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Capsule Reviews

Noble House    (1988)
They say youíve never been to Hong Kong if you havenít read James Clavellís classic page turner Noble House, and this reviewer tends to agree.

Often derided for its bombastic plot and over the topness, Noble House remains none the less a gripping read and true statement of love for the city and culture comprising Hong Kong, even though ask most locals and they wonít know what youíre talking about. Indeed, Noble House is more for those transplanting to the city, but not for those reading from afar Ė most of the nuances and cool factor are lost on people who donít actually live there.

Now, Noble House was made into a TV mini series twenty years ago, and that one has recently appeared on DVD, and at long last, we say. The short and quick of it is that if you have any feelings about Hong Kong and any degree of familiarity with the place, youíll enjoy this version. However, if youíve never been and donít really care, itíll probably be wasted on you.

Clavellís work, which includes likewise grandiose Shogun and Tai Pan (all occur in the same universe), is always a joy to behold, whether in writing or on the screen, and Noble House is no exception. The main draw here is the sheer addictive nature of the manís writing Ė itís like Dynasty or Dallas only with a good dollop of mostly credible history thrown in. Well, at least credible in the sense that it fits in very well with the multitude of characters and story arcs.

This was more of a mean feat, of course, in the huge novel Ė Noble House came in at over 1000 pages and was action packed to the hilt. In that respect, the Gary Nelson-led TV production deserves respect, since they succeeded in cramming most of that into just six hours.

They also did something interesting with the setting. While Clavellís original story was set in early 60ís HK, the show takes place in the late 80ís, and does a good job with the update. Characters frequently refer to the looming 1997 handover, ponder its consequences and make predictions. A complete subplot involving Soviet spies was taken out, I guess because they decided it was no longer relevant Ė although disappointing from a cold war nostalgia standpoint, it was a clever choice.

But above all else, anyone whoís read the book will be impressed at how the locales look like what you imagined before Ė no doubt helped by the fact that they shot almost everything on the ground in HK. And the effects are pretty impressive, this must have been a big deal on TV back then, but honestly I canít remember! Just behold the floating restaurant scene Ė very well done!

Whatís the story about? Got a few hours? Well, you get Pierce Brosnan back in his Remington Steel days as tai pan Ian Dunross of House Struan, or the titular Noble House (Jardines in real life). Heís struggling to keep the company ahead of the ravenous HK pack against the usual backdrop of intrigue, conniving and greed. Besetting him is rival Quinlan Gornt (John Rhys-Davies) of Rothwell-Gornt (aka Swire), whoís trying to depose the Noble House and take over. This character is infinitely nastier on TV than he was in the book, one alteration we donít really understand. Two Americans also enter the fray, upstart tycoon Linc Bartlett (Ben Masters) and his VP Casey Tcholok (Deborah Raffin). Both are in town scouting for opportunity, but thereís a lot more than meets the eye.

A whole range of supporting characters are on hand, including police, triads, bankers and a couple of lovelies like a very young Tia Carrere and Suzie Wong - OK, Nancy Kwan. Most do an adequate job, but Pierce Brosnan is just too stiff and appears lacking in range. Additionally, for something so obviously set in Hong Kong, the production has a surprisingly small number of local talents on show Ė actually, Iíd say none. Maybe they were trying to send a message?

They also toned down the very prominent theme of racism that was readily found in the novel, likely to appease primetime TV censors. Thereís almost no swearing, several characters from the book didnít make it or were drastically altered, and the back-story was indeed trimmed down.

But if youíve read the novel, you must watch this and I guarantee youíll at least like it. Itís one of those enjoyable romps you wonít easily put down, and being familiar makes it even easier since it doesnít feel as goofy. Plus, anyone living in HK owes it to themselves to indulge in Noble House Ė Nelson and crew did good capturing both the feel of the place and the mood of the period. This really does feel and act like what I imagine Hong Kong to have been like in the 80ís.

Donít listen to the doubter and haters Ė Clavell, who personally supervised the productionís screenwriting, was a scribbling machine and did the writing profession proud, outrageously cheesy names or not. Itís too bad he passed away young Ė Iím sure todayís Hong Kong would have provided him with ample inspiration.

If you can forgive the occasional soap opera super-tack assault and the awkward soundtrack, Noble House is a pretty enjoyable marathon, the main drawbacks being the DVD editionís mediocre appearance and dearth of special features.

Rating: * * * Ĺ

Tv Series Directed by Gary Nelson (1988, 355 minutes, English)
Lee Alon 6/16/2008 - top

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 6/16/2008 Lee Alon

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