meanwhile, Mi-Sil is making her first moves. She produces Chil Sook in public where he testifies there was a twin and she’s still alive. However, the script writers have signalled Mi-Sil getting too sure of herself. When Se-Ri (Song Ok-Suk) the high priestess and a wise counsellor suggests Mi-Sil may be defying Heaven’s Will, our lady curls her lip in contempt and denies the power of anything supernatural to disturb her plans. Obviously, there will be a price to pay for her overconfidence. At this point I feel the need for another rant. I understand Mi-Sil is supposed to be the super evilest person on the face of the planet at this time in history, but the endlessly melodramatic slow close-ups of her as she plots her next wicked moves and twitches that little smile as she imagines all her enemies falling to dust — well all that’s growing really annoying. It drags out the minutes when we could be getting on with the story and just makes her look silly.

Lee Seun-Hyo as hwarang Al-Chun getting a little more screen time now

Back on the battlefield, Bi-Dam hands over Deokman to Seol Won and then decides to rescue her when Moon No is distressed at the price he paid to get the ginger. I suppose this is Mi-Sil’s bad blood warring with hard training methods from the good Moon No, but this boy is swinging wildly between twerp and hero with nothing in between. Anyway, between them, Yu-Sin and Bi-Dam rescue Doekman who was planning suicide by Seol Won. They jump off a cliff into a river and then hide in a cave. When challenged as to why he’s risking his life, Kim Yu-Sin comes close to saying he’s in love with Deokman — now there’s a surprise. In the palace, the Princess commissions Al-Chon to accompany her to discuss matters with Kim Seo-Hyeon. There’s now the makings of a small army lining up to rescue Deokman. As a good seer, the Priestess foresees bad omens and, when Mi-Sil refuses to listen, she persuades Mi-Saeng (Jeong Woong-In) to take action to kill Deokman before it’s too late. This leads to a long episode when the sisters variously dress as a warrior and women, thoroughly confusing all those in pursuit. Variously Seol Won, Bo-Jong (Baek Do-Bin) and Suk-Poom (Hong Kyoung-In) wander round the countryside and the assassin (Dae Nam-Bo — Ryu Sang-Wook) one of Mi-Saeng’s many sons) with poisoned arrows finally manages to shoot the Princess.

Park Ye-Jin bids farewell as the Princess

We now have an attempt to get into the Guinness Books of Records for the longest death scene on television. While Deokman and Bi-Dam do the miraculous dash across the landscape filled with soldiers looking for them, the Princess and Kim exchange a few acting pointers in a cave as Al-Chon goes out looking for herbs to help slow the poison. Needless to say, Deokman is too late. The Princess has finally given up on her record-breaking attempt. This leaves Al-Chon to ferry the body back towards civilisation while Deokman does her imitation of a shivering jelly for three days and nights.

Meanwhile Seol Won has captured the assassin who’s not saying too much, and then has a stand-off with Kim Seo-Hyeon that would have turned nasty had the Princess not been wheeled into view. Urgent word is sent to the court. King and Queen are devastated. Eul Jae says he’ll take the blame. Mi-Sil is frustrated because she can’t really pursue the question of the twins with the Princess dead. Mi-Saeng and the Seer are in fear because they have caused the death of the wrong twin. I suppose it’s all boiled up to a pivotal moment but I’m underwhelmed by it all.

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 1 to 6

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 7 to 15

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 16 to 25

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 26 to 32

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 33 to 40

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 41 to 50

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 51 to 62

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 63 to 68

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 69 to 74

The Great Queen Seon Deok or Seondeok Yeo Wang — episodes 75 to end

Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 1 to 11

November 20, 2011 2 comments

Far be it for me to start off along the expected route but, as I begin watching this series, I’m immediately reminded of Safe Guards or Tie Xue Bao Biao, which was aired by TVB in 2006. This is a story about a family running a successful business with succession issues. It’s always the way when you have sons, in this case, the competent one who can save the business is adopted and so hated by the natural heirs. Perhaps this overlap in my mind is inspired by the presence of Kwok Fung who was the patriarch of the family in Safe Guards and plays the pivotal Prince in the first episodes of Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (broadcast by TVB in 2010). Another figure reappearing is Wayne Lai who was the patriarch’s brother in Safe Guards and now appears as Chai Kau, an inexperienced and temperamental man learning fast how to survive in a big city. When we get to the third wife, Lau Fong it seems she was an armed guard and uses the same knife-in-the-shoe trick. There’s an amazing loss of confidence in this character who’s shown physically fighting in a flashback, but has become a frightened mouse by the time this series starts.

Hong Bo Kei (Sheren Tang) as the loyal matriarch

Yes, in Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong there’s already something deeply familiar about the set up with three stepbrothers — Cheung Bit Man (Pierre Ngo), Cheung Bit Mo (Kelvin Leung), and Cheung Bit Ching (Ron Ng) — one of whom is obviously devious and somewhat corrupt, the dim one and the competent one. At the start of the first episode, there are three wives — Yan Fung Yee (Susan Tse), Pang Kiu (Kiki Sheung) and Lau Fong — for the wealthy rice producer and dealer Cheung Kiu (Elliot Yue) and a fourth Hong Bo Kei (Sheren Tang) is added. Needless to say, this fourth wife is obviously going to be the saviour before and after her husband falls into a coma. This is not to predict this is going to be a boring rerun. In fact, Safe Guards was somewhat poor so it’s not a high bar to jump over.

The mainland Chinese are also fairly contemptuous of this new serial, seeing an overlap with The Grand Gate Mansion or Da Zhai Men which is also about a Qing Dynasty family business dealing in TCM. It ran for some 80 episodes and followed the generations through to the 1950s. In that it has a matriarchal rather than a patriarchal figure, it’s perhaps slightly closer to Rosy Business in style but rather more ambitious in coverage through time. The mainland dramas tend to focus on the historical period as much as the drama, ensuring we get a good view of the struggle the characters have to survive. The Hong Kong equivalents pay less attention to the history and just get on with the story.

Chai Kau (Wayne Lai) running hot and cold

So here comes that story. Hong Bo Kei is the only survivor of a magistrate’s family who took the Emperor’s rice to feed the starving poor. She’s been working in the Prince’s home as a cook but now marries into the rice magnate’s family. As the first-born son, Cheung Bit Man thinks he’s entitled to inherit, pays the men below market rates and cheats them whenever possible. When he asks the men how to increase rice production, Chai Kau tells him to kill all the birds. Fortunately, Hong Bo Kei is able to stop this and so avoid the inevitable famine. Cheung Bit Man son took the credit for the idea and so gets the blame. Kidnappers then take Cheung Bit Mo (only his mother would notice this loss). Hong Bo Kei takes command and, with the help of Chai Kau, tricks the kidnappers into running away. When Cheung Bit Man tries to take yet more credit, his father gets so angry the disinheritance now looks a certainty. With famine in adjacent provinces, the local triad run by Pang Hang (Lee Sing Cheung) the brother of the second wife, demands a 30% increase in shipping costs. Chai Kau has been humiliated by the triad boss three times and wants revenge. He proposes to move the rice across the land. It’s more expensive but better than paying more to the triad.

Yan Fung Yee (Susan Tse) as troublemaker in chief

Except it would be wiser to contact known gangsters on the route before setting off. That way, you can buy safe passage. What we actually have is a stupid attempt to run the blockade and have the rice stolen. Now our intrepid Chai Kau has to use his wiles to get the rice back. Frankly, this is tedious and uninvolving. But, when the new armed guards bring the rice into town, it sets up the potential for intergang rivalry. Yet this fizzles out as a compromise is reached with the delivery being split between the two gangs. We then get into the tired plot situation of the owner of the business dropping into a coma without making a definitive arrangement leaving control of the business to Hong Bo Kei. Yan Fung Yee convinces Pang Kiu into turning against Hong Bo Kei. Lau Fong is, as usual, annoyingly weepy and submissive. After some interminable twists and turns, Hong Bo Kei is confirmed in charge. This is a serious waste of two hours.

Ron Ng and Kelvin Leung: the good and the dim

At this point, we get into a tiresome subplot involving Chai Kau. Pang Heng has a mistress who is routinely unfaithful with Cheung Bit Man. He persuades her to seduce Chai Kau and then summons Pang Heng so the man can be caught in flagrante delicto. Yet again Hong Bo Kei has to save him. This time Pang Heng and his gang propose to torch Chai Kau. Once the immediate threat is over, the town shuns Chai Kau as a rapist so he’s thinking of running away to hide with the gang in the hills. This gang is proposing to go straight and run a haulage business. They want Chai Kau’s skills to make it a success. Yan Fung Yee then incites the second wife to frame some servants for theft. The idea is to drive out everyone loyal to Hong Bo Kei. Meanwhile, the old master just lies there with an occasional twitch of a finger to prove he’s still alive.

I take it back. Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong makes Safe Guards or Tie Xue Bao Biao look good. Both TVB serials are made on the cheap with threadbare stories. The reason for giving the nod to Safe Guards is that it was first in time with this plot and it did have slightly better production values. I suppose I will watch this to the end — I am, after all almost halfway through — but I will need plenty of alcohol to get me through.

For the review of the second half see: Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 12 to the end.

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third set of three episodes

November 19, 2011 Leave a comment

It was a close-run decision whether to continue watching but, as it turned out, The Moving Finger was the best of the series so far. Although this is not saying much, given the awfulness that has gone before, there was just enough encouragement. You can always hope you have the worst behind you. . . Anyway, this has Geraldine McEwan’s Marple rather more in the background, wandering around, often looking a bit dotty, but able to make pithy remarks of substance every now and again to show her brain is still working. The primary point of view falls to Jerry Burton (James D’Arcy) who failed to end it all on his motorbike (instead of crashing his plane in the original novel). I suppose it does give him more to chew on as he recovers both physically and emotionally in the backwater village of Lymstock. The casting of Ken Russell and Francis de la Tour as the Calthrops is faintly hilarious, but everyone else, surprisingly including Harry Enfield as the prissy solicitor, is held back. Although they are all caricatures, this village is not quite a jarring as some of the others we’ve been exposed to. I could have done without the knowing opening sequence showing the arrival of the Burtons in their red sportscar, but this script sat back and allowed the story to unfold at a steady pace. The trap for the murderer is all you would expect, but I can’t say as I like the staged suicide. The safety of all involved depends on the killer coming up with something not immediately fatal, so this scenario is all a bit contrived to let everyone emerge unscathed. Nevertheless, it’s reasonably enjoyable.

Jerry Burton dressed for dinner

And now a moment of reflection. Until a few years ago, I used to go to the RSC’s latest interpretations of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. There’s always something interesting to watch as different productions with different actors can bring out unexpected subtleties. The words themselves never change too much (although there was a very famous musical created out of Comedy of Errors where there were more substantial changes), but the entertainment experience can be very different. So when we come to a new set of adaptations of Miss Marple novels, there’s a chance for new light to shine on the usually clever plots. All of which brings me to the Sittaford Mystery. Frankly, at times, I thought I was watching a television version of The Mousetrap as a group of people, caught in the same place by heavy snow, try to work out who the killer is. Except this is neither the titular mystery nor the stage play. It’s just a travesty. I cannot recall ever seeing such a botched adaptation. This may not be one of Christie’s best books, but it deserves better than this. All I will say is that, while it may not be a bad idea to insert Miss Marple into this particular story, there’s absolutely no need to invent all this backstory about Egypt and trotting out Robert Hardy to do his Churchill impression is laughable. The whole proceeds at a funerial pace, delaying the important séance far too long and then producing a different murderer at the end. I suppose the murder only comes after an hour because Timothy Dalton was cast as the victim. Had it been anyone less prestigious, we could have killed him in the first few scenes and made progress with the plot. This adaptation is not entertaining in its own right nor is it in any way faithful to the Christie original.

Timothy Dalton looking Prime Minister material

All of which brings us to Nemesis. I have no great brief to defend the novel. Being the last Miss Marple novel and one of the last books she wrote before dying, it’s rather plodding in execution although the idea is up to the usual Agatha Christie standard. But the slowness of the novel is not an excuse to substantially rewrite the plot. I suppose if I came to the television adaptation not knowing anything about the original, it would seem quite a clever idea to maroon everyone on a tour bus. That said, the pace of the story on screen is turgid and the last act in the convent the worst kind of melodrama. As an adaptation, I can see absolutely no justification for radically changing the plot to omit one murder and change everything about the motivation for the original death, to convert Clotilde (Amanda Burton) and Anthea (now renamed Sister Agnes and played by Anne Reid) into nuns, to introduce Miss Marple’s nephew, Raymond West (Richard E Grant), to no good purpose and to omit Professor Wanstead who was important in resolving the crime in the novel.

Geraldine McEwan and Anne Reid trying to spot the murderer

I have to say I cannot imagine anyone less like the original Nemesis than Geraldine McEwan. She’s there with a twinkle in her eye and a slightly dotty look, completely unlike the spirit of divine retribution who’s supposed to have been remorseless in delivering just deserts (whether they were wanted or not). For this adaptation to work, we have to be prepared to believe the dead millionaire essentially did all the detective work before he died and could then persuade everyone implicated to turn up for the tour. His problem was that he didn’t have any actual evidence as to whodunnit and so must rely on Miss Maple to produce the confession. In neither case is this convincing. If there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to suggest a crime had been committed, no sane millionaire would rely on a person as portrayed by Geraldine McEwan to complete the investigation. Her decision to include the philandering and blocked author as her sidekick says it all. Neither one of them can cut the mustard, even if he was in the library with the candlestick.

For reviews of other Agatha Christie stories and novels, see:

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2007) — the final set of three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Blue Geranium (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Endless Night (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Greenshaw’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Murder is Easy (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Pale Horse (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: The Secret of Chimneys (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: They Do It with Mirrors (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Marple: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Big Four (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Case of the Missing Will (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Chocolate Box (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Clocks (2009)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Folly (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Dead Man’s Mirror (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Elephants Can Remember (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Hallowe’en Party (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Three Act Tragedy (2011)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Underdog (1993)
Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Yellow Iris (1993)

Kaiji 2 or Jinsei dakkai gêmu (2011)

November 18, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the more interesting tropes for any art form to explore is the potential for dystopia as the income gap widens. If we turn back several centuries, we find societies which, at the top levels, we consider civilisations. Except the only reason they were able to function at that level of sophistication was because of the large contingent of slaves to do all the essential menial work. Coming up to more modern times, we substituted what’s now euphemistically called the working class for explicit slaves. These people were either indentured (effectively the same as slavery) or sold their labour for minimal wages (sometimes at insufficient rates to pay all the bills at the company stores). Only in the last hundred or so years have we seen some of the worst excesses of exploitation scaled back with “ordinary” people given more respect and a living wage. Yet, we can all tremble at the thought of what might happen if there’s a prolonged economic collapse.

Our heroes Tatsuya Fujiwara, Teruyuki Kagawa, Katsuhisa Namase and Yuriko Yoshitaka up against the Swamp

 

Suppose the world trading system breaks down and we repeat the Great Depression of the 1930s only finding it goes on indefinitely. How many people would fall so deeply into debt the only way they could possibly begin to pay it off would be by working for the lender for nothing more than food and accommodation? This would slowly recreate the old working practices of indenture and, in effect, restore the slave class.

 

Kaiji began life as a manga, also known as Ultimate Survivor Kaiji, written by Nobuyuki Fukumoto and, as is often the way with successful manga, it was then adapted as two anime series, Gyakkyō Burai Kaiji: Ultimate Survivor and Gyakkyō Burai Kaiji: Hakairoku-hen. As this latest title suggests, Kaiji 2 or Jinsei dakkai gêmu is the second live action film following the original manga story.

Yûsuke Iseya with some cash in hand

 

So in this alternate version of contemporary reality, we have a society where a slave class live and work in underground mines. If they can find enough money to pay off some of their debts, they can make it back to the surface but only for a limited time. Only if all their debts are repaid can they remain on the surface permanently. Not that life is any less unkind on the surface, you understand. Many are homeless and there’s little work. That makes it easy to fall back into debt and so qualify for working underground again. The majority live in despair and simply aim for survival with the least pain. But desperation drives many to gamble. For the lucky few who hit it big, there can be a better life. Except where do you find the biggest odds? Here we have an inversion of the old “bread and circuses” which used to keep the Roman mob entertained. Now there are death games for the entertainment of the bored and wealthy. Some will bet on who will survive. Others merely come to cheer on the winners. The largest corporation providing this entertainment is Teiai. It owns a number of gaming establishments where the death games can be organised. In the first live action film, Kaiji (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is induced into starting to play for maximum returns by Rinko Endo (Yûki Amami). In the end, he manages to survive the games (all of which are rigged to produce the maximum number of losers) but, by the time we start this second episode, he’s back underground. By exposing a fraud, he’s able to put together enough money to buy himself out of the underground for a few days. With a small amount of cash, he needs to win big to pay off not only his own debt, but also the debts of everyone who clubbed together to buy him out. Primed to meet him by Teiai, Tonegawa (Teruyuki Kagawa) directs him to a casino with a game big enough to win all the money he needs to free his friends.

 

The pit boss of the casino is Seiya Ichijo (Yûsuke Iseya). This old building has an underground entertainment arena where gamblers may be torn to pieces by wild animals if they guess wrong, and on a higher floor, a massive Pachinko machine called the Swamp (possibly because everyone’s hopes get sucked down into the mire). On his first visit to the casino, Kaiji meets Kotaro Sakazaki (Katsuhisa Namase). He’s a naive but determined construction engineer who’s spent considerable time and effort working out how to beat the Swamp. Trying to get inside information, he recruited Yumi Ishida (Yuriko Yoshitaka). When Kaiji meets her, he realises she’s the daughter of one of the men he befriended in the first episode, but who fell to his death. She works in the casino and is able to supply important information about the rotation schedule for the different sets of traps in the Swamp. Tonegawa has also been working on a possible way to beat the machine but, like the others, he needs Kaiji’s skills to work out the optimum way of beating the unbeatable machine.

The Princess (Yuriko Yoshitaka) or the lion

 

There’s a lot to like about this film. It’s a pleasing dystopian parable about the relationship between the rich and the poor with strong performances from Tatsuya Fujiwara and Teruyuki Kagawa. Yûsuke Iseya is somewhat melodramatic but this has a useful comic quality, and both Katsuhisa Namase and Yuriko Yoshitaka make the best of the supporting parts. Nevertheless, there’s a problem with the script and direction. The director, Tôya Satô, working from a script written by the original manga author Nobuyuki Fukumoto, fails to show consistent discipline in telling the story. As a result, the film overruns by about fifteen minutes, i.e. it should have stopped at two hours. The central sequences are particularly badly affected as our four “conspirators” confront the Swamp and watch all their strategies work their way through against the suspected countermeasures. Frankly, this just gets tedious, which is a shame because most of the rest of the film is told with reasonable economy and not a little wit. Indeed, there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.

 

So, overall, Kaiji 2 or Jinsei dakkai gêmu is worth seeing, not just by the fans of the original manga and anime, but also by “ordinary filmgoers”. If it has a message it’s that everyone can be relied on to be acting in their own best interests, but the real winners are those who can make friends. Indeed, if you have friends, who needs money?

 

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

November 17, 2011 1 comment

Change is something that comes hard to the majority. They grow comfortable with the status quo. They understand its rhythms. For the most part, they know how to survive its perils. Even an invitation to discuss change can seem a threat to the order of their lives. That’s one of the reasons why some societies or groups slowly curl up and die. For, no matter how much the majority may wish the world to pass them by, there’s always a bigger picture and, unless they modify their attitudes and behaviour to accommodate the newer realities, everything can be lost.

 

So here we come to The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. This is the sequel to Companion to Wolves which I thought uninspiring. You might therefore wonder why I should continue the saga. Indeed, having finished this volume which is now intended as the second book in a trilogy (nothing is worth writing unless it can be drawn out to interminable length as a trilogy), I’m faced with the same question. My optimism has been thwarted (yet again) as what could have been quite interesting themes were trampled into the mire.

 

This takes us back to the issue of change. We watch the combined forces of the humans, their wolves and the svartalfar wind up the campaign against the trolls and then the authors pose the question, “If all the trolls are gone now, what use are these warriors?” This is, of course, what every country asks of its standing army when the immediate enemy has been vanquished. Most of the rank and file conscripts happily lay down their weapons and pick up the ploughshares. They never wanted to risk their lives fighting and are grateful it’s all behind them. But there’s always going to be a hard core of professionals left on the shelf. In a developed country, this is less of a problem because governments can develop extended training programs and play war games. If they get too feisty, troops can be sent to fight in neighbouring states or in a good cause. This thins down their numbers and keeps them manageable. But before nation states emerged, there was less civil infrastructure and so most of the best fighters became mercenaries and drifted from one campaign to the next.

Elizabeth Bear faintly surprised with flowers in her hair

 

For authors, describing this drift into obscurity is not the stuff of bestsellerdom. The public want upbeat stories of heroism. This means they must fight and, in most cases, win or lose valiantly. Except killing off the major enemy at the end of the first book doesn’t exactly leave you overflowing with new enemies to fight. So this is always going to be slow going as our warriors get into a little local policing and go exploring. Except, about halfway through, we do get the emergence of the new threat. If you want a historical parallel, this is the equivalent of the Roman Army expanding its Empire ever further north. So an advance expeditionary force makes a probe into our heroes’ country and this involuntarily gives one of their number the chance to weigh up the newcomers’ potential. His reaction is to summon a grand council to discuss all the different Northern groups coming together to fight the common foe. This sets up the third book for the barbarians to defend their territory against the theoretically superior armies of Rome (Rhea for these purposes). Since the Rhean army seems to lack supernatural help, this will be a war of attrition. The invaders have superior technology, better discipline, numerical superiority, and better lines of supply. They can blockade the north and wear down the resistance.

Sarah Monette with books in her background

 

Meanwhile, back up north, our heroes discover there’s a svartalfar community on their doorstep. This gives us a better chance to view this race and to evaluate their powers. Also of potential interest is a cave system that might permit a large number of warriors and their wolves to live securely as and when General Winter decides to take the field. As countless invaders have discovered when trying to conquer Russia, the local forces are aided by the weather with the two seasonal rasputitsas flanking the winter itself. If you add in supernatural powers to communicate over distances and manipulate stone, the Rhean forces could be in for a rough welcome.

 

Except all this potential interest is lost as the pace is lumberingly slow. As in the first volume, I confess to giving up on trying to keep everyone’s name straight. I just don’t care enough to try remembering all these vaguely Norse names along with all the terminology of their culture. I can’t even be bothered to keep track of all the wolves and their human symbionts. At least the sex is toned down for this volume. We don’t have the same overt partying between the men and/or their animals. If that’s what turned you on the first time round, you’re going to find this disappointing.

 

So, unlike Companion To Wolves which we could broadly classify as a coming-of-age story with a fairly linear story as the trolls get mobilised, The Tempering of Men is a slightly sprawling story as different pieces are moved into place for the battles expected in the third volume. I grew increasingly bored and almost certainly will pass on the third volume. As a final thought, I even think the jacket artwork by Cliff Nielsen is twee rather than in any real sense frightening. When an artist is lining up to show a wolf confronting a troll, it would be helpful to make the man caught between them look interested in a fight.

 

For books by Elizabeth Bear, see A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette), Shoggoths in Bloom, Seven for a Secret, The White City and ad eternum. The books in a new trilogy are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky with Book of Iron an associated novella. For books by Sarah Monette, see The Bone Key, Corambis and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

When the Thrill Is Gone by Walter Mosley

November 15, 2011 1 comment

The title When the Thrill Is Gone by Walter Mosley, the third Leonid McGill mystery puts me in mind of one of my favourite blues guitarists, B B King. In terms of technique, his vibrato style of playing has never been matched (for the record, the only two people who had a more idiosyncratic technique were the remarkable Wes Montgomery whose ability to play octaves has never been matched and Django Reinhardt whose ability to play with only two fingers remains miraculous). Anyway, B B King took a blues song from the early 1950s and made it his own. It’s called “The Thrill Is Gone” and it contains the lines, “. . .I’ll still live on but so lonely I’ll be”.

 

Finding parallels between art forms is always a slight stretch but both Mosley and King share the same method of communicating with their respective audiences. They go for the simple melodic line. There’s nothing flashy or showy. They create the best possible music with the fewest possible words. Whereas other guitarists might wow the audience with riffs and arpeggio progressions at the edge of their techniques, a King solo has you humming along with elegant variations on the theme. Similarly, Mosley writes in simple, uncluttered sentences. Whereas other authors may produce complex sentence structures using extravagant vocabulary, he’s out to capture to rhythms of ordinary speech both as dialogue and for telling the story.

 

Anyway, the lyrics of “The Thrill Is Gone” capture the essence of McGill’s current predicament. He’s always been something of a loner. Personally, I blame an absentee father who wasn’t around to stand as a role model when it was most needed. This produced a man who rubs along with most he meets. Indeed, even when roused to anger, he still manages a certain level of politeness in his language even if not always in the level of violence. This is not to deny he has real friendships and can be ferociously loyal, but it takes something special in a person to penetrate his defences. He remains with his wife out of habit, i.e. the family kind of expect him to hang around with the teens playing the usual game, affecting a magnificent indifference that signals they probably care what their adoptive father does. His real love, Aura, is maintaining her distance. She saw what can happen to her man when one of his cases goes pear-shaped and finds herself indecisive. She would like to make the commitment but doesn’t know how she would react if, the next day, she received a telephone call saying he’d been shot and killed.

Walter Mosley looking good in a white hat

 

So McGill is between relationships and short of money when a client walks into the office and offers him a goodly sum of cash to warn off her husband who may be thinking about adding her to a list of murder victims. McGill, of course, is sceptical but, needing the money to pay the rent, he decides to dig a little and then call on the man. To add another complication, Harris Vartan appears and, as a favour, asks him to track down an old associate. Reluctantly, this gets added to the list of things to do and then we’re off and running. This is the usual mystery puzzle with two sisters and a brother in trouble. Naturally, our hero is soon teasing at the threads, aiming to unravel the knots and produce clarity. As is the way in this type of book, not everyone survives, but the body count is kept to a minimum and there’s a satisfying outcome for the people most at risk.

 

The secondary search for Vartan’s old friend also proves highly illuminating with McGill forced to reevaluate his view of the world and Vartan’s role in it. Some of the secondary characters also emerge in rather better condition than they started out and, if McGill has his way, he may well have found another to join him in the detective business.

 

As always with Walter Mosley, When the Thrill Is Gone is a beautifully smooth piece of prose delivering a top-notch story. I acknowledge a growing pleasure in watching McGill at work. As a character, he’s a fascinating creation and, rather like Socrates Fortlow, I rather wish I could meet him in the real world, hoping to stay on his good side, of course.

 

For reviews of other books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin
Jack Strong
Known to Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple.

 

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