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Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R MacLeod by Ian R MacLeod

MacLeod_SnodgrassAndOtherIllusions (2)

It’s perhaps appropriate to start off by noting the dominant approach to storytelling on display in Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R MacLeod by Ian R MacLeod (Open Road, 2013). Unlike the majority of writers, this author prefers a dense prose style and often avoids dialogue. Many of the stories are in the first person, involve interior monologues or use reported speech. Personally, I find this a welcome change, particularly because the author’s voice is so pleasing. Indeed, the whole collection is a delightfully eclectic array of themes and authorial concerns. Being a “best of” collection, this draws many stories familiar to me from previous collections and reprints in Best of the Year anthologies — the overall quality of this collection is outstanding.

“The Chop Girl” is a story from my era, a story of life and death on one of the World War II RAF stations which used to send bombers off across the Channel or the North Sea, and wait for them to come back. I’ve encountered this type of superstition before in the real world. It’s the idea of a jinx or hoodoo which is carried by a person and passed on as bad luck by contagion. In this case, the Typhoid Mary is a young girl who, like all young people thrown together in the heat of a war, is not averse to showing affection to the pilots. Except, those she favours seem not to return from their missions. When the penny drops, she’s shunned, of course. Only a phenomenally lucky pilot could break the jinx. But what would happen both at the time and after the war? The answer is straightforward and utterly realistic, as it should be when you’re dealing with superstitions. “Past Magic” pursues this slightly melancholic view of the identity we shape for ourselves and impose on others. It uses the fictional reality of cloning to speculate on whether the replacement version of the person can ever be the same as the original. The problem is that, even with access to all the previous person’s recorded memories, the clone would still be a new person who came into being too recently to have had all these past experiences. Or if a child was replaced, it would grow up in ways that might be similar but. . .

“Hector Douglas Makes a Sale” offers us a brief meander through the thickets of door-to-door selling, pausing every now and then to unravel some of the mysteries of technique that can distinguish between an average performer and a salesman who can charm birds down from trees to buy what he’s selling. “Nevermore” explores the world of unreality we sell ourselves when we fall in love and later use to deceive ourselves when the grief we feel on the death of the loved one threatens to overwhelm us. When reality can be overwritten by technology, so that even the dead can continue in an existence of sorts, how do we feel when the body of our spouse dies but the ghost continues in existence as if nothing had really changed? The collision between technology and the reality of emotion is nicely explored as the artist loses his muse but ultimately remembers what’s important to him.

Ian Macleod as he appears to others

Ian Macleod as he appears to others

“Second Journey of the Magus” sees Balthasar, the only surviving member of the original three Magi, return to the Holy Land to see how Jesus is getting along. Curiously, even though he sees what others might take as incontrovertible evidence of the existence of God and the potential accessibility of Heaven, he can’t quite shake off his doubts. Of course, scientists have always had doubts about whether there’s intelligent life anywhere else in the universe, hence “New Light on the Drake Equation”. In all the world, perhaps the only thing we can ever really be certain about is that humans have an innate capacity to surprise us by the things they do. Indeed, in many ways, humans as a species of diversity are probably as alien as creatures from another galaxy when viewed through the prism of age, one generation looking at what the later generations have become. And sometimes regretting decisions made earlier. And talking of decisions we might regret, here comes a wonderful alternate history story dealing with something far more significant than what the world would have been like if Germany had won the war. “Snodgrass” considers what might have happened to John Lennon if he’d left the Beatles before they really took off. I suppose the moral of all these stories is you should never look back with regret.

“The Master Miller’s Tale” is a very clever story making the transition between old and new. We start with artisan worlds where sometimes taken-for-granted skills born of generations of experience seem like magic. But as technology progresses, machines replace the craftsmanship and improve on performance. Over time, few consumers notice or care. Indeed, the products they need are often cheaper and more plentiful. Only the craftsmen feel the pain of redundancy and understand what has truly been lost. “Isabel of the Fall” also deals with the interface between humans and technology, looking at a future world in which the key to survival is light. Here faith by rote has become stronger than knowledge and understanding. In this case, the happy accident of avoiding the ritual blinding proves the saving grace for the people. In the world of the Dawn Singers, only the blind are Kings. The problem then is how to react to what can be seen when our heroine is not supposed to be able to see it.

“Tirkiluk” is a strangely beautiful story of a man sent a meteorological station on a distant patch of land, sometimes visited by Eskimos. When a pregnant Eskimo needs help, he provides shelter and food. All is under control until there’s an accidental fire. Then we gain an insight into the power of the mind to maintain the body so that the woman and her newly born son will survive the rigors of winter. Finally, “Grownups” is one of these slow reveal stories in which the growing boy speculates on exactly what it’s like to be an adult. Of course, to us mere mortals, this is quite easily divined. But suppose the world was complicated by the presence of a third sex. In such a place, it might actually be rather more difficult to understand where babies come from. Indeed, adults might be significantly less inclined to discuss the transition from child to adult and the subsequent need to consider reproductive matters. Out of fear or natural perversity, some children might try to hold back time.

Snodgrass and Other Illusions has everything you could hope to find in a collection from science fiction, through fantasy, to horror. But above all, the quality of the writing and the ideas shines through. It’s a must-read!

For a review of another collection, see Journeys

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

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Iron Man 3 (2013)

April 29, 2013 2 comments

iron_man_3_poster_final

Summer is a-comin in, so loudly let off a few explosions as the first of this season’s superhero movies hits the cinemas with main force. Up to the end of 2011, there was a certain mechanical efficiency about the more recent adaptations of comic book characters or toys to the big screen. We would go through an introductory set-up and then would come the set-piece inserts. There are almost always car chases, guns are produced and manage to fire prodigious amounts of ammunition without having to pause for reloading, and there are increasingly loud explosions. This is great for those who have hearing difficulty because the fillings in their teeth vibrate to indicate just how loud some of these explosions are when replayed through the new generation of sound systems that pack decibels into the darkness of the auditorium. So, for example, conventional technology excitement comes with the Fast & Furious series, and science fiction gets its thrills from Transformers. This is not to deny these films deliver what we might call spectacle. Some of the special effects generated using CGI are remarkable to behold on a large screen. But as a generalisation, these are soulless vehicles. There are actors standing in front of green screens and in real locations, but their function is to explain the plot and justify the action. The scripts come with very little sparkle or individuality. Thanks to the focus group mentality of the larger studios, everything is aimed at the common denominator core of components that can be built into this season’s blockbuster success. For a while, this brought a steady stream of highly successful films in terms of box office takings. They were less successful in the eyes of those who prefer something slightly more idiosyncratic.

Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow under attack

Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow under attack

 

In the first outing, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) saw the light and decided his company should not be the largest arms manufacturer in the world. Technology should be used for more positive purposes. He therefore has to battle for his soul by fighting the older man running the company alongside him. As films go, it’s a little on the worthy side with our heroic actor allowed one or two moments of egocentric wit to show us he’s cut from a different cloth. Interestingly, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is also played relatively straight as the “love interest”. When we come to the second film, we’ve cleaned house and now face a business competitor who thinks he can get an edge by recruiting foreign talent. I found the relationship between Stark and Potts to be annoying and the fight at the end was overly long and repetitive, but it was still reasonably watchable.

 

In part thanks to the return of Shane Black to directing and joint scriptwriting, Iron Man 3 proves to be something of a revelation. This picks up after The Avengers where the alien invaders met their Waterloo. Now we’re back to more parochial affairs with the arrival of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fiendish terrorist who’s out to bring down the US with an escalating sequence of attacks. Also lurking in the undergrowth is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who’s been anonymously promoting his ideas through a think tank of increasing importance to the US government. Finally, we have the return of James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) who is Stark’s suit buddy.

Ben Kingsley being menacing

Ben Kingsley being menacing

 

I think the most important observation I can make about this film is how little time Stark spends in one of his suits. Indeed, in part, his latest technological developments have made him somewhat redundant. This frees the actor from having a fixed expression on his visor and lets the man behind the suit carry the action. The result is a more normal relationship with Pepper Pott and a rather pleasing relationship with Harley (Ty Simpkins), a young boy who may have some of Stark’s skills given only a monkey wrench and some high-sugar sweets to keep him hyper. Whatever it is he’s got, the broken suit seems to get repaired while in his possession. When it comes to the fight at the end, we also avoid the suit-on-suit battering contest which always grows tedious quickly and has a fight against humans with added firepower. Noticing the plant in the early scenes doesn’t quite prepare you for the extract applied to people. It’s a delightful fantasy touch.

Guy Pearce catches fire on the screen

Guy Pearce catches fire on the screen

 

I’m not sure everyone will understand all the humour. As a Brit, I found Ben Kingsley’s performance one of the best pieces of self-mockery I’ve seen in years. The accent and attitude when off-camera are wonderfully revealing if you understand British accents. Taken overall, this is one of the most amusing superhero films of recent years and, despite the presence of a callow youth in a key role, it manages to avoid all hints of sentimentality. This is a story about people and the suits are just tools. Indeed, they prove to be disposable tools when a choice has to be made between making the relationship with Pepper Pott work and making the machines work. Throughout, it’s Robert Downey Jr. who keeps the film moving. He remains one of the most charismatic and watchable people on screen. Separating him from the suit was one of the most intelligent decisions taken by the Marvel studio. I remember it happening in the animated series The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, episode 125 when the Avengers team are transported to the nine Realms of Asgard and Stark loses his suit. Surviving until he can find the resources to build another using uru-armour was much more interesting. A human struggling without the aid of technology is something that can give us all a greater vicarious thrill. So it is that I crown Iron Man 3 as clearly the best of the three in this series so far, and a difficult film for all the other blockbusters to beat later in the 2013 season.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Thor

 

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)

April 28, 2013 13 comments

Elementary poster

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013) had a better balance between narrative arc and individual mystery to be solved. Let’s start off with the general character development. The fact we’re seeing Alfredo (Ato Essandoh) for the third time is encouraging. If we’re going to be even remotely canonical, there should be several characters representing the Irregulars: those convenient urchins who know their city like the backs of their hands and can move around largely unobserved. This character is ideal for the purpose. As a car thief and recovering addict, he could be well-connected and supply lots of different services as required. We’ve already seen him teaching Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) how to break into and steal cars (an invaluable skill for an investigator). He’s also useful to sit outside places in his car and keep watch (or try to follow people escaping the scene in cabs and lose them which is hardly what you would expect from an expert car thief and driver). So as Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) comes up to the one year anniversary of his last fix, we’re into a mini-drama as to whether our hero will go through a ceremony to collect a small token signifying the achievement. Naturally, Sherlock views this as an entirely private matter. Alfredo points out that’s a typically selfish attitude. He should show addicts newly entering the program that it’s possible to get clean and stay clean.

Of course, being a man obsessed with details, Holmes is failing to admit he had a lapse and so has not yet reached the full one year. Having failed is deeply embarrassing to a man who prides himself on his strength of mind. Hence his unwillingness to go through the ceremony. The subtext of the episode is therefore whether he will tell the truth about his lapse. That he eventually trusts both Watson and Alfredo is a sign he’s consolidating the recovery by sharing the burden of “sobriety”. There’s hope for him.

Lucy Liu, Jonny Lee Miller and Ato Essandoh

Lucy Liu, Jonny Lee Miller and Ato Essandoh

As to the mystery element, we have Alfredo introduce a private client. This should be happening more often rather than leaving our hero waiting for a summons from NYPD with another challenging homicide to solve. Appropriately, this is a blackmail case and we’re quickly given the name as Charles Milverton, a blackmailer who features in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. As in the original story, one of this blackmailer’s victims shoots the villain and stamps on his face. However, apart from this significant borrowing, the story then veers away into rather unnecessary complexity as Holmes runs around trying to find the titular Dead Man’s Switch. As in all good blackmail schemes, there’s a failsafe: someone hidden who will release all the incriminating information should anything happen to the more easily detectable blackmailer. The convenience of the internet as a mechanism for releasing this information is a pleasing modern development. At just the touch of a mouse or pad, our back-up can punish all the victims for killing their blackmailer. Except, of course, this assumes only one victim. In this case, Milverton is a professional who has information on many so, if one victim takes revenge, all suffer.

At this point, I need to express frustration that this Holmes can find out so much information on people and events in America through Google and whatever else he can use to dig out data online. It’s remarkable and, by my standards, unrealistic. For example, he can produce a list of nuisance claims against service providers alleging discrimination on the ground of weight that were quickly settled. I know that the identity of litigants is a matter of public record once proceedings are filed in court, but Holmes is finding cases that would probably have been settled by the attorneys before going to court became necessary. The whole point of nuisance actions is for the targets to make them go away as quickly as possible. Anything settled in this way would be covered by confidentiality agreements and inaccessible. For Holmes to not only come up with a list of such litigants, but also to produce newspaper photographs of two of these claimants, is magical. As is Watson’s ability to recall the identity of an ambulance-chasing attorney from a few scattered details of description.

Put all this together and you have an episode with such a high death count among the actors, there was only one left to be the killer. Worse, the killer had an accomplice who never actually made it on to screen. We have to be told about this person’s essential contribution to the plot by the semi-triumphant Holmes and Inspector Gregson (Aidan Quinn) who does get to deal with a minor moral dilemma in this episode and comes out of it all looking better. The relationship between Holmes and Gregson also seems to be healing. If you blinked, you missed Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) who, in terms of dollars earned per words spoken and seconds on screen, must now be one of the highest paid actors on US television. He’s the most embarrassingly underused actor in a prime-time show. Would this treatment be given out to a white actor? I don’t think so. So put all this together and Elementary: Dead Man’s Switch is an average episode that moved us along in broad narrative terms but offered little of substance on the use of deduction to solve mysteries. Arthur Conan Doyle would not have approved.

For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)

Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episodes 23 & 24. The Woman and Heroine. (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 1. Step Nine. (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 2. Solve For X (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 3. We Are Everyone (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 4. Poison Pen (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 5. Ancient History (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 6. An Unnatural Arrangement (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 7. The Marchioness (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 8. Blood Is Thicker (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 9. On the Line (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 11. Internal Audit (2013)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 12. The Diabolical Kind (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 13. All in the Family (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 14. Dead Clade Walking (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 15. Corps de Ballet (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 16. One Percent Solution (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 17. Ears to You (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 18. The Hound of the Cancer Cells (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 19. The Many Mouths of Andrew Colville (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 20. No Lack of Void (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 21. The Man With the Twisted Lip (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 22. Paint It Black (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 23. Art in the Blood (2014)
Elementary: Season 2, Episode 24. The Great Experiment (2014).

The Last Stand (2013)

The Last Stand

You can imagine how the pitch meeting went. The team goes in with a note on the back of an envelope. The bad guy breaks out of jail and makes a run for the Mexican border. The only thing standing between him and freedom is a battle-scarred veteran sheriff in a hick town no-one’s ever heard of. They talk about nostalgia for the 1980s shoot ‘em up films where lone heroes prevail against outrageous odds. But brought up to date, of course. Modern audiences, they don’t go for the simple-minded shit no more. This one’s gotta have heart. They talk about timing and the potential availability of a suitable geriatric action hero who can carry this type of film. Inquiries are made. He would be interested. They talk dollars and the film is green-lighted.

 

For films like The Last Stand (2013) to work, there has to be a script with good pacing. Strangely, the writing is left to a relatively inexperienced Andrew Knauer so it needs support. This comes from Jee-woon Kim as director. Although this is his first US feature film, he’s one of South Korea’s best directors having garnered praise, a few awards, and good box office on the Asian circuit for all his films. One, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) was remade by Hollywood as The Uninvited (2009). He’s a good choice to take a very simple story, string it out over 107 minutes and keep us entertained.

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

 

So this is a twin-track film. We need a slow set-up in Sommerton Junction, Arizona, next to the Mexican border where we meet everyone who’s going to feature in the battle at the end. We also need to establish the threat and meet the FBI team that’s going to be chasing the bad guy as he makes his break for freedom. In the boondocks, it’s another routine day of festivities as the local people celebrate the departure of their football team and most of the town in support. Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Sheriff, gets ready for the peace of the weekend, undisturbed by inconvenient people jaywalking on the streets or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. This doesn’t prevent him from picking up Burrell Thomas (Peter Stormare) on his radar as he passes through Sommerton. He feels wrong and, as we later see, he’s on his way to meet with the rest of the gang which has a vital task to perform.

 

In LA, Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is getting ready to move Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) the Mexican drug boss in what’s supposed to be a secret convoy. Not unnaturally, there’s a mole so, to produce the necessary trigger for the rest of the film, some of his gang are waiting for the convoy with one of these cranes with a convenient electromagnetic grab to lift the armored truck on to the roof of a nearby tall building. Exit drug cartel boss with an FBI hostage in the fastest thing on wheels stolen from a nearby motor show. The car itself is great fun and, although hilariously foolish, the way it takes out the two SUVs carrying the SWAT team is terrific fun. Indeed, this typifies a certain sense of inventiveness about the way the plot develops alongside the more routine moments of realism, e.g. the failure of the milk delivery alerts the town that the local farmer may have had a heart attack. Or could it be something more serious?

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

 

Unlike the films of the 1980s which were vehicles for Arnold Schwarzenegger to dance around the screen avoiding bullets and taking out small armies on the “other side”, this has him as a reluctant hero. He’s more afraid because he’s seen blood spilled and knows what’s coming. Fortunately there’s the usual weirdly eccentric guy who lives outside town who rescues the situation. Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) is a dealer in historic arms. Deputising him gives the defenders access to an impressive range of weaponry including a WWII Vickers machine gun and some mediaeval armour — just what you need when fighting off a well-armed gang. Trying to move the townsfolk out of the diner has humour as does the attempt to establish a barricade using whatever’s to hand. It’s a good set-up.

 

This is not to say the film is actually any good. As mindless entertainment, it keeps going well. But if you make any attempt to think about what’s happening, you could shoot the script full of holes. The ending is just extraordinary and not in a good way. It’s rare to come across such an array of poor contrivances to fill the last ten minutes or so as they drive around the corn field, manage to navigate to the bridge without GPS, fight without anyone waiting on the Mexican side to welcome our escapee, and then limp back to town doing the Lone Ranger bit with the wrecked car as the tired horse. To say the follow-up FBI investigation is a joke is an understatement. Indeed, the lack of chemistry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Forest Whitaker is embarrassing, and the final arrest is the capping moment of stupidity as, apparently, the FBI can hack Swiss bank accounts on demand. That said, The Last Stand is not pretending to be anything other than a popcorn special and, at that level, it succeeds admirably. So long as you’re not expecting anything special, you’ll enjoy it.

 

Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨 (2012)

April 26, 2013 2 comments

Floating-City-2012-Movie-Poster-2

Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨 (2012) starts off with a drama at sea as a desperate mother takes a sampan across from the mainland to Hong Kong during a storm. The mythology says any child born at sea during a storm is switched to something less human. The mother is a victim of rape by a British sailor. She allows the child to be adopted by a Tanka family. The adopting mother has just suffered a miscarriage and is not sure she can have another child. A boy will help her survive when he grows up. This starts off our hero at the bottom of the heap. Not only is he half Chinese and half Caucasian, he’s a member of the Tanka class, the lowest social group that lives in the floating city of the title. At every point, therefore, he suffers discrimination.

Aaron Kwok and Charlie Yeung assert family values and scatter his mother's ashes

Aaron Kwok and Charlie Yeung assert family values and scatter his mother’s ashes

 

Structurally, the film then moves us forward fifty years to find our hero, Bo Wah Chuen (Aaron Kwok), the taipan of the British East India Company in the final years of the British colonial rule. He’s married to fellow Tanka, Tai (Charlie Yeung), who feels intimidated by the upward mobility and is uncomfortable when invited to mix with the elite of Hong Kong. When going out to network and socialise, this leaves Bo in the company of Fion (Annie Liu), a woman who’s very comfortable with the international lifestyle of Hong Kong and its ex-pat British community. We then come to the point of the film. At one such party where the Governor of Hong Kong is present, he looks in a mirror and has a mild identity crisis. Here he is, a Tanka boy who has managed to climb so high. We then get an extended flashback to see how this rise has been achieved. However, it’s perhaps appropriate to start off with a general comment about Aaron Kwok’s appearance. One of the slightly pejorative ways in which European foreigners are described is as ang mohs or 红毛. This is a reference to their characteristic “red hair”, i.e. fairer shades of colour. For this film, Aaron Kwok is supposed to be half Caucasian and have “red hair”. This is not convincing. I’m not saying this prevents the film from succeeding, but it’s a visual hurdle of credibility that the film fails to surmount.

 

As he grows up, he loses the childhood friend who persists in saying she will marry him even though he’s an adopted mixed. His mother played by Josie Ho when young and the local priest want him to get an education. His father objects but, seeing literacy as the way to get a job on land, he persists. This is a major generational clash. The father is deeply traditional and sees the only way into the future for the family through his adoptive son taking over the boat and continuing the life. When he grows older, Bo leaves the boat and meets Tai who makes a living collecting leftover food thrown away by the British Navy. Unfortunately his father is killed on the boat during a storm. This makes Bo the head of the family just as the sixth natural child is born to the family. Now played by Hee Ching Paw, his mother is forced to place four of the children in a home run by a Christian charity as she and Bo can’t afford to look after them. The two youngest are given away to couples whom they hope will care for them. This is all tragic and moving.

Aaron Kwok and Annie Liu flirt with the idea of infidelity

Aaron Kwok and Annie Liu flirt with the idea of infidelity

 

He gets a job as an office boy because he can read and write in Chinese. The East India Company pays for him to learn English. In turn, he teaches his mother to read and write in Chinese, but she can’t get through the exam to qualify as a sampan “captain” because she can’t afford the hong bao or red envelope containing bribe to the examiner. Then there’s a further crisis because the home looking after the children closes — the American Christian decides to take his charity to Vietnam. Bo tries to get company accommodation but is rejected because he’s not married. That forces the marriage to Tai. We then have a whistle-stop tour through the anti-British riots and Margaret’s Thatcher’s decision to surrender control to the mainland as the film charts his slow progress up through the ranks despite the usual British colonial bigotry represented by Dick Callahan (David Peatfield). This brings us back to the core question. What should he be? There’s no such thing as a Hong Kong citizen. Should he abandon his roots, join the Jockey Club and take British citizenship? He could embrace Fion just as easily. She moves in that circle. His wife doesn’t fit. Of course, once the mainland Chinese take over, he doesn’t fit in that culture either. He’s not merely a Tanka at the bottom of the local pile. He was a despised upstart from a colony when he went to Britain on a business trip. He’s not a communist as understood by mainlanders. He’s just a curiosity that can speak Mandarin with a funny accent.

 

Director and screenwriter Yim Ho has produced what, in many ways, is a bold film about identity and the importance of family. We need to be clear. For the relevant time, there has been an elite group making money in Hong Kong, but the focus here is on an Everyman. Hong Kong’s identity is still very much in flux as the ex-colony struggles with the practical reality of “one country, two systems”, making this film a kind of parable through which to understand the problems in reconciling the implied promise with the reality imposed. Like Bo, the mass of ordinary Hong Kong people has lifted itself up from its early days of colonial oppression where vast numbers lived in the sampans of the floating city or in poverty on land. The people were abused and then abandoned by the British, so the masses have turned their backs on much of the international life and made a home for themselves as a family on this plot of land. Sooner or later, this group of people will lose much of its original identity. This is not to say the individuals will forget their personal histories. But they will have years of life under Chinese rule giving them new history and a different set of values as the older members die off and the new children grow into adults. As a child growing into a man, Bo fought with his father, rebelled against the traditional way of life, and left the sampan to work on land. He was lucky enough to have both the ability and the humility to work with the British so he got to the top. But that was never as important as remembering that he loved his wife and had a family to take care of. His children may be citizens of the one country China and be happy. Perhaps that’s the hope for the future as the masses now work for a new elite and aim to build better lives. Aaron Kwok is impressive in the only role of substance. All the other characters are simply there to carry the broader narrative forward. It’s a performance worth seeing in a rather pleasing, slightly allegorical drama called Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨.

 

Exile by Betsy Dornbusch

April 25, 2013 2 comments

Exile Betsy Dornbusch

Exile by Betsy Dornbusch (Night Shade Books, 2013) is the first in what has been billed as The Seven Eyes series but, with the publisher disappearing into a black hole, it’s not at all certain whether you will be able to acquire this book or whether a new publisher will release any more in the series. Although, truth be told, I’m massively indifferent as to whether any more work is published by this author which prompts me to one of my minor musings. Have you noticed how the noble bagel has been taken from its iconic role of bread, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and applied to the equally pleasing game of tennis. But the meaning has been turned pejorative to signal an unequal contest in which the winner of the set triumphed 6-0. Ah, such are the vagaries of language. . . but this should also indicate a deeper truth.

Not everyone is a top class performer and, when players come together for a game, superior skills almost always dictate the winner. The same is true in almost every human activity. Some people are better than others and we should not be ashamed to admit it. So let’s assume we can rank everyone from top class, through second, third, and so on down to total failure. If in international terms, I’m ranked as third class, I take that as an honour. When you look at the world’s total population, the idea there are only several million people better than me is high praise. All of which brings me to the immediate book for review. In international terms, this is an indifferent fifth-class sword and sorcery fantasy. Put in more precise terms, the writing is, at best, stodgy and the plot is hopelessly contrived and formulaic. That said, I’ve read an uncountable number of novels that are worse or, indeed, failed to finish novels that were total failures. So, in real terms, this is not quite as bad as it could have been.

Betsy Dornbusch

Betsy Dornbusch

So what’s it about? Well, there’s this cousin from the wrong side of the bed to the King of Monoea. He’s framed for the murder of his wife and, as the title suggests, exiled to Akrasia. So here comes a guy with superior skills as a bowman, having been a leader of men in the King’s Black Guard. He’s dumped in this foreign land in a miserable physical condition, having not exactly been given VIP treatment on the voyage to strand him. From this moment on, he’s on an inexorable rise to the top of the heap. Every time he has a chance to do the right thing, he does it. If he needs rescuing, this is carried by some conveniently-to-hand people. Whereas my own life experience has been one of slippery slopes tending in a downward direction, this Draken can’t help but end up beside Queen Elena. Naturally he fights against the disloyalty to the memory of his wife but this is the kind of woman no hero in a novel like this can resist.

What makes all this faintly risible is the way in which problems are solved. So, for example, he’s pretty useless with a sword and this is a sword and sorcery book, so he meets a magician who can bond him with the soul of a great swordsman. This gives him a guide to local conditions, great fighting skills, and someone to talk with whenever the conversation around him peters out. And, guess what, the sword he has turns out to have magic powers. That’s a useful plus. So the author presents us with a hero who, metaphorically speaking, can walk on water as we watch his miraculous progress round this island of exile until he works out who’s trying to depose the Queen and why. Then there’s some fighting and the Kingdom is saved.

Next book please.

Sorry that’s ambiguous. I’m not interested in reading the next book in this series. I’m hoping the next book in the pile to be read is better. Exile by Betsy Dornbusch is not recommended.

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

Unbowed or Bureojin Hwasal or 부러진 화살 (2012)

Unbowed

Every country likes to think itself developed and therefore runs its activities through morally perfect institutions. By that I mean those in government will take pride in their parliamentary system, the way their electoral system delivers representative government, the unimpeachable neutrality of its judges, the fairness of its police forces and the investigations they run, and so on. Yet, more often than not, even the most egalitarian of countries has skeletons in its closet. Take France as an example.In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of espionage. As a Jewish officer, he was a convenient scapegoat for the activities of Ferdinand Esterhazy. When evidence of the frame become common knowledge, there was intense political pressure for a retrial and acquittal, but both the army and the judiciary decided admitting their imperfections was too embarrassing to contemplate, so they covered it up. Dreyfus was not exonerated until 1906. All of which brings me to Unbowed or Bureojin Hwasal or 부러진 화살 (2012). By any standards this film is a deeply political and modestly savage attack on the morality of the judiciary in South Korea. Perhaps in the broader scale of wrongdoing, it’s not quite on the same level as the Dreyfus case, but it gains its shock-value from the fact this is a recent and ongoing case. As one of the Asian tiger economies, South Korea likes to portray itself as having moved beyond the old days of oppression and corruption. It holds itself out as an example of how civilised it is, blending the best of Western political and economic systems with the more traditional Korean values. This tends to hide the deep roots of some old problems.

 

Although modern Korea boasts a vibrant export-led economy and a democratic system, this is all relatively new. There has been often violent turmoil with a coup d’état in 1979 followed by the use of martial law to suppress political activity. The nature of the state remained despotic until 1987 when, in the lead up to the Olympic Games, there was a liberalisation. However, economic power remains in the hands of a few chaebol, family controlled corporate groups which initially benefitted from government support, but which are now finding themselves under financial pressure as massive corruption, bribery, fraud and tax evasion becomes harder to hide. In all this, the education system has been manipulated to allow individuals of ability to network and, more importantly, select the next generation of people to assume positions of power and influence. Appointments to the police, prosecuting authority and judiciary have been particularly important in shielding the chaebol from investigation or liability for identified wrongdoing, e.g. the suspension of an embezzlement conviction against Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo. It’s all an overlapping web of cronyism, nepotism and corruption. What makes this worse is that South Korean judges always sit alone. There’s no jury system or any other independent check on their activities.

Park Won-Sang and the Unbowed Ahn Sung-Ki

Park Won-Sang and the Unbowed Ahn Sung-Ki

 

The genesis of the case described in this film lies in the world of the private universities. Backed by corporate money, they have the power to make or break careers. Once admitted, the majority of students can expect access to top jobs. Fail to get in or underperform, and there’s nowhere to hide. They are more or less unemployable. This makes the entrance exams particularly important. Our hero is Professor Kim Kyung-Ho (Ahn Sung-Ki). He’s outraged not only that one of the questions included in the 1995 entrance exam for Sungkyunkwan University is wrong, but also that the university proposes to cover it up. He sees this as a criminal breach of trust. As a stubborn idealist, he believes universities have a higher duty to their students. The fact this might reveal one of his senior colleagues as incompetent is not relevant. Unfortunately, the university thinks its own reputation is more important and fires the Professor. He and his wife (Na Young-Hee) briefly go to America with their son but, when the law changes to allow Professors to seek reappointment, he and his wife return. As an ex-Alumnus of the University, Judge Park Bong-Joo (Kim Eung-Soo), refuses the application. Outraged, the Professor waits for him as he returns home and threatens him with a crossbow. This leads to a major series of high-profile and politically embarrassing hearings with a succession of judges who feel the honour of their profession is at stake and are intent on locking him up.

 

An alcoholic lawyer Park Joon (Park Won-Sang) eventually comes to sit beside our Professor as defence counsel. However this is not a happy place to occupy. Our hero trained as a mathematician but has rapidly become an expert in the law. Indeed, he probably knows more about the procedural laws than either the man supposed to be representing him or the judges who are supposed to be trying the case. Instead of allowing his advocate to speak for him, he’s constantly on his feet arguing the law with the judges. Eventually, the judiciary quietly suggest to the prison service that they break his spirit. This leaves Park Joon to run the case, albeit he has the support of a journalist, Jang Eun-Seo (Kim Ji-Ho) who publishes damaging stories as the holes in the prosecution case emerge.

 

As director and joint screenwriter, the veteran Chung Ji-Young who returns to direction after a long silence, produces a politically effective drama which nicely exposes the rather inept way in which the judiciary sets out to crush this inconvenient man. It’s a beautifully paced drama which balances the story of both the accused and his fallible lawyer in their fight for respect from an establishment that has nothing but contempt for those who oppose it. Unbowed or Bureojin Hwasal or 부러진 화살 is a clever exposé of the corruption at the heart of the South Korean state. For the record, the professor’s real name is Kim Myung-Ho and the film is a truthful representation of what happened to him. You should watch it.

 

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