Judge Gordon Sullivan is the man from Nantucket, who once...oh, never mind.
Some crimes cannot be forgiven.
I'm wracking my brain to find an American equivalent to Henning Mankell. He sells books in Sweden the way that James Patterson does in America, but Patterson hasn't seen as many of his books translated to film. Though Mankell has some of the prestige and cinematic crossover of John Grisham, he is more known for this literary series than Grisham's collection of one-offs. I don't want to say Mankell is unique, but it can be hard for American viewers to grasp his significance he holds for Sweden despite his worldwide popularity. I say this because The Man from Beijing represents something of a departure for the author. It doesn't fit neatly into his on-going Wallander series (which has since been turned into hit British and Swedish television shows), and tackles a more culturally and historically diverse subject than the Swedish-centric mysteries he's become famous for. Even though it may be a bit too ambitious for its own good, The Man from Beijing delivers ample atmosphere and mystery.
Facts of the Case
In a remote Swedish village, police discover 19 bodies, the victims of brutal murder. District judge Birgitta Roslin (Suzanne von Borsody, Joy Division) discovers she is related to some of the victims and begins to investigate the mass killing on her own time. As the mystery unravels, her inquires lead back several centuries and span the globe.
The central mystery The Man from Beijing wraps itself in is a compelling one. Having the "investigator" be someone on the fringes of the usual police-centric process is a bold and intelligent choice. The 19 bodies provide a compelling hook, luring viewers into the question of murder and international intrigue, and Judge Roslin makes for a compelling protagonist. Her literal and figurative journey throughout the film's three hours makes for an interesting contrast with the lives of the other characters we see in the past. Many mystery films aren't as ambitious in presenting such a complex set of circumstances for a murder, and it's to The Man from Beijing's credit it can keep all of these narrative plates spinning for 180 minutes.
One of the ways the film keeps its narrative spinning is the use of atmosphere. Even before the bodies are discovered, things start out in a broody and remote Swedish village full of foreboding. Add to that the investigative process that leads Roslin to China, as well as the moments that take place in the past, and the film slowly builds its own world in an impressive way. Though The Man from Beijing was made for television, it doesn't appear as if any expense was spared in bringing Roslin's travels to film.
Music Box Films' DVD does a great job of presenting this mystery. The standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer transitions beautifully from the sometimes bleak Swedish countryside to the bustling metropolis of Beijing. Black levels are deep and consistent, and detail comes through in a number of textures. Colors are well saturated, and the varying skin tones are accurate throughout. The film was adapted by a German company, so that's the native language of this Dolby 5.1 Surround mix. Dialogue comes through clean and clear and the surrounds get a workout during more atmospheric scenes. English subtitles are included. The film's lone extra is a making-of featurette which includes interviews with the filmmakers and Hankell, as well as behind-the-scenes footage. There's also a preview for the Wallander series.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One thing I admire about the Swedish thriller/mystery novels I've read is that they don't follow traditional generic structures. Many American thrillers have three or five acts. Without reading a book it's possible to point to a likely page where a first murder is going to occur, where a red herring is likely to be revealed, and where the killer will eventually emerge. That's not the case with Swedish crime novels, which spend more time on atmosphere and what looks like digressions from the main action, at least to American eyes. While I appreciate the approach, it's not something I'd like to make the meat of my mystery meals. In that respect, some might find The Man from Beijing frustrating. It sits in that awkward zone where a tight script could have brought the film into two hour territory rather than three, making it into a tighter experience. Or, the film could have expanded from two 60 minute acts into three 90 minute episodes, giving more time to the non-contemporary storylines. It's hardly a fatal flaw, but those of us not used to measured pace storytelling might get frustrated.
The integration of geopolitics might also rub some viewers the wrong way. The Man from Beijing is obviously trying to make a point about the sins of the past and the effects of colonial expansion and capitalism, but it feels like the mystery and the commentary don't mix quite as well as they should. Again, not fatal, but it does leave one thinking the film could have been better.
Finally, though the DVD itself is a solid production, the packaging is a bit strange. Putting an Asian man on the cover—especially one holding a sword—might send the wrong message. Though he obviously fits into the story, the combination of the title and the cover art could lead some viewers to expect a martial arts story, which The Man from Beijing is definitely not. Only those who know Henning Mankell's name will be able to judge from the cover this is not a kung-fu style flick.
A solid mystery adapted for German TV from a Swedish novel, The Man from Beijing's murders are compelling, its history well-integrated, and the ending satisfying. Some may bemoan an excess of contemporary geopolitics, but viewers accustomed to other Swedish thrillers—like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—will find this a comforting cinematic experience.
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