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Crazy n’ the City or Sun gaing hup nui (2005)

October 15, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the more revealing issues for fiction to tackle is mental illness. No matter how much we Westerners might try to deceive ourselves that we’ve made significant progress in our reaction to those who are mentally ill, there remains a reservoir of prejudice and fear. It colours our social reactions to those we encounter in our everyday lives. In part, the prejudice is born of the misconception that the mentally ill are likely to be violent. The fear comes from seeing the thin line between socially acceptable and different behaviour. The more honest among us acknowledge how little it would take to push us over that line. In Crazy n’ the City or Sun gaing hup nui (2005), director and screenwriter James Yuen has crafted a script that explores different levels of social disorder. As a film set in Hong Kong, it should represent the best side of Confucianism, i.e. focus on the personal peace and harmony flowing from each person accepting their allotted place in the fabric of society. So family members are filial and, in all aspects of their daily lives, they internalise their private feelings, knowing that speaking out may disrupt the general air of harmony. As a social and political philosophy, it’s relatively easy to fit in if your mental health is good. But, because behaviour may not always match expectations, there’s an additional stigma if the failure to conform is involuntary. A film-maker has a loud megaphone and access to a mass market. With the right film, there can be a positive effort to encourage a change in social attitudes rather than trotting out the same stereotypes that will simply confirm the stigma. The challenge, therefore, is to craft a parable from which viewers can draw lessons for their own lives. The difficulty lies in the need to avoid being preachy hence this story being dressed up as a police procedural.

Francis Ng reflecting on his head injury

 

Still young but seasoned police officer, Chris Chan (Eason Chan), draws the short straw of Liu Tak Nam (Joey Yung), the enthusiastic rookie, on her first day. One of the more notorious individuals on their beat through Wan Chai is Shing Wong (Francis Ng). He has a tragic backstory that left him suicidal and profoundly depressed. Although he was talked down from the roof, the only result seemed to be the addition of schizophrenia. He walks the streets with a dead phone clamped to his ear, constantly talking to old friends, acquaintances and his long-lost wife. He helps foreign tourists by giving them directions and explaining something of Hong Kong’s architectural past, he’s fixated by the lingerie shop he used to run, and is convinced he still owes money to a loan shark (Henry Fong). As all good parables should, the community is shown as tolerant. Rachel (Kara Hui), his sister who runs a newspaper stall, does her best to look after him. The loan shark does not accept his repeated efforts to pay off the loan. His old school friend who runs a mobile phone business humours him when he complains the phone does not work. The lady who runs the lingerie shop is frustrated, but does not call the police.

 

Unfortunately, Shing’s world view is threatened from three sides. In another of his cameos, Suet Lam has the thankless role of throwing himself off a tall building and dying. This is what Shing avoided, but watching this death leap shakes him. A divorced woman moves into the flat above and begins to run a legitimate massage business, and a serial rapist and murderer begins to kill women. Throughout, our pair of police officers walk the streets. Chris Chan has given up all ambition. He passively moves through life, doing his best to avoid any situation in which there might be conflict or make paperwork for himself. He watches the burning enthusiasm of the rookie and recalls he was once the same but, initially, sees no reason to change. However, when they are called to a bus in which a man has exposed himself to two older school girls, he’s sufficiently roused to subdue the flasher as he tries to escape. This public demonstration of judo skills provokes the girls to invite him to give lessons at their school. After a very successful session, he goes with a small group for a meal and, after talking, sends two girls home. One becomes a victim of the killer and the other precocious seventeen-year old makes him think about his lack of interest in the future.

Eason Chan and Joey Yung agreeing to disagree

 

All this boils up into a slightly overwrought climax in which Shing’s desire to protect the woman upstairs proves dangerous, and Chris Chan remembers what it feels like to want to make a difference in life. In the aftermath, Shing makes something of a recovery and returns to a more competent level of performance — Confucius would be proud of him. Chris Chan puts his name forward to the promotion board and Liu Tak Nam sets out to conquer a handsome motorcycle cop (Alex Fong). It’s interesting to watch Lam Suet, Henry Fong and Benz Hui, veteran of film and TVB, pitch in with cameo performances. The familiarity of their faces is somehow reassuring in an uncertain world. As a film, I think Crazy n’ the City or Sun gaing hup nui (2005) goes as far as it can. Made in 2004/5, Hong Kong was still very much in the cultural melting pot and films cannot be too controversial in such times. As a gentle push in the right direction, this is a success. The only drawback to an otherwise competent script is the lack of credibility in the relationship between Francis Ng and the newly arrived masseuse, and the suddenness of his recovery to provide the required “happy ending”. Taking altogether, it’s a reasonably entertaining way of passing 90 minutes.

 

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

July 20, 2011 2 comments

In another article, I happily assert that Dong Yi is not a serial about fate. It’s about the choices people make. This reflects my own prejudices. Since I do not believe in anything supernatural, all representations of religion or “magic” do nothing more than show the belief systems of the day. None of them can be real. Hence, in my view, the serial is always about the choices people make. But, of course, if the characters do believe in magic, their decisions are inevitably influenced by what they believe.

The role of superstition or magic in any culture can never be underestimated. In the Late Joseon period shown in Dong Yi, the moral and intellectual framework for their society comes from Confucianism and Taoism, i.e. from a more formalised religious base rooted in a relative degree of rationality. The more traditional culture, what we in the West would call pre-Enlightenment, is rooted in ignorance and a fear of the unknown. Superstition takes natural events that cannot be explained in scientific terms and gives them an unnatural explanation. Anything unusual is taken as evidence of supernatural beings and their influence over our world. This can be returning spirits and ghosts, or gods and demons. Standing in the centre of this cultural phenomenon is the shaman. He or she contests the battle between the rational science that appeals to the educated classes, and charlatanry that appeals to the gullible peasants and slaves. Even the nobility can find it difficult to throw off the old social practices, looking for a cause and effect in defending their financial and social status through a shaman’s intercession with gods and ancestors who might affect their fortunes. Such beliefs run in parallel with their equal acceptance of medical science, an increasing understanding of chemistry, astronomy, and so on. For them, there’s no need to choose between the old and new beliefs. You can pray to any god or ancestor that might help you while exploiting all the latest in knowledge and technology. Naturally the Confucian officials condemned shamans as practitioners of black magic with unclean rituals. This was not to deny the existence of spirits. But rather to say there were better ways of honouring ancestors.

The first major plot we see from within the palace shows Queen Myeongseong (Park Jeong-Su), the Queen Mother, exploiting the superstition of the masses to destabilise the position of Jang Hee-Bin (Lee So-Yeon). First comes the fall of the meteorite into the palace. The Ministers immediately claim this as an ill omen, arguing that King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee) should not reinstate Court Lady Jang (Lee So-Yeon). It seems the fate of the nation turns on such events. It’s fascinating to watch the fear of the Ministers when they are each given tokens made out of the meteorite. The King, it seems is not only a rationalist, but also has a sense of humour. However, he stops laughing for the Omen of Dissonance. The nation’s music has lost its melody which, of course, foretells the fall of the nation — at least that was supposed to be why China fell into chaos. For King Sukjong, it seems if the meteorite doesn’t fall on your head, the music can assault your ears. The masses in the city are thrown into a panic. Fortunately there’s a rational explanation.The pitch of the chimes has been altered using rock salt. The fact the plot is illogical takes nothing away from the power of the idea. If the instruments were tuned wrongly, the musicians would play badly from the outset. Unfortunately, the dissonance in the main banquet is shown only as coming on dramatically after playing had begun.

Later in the serial, even Chief Seo Yong-Gi (Jeong Jin-Yeon) gets in on the superstition act with a reference to a “falling star” being a harbinger of doom — in his case, not fully realised, of course, just the coincidence of a minor wound. Then Dong Yi herself exploits the superstition there’s a “kingly” aura in the house where the newly married prince would go to live. This would lead the common people to expect the prince to become king, somehow usurping the Crown Prince. Fearing this might influence the succession, the young prince is therefore allowed to stay inside the palace.

More generally, the serial is framed by the predictions of two seers or soothsayers depending on your preferred jargon. They both claim to see into the future but are very different. In terms of magical systems, the first represents a form of neutral advisor. Although he’s interventionist, he’s less engaged in the real world. Yes, he talks with the rich and powerful, and takes their money, but he also offers help to the weak and unlucky. However, having offered help, he steps back. Those who have heard his words are free to decide how to react. This is an interesting view of what we might consider fate. He physically holds back Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) when she might have given herself away as her father and brother are dragged past her under arrest but, thereafter, he turns away with a prediction of great things if she can survive. Later, by another coincidence, he’s on hand to pull Cha Jeon-Soo (Bae Su-Bin) out of the river. Whether by accident or design, he keeps the key players alive — good scriptwriting!

He offers the lieutenant for Chief Seo advice on who will win the wrestling match. Taking the powers as real, he achieves a godlike omniscience and detachment. He knows the unlucky lieutenant will reject the advice and go home to face the wrath of his wife. This does not prevent him from offering the advice and watching the choice made. Equally, it does not prevent him from making the right bet and profiting. We can say he’s moved by pity for those that cannot change their nature, but there are also signs he has hope for the future. Over time, nothing is ever completely certain. Many factors must interact to produce outcomes. There are always random elements that can change those outcomes. Sometimes, perhaps, individuals could surprise him by making different decisions.

So the pivotal movements come in the Jang household where he advises Oh Tae-Suk (Jeong Dong-Hwan) that the young Jang Hee-Bin whom the family proposes to place in the palace as a concubine, will rise to the top position. In a private session with the girl, the seer advises there will be a challenge from another girl who will burn as brightly. He warns that, if she does not want to be in the shadow, she must not fight the other girl. This is advice to a tiger to change its essential nature but, given Dong Yi’s nature, he’s right that they could share in the good outcome. The second seer is explicitly a shaman who represents the darker arts. She tells the future for Jang Hee-Jae (Kim Yu-Seok) and his mother, Lady Yoon (Choi Ran). They are more open to the notion of proactive black magic and participate in a ritual to curse the dying Queen Inhyeon (Park Ha Sun). Under the law of the time, this was considered an act of treason against the Crown. That they are prepared to run the risk is a sign of both their belief in the power of the ritual and their desperation.

Superstition is both an intellectual trap and an opportunity. It closes your mind to other belief systems that might provide more reliable insights and outcomes. Yet it also represents an opportunity for, if you understand how to exploit the power of the beliefs in the mass culture, you can bring down Kings — the notion of an ill-omen can infect a mob and incite chaos. That the magical systems ultimately fail in Dong Yi shows a new rationality in the ascendancy. Curiously, the battle is still being fought today as remnants of shamanism persist in modern Korea. In some parts of Korea, you will still find shamans performing a kut to exorcise adverse ancestral influences. Misin T’ap’a Undong remains a powerful ideology even in modern times.

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

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

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

Dong Yi — the politics

July 16, 2011 1 comment

One of the more interesting questions about any modern drama is whether it can escape the limits of our own time and achieve some degree of universality. If we look back at Shakespeare, the people of his time no doubt thought him good. At the very least, they paid to see his work on the stage and read his poetry. But I seriously doubt anyone thought he would still be going strong almost four-hundred years after his death. That his work is still performed is remarkable for two reasons. First, the English is four-hundred years out of date, and a not insignificant amount of the vocabulary is no longer in direct use. Second, the format of blank verse makes the delivery of the words sound even less natural to our modern ears. Yet, despite the fact the language represents a barrier to understanding, the themes are as relevant today as they were yesterday. The plays speak to the realities of power and the frailties of human beings. Sadly, men and women have always been afflicted by excesses of pride, jealousy and cruelty. Fortunately, they have also been uplifted by charity, wisdom and love. That we have survived all these generations is testament to the fact that a balance has been struck between the virtues and the vices, with the former edging into the lead to the race to glory or perdition.

Ji Jin Hee usually showing the King as a man of great humanity

Dong Yi is a Korean sageuk serial, directed by Lee Byung-hoon and based on a script by Kim Yi Young. It’s a story set in the real-world Late Joseon court of King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee). It’s not about destiny or fate although there’s a Macbeth-style witch to predict the future. It’s about choices and living with the consequences. The framework for the story is the political situation inside the court. It’s bedevilled by infighting between the Western and Southern factions, the latter later dividing into the Soron group which supports the claims of the Crown Price to succeed his father, and the Noron group which prefers the son of Choi Dong Yi (Han Hyo Joo) for the next king.

The main problems with power and wealth are not just in maximising their accumulation, but being able to keep what has been acquired and decide what’s to happen after death. Succession planning becomes a key focus because those who follow the current power-brokers must decide how they will align themselves when the next generation takes over. The fact that fathers may favour one group does not guarantee the sons or daughters will view that group with the same favour. In a way, Dong Yi is a variation on the themes of King Lear in which an ageing king decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters. We all remember Goneril and Regan, but it’s the virtuous Cordelia who wins out in the end.

Han Hyo Joo as Dong Yi showing the clothing appropriate to different ranks

Dong Yi balances on a political cusp between an old order and a new order. At this point, the inertia of the past reinforces an essential conservatism. Those that have the power naturally want to preserve the status quo and their politics are right wing. These are the High Tory grandees and the stalwarts of the Republican party. The new order is founded on more abstract notions of social justice. In utilitarian terms, it assumes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, that through the emancipation and empowerment of the lower classes in a society, the community as a whole will benefit. Making an economic point, if wealth is more evenly distributed, the poor have money to spend. They form a market and, if those with capital build businesses that sell goods and services to the poor, the quality of life for all may improve. This is not to say that either old or new order is more rational. But the issue is whether the combination of rationality with a more altruistic use of power produces a better, more enlightened society. If it does, then the new order will prevail.

The problem with King Sukjong is that he lacks the motivation to live up to his Confucian ideals. Like Lear, he’s delegated the running of the kingdom to successive political factions within the palace and “trusts” them to run the country properly. So, in the debate about means and ends, the realpolitik of this historical period sees a well-intentioned king forced to confront the corruption inherent in the old order. For the nobility, the end is the accumulation of personal power, no matter what the cost. By contrast, Choi Dong Yi accumulates power almost inadvertently and only uses what she has for the benefit of others. The relationship between the King and Choi Dong Yi therefore takes the first step in the direction of a renaissance. This is selfless individualism with the power to confront the entrenched interests, thereby promoting the notions of class mobility and a meritocracy. Going back to the issue of succession, this is moving from what we might call a noble line based on blood, to a noble line based on ability and virtue. It’s therefore a threat to the status quo, not to say revolutionary.

Lee So-Yeon as Lady Jang Hee-bin showing the high-ranking hairstyle

In terms of statecraft, the new order reflects a more profound application of Confucianism, demonstrating that being righteous and honest in the service of humanity creates a new political reality. Given the nature of Korean society as an autocracy, Confucius teaches that a ruler will lose Heaven’s Mandate if he acts without proper respect for humanity. This produces a framework of benevolence in support of the people. Mencius also hints at some degree of democratisation in that a ruler should listen to the will of the people on important matters affecting their interests.

Coming to the Jang family as the primary representatives of the old order, we have Lady Jang (Lee So-Yeon) who starts off in an indeterminate state. She is filial and has been involved in the inevitable manoeuvring to acquire power. But, as the family gains status through the murder of competitor nobles, she becomes less directly involved and, in the end, rises above the infighting. She has intelligence and this could have empowered her as a force for good in King Sukjong’s court. Yet she is trapped by her relationships and loyalties. Her decision is to sacrifice her emerging virtue to protect her brother, Jang Hee-Bin (Kim Yoo Suk). This is fateful, based on selfish emotion without concern for the broader social consequences.

Choi Jong-Hwan as Jang Moo-Yul dressing down to pass unnoticed outside the palace

Jang Hee-Bin and Lady Yoon (Choi Ran), his mother, lack Lady Jang’s intelligence. They move at a more instinctive level, driven by the short-term desire to hold what they have despite the consequences, whether positive or negative. The most interesting counterpoint to Choi Dong Yi is Jang Moo-Yul (Choi Jong-Hwan). He represents the most rational mind in the old order. It’s interesting to watch him offer his services to Choi Dong Yi. This is pure pragmatism to join the new order while it ascends. If it then stabilises and holds power, he will be in prime position. If it should appear weak, he can bring it down from within. When she rejects him, he dismisses her as naive because he does not understand how fundamentally Choi Dong Yi’s philosophy will infect those around her. He’s blinded by his own faction’s orthodoxy, assuming the predatory ways of the court cannot change. As a result, he misses the straws in the wind like Matron Yoo (Lim Seong-Min). These people accept a second chance, develop a conscience, or trust each other as honest without looking for hidden motives. He loses when he selfishly overreaches to protect his own interests.

Although allegories are, by their nature, simplistic, Dong Yi is not simple fodder for television audiences. For those who want to look beyond the melodrama and romance, there’s a robust debate on the nature of power, who should have the right to wield it, and for what purposes. There are also fascinating uses of everyman figures. These are the fools and less able who nevertheless find their positions in the new order. To all their just deserts as we watch the more universal moral messages play out. Dong Yi is probably not going to be remembered in hundreds of years as a work of Shakespearean quality, but it’s a brave attempt to say something interesting about the kind of society we should all like to live in.

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

Dong Yi — superstition and magic

Dong Yi — the minor characters

Dong Yi — final thoughts

Click here for the reviews of the narrative itself:

Dong Yi — the first 22 episodes;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 23 to 29;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 30 to 36;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 37 to 41;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 42 to 47;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 48 to 50;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 51 to 54;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 55 to 63;

Dong Yi — a review of episodes 64 to 69;

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

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