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The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 3 and 4

February 4, 2014 Leave a comment

The After Dinner Mysteries

The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011) episodes 3 and 4 see us reprise the basic set-up with some nice stop-frame sequences to show Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa), our heiress as a child, riding a lion and dining with the President of the United States (no relationship implied between the two kings of their respective jungles). This time, she’s called out on a Sunday. Such inconsiderate murderers. Why can’t they restrict their killing to ordinary working days during the week? Fortunately, Kageyama (Sho Sakurai) is able to offer comfort and consolation. This only lasts until she sees the body. He’s lying with his head in a pool of blood wearing only his underpants. It seems someone hit him over the head and then undressed him. There’s no sign of his clothes and there are carpet fibres on his forehead. Better still, he’s a congressman and a rising star of the democratic party, investigating possible corruption on Capitol Hill. This suggests the murder was to keep him quiet. The killing took place in a hotel room which he had on a yearly contract. The safe he had installed has been opened and is empty. As against that, he appears to have been a womaniser which could have produced dangerous jealousy. The reveal is actually rather neat if somewhat long-drawn-out. The use of the cardboard cutout action figure is nicely appropriate and the logic of how there seemed to be two murderers is rather elegant. The explanation for the carpet fibres is typically Japanese and the significance of the trip to the beach is an outstanding deduction. Put all this together and you have to feel sorry for the murderer. Indeed, the way the plot is designed, the intention is to give our heiress/butler pair a chance to discuss how infidelity might be inadvertently disclosed. The final frames of the episode leave us with a rerun of the early line — that all a man need do to hide the fact he’s dating several women is to habitually avoid using their names and only refer to them as “you” as in “I love you” and so on. It leaves so much unsaid between Reiko Hosho and Kageyama.

Kageyama (Sho Sakurai)

Kageyama (Sho Sakurai)

This leads to a really pleasing opening section to episode 4 as Reiko Hosho accepts an invitation to her friend’s wedding. Except, when you come down to it, her friend is doing the wrong thing by marrying before the top heiress. This shows disloyalty from someone so low down on the heiress ranking order. What makes it so much worse is that Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina), the noveau riche detective, also turns up as a guest. This is the first time the dunce has had a chance to identify the heiress. To throw him off the scent, Kageyama must therefore give a false name to his mistress and act as escort to her in the reception. The theory is that their act as a couple will deter the detective. Unfortunately, the challenge of a rival merely encourages him. This leaves us wanting a crime and it turns out to be a locked room mystery. The bride is attacked in her bedroom. There’s a long fall to the ground underneath the bedroom window and no sign anyone recklessly attempted the jump. Going the other way courtesy of a rope and hook is too athletic an exercise for any of the guests at the wedding. So it has to be someone who can manage the mechanics of locking the door.

Appropriately enough, as the first one through the door, Reiko Hosho is immediately suspect because she could have falsely claimed it was locked and only pretended to use the key to open it. She was jealous of her friend’s marriage and so has motive. As nutty detective in chief, Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri takes change of the case and is unable to come up with any other explanation. The idiot is going to arrest Reiko Hosho who’s only fault is to use her brain cells only some of the time. Fortunately, Kageyama knows whodunnit. The only problem is how to prove it. However, it ultimately proves quite easy because the situation requires the commission of a second crime. When our pair disrupts this crime, the truth must come out. Again the answer proves rather sad. No matter what the culture, this is an entirely human reaction to a very difficult situation.

Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina) tries to impress Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa)

Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri (Kippei Shiina) tries to impress Reiko Hosho (Keiko Kitagawa)

We even get quite a long discussion of the true nature of the relationship between a butler and his mistress which is fascinating. The ground rules as laid out by our hero are a route to sadness but, in the world of the rich, it would be difficult for there to be any other system of behaviour. I’m reminded of the tragedy in the British Royalty when Princess Margaret told her family she proposed to marry beneath herself. When rank and status are so important, there have to be rules about such things and both sides of the equation have to understand the purpose of the rules and so accept them. All this is, of course, window dressing for what’s obviously intended to be a struggle for both our heroes to avoid the “love trap”. Her family would never agree and she knows it. As to the plot, the significance of the family butler not wearing his glasses is a very pleasing touch. The result is a slightly better episode because it avoids rerunning the formula of the argument before dinner, then the reveal when she has consumed something delicious. Being set entirely in the bride’s family home doing double duty for the wedding and reception, it gives us a chance to see everyone in a slightly more natural setting. This is not to say the episode is without flaws. That no-one comments when our heroine adopts a false name to throw off Kyoichiro Kazamatsuri is a surprising lapse from a team that usually gets the details right. The failure to disapprove Kageyama attending the wedding is more complicated. He’s recognised as a butler but the prospective mother-in-law understands a crisis must have forced this breach of protocol. Without asking the reason, she turns a blind eye.

For reviews of the other episodes, see:
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011) Episodes 1 and 2
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 5 and 6
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 7 and 8
The After Dinner Mysteries or Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de or 推理要在晚餐后 (2011): Episodes 9 and 10.

The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)

October 16, 2012 2 comments

The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012) provokes me into a slightly introspective mood. I was happily going with the flow right up to the last ten minutes and then found I didn’t like the ending. No, I need to put it more strongly than that. I hate the ending! This is going to make writing this review somewhat complicated because, as a general rule, I avoid spoilers. In this case, we have a series of murders in which the victims are shot but the bullet vanishes, plus a locked-room mystery. Because the solutions are particularly ingenious — indeed, I can’t remember this particular solution to the vanishing bullet phenomenon before — I can’t discuss the detail. Everything that follows this point is somewhat hypothetical, discussing the principles involved so you can understand why I hesitate on whether to recommend this film.

 

Thematically, we’re into the difficult area of deciding what constitutes justice in a Confucian social system with the frame of a formal judgment at both ends of the film. Confucius was absolutely clear on the role of Heaven as a Supreme Being, “He who offends against Heaven has none to whom he can pray.” This means Heaven watches what we do and is ultimately responsible for the administration of justice. If we violate Heaven’s will, it will turn away from us. Indeed, the threat of losing Heaven’s blessing is a deterrent sanction to ensure we retain our integrity, no matter how corrupt those around us. This reinforces the general rule that, if we have faith and are innocent of wrongdoing, we should always be able to rely on Heaven to keep us safe.

Lau Ching Wan at his very best with a sample bullet

 

The film begins with what looks to be a formal invocation of the Way of Heaven to determine who is “right” in an accusation of theft at a munitions factory. Heaven appears to decide the accused is guilty. But, uncharacteristically, the spirit does not leave Earth as it should. Rather it stays and appears responsible for a curse on all those who continue to work in the factory. At first, no-one is inclined to believe in the curse but, when a foreman is shot and there’s absolutely no sign of a bullet, the workforce begins to lose its nerve. When a second death occurs, the body being found in a room with no means for the killer to escape, panic edges closer.

 

The investigative duo assigned to the case is Guo Zhui (Nicholas Tse) and Song Donglu (Lau Ching Wan). Both have highly refined powers of observation and impeccable powers of deduction. Guo is also a fast-draw expert and crack shot, while Song is deeply into practical investigation. If he can try a method of killing on himself or others, he will study what happens to the body during the process of coming closer to death. Up to the start of the film, he has always managed to avoid death. Neither are inclined to believe in the supernatural, but they are slow to come up with methods that will cause death and not leave a bullet or a trace of some kind, e.g. if the bullet was made of ice and could somehow be kept cold enough to be carried around and then fired from a gun, would there not be traces of liquid or a stain at the scene? This obviously calls for testing. The “locked-room” puzzle is equally challenging. Our detectives are walking down a corridor, approaching a room when they hear a shot. When they open the door and enter, they find a man dead, but no weapon and absolutely no way anyone could have left the room (there’s no-one hiding behind the door).

Nicholas Tse showing a different way of holding a gun

 

Frankly, this is all beautifully done. The period detail of the 1930s looks and feels right, the CGI of the munitions factory has a generally threatening air, and the level of technology seems to have been faithfully recreated. Indeed, in the more traditional style of Sherlock Holmes, we have everything in the set-up going along smoothly. But the role of Little Lark (Mini Yang) is the first sign of confusion. She’s one of these wheeler-dealer fortune tellers with little birds that are trained to hop out of their cage and pull a little envelope from a pack of envelopes, each containing a prediction about the future. For reasons not immediately clear, she’s threatened and this sparks the previously undeclared love with Guo. This love affair is not really developed and adds nothing to the ending. Moving closer to the end, a phenomenal number of bullets are fired and the munitions factory is blown up. To my mind, this is unnecessary pandering to the lowest common denominator section of the market that believes a good film must always contain shooting and explosions. And so it is we come to the end. I suppose one way of looking at the question Heaven is asked to decide is whether the ends justify the means. Just how far can the wronged go in pursuit of justice? In a utilitarian world, the answer would be a moral thumbs up if there’s a major benefit to the many. But the Confucian Heaven is a slightly more unpredictable quantity. Personally, I think the gun should have jammed or the bullet failed to fire. If we’re going to invoke a supernatural agency, that’s the least we can expect. What we actually see is completely contrary to natural law and deeply annoying to viewers like me.

 

So what’s my conclusion? Well, I’m not going to condemn The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan just because of the way the final loose ends are tied up. Director Chi-Leung Law has done a remarkable job in engaging our interest and involving us in this difficult moral debate. I’m prepared to give him great credit. Too often I walk out of a cinema feeling unmoved. This film succeeded in making me angry which is a sign of its quality. Lau Ching Wan is wonderful to watch as the more brainy detective — a far better performance than in Mad Detective — and although some of the villains are stereotypical and cardboardy, there’s a high level of commitment from a good all-round cast. Had it not been for the end, I would have been hailing this as one of the best films out of Hong Kong this year so, if for no other reason, you should go and see it. You never know, you might like the ending!

 

Other films by Lau Ching Wan:
The Great Magician or Daai mo seut si (2011)
Life Without Principle or Dyut meng gam (2011)
Mad Detective or San taam (2007)
Overheard or Sit yan fung wan (2009)
Overheard 2 or Sit yan fung wan 2 (2011)

 

Other films by Nicholas Tse:
The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan (2008)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)
Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan (2011)
The Viral Factor or Jik zin (2012)

 

The Harry Houdini Mysteries: The Houdini Specter by Daniel Stashower

History is always a set of facts available for the modern author to manipulate in order to achieve the desired effect. In this case, the straight historical novel meets the murder mystery as Harry and Dash Houdini get caught up in the commission of a murder. For the record, it’s obvious from the outset that the ghost summoned during the séance by a famous medium was the murderer. Since all the people around the table were holding each other’s hands, the windows were barred and the only door into the room locked, no human could have done it.

 

I’m going to pause for a moment to admire the opening paragraph. As a contribution to the locked-room trope, this wins the prize for the most innovative. In the traditional detective novel, people have to break down the library door and enter to find the body battered to death with the candlestick. We then engage in the ritual of deciding how someone could commit the murder and leave the victim inside the locked room. That’s now completely passé. This is a murder committed in plain sight. Well that’s not strictly true. Obviously the lights were dim and people’s attention was rather distracted by the appearance of a ghost holding a knife. But the remarkable thing is that when there was light and everyone alive looked around the room, one of their number stubbornly refused to move because of the knife rather prominently sticking out of his back.

Daniel Stashower both author and amateur magician

 

Let’s rewind again. This is the third of The Harry Houdini Mysteries: The Houdini Specter by Daniel Stashower (Titan Books, 2012). It’s set in the late spring of 1898, i.e. before the word Houdini entered the public’s consciousness as meaning a master showman and escape artist without equal. Indeed, one of the running jokes through the book is Harry’s bombastic confidence that he will one day be great. I suppose some self-confidence is always desirable to drive people to achieve greatness but this representation of the “great man” is less than flattering. His brother Dash (christened Theodore) comes out of it as the quietly thoughtful one who has the thankless task of smoothing the ruffled feathers his brother leaves behind. His wife Bess also has considerable common sense and the ability to command Harry to silence when he’s becoming too embarrassing.

 

Anyway Harry and Dash are two of the eight people around the table for the séance which narrows down the field of suspects somewhat. Not unnaturally, they are present to expose the medium assumed to be fraudulent. Except, for most of the book, neither Harry nor Dash have any reliable understanding of how the effect of the ghost was created nor how the murder was committed. One of Harry’s less flattering qualities as displayed here is his arrogant assumption that his every analysis must be the right answer without the need to quietly investigate. This leads to him making the most overly dramatic revelations only to find each analysis, while admirable in its own way, is not the right answer. I suppose his indefatigable confidence he will solve the crime is why he did eventually become great. He just doesn’t know when he’s beaten. Obviously, it’s Dash who leads the real investigation but, in the end, it’s a partnership solution and while the answer is not, “The butler did it!” the butler is pivotal in that there’s a place for everything and, if everything is not in its proper place, this offends the eye of professional butler who may be provoked to comment and reveal all.

 

As to one key element, all I will say is that I did spend a little time goggling when I finished reading. In all the best historical books, there’s always at least one element that presents a different or unexpected view of the past. As a result of reading this, I’ve recalibrated my general timeline of when people first did things or developed ideas. It doesn’t really matter whether this would have worked. I enjoyed the answer and find it adds to a general sense of fun about the entire exercise. The Houdini Specter may not be the most historically accurate book ever written, but it’s wonderfully entertaining and you can’t ask for more than that.

 

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

 

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