Archive for November, 2011

Why China Will Never Rule the World by Troy Parfitt

November 13, 2011 1 comment

Why China Will Never Rule the World by Troy Parfitt is something of a chimaera in that we have a travelogue with political attitude. As a yardstick, my favorite travel writer is Jan Morris. When she walks you through a town or city, she’s giving you a fully realised insight into her own experience, picking from the details to reveal the occasional incongruous note. Troy Parfitt is both more and less ambitious. Rather than a city, he aspires to survey an entire people by travelling to all the provinces of modern China. In some senses, therefore, this becomes more a journey reported by anecdote than through a detailed journal. Sadly, this task was performed more elegantly in Coast to Coast by Morris, but this book is nevertheless an interesting effort, in the main because the writing style is engaging and betrays a man of sophisticated sensibilities.


So, after a short introduction, we’re off on the first leg of our whistle-stop tour through China by deviating through Hong Kong for a permit, and then on to Macau and Guangzhou. For the first fifty pages or so, there’s a reasonably entertaining summary of our traveller’s experiences as he plumbs unsuspected depths and comes up with the slightly seamy side of life. As to the man, he admits a brief experiment with opium when younger — it’s always better to discuss the Opium Wars when you have some personal insight into what they were fighting about. Now heading for Hong Kong, he elects to stay in Chungking Mansions, one of the slightly more notorious places. His idea of a “good place to start” is to explore a red light area in the hope of rediscovering Nam Kock Hotel and The World of Suzie Wong. From this you will understand this is not a travel book in which our intrepid explorer moves without preplanning, sometimes landing on his feet and sometimes having adventures. Troy Parfitt knows where he’s going and has expectations about all the must-see places if you want to do all aspects of the history of China.


However, quite early on, we see signs of real attitude in his summary of China’s history as it bears on the status of Hong Kong and, later, Sun Yat-sen’s life. I have no particular brief for truth which, in most cases affecting China, is always a matter of opinion based on which sources you happen to have read. But Troy Parfitt seems somewhat contemptuous of China as a country and of a man whom some describe as the “Father of the Nation”. Indeed, referring back to the title of the book, our author has found evidence of China’s impoverished state and confirms a prejudice that the weaknesses he observes will prevent China from making a positive mark on the world. Motives are always complex and I wonder whether this book is genuinely inductive. We have observations of the world and then there’s extrapolation to generalisations. It’s a form of probabilistic reasoning. The issue as this book unwinds is whether the inductions are weak or strong, i.e. they offer genuine insights into the truth of what China is really like and what that means if China actively follows a path intended to lead to hegemony.

Troy Parfitt more at ease with the world


Then we’re off and running again, this time to Guilin and Yangshuo, then on to Kunming and Xoaguan. It’s all a little perfunctory with a few snapshots of people met and scenes observed. The only consistency comes from the reinforcement of the lack of cleanliness and the sheeplike quality of the people who kowtow to authority figures and lead (un)quiet lives. The tone doesn’t change when we get to Tibet. Indeed, it turns into another history lesson. It’s curious to find the travelogue stop and start in this way. It feels as though the descriptive journal of a traveller must be subordinated to the author’s more general opinions reflected in these historical summaries. As it unfolds, the mixture loses some momentum and grows more serious in tone. The only moments I smiled came when he reports the comment of a US ex-pat in Beijing who thinks the Chinese more friendly than the French, and when he discovers the delights of the Tsingtao Brewery.


Whereas others might see China as a country trying to dig itself out of a pit, he only sees the pit. This gives the tenor of the descriptions a relentlessly monochrome view. Most places have black and white qualities at the extreme. When you visit or actually live there as an ex-pat, you try to inhabit the shades of grey in-between. That’s where there’s some hope and you can try to fashion a normality out of the cultural strangeness around you. This is a man who has spent some ten years as an ex-pat in Taiwan teaching English to the local Chinese and learning Mandarin in return, not something you do unless you find the experience reasonably convenient to continue. Yet, by the time he’s visited seventeen of the twenty-two provinces of China, he’s had enough. Curiously, he’s not only disillusioned with the mainland Chinese, but also out of sorts with the Taiwanese. He ends the book by returning to his native Canada. In a sense, his modern anabasis and consequent writing of the book give him an opportunity to reflect on his life. This is not to say his peregrination was militaristic, but it does acquire a veneer of hostility as it continues. Cultures are strange beasts. Often they lie supine and unobserved until you rouse them into life. Only at that point does the nature of the beast come clearly into focus. For Troy Parfitt, prolonged exposure to the Confucianism implicit in the Chinese psyche has proved too much. He wants to feel comfortable again and decides this means reimmersion in a Western academic environment, surrounded by people with whom he feels more immediate affinity.


This is not to say his view of China or its people is wrong. I would not presume to make such a judgement. But I feel he writes without a sense of balance, i.e. the inductions are weak. Books are at their most persuasive when they rehearse a proper set of arguments for and against a proposition. When the author arrives at a reasoned conclusion, we can see the force of the winning argument. This feels more like a book written by a man who’s falling out of love with a culture. He’s convincing himself of the rightness of his decision to leave and go back to his roots. Hence, he paints the picture with a broadly negative brush. If you want to read a book telling you why not to visit China and/or what mistakes were made by leaders in its past, this is the book for you. The title, Why China Will Never Rule the World, sets the tone, the editorialisation is consistent, and you will not be disappointed by the finished product. But if you’re looking for nothing more than an engaging travelogue through parts of China and around Taiwan, or you want a book analysing the history of the late Qing Dynasty and the last century, find something else to read.


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


As a completely irrelevant aside, this is the first occasion on which I have ever seen an author not reserve copyright from the year of publication. The first edition is shown as published in 2011, but Mr. Parfitt only wishes his copyright to run from 2012.


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

November 13, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Well, the troop is full of confidence now they have been formally accepted as part of the Hwarang. They also discover the perks of free food courtesy of the state and the delights of female company to cook and serve it —supposedly they are kept at arm’s length but this doesn’t apply to Juk-bang (Lee Mun-Shik). The officers meet for a ceremonial drink. Bo-Jong (Baek Do-Bin) and Suk-Poom (Hong Kyoung-In) insult Kim Yu-Sin (Uhm Tae-Woong) who gets drunk and passes out while talking with Deokman (Lee Yo-Won). This gives Princess Cheon-Myeong (Park Yeh-Jin) a chance to sneak in for a chat still disguised as a nun. This is getting to be a more common feature as the twins find themselves comfortable in each other’s presence. Mi-Sil (Ko Hyun-Jung) refuses to do anything to attack Kim Seo-Hyeon (Jeong Seong-Mo). His return from the campaign has left him highly popular and it would be too obvious to bump him off immediately he returns to the court. There’s then an interesting piece of realpolitick. Mi-Sil explains her camp will always be disadvantaged because they are not of royal blood. They only have power because of the alliances they make. They cannot simply seize the throne. It will require support from all the major power brokers. If she’s known as too quick to kill her enemies, too many will keep their distance.

Deokman (Lee Yo-Won) under torture

Seol Won (Jeon No-Min) is angry he failed to kill Kim Seo-Hyeon on the battlefield and Bo-Jong takes this as a hint he should arrange for the man to die. He instructs an archer to lay in wait as the general leaves the evening meal to celebrate victory. As our fairly drunk Kim Seo-Hyeon passes close by where the Princess and Deokman are chatting, the assassin shoots an arrow but misses. However, he’s able to pin the blame on Deokman as the Princess runs off.

When the Princess returns to the palace King Jinpyeong (Jo Min-Gi) and Queen Ma Ya (Yoon Yoo Sun) are waiting for her. Upset she’s going to damage her status if she’s found to be flirting with the common troops, she’s confined to barracks and the royals prepare to let Deokman die. Fortunately Kim Yu-Sin is on the case. He leaks the news he’s found the nun and is going to get her. When Bo-Jong hears this, he sends the archer out again, but he’s caught and brought into the compound where Deokman is being tortured to death. The heroic assassin confesses his guilt and runs on to a sword held by Kim Yu-Sin. At this point, the Princess does a jail-break and runs into the compound. If anyone says anything to tie the Princess to Deokman, this could get difficult for everyone. Except Deokman passes out (such are the penalties of a torture session) and the King arrives which distracts everyone.

Princess (Park Yeh-Jin) to the rescue

Yet again, I want to complain about the fundamental stupidity of this cross dressing device. Even if she could manage to avoid detection while living in the same accommodation as the men and on the battlefield, how come the torturers didn’t notice. More to the point, I understand that medical science was weak in those distant days, but the Princess sends the Royal Physician to treat Deokman when she was released from torture. How could this doctor not tell the difference between a man and a woman? More importantly, did no-one undress her to see how badly injured she was or make arrangements for a change of clothes? Even more incredible is the speed of her recovery. She’s immediately up and walking. A day or so later, she’s running through the woods. So much for the effectiveness of the torture. Perhaps the torturers should go into spa management specialising in foot therapy.

We now get into what’s obviously going to be the next set-piece. When King Jin Heung was alive, he instructed Moon No to search for the source of Mi-Sil’s rise to power. The King Jinpyeong decides the Princess should take over this work. Moon No wrote a cryptic note about “Sadaham’s Plum Blossom” in his journal. The Princess, Eul Jae (Shin Goo), Deokman and Kim Yu-Sin try to make sense of that phrase, concluding it must have something to do with the early love affair between Mi-Sil and Sadaham. However, we then have Doekman and Kim Yu-Sin scouting a temple mentioned in the journal. They hide in plain sight and overhear a conversation between one of the monks and Mi-Sil’s brother Mi-Saeng (Jeong Woong-In) confirming that the Plum Blossom is on the way with a trade delegation due to arrive soon. This now confirms this magic ingredient as something to be imported and Deokman is going to infiltrate the mission to find out what it is. A raid on the temple finds Mi-Sil enjoying a quiet retreat for prayer and nothing else of significance.

Who would have thought a knowledge of how to cook curry would get Deokman through the door of the trade delegation’s accommodation. Anyway, with Juk-bang to pick the pocket of the suspect merchant and then cut a duplicate key, we have Deokman open the box and find herself looking at her own childhood book and the personal identity tag carried by her “mother” So-Hwa (Seo Young-Hee).

Kim Yu-Sin (Uhm Tae-Woong) discusses strategy with Deokman

Now we have two flashbacks to explain what’s going on. Chil-Sook (Ahn Kil-Kang) dug So-Hwa out of the sand and has been carefully looking after her while slowly working his way back to the capital. In a letter, he reports both maid and twin died in the fire. He sends the message to Mi-Sil through the merchant carrying the Plum Blossom. As to Mi-Sil, she had a passionate affair with Sadaham, partly to gain access to the lunar calendar he was working on. Even though she cheated on him, he still gave her the completed calendar before dying. This has allowed her to predict weather patterns and astronomical events with divine accuracy, beating the performance of the local priest using the local calendar. There’s then a demonstration of the “power” with Mi-Saeng producing a nice piece of stage management to get the message from Heaven across and a lunar eclipse as a sign of Heaven’s displeasure should the message be ignored.

Meanwhile Chil-Sook and So-Hwa have been picked up by Mi-Sil and medical attention is being lavished on both. Doekman has seen Chil-Sook but, because he’s all but lost his sight, he could not warn her away (yes, he may be a good guy now). Meanwhile we have an incredibly stupid set of maneouvres to get Deokman as a spy inside Mi-Sil’s camp and they are now chatting away on philosophy and statecraft. Except, Mi-Sil sees through this transparent ploy and taunts the Princess, Yim Yu-Sin and Deokman with the truth about the lunar calendar. What can they do when they can’t second guess the calendar? Such is the power of superstition in that culture (see Dong Yi — superstition and magic).

Mi-Sil (Ko Hyun-Jung) getting ready to reveal Heaven's will

The world now gets complicated as Deokman decides to get proactive to find out who she is. Juk-Bang plants a petition in the locked room but it’s intercepted by Eul Jae (Shin Goo). When he sees someone wants to return the old King’s dagger, he sends out Al-Chun (Lee Seung-Hyo) and some hand-picked troops to capture and/or kill the man at the designated place. Al-Chun fights with Deokman but lets her go, reporting this to Kim Yu-Sin. The Princess independently asks the King and Queen for details about the story of the twin. This triggers the King into inquiries about what’s happening in the Palace and he’s outraged by Eul Jae’s decision to search the Hwarang for evidence of who broke into the Palace to plant the petition. He stops this before Deokman is forced to undress in public but not before Juk-Bang works out Deokman is a woman. Walking through the Palace, he’s shocked to see So-Hwa wandering around before she’s rounded up by the Temple Maids. Knowing that the twin is a woman, the Princess and Kim Yu-Sin compare notes.

Now the secret is out, the Princess and Kim Yu-Sin decide it’s no longer safe for Deokman to stay in the capital. She must be removed to a place of safety. Except, to string out the plot, they decide not to tell her why. Meanwhile, Mi-Sil decides to separate Chil-Sook and So-Hwa only to have troops loyal to the King snatch her away. At least this turn of events enables Mi-Sil to confirm Chil-Sook’s loyalty. Now everyone pauses to decide what to do next except, in a moment of script madness, So-Hwa is allowed a sight of Deokman before she’s bundled away. Shame no-one gives her a piece of paper and a pen so she can overcome her speech problem.

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

The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

November 11, 2011 3 comments

The problem with any film is to strike a satisfactory balance between the medium selected for delivering the story and the content of that story. So, for example, a historical drama can aim for accuracy in the locations, the set dressing, costumes and so on, but, for the maximum accessibility to modern audiences, it may be necessary to allow better levels of lighting than would have been possible without modern technology, and update the vocabulary and accents so we can not only see them but also understand what they say. So here we have what is, in most senses of the word, an animated film rather than live action. This means we have occasionally wonderful sequences as where Snowy, Tintin’s fox terrier, is taking a short-cut through to the jetty at the docks. This involves him moving through a herd of cows. The humour of this would be impossible were this not a “cartoon”. Yet when we see many of the action sequences in which the humans are involved, they are much as you would expect of CGI sequences with actors posing in front of a blue screen. Indeed, most of the sequences could have been incorporated into a live action version of the story and most audiences would have lapped them up. This forces us to ask what benefit has flowed from making this as an animated film.

Tintin (Jamie Bell) with Thomson and Thompson


I suppose it all starts with the source material. While I freely confess to being an Astérix man through and through, collecting all the hardback editions both in English and, in some cases, a hilarious Latin, I never read Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin as a bande dessinée. I came to the stories as television animated versions broadcast in the early 1990s. This is somewhat unusual for me because I pride myself on having been a consistent filmgoer in the 1960s when there were two live action versions produced. Sadly, even though they were financially successful, I missed them. Yet this early success from the live action versions raises the question why Steven Spielberg should refuse live action in favour of animation. Frankly, having seen The Adventures of Tintin, I see no added benefit. I see only downside. The notion this is a homage to Hergé and so it must match the original by being animated is a nonsense. Each new generation should feel free to make the best possible version of the original. The fact we have live action capacity that can, in some cases, surpass what was only achievable on paper, should encourage the likes of Steven Spielberg to bring the same style and panache of the first Indiana Jones to bear.

Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) in his cups


To emphasise the point, no matter how clever the technology of motion capture, the figures on the screen appear animated. Although they move realistically and their expressions mimic those achieved by a human, we see them as simulations. What kills the realism is the lack of life in the eyes and the fine muscular movements we expect in facial expressions. Curiously, if the whole film is animated whether using the traditional methods pioneered by Disney in the hand-drawn form or in the modern computer-generated versions, none of the humans are considered realistic so we tend to accept the imperfections of their depiction more readily. The more real you strive to make the figures, the more the imperfections stand out. I have a mental picture of Andy Serkis playing Captain Haddock. Vocally, he was great fun to listen to. I imagine the physical performance would have been terrific. Unfortunately, the finished version we see is second best. I wish I’d seen a live action version. As a period piece set in the 1930s, Steven Spielberg could have benefitted from studying all the mistakes made when The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles hit our television screens twenty years ago. Tintin as the “boy journalist” is a perfect vehicle for a modern take on a thirties-style adventure story, particularly when it also gives the director the chance to direct a pirate attack on a treasure ship as a flashback. I think a great opportunity has been missed.

Sakharine (Daniel Craig) looking diabolically sweet


So where does all this leave us with the actual story we see? The answer is a curate’s egg. Forgive the old English idiom but it captures this film perfectly. The source of the idiom is an old joke in which a very polite curate is visiting the Bishop and shares a meal which includes an egg. The Bishop suspects the egg may be bad, but the Curate reassures him that parts of the egg are good. The modern interpretation sees the offending food as a mixture of good and bad, but rejects the idea of eating it because no-one likes to force themselves to eat the inedible. So there are some delightful moments in this film, mostly those relying on verbal humour, i.e. where the visuals are irrelevant to the enjoyment. I think my favourite visual sequence is the anticipation as our opera singer works her way up the register towards the magic note that will shatter glass. Vocally, Daniel Craig is wonderful as Ivanovich Sakharine and, as already mentioned, Andy Serkis steals the show as Haddock. None of the other vocal performances stand out. The lack of character in the voice of Jamie Bell as Tintin is particularly disappointing. He was good as Billy Elliot, but is ineffective here. No-one else gets a chance to shine.

Snowy watches the pickpocket at work


This leaves the whole as an indigestible mess, relying on extravagant set-pieces that make no sense as live action and lacking the inventiveness we would have expected of a purely animated film. So the chase involving the falcon and the three pieces of manuscript is poor in cartoon terms and a nonsense as live action unless we’re going to attribute intelligence to the bird. The final fight between the dockside cranes would have been better as live action. Because the Chuck Jones school of cartoon animation has taught us to believe the normal laws of physics don’t apply to animated characters, we don’t identify with the peril of heroes. If they are dismembered in one frame, we expect to see them membered again in the next. So Haddock and his nemesis can batter at each other for hours and we would never be able to vicariously feel their fear as steel girders bend and threaten to crush their bones.


In the cinema, I was surrounded by an essentially young audience and there was quite a lot of laughter which is always a good sign. But there were long periods of silence as they passed the popcorn and sucked on drinks. Taken overall, The Adventures of Tintin was a ho-hum kind of film that was inherently doomed to fail because it picked the wrong medium to deliver the story. As a pure cartoon, e.g. the opening credits were wonderful, or as a live action, this could have been highly entertaining — it is, when all’s said and done, a good story. But based on motion capture, I think it died.


Embassytown by China Miéville

November 10, 2011 5 comments

Thematically, the book follows the life of a young girl into adulthood. In her early years, she’s lucky enough to become a simile. As an adult, she has aspirations to upgrade her status and become a metaphor. From this you will understand Embassytown by China Miéville is a science fiction novel with pretensions to be about semiotics. This is not to say it is any the less exciting as a human enclave struggles to survive on an alien world. Nor is it to say you will not enjoy the book if you cannot immediately tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor. Suffice it to say the capacity of the humans and aliens to misunderstand each other becomes a kind of parable through which to explore the concept of meaning and the various mechanisms we may devise for transmitting that meaning. And for those of you who like circuitousness, a parable is actually an extended form of analogy: a methodology of more abstract thinking for transferring meaning from one area of understanding to another which includes the methods of both simile and metaphor. For these purposes, semiotics is at the top of the food-chain as the metamethodology. Now we’ve got that clear, let’s move on to the plot.


When humans meet aliens there’s a kind of hubris at work in the implicit assumption we will always be able to work out what they are saying. Even if they use a form of semaphore, waving their tentacles to each other in specific patterns, we tell ourselves we would be able to detect those patterns and attribute meanings. All it would take is a camera watching them in specific situations and, through their interaction with us, communication would inevitably follow. Except, of course, that assumes these alien beings see us as creatures with the intelligence to speak. Should we land on a planet and encounter a weird creature that sounded not unlike a cow, would we want to believe this was the basis of gossip about the latest episode of a soap on cable? There are always problems of perception and prejudice on both sides to overcome.


So it is with the Ariekei. It takes an accident to create a concept in the mind of these aliens that we are capable of intelligible speech. As a simile it would be like an aborigine encountering Westerners for the first time and learning we understand that part of the background noise as music to be enjoyed. The problem is that, without exemplars, how does the aborigine qualitatively distinguish piano jazz from death metal? To our innocent, it’s all just noise. So why is some noise more enjoyable than others? Unless and until you know what a piano is and understand the range of sounds it can make, you cannot distinguish that noise from, say, a double bass or a trombone. You have to train your ears to hear the different instruments, either comprehending the whole or picking out individual contributions to the group effort.


In any process of communication between two groups with different languages, the chances for miscommunication are high. The art of interpreting accurately depends on being able to define both the connotative and the denotative meanings. Language is not just superficial. It reflects the way we think and, more importantly, allows us to encode multiple meanings in simple phrases. So when two genuinely alien groups meet and they do not contrive an accurate method of communication, the relationship will exist on a shaky bridge that might collapse at any moment if one side inadvertently says the wrong thing. Out of fear, what is said and done will therefore be very small steps. No-one will want to take the chance of upsetting the agreement that allows the humans to stay on their world, nor disturb the small-scale trade which has some buyers fascinated by the alien biotechnology. When no-one’s sure what the other sides really wants, even simple bargaining is challenging.

China Miéville doing the "before" picture for the hair restorer ads.


When we start, the humans have been on the planet for several generations and our heroine is just about to make a name for herself — sorry that should be become a simile of herself. This is functionally important for the aliens but we humans have no idea what benefit the aliens derive from it. Our heroine then manages to leave the planet as a pilot, only to return some years later with her latest husband — a linguist/semiotician who’s always been fascinated by the few rather superficial reports of the Ariekei language. Joining them on this flight is a new ambassador. We actually learn a considerable amount about how ambassadors are produced and this latest addition to the squad comes from outside the usual circle. This difference has an unexpected effect on the aliens. Indeed, there’s an instant reaction to the first words spoken and, as they say, it’s all steadily downhill in interplanetary relations from then on. Indeed, before you can say antidisestablishmentarianism, the orthodoxy of the relationship is lost and, in their unique way, the aliens declare war on the humans. Since they are numerically superior, they will prevail unless our heroine can reach a better understanding of how their language works and, more importantly, how they think.


I confess to being hooked by the premise and awed by the execution. Unlike China Miéville’s New Weird or fantasy horror books, this is spartan prose — highly functional and without adornment. It takes the concept and thoroughly explores all the implications, never blinking when it’s necessary to deal with potentially horrific mutilation. In their struggle to come to terms with the human threat, some of the aliens break down physical barriers. Others work on a more intellectual level. So, taking the book as a whole, it’s a metaphor for how an individual changes his or her worldview or Weltanschauung. To survive, we all need an intellectual structure for holding and expressing our knowledge and understanding. This depends on a continuous interaction between what we perceive and the language we use to label and relate to the things perceived. When we want to remember a thing, we need certainty we are recalling the right information. We want that thing and that thing only. Fortunately, our heroine remembers this and is able to communicate it to the different alien groups in a way that restores order to society. Things can never be the same but, at least, neither side will knowingly wish to kill the other (for now at any rate).


Perhaps it seems premature to be talking about favourite titles by China Miéville. He has only written eight novels. But, for me, Embassytown is in the top three. It may not be his best by quite a wide margin, but it’s so far ahead of most of the other science fiction books published this year, it should be a serious contender for a Hugo, Nebula or something equally prestigious.


For all the reviews of books by China Miéville see: The City & the City, Embassytown, Kraken and Railsea.


As an aside, Embassytown has been shortlisted by the British Science Fiction Association for the Award of Best Novel 2011, for the 2012 Arthur C Clarke Award for Best Novel, for the Nebula Award for Best Novel 2011, for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novel and for the 2012 John W Campbell Memorial Award. It won the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.


The Iron Khan by Liz Williams

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

The Iron Khan by Liz Williams (Morrigan Books, 2010) is the fifth Detective Inspector Chan novel featuring the ever-expanding cast list from the previous novels plus a new villain, the eponymous Khan, who’s working his way up through the ranks of time to become the leader of as many different armies as he can conscript. This is quite an ingenious idea as the Khan wheels and deals his way through different times and dimensions, negotiating with local leaders or simply acquiring troops as he goes along. It’s not so much that he’s immortal. Rather that he’s managed to develop the power of drawing on the local magic to renew himself. Not surprisingly, his social reputation suffers as this includes a sadistic delight in sucking the life out of those he captures, which makes him a kind of vampire, but not the traditional blood-sucking variety.

So off we go with Inspector Chen himself summoned to Heaven to investigate the loss of an important book, while Zhu Irzh and Jhai fly off on a business and pleasure trip to look at the site of a new chemical plant. This leaves Inari and the familiar badger in the capable hands of Miss Qi, a Celestial warrior, as a blast from the past lands them in the Sea of Night rather closer than they would like to the ship on which the Empress of Heaven has been confined (supposedly for everyone’s safety). To make life more exciting, we have some very old mummies come back to life (only one of which survives), meet a ghost or two, watch a Japanese warrior come into his own, and find an old explorer to offer advice and assistance when the going gets tough. It all gets mixed together with considerable style (although I do confess to losing the badger at one point) as the Empress tries to recapture the power she once enjoyed and the Khan moves steadily forward in time until he arrives in Singapore 3 (after it gets put back where we expect it to be, of course). To find out why the Earth (although not the air) goes through several different versions, you’ll have to read this book.

Liz Williams looking a little fuzzy round the edges

Interestingly, we’re adding ever more different sets of belief systems and their respective Heavens and Hells. The entire Earth is a literal mosaic of different overlapping dimensions (none of which are supposed to fold together although they can co-exist side-by-side — linking people together so they can travel separately but together is not very logical since there’s no guarantee transport of equal speed would be available in each dimension). And that’s not forgetting the Between through which knowledgeable people can sneak or entire populations can escape to at a push. Then we have the little warrior en ventre sa mere who seems to be making an impression on everyone when the situation requires it. So it’s a busy universe.

One of the less pleasing changes has been the tone. When we started off on the Inspector Chen series, the feel of the prose was more formal and there was a general crispness about the entire enterprise. The Iron Khan has a more diffuse, slightly chatty style in which Liz Williams seems to be more directly narrating the story than acting as a dispassionate author. There’s also a slightly more free-wheeling approach to the plot development. Although everything does hang together quite neatly, I’m not wholly convinced the Khan emerges as a really credible threat. He’s left rather more in the shadow without us getting a clear look at him, while the Empress comes from the other side as a known quantity, but equally doesn’t really seem fully realised as dangerous. She lurks and only manages a little magic until her major effort at the end.

Then comes the very strange epilogue or separate short story titled The Lesson in which we see something of Chen’s early life as he goes through some weird kind of therapy to remember something important about his past. My confusion comes from the copyright reservation which is only for The Iron Khan. An additional short story is usually the subject of a separate assertion of authorial rights, but I struggle to see this as adding anything to the broader narrative of the novel. Finally, a general comment about the typesetting. We have a depressing number of widows and orphans, and in many instances, the kerning and tracking is terrible. I understand it takes a little longer to produce pagination that’s aesthetically pleasing, but it’s worth the effort. If a publisher is going to produce text with perfect justification, a little more thought should go into the typesetting. Then, we have the extraordinary appearance of hyphenation in The Lesson. Quite simply, this is wholly unprofessional.

So, ignoring the physical production problems, this is not one of the best Chen novels. If you’re going to do “good” vs “evil”, the “evil” should be better defined and the prose style should be more formal. The chatty tone is not quite right for the subject matter. Nevertheless The Iron Khan is an enjoyable romp as well-liked characters go through their paces. Since, at one point, it was doubtful this novel would ever see the light of day, it’s reassuring Liz Williams has negotiated the difficulties and emerged with a new book to her name. What’s scheduled to be the final Inspector Chen book for now is called Morningstar and is due at the end of 2011. I shall acquire it to see where the story goes next.

Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

The jacket artwork by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law is particularly pleasing.

For other reviews of books by Liz Williams, see: A Glass of Shadow, Precious Dragon, Shadow Pavilion, Winterstrike and Worldsoul.

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2005) — the second set of three episodes

November 6, 2011 Leave a comment

With a sense of foreboding, I sat down to watch this second set of three Marple adaptations. We had not exactly started off auspiciously and I had visions of Agatha Christie vaguely stirring in her grave as broadcast signals slowly penetrated the soil around her grave. The first effort is A Murder Is Announced. We’re back in a village circa the 1950s, this one appropriately named Chipping Cleghorn, where someone obviously well-meaning announces the imminent death of person or persons unknown. Come the appointed time, the lights go out, shots ring out and, not surprisingly, a man is duly found dead. Giving up her quiet holiday in a nearby hotel, Miss Marple invites herself into the middle of the investigation and, before long, she’s suggesting lines of inquiry to the random office officer in charge. It’s a wonderful commentary on these pre-CSI times that we could innocently believe our British police officers were so accessible and willing to give credence to an old biddy’s ideas. You can’t see an author today describing anything other than a highly professional squad that appears and erects barriers to keep curious eyes away. Not forgetting the Crown Prosecution Service lurking in the wings to ensure a fair trial will be possible. The notion of gathering all the suspects in the library for sherry and an accusation or two would be frowned on. Yet, that’s the Golden Age paradigm. We meet the cast of suspects, watch the sleuth at work and then arrive at the dénouement in which our detective reviews the evidence, highlights the clues and points the fickle finger of fate at the baddie(s).

Zoë Wanamaker, Geraldine McEwan and Elaine Paige in A Murder Is Announced

Let’s characterise this series as a race between Geraldine McEwan and Joan Hickson. The new team wants to distance itself from the earlier series. It wants this set of adaptations to be better. So they have no compunction in rewriting the books to make for “better” television. Yet one of the more extraordinary aspects of this adaptation is that the production team neglected to do anything about Mitzi (Catherine Tate). The 1950s was a time of great parochialism and hostility to all foreigners, particularly if they were coloured. Indeed, in the next episode, Sleeping Murder, a seaside town is thrown into a paranoid frenzy when a person of Indian origin is seen on the promenade — ironically, something that did not happen in the original novel. Anyway, Mitzy who cooks and “does for” the family is an appalling caricature and it would have been better to avoid pandering to our current anti-immigration prejudices by toning down the performance. That the script leaves out characters from the book, overeggs the relationship between Hinch and Murgatroyd, and actually has Miss Marple cry when she comes across a body, shows the production team has no compunction about changing stuff. In this case, I’m not convinced this does justice to the book but, in its own terms, it does manage to focus on the core mystery which remains ingenious. Zoë Wanamaker and Elaine Page are quite pleasing as Letitia Blacklock and Dora Bunner.

Sophia Myles, Aidan McArdle and Geraldine McEwan in Sleeping Murder

A Sleeping Murder is one of these deeply annoying adaptations of a novel in which we’re expected to accept the extraordinary as complete ordinary. Although Sophia Myles does her best as Gwenda Halliday, her arrival in this particular house in this particular village is such an amazing contrivance made worse by the ability of Aidan McArdle as Hugh Hornbeam to pick up a telephone and summon Miss Marple at the first sign of hysteria. Quite what possessed the production team to murder a reasonably good book with this farrago of rubbish is beyond me. In the original, Ms Halliday is newly married and arrives from New Zealand. There’s no connection to India, no Hugh Holliday as a love interest, and no Funnybones at the end of the pier where, quite frankly, they should all have sunk without trace since sorting out their relationships is hardly entertaining. The only good thing about this episode was the quality of the singing by Sarah Parish and Anna-Louise Plowman.

Anthony Andrews, Geraldine McEwan and Greta Scacchi in By the Pricking of My Thumbs

Then as if the producers decided to go for death by a thousand cuts, we move on to the even more annoying adaptation of By The Pricking of My Thumbs. I didn’t believe this lot would go for complete butchery but this is the case here. This is a perfectly respectably Tommy and Tuppence novel, a series in which Agatha Christie would let her hair down a little and write a more thrillerish, atmospheric book. There would always be a basic puzzle to unravel, but she was always aiming for a greater spirit of adventure than ever would have surrounded the semi-geriatric Jane Marple. For those of you who have yet to dip into one of these books, Tommy works for MI6 and, together with his wife Tuppence, they catch nazi spies during the war and are involved in other faintly daring-dos. For the record, they are equally bright and tend to strike sparks off each other until they arrive at the “answer”. In this mockery, we have Tuppence (Greta Scacchi) as an alcoholic wife left on the shelf by an absentee Tommy (Anthony Andrews). In a visit to a nursing home to visit Tommy’s aunt, Tuppence meets Miss Marple and, in due course, they set off the investigate the goings-on in Farrell St Edmund. When Tommy does appear, he’s played as a pompous idiot who uses the threat of instant incarceration in the Tower if anyone fails to answer one of his questions. Not even the joy of seeing Steven Berkoff and Leslie Phillips can prevent this from being the worst in this Marple series so far.

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

Agatha Christie’s Marple (2004) — the first three episodes
Agatha Christie’s Marple (2006) — the third 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)

Sleepwalker or Meng you (2011)

November 5, 2011 Leave a comment

An author or filmmaker makes a living by involving us in a story, hoping we might experience vicariously the same emotions we read about or see on the screen. In an adventure or thriller, we might spend a short time imagining we’re a secret agent or an ace detective. Romance gives us the chance to fantasise about the possibility of success in a relationship. And horror. . . well horror is a somewhat elusive quality. It’s not simple fear although characters may be terrified. There may be elements that shock and even disgust us giving the more general opportunity to observe and to some extent empathise with a range of emotional responses at the extreme of the human experience. In part, this will be irrational, either because one or more of the character is not completely sane or because what happens defies rational explanation, i.e. it’s supernatural. For these purposes, let’s distinguish two horror subtypes.


Psychological horror tends to focus on the mind of the primary character. This is our point of view so, if that character is less than sane, what we read about or see will reflect that. This is the world of the unreliable narrator and, at some point, we will be allowed to see something of the reality around this person. The omniscient author or scriptwriter often supplies a rational explanation for what has been going on. Alternatively, we have supernatural horror where the key events are not explicable in terms of modern science. So if ghosts or more monstrous creatures appear and apparently interact with humans, we are expected to suspend disbelief and accept the human’s response to the unknown. In this subtype, it’s usually better not to describe or show the creatures with any degree of detail. Our own subconscious is capable of being far more creative than CGI when the primal emotion of fear is involved. So a figure seen vaguely in the shadows can become the thing we fear the most. An animated drawing simply remains a clever piece of work.

Angelica Lee being troubled by dreams


My sixpenneth says no good ever comes from mixing the subtypes. If something has a rational explanation, that’s how you play it. But if there’s a real supernatural element, there’s no sense in hinting. You have to lay it out clearly for all to see. Anything less than full commitment leaves the plot inconclusive and unsatisfying. All of which leads me to Sleepwalker or Meng you, directed by Oxide Pang Chun. I suspect this could have been a good film but whether it’s just bad writing or interference from the Chinese filmmaking industry, we’ve ended up with something lumbering and incoherent that can’t make up its mind what it’s about.


In theory, this should be easy. We have a woman Yi (Angelica Lee) whose daughter was kidnapped. Even though the ransom was paid, the girl was found dead, buried in the woods. This left her traumatised. Although she continues to function as a small-scale quality dress manufacturer, she’s become fixated by a recurrent dream and then discovers she’s sleepwalking. In a parallel story, Peggy (Charlie Yeung) has also had her child kidnapped, albeit more recently. Her sister, Sergeant Au (Huo Siyan) is the police officer in charge of the investigation. They have trust issues. If we had stopped here, we would have had the makings of a taut police procedural in which Sergeant Au ties the new case to the cold case and tracks down the kidnapper/killer. But nothing is clearly signed.

Director Oxide Pang Chun with Angelica Lee, Huo Siyan, Charlie Yeung and Li Zonghan


We have a helpful client Eric (Li Zong Han) who consistently gives Yi work and finds a psychiatrist when he learns of the dream. However, the police become very interested in Yi when her ex-husband is reported missing. Can people kill while sleeping? Yes, there are well-documented cases. So Yi’s own attempts to verify whether she is sleepwalking represent the most interesting part of the film. Unfortunately, the police investigation triggers some memories of the earlier kidnap and, in a confused state, Yi makes an abortive attempt to encourage a girl to leave a local park with her. Needless to say, this girl’s parents are on the job but, despite a crowd gathering, no-one calls the police. That’s Hong Kong for you. So there’s a reasonably coherent attempt to pitch this as a psychological thriller with a mother having psychotic episodes, confusing dreams with reality, and so on, except it all comes to nothing because of the supernatural element.


I don’t mind stories in which an innocent victim shares dreams or has telepathic links with a killer. Played properly, this can be fascinating and offer real help to sceptical detectives. But, by the time we get the the actual killer (Kent Cheng) all the momentum has been lost. What should have happened is that Yi learns where the body is buried because she sees the site in the dreams she shares with the killer. When the killer recognises someone is “looking over his shoulder”, he moves the body and then starts to track down this supernatural spy. Except the actual plot fails to offer any explanation of how Yi knows where to dig for the body or can offer a description of the killer — more likely to be precognition at this stage. The hypnotist with a wife in a coma who comes to extract more information from Yi is another of these useless subplots adding nothing to the dramatic structure of the whole. His gestures at expertise on the psychology involved are laughable.


So the result is very disappointing. Angelica Lee is completely wasted in a script with no coherence or logic. Indeed, there are times when I passed so far beyond the boredom threshold I seriously considered walking out. Many of those around me were catching up on their emails and smsing using all the latest handheld gadgetry. Although the ending does manage to avoid being completely mawkish as the mothers find some peace of mind in the capture of their children’s killer, I can’t honestly say Sleepwalker or Meng you has any real redeeming features.


Other films directed by Danny or Oxide Pang:
Forest of Death or Sum yeun (2007)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)


Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton

November 4, 2011 Leave a comment

As with several other books of late, I find myself left somewhat introspective. When I began reading Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton, I found it slow-going. Not so much because of the content, you understand. It was the prose style. This leads me to a kind of working hypothesis which I’ll be testing out over the years remaining to me. I believe I find a prose style easy to read when it most closely approximates how I write. But when the voice of the author is based on different rhythms, vocabulary and collocation choices, and reflects a different sense of salience, I tend to pause more often to think about the language. For example, “Despite the eddies of locals that crowded her with a dirty intensity, she felt utterly lonely.” I’m not sure it would ever have occurred to me that crowds of dirty people might rub up against female strangers with intensity — except on trains and buses when they think they can get away with it — and it’s not that I don’t understand that being in a crowd can heighten a sense of loneliness — despite everyone pressing against her with intensity — but that the way it’s expressed reflects a different way of viewing the world and expressing what’s seen. Indeed, the text is littered with similar descriptive oddities and unusual usages, and it took me some time to adjust. In the end, I turned an increasingly blind eye and so accommodated this “difference”. I slowly speeded up (at last I’ve worked an oxymoron into one of these reviews) but this book did take me longer than usual to read. In this, I’m giving the author the benefit of the doubt. To sell into the UK and US markets, professional editors should have been at work, challenging the author to justify some, if not all, this linguistic weirdness. Being old and pernickety, this does not dispel residual annoyances like the more modern use of “decimate” to mean completely obliterate rather than its traditional meaning of reduce by 10%. That said, in structural terms, the rolling point of view is quite pleasing.


Nights of Villjamur is science fiction meets fantasy on a world about to go through one of its prolonged periods of cooling — a kind of mini-Ice Age. In world-building terms, it’s the opposite of Cycle of Fire by Hal Clement in which a dwarf is a binary to a giant star and this produces 40-year periods alternating hot and cold. So this planet has multiple intelligent life forms and is, in Vancean terms, a Dying Earth where the technology surviving from previous ages has been reduced to relics barely understood. This gives us two completely different sets of games to play. In science fiction terms, we’re trying to understand exactly what the remnants of this technology will tell us about the races who previously inhabited the planet and whether it’s capable of mitigating the effects of the coming big freeze. To frustrate any overview emerging, different cults have specialised in the various types of technology and they refuse to share their knowledge and understanding of what their old kit can do. Some of the cults are less than ethical, representing the view that the ends justify the means. This makes any co-operation between the major cults problematic. While the fantasy element gives us a chance to watch the interspecies politics as forced migration to escape the cold brings ever larger crowds of refugees to the capital city from the North. There’s also quite a dark element that works the fringes of necromancy as some residual technology appears to permit an extension of life expectancy or a limited form of reanimation.

Mark Charan Newton keeping his head down


The death of the local Emperor exposes his two inexperienced daughters, Rika and Eir, to manipulation by Chancellor Urtica. He’s one of these mad-eyed Neocons who wants war with the neighbouring Empire to prevent it becoming too big a rival and justify repression at home, including the removal of the growing number of refugees currently cluttering up the landscape outside the capital. He’s against the idea of diplomacy and all for unilateral military action, using the trappings of religion to promote his power base. Inadvertently, Randur Estevu represents a counterbalance for the “noble” sisters. He may be a Casanova and a thief, but he offers a worldiness Eir in particular lacks. We have Brynd struggling to keep control of the Army while being undermined and diverted by the Chancellor, while Rumex Jeryd investigates the deaths of two Councillors, both loyal supporters of the Chancellor. From this you will understand that the primary focus of the novel is on the question of succession given the predatory Chancellor, whether war with the neighbouring Empire can be avoided, and the real nature of the danger in the North.


We then arrive at the end which is not, as in many other books, a big set-piece where everything is conveniently gift-wrapped for our delight. Rather the different narrative threads stop. Midway through we find out who killed the counsellors but that’s not really the point, Brynd retreats from the far North, Chancellor Urtica makes good progress in seizing power, Randur Estevu’s dance and sword lessons pay dividends, and the most amoral of the cult leaders, Dartun Sur, wanders off but, unlike the Cheshire Cat, all he leaves behind is a contemptuous smirk.


There’s much to like in Nights of Villjamur, this first in a trilogy called Legends of the Red Sun. It’s packed full of interesting ideas and, at various points there’s a slightly sly sense of humour in evidence (as in the interview with Chancellor Urtica). But there are some poor narrative choices. I have no concept of how this Empire functions. In the best fantasies, there’s a positive effort to explain how the local equivalent of a civil service supports the government. This Empire just seems to persist with the Chancellor able to get things done despite there being no obvious line of command in the military forces, no military bases or camps for the troops and their training, no interspecies liaison, poor co-ordination between the policing function and higher authority, and so on. There’s also no effort to show us the life of the city. We only catch glimpses of parts. And the refugees seem marginalised, never really being described nor an explanation being given of how they survive without food and shelter being provided by the city. So if you accept the linguistic oddities and focus on the narrative, this is a not inauspicious start to a trilogy. I see the other two books have already been published in the UK, so I’ve ordered them to see what happens next. They will then no doubt rise to the hand on the shelves next to my machine but, I suspect, not as rapidly as other books waiting to be read.


For a review of the sequel, see City of Ruin.


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

November 2, 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.

The twins now seem destined to meet rather earlier in the plot than I expected. I had imagined the script would show parallel narratives until the two stars in the Big Dipper collided. So, here’s how it’s all going to happen. After being rescued in the desert by Cartman (Mametkulovs Mansur), Deokman (Nam Ji-Hyun) decides to head to Silla. She knows Moon No is involved. He may even be her father. So, when she arrives, our naive girl (hadn’t noticed this before in her dealings among the Uighur in Xinjiang) wanders round his home town asking for him and gets taken in by conmen Juk-bang (Lee Mun-Shik) (good to see him back from Iljimae) and Ko-Do (Ryu Dam). Meanwhile, time has been flashing by at an incredible rate for Princess Cheon-myeong (Shin Se-Kyung). Her husband was cut down just as a glorious victory was declared. So she disappears off into a convent to have her baby, Kim Chun-Chu. Her brother-in-law, Kim Yong-Chun (Do Lee-Seong) then brings news of Moon No’s presence in his home town so she leaves the enormous child in the arms of her retinue and starts off to find the man who can tell her the real story behind her birth.

Kim Yu-Sin (Lee Hyun-Woo) and his loyal troops

This is where Korean drama scores well. The script is like one of these watch mechanisms. When the conmen see Kim Yu-sin (Lee Hyun-Woo) they run. Deokman pursues and Juk-bang slips a stolen badge into Deokman’s coat. She berates Kim Yu-sin for falsely accusing the “priest” of stealing the badge. As a reward for rescuing her, Juk-bang sends Deokman to the camp of the rebels where he pulled off one of his cons — she’s a kind of peace offering. Crossing the river, the twins meet. The Princess is separated from her guards and the twins run off. They arrive in the village as directed and are locked up. Deokman gets free by praying longer and harder than the conman priest and also trying to dig a well while everyone else is asleep. Her can-do spirit earns her release. When troops attack, Deokman gets the Princess away but this time the Princess saves Deokman from drowning. Now Deokman gives her coat to the wet Princess to keep her warm (this still has the stolen badge in it). They get to the temple where they think Moon No is only to be attacked by a team of assassins led by Bo-Jong (Kwak Jung Wook). Unfortunately, government troops also get involved and the Princess and Bo-Jong are wounded as they all fall in the river. Now the Princess is rescued from the river by Kim Yu-sin who finds his lost badge. I could go on but you should all watch the skill with which these plots are put together.

Juk-Bang (Lee Mun-Shik) never happier than when hiding in the undergrowth

To cut a long story short, the conmen and Deokman save Bo-Jong’s life, and identify Mi-Sil (Ko Hyun-Jung) as directly involved. Not surprisingly, Deokman blunders her way in front of the King and all the courtiers and identifies both Bo-Jong and Mi-Sil as directly involved. As a reward, Deokman, the conmen, Kim Seo-Hyeon (Jeong Seong-Mo) and his son Kim Yu-sin are taken to the capital, and Mi-Sil is hopping mad her plans have been thwarted. Now Deokman is enrolled into the Hwarang Warriors and we get into the training regime. There are the usual intersquad rivalries with everyone contemptuous of the newbies from the provinces. The worst performers are Deokman, Juk-bang and Ko-Do, but there’s time for Deokman to confront Mi-Sil and make a deal with her for finding Moon No. Now we reach the first crisis. There’s an invasion just before the Hwarang are due to hold one of their intersquad competitions. The army must be sent out but Deokman is attacked by Bo-Jong and his squad and this may merit a private resolution. Except the war takes priority so the feud is put on hold as they march for the front line. Two brief asides. The twins are meeting on a regular basis with the Princess still appearing as a nun. Deokman has yet to realise who has befriended her. Secondly, the characters are suddenly switching actors as they age so it’s actually quite hard to keep track of who everyone is.

Mi-Sil (Ko Hyun-Jung) so desperately wanting to be regal

Now we’re in the camp close to the target. Seol Won (Jeon No-Min) is in charge with Kim Seo-Hyeon as his second-in-command. Seol Won sets off with all but 3,000 men and Kim Yu-sin by his side. This leaves his father to guard the camp. At this point, I need to complain. Cross-dressing is a nice convention to play with for television purposes and, in the real world, we’ve had Joan of Arc (who admitted being female), Ann Mills, Hannah Snell and so on who all served on the battlefield. But here we have someone who looks like a girl and has the strength of a girl yet, although this excites comment, no-one detects the deception. Secondly, none of this group of young recruits learns how to fight properly. Frankly, they all fight like girls. That’s why all the other units treat them as a joke.

Anyway, once they are underway and enemy spies have reported their movements, Kim Seo-Hyeon opens secret orders and discovers he and his 3,000 are supposed to attack a near-by stronghold. Knowing this is doomed to fail unless reinforcements arrive, the diversionary force sets off. In a game of bluff, the enemy blinks and sends reinforcements to defend the second camp. This leaves Seol Won and his army to walk into the original target more or less unopposed.

Deokman (Lee Yo-Won) going commando-style to take out the archers

By one of these chances available in war, Seol Won has picked all the troops loyal to the Princess to be in the second attack. He refuses to send reinforcements leaving them all to be killed. You must remember the phrase, “cut the flesh to break the bone”. This is the military strategy at work. You sacrifice the few so the many may prevail. Or, in this case, so that Mi-Sil may prevail. This leaves Deokman and her buddies to fight their way out. We see Deokman actually step up in a command role, save some and kill many of the enemy in executing some of the military manoeuvres they have learned. Later she defies military convention by preventing the leader from killing the wounded. She thinks this is bad for morale and wasteful of trained men. She argues the army will ultimately be stronger if no man is left behind. Suk-Poom (Hong Kyoung-In) the ranking officer then decides Deokman and her troop must lead off the enemy while the wounded limp home. As we might expect, this is successful with all returning safely including Al-Chun (Lee Seung-Hyo) who’s obviously going to switch loyalties to the Deokman camp. Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Now all our heroes have to do is survive the peace.

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

Life Without Principle or Dyut meng gam (2011)

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Perhaps it’s rather depressing to start with a hope that all the films featuring greed as if it’s endemic to Hong Kong are exaggerated. Yet, the more consistently the theme appears, as in The Heart of Greed (2007) by TVB, the more I’m drawn to the conclusion this small country, now run under the “one-China” system, is caught up in the worst excess of the vice. In the West, we’re perhaps more used to thinking of the Gordon Gekko stereotype as representing the worst of our own brand of capitalism, particularly as practised by the banks. Yet it’s daunting to consider the sheer number of Hong Kongers that play the various markets and, if that’s not enough action, then turn to more conventional gambling. Fairly recent research shows about 70% of the population engage in at least one form of gambling with slightly more than half those gambling being under the age of twenty-one. This reflects a widespread belief that “fate” can be controlled in the search for ways of making quick money.

Panther (Ching Wan Lau) defends himself


Life Without Principle or Dyut meng gam revolves around a day in the life of Teresa (Denise Ho) a bank employee who faces the daily grind of trying to sell investments to anyone with savings. Her lot is not a happy one because she has to take the abuse when she cold calls, and the anger when the investments she sells fail to deliver the expected high returns. Worse, her sales record is the worst in her team and she knows she will be the next one fired. Her morning then runs with two extremes and one in the middle walking through her door. She has a little old lady (So Hang-Shuen) who knows nothing about investment, but feels the nominal interest rates paid on savings are an insult. After some negotiation, the innocent mark buys units in an investment trust based on the BRIC economies. She’s officially certified low risk. This is high risk investment and we all know it’s not going to work out well. The second client is Connie (Myolie Wu), a police inspector’s wife, who wants a mortgage to buy a flat. This is a no-brainer. Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren) is a civil servant with a solid salary and can afford this loan. The final client is Yuen (Lo Hoi-Pang) a money lender who hoards cash so it’s available to be lent out at high rates of interest. When she tries to sell him an investment, he gives her chapter and verse on why her product is a bad deal. Naturally, she knows he speaks the truth. He’s come to collect HK$10 million but, in a couple of angry telephone calls, this is reduced to $5 million because the borrower is not promising enough security. This leaves $5 million in the hands of Teresa without a signed deposit slip as the moneylender heads off to the underground car park. Sadly, he’s then attacked by a wannabe thief, and they beat each other to death. The money disappears and, miracle of miracles, it looks as though Teresa may be able to pocket the $5 million.

Teresa (Denise Ho) has another bad day


It should be said this is a key day in the history of the world’s stock exchanges when the possibility of the Greek Government’s default emerged and the Euro tanked. Bearing this fact in mind, we then have a long flashback which is very badly signalled. Frankly, I was confused as we switched into a completely different narrative thread featuring Panther (Ching Wan Lau), a minder for triad bosses who’s fanatically loyal, as honest as the day is long, and fascinated by patterns in betting behaviour. We first watch him at work collecting hong baos before a celebratory dinner, then follow him as he raises the money to bail out his sworn brother gangster (Siu-Fai Eddie Cheung) who’s been arrested yet again. One of those touched for money is a karung guni man who prospers by collecting paper and cardboard boxes. He’s one of the few people we meet who makes an honest living. He matches the old man in the lift who sees only hopelessness for those at the bottom of the heap yet who’s talked out of committing suicide by Inspector Cheung. Later we have the mirror image of hard work and its just rewards when Inspector Cheung interviews the wannabe robber’s girlfriend (J.J. Jia). She’s aggressively unapologetic for seeing robbery as the best way to get ahead in Hong Kong. Her anger at her boyfriend’s incompetence and unfortunate demise is beautifully judged.

Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren) and Connie (Myolie Wu) thinking about the future


Anyway, Panther turns out to be the pivotal figure as he volunteers to help an old friend who runs an intermediate level share-dealing operation. This friend anticipates a market drop and tries to close out his primary account with a triad boss. This attempted hack is immediately identified and he then needs to borrow from the loan shark to cover his losses. Panther is therefore the one who picks up the $5 million after the independent robber is beaten to a pulp.


If this was a morality tale, it would be good to report that virtue was rewarded and the sinners were all punished, but life never works out like that. Somehow, career criminals always seem to end up more wealthy than when they started, honest police officers stay poor throughout, and bank employees get fired when they fail to hit their targets. So, through a mixture of well-honed skills, righteousness and blind luck, some get ahead while others are impoverished as the world share markets prove volatile. Although Life Without Principle or Dyut meng gam starts slowly and is confusing when it switches in time, it builds to a conclusion no-one should want to argue with. It’s not a case of just deserts, but director Johnnie To seems to strike the right balance between winners and losers. Think of it as a thriller in that people are killed in the pursuit of money, a police procedural in that someone must make an effort to enforce the law, and a kind of comedy in that for someone to win on a bet, others must lose.


Hong Kong director Johnnie To Kei-fung won best director for Life Without Principle and Lau Ching Wan was named best actor for his role at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards 2012.


Other films featuring Lau Ching Wan:
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
The Great Magician
Mad Detective or San taam
Overheard 2


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