Until he saw this adaptation of James Clavell's novel, Judge Dan Mancini believed a naked Joan Chen could make any movie good.
Love. Passion. Betrayal.
The tomes of James Clavell are trashy romance novels for Asian history buffs, bodice…err…kimono-rippers thinly veiled in the social and cultural minutiae of Asia's tumultuous opening to the West. His tales involve a rogue's gallery of European freebooters with names like John Blackthorne, Ian Dunross, and Tab Thumpchest. Well, not that last one, but you get my drift. These heroes always start off with false faith in European superiority based on gun ownership, then learn the Asian culture they're trying to tame and loot is superior because of regular bathing and free love. Which brings us back to the kimono-ripping part. There's always an exotic Asian beauty willing to embrace the filthy barbarian hero with open mind (and legs), in part because his musket ain't the longest gun he's packing in his trousers, if you catch my meaning. And we all know what they say about Asian men, right?
Tai-Pan represents an attempt to distill Clavell's sprawling tale (one of his shorter books, it still runs to almost 800 pages) into a two-hour movie. The result isn't just cheesy melodrama, it's cheesy melodrama in rushed shorthand. The story is set in and around 1842, and concerns one Dirk Struan (Bryan Brown, F/X), a cagey pirate and sea merchant who, in the film's first ten minutes, claims Hong Kong for England and becomes Tai-Pan (which is something akin to the Grand Poobah of Chinese-British trade, though it remains insufficiently explained in the film). His trading company, the Noble House, finds itself in financial straits when one of its ship captains, Tyler Brock (John Stanton, Darkness Falls), purchases its bank notes and threatens to take command of the entire fleet of clippers if Struan doesn't pay off the debt within 30 days. Struan finds assistance from a Chinese businessman, but the deal he cuts with the wily powerbroker creates a mess of new challenges. The plot thickens when Struan's son Culum (Tim Guinee, Blade) falls in love with Brock's daughter Tess (Kyra Sedgwick, Singles), and Struan's relationship with his slave/lover May-May (Joan Chen, The Last Emperor) is complicated by the advances of Shevaun Tillman (Janine Turner, Northern Exposure), the sexually aggressive niece of an American trader.
Clavell wrote Tai-Pan in the mid-1960s, and its tale of culture-clash might be viewed as a dry-run for his most famous novel, Shogun. In truth, the British subjugation of Hong Kong and the slippery ethics of the 19th-century opium and silver trade make a fairly sophisticated backdrop for a soap opera, but none of that comes through in this slim movie adaptation. Everything about the picture is cardboard fake. The plot and characterizations have been whittled into the barest of Hollywood hokum. The historical and cultural content that gives Clavell's books a modicum of depth is dispatched as quickly as possible so the filmmakers can get on with the trite character conflicts and steamy sexual escapades. Struan's a square-jawed hero of such phony charisma and bravado, he'd be the Shatneresque Zapp Brannigan from Futurama if he were a cartoon. Wait, what am I saying? He is a cartoon. The only substantive difference between Dirk and Zapp is we're expected to take Dirk as seriously as he takes himself. Villain Tyler Brock is so one-dimensionally loathsome (not to mention his sadistic son, Gorth), we cease caring about his antics. And every female character in the movie can be pigeonholed as either whore or saint (most falling squarely and conveniently into the whore category).
The acting is uniformly wooden, but how could it not be when the characters are so flat, and all—I mean all—of the dialogue is expository. Even the pillow talk between Struan and May-May is consumed with explaining all the stuff the movie fails to show us. In terms of acting, Joan Chen is probably the film's biggest victim. Not only is May-May little more than an exotic stereotype, but all of Chen's dialogue was poorly looped in post, either by herself or a Western voice actress. The results are shrill and distracting, of a kind with English dubs for the short-panted little boys in Godzilla flicks. But it's obvious Chen wasn't hired for her acting chops. If the filmmakers had been entirely candid, the credits would read, "and starring Joan Chen's breasts as May-May." They're the only part of the girl we're meant to care about.
It may be barebones, but Fox's DVD presentation of Tai-Pan is surprisingly slick. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is beautiful, perfectly rendering the production design's vivid colors, which offer a reasonable facsimile of the sterile China of the Western imagination, the one found in America's gaudy Chinese restaurants. The Dolby 5.1 audio track is surprisingly aggressive in its use of surrounds. If there was a bit more low end, the film would sound like a thoroughly modern overblown epic, instead of one almost 20 years old. Michael Jarre's (Ghost) heavy-handed score—which struggles with the same futile desperation as the actors to breathe some emotion into this flaccid flick—is beautifully presented in the carefully mixed track.
Tai-Pan is like a fortune cookie: a bland Western confection marketed as Asian exotica. That'd be all right if it delivered as a drama, but it doesn't. How bad is Tai-Pan? Bad enough I couldn't sit through two consecutive hours of it. I watched it over two nights.
Don't bother with this one. It's guilty as charged.
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