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As another reviewer put it, this movie was very similar to Dune. Very interesting comparison, since Raffaella De Laurentiis produced them both. This was her first project right after Dune. Both were sweeping epic sagas with multiple intertwined plotlines. Both should have been six or eight hour mini series and not feature films. As with Dune, you will find that if you have not read the book, you will not understand the movie. However, if you have read the book, then the movie isn't all that bad. James Clavell's 'Asian Saga' is one of my favorite book series, so I bought this movie cheap just to see it. The characters are like old friends to me, so I didn't think that the movie was all that bad. I realized while watching it though, that someone who had not read the book would not be able to keep up with all of the plot points. My suggestion to you is to read the book, then watch the movie. You will discover two things; first it's a super good book. Second, this movie had everything going for it in cast and settings; it just had too much story to tell in too short a time. It definitely should have been a six-hour miniseries.
I found this movie to follow the novel pretty closely, considering of
course that the novel is about 900 pages and the movie is only two
hours! While not of the same outstanding caliber of adaptation as the
Shogun miniseries, it nevertheless manages to generate some excitement
and give a flavor for the happenings of that period, during which the
colony of Hong Kong was founded.
Joan Chen was especially good as Mai-Mai, and all the other parts were at least adequately cast. The locations, sets and production values were of uniformly good quality. The only thing lacking was enough time to tell a story this long and complex--in such a short production one only has time to hit the high points of the plot. But it was enjoyable nevertheless.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
At first I was sceptical - I've read and loved Tai-Pan, for one - but soon I was sucked in by the story and couldn't stop watching till I'd finished the show.
Admittedly, it's much less of a movie than Tai-Pan is of a book. But the book is a giant among books, and the show is still a good show. Those who have read the book, rather than savaging it for its divergence from the book (which, in any case, would require a mini-series to do its layering and complexity justice, not a 2-hour show) should treat it as a kind of visual accompaniment to the story - good casting, good handling of some powerful scenes. Alright, they were much more powerful in the book, but it's not all the time that readers of a splendid book get the opportunity to see a capable visual incarnation that does justice to the characters, at least, if not to the plot. Maybe if the show had been titled "Selected Scenes from Tai-Pan" rather than "Tai-Pan" it would have been better received by purists. As "Selected Scenes" it's really very good. As "Tai-Pan", maybe not so good - for some of the most vivid scenes from the book are never realised in the show - like the marvellous dim sum negotiations and the whole subplot about the malaria.
What I'm trying to say is it did treat the subject material well, although obviously it couldn't pack everything which makes us love the book into just two hours. In an adaptation of a book, when you can recognise each character instantly before the character's name is mentioned it's always a good sign - where there's good casting, it's a sign that it's a sensitive adaptation, and this was the case with Tai-Pan. I thought Bryan Brown was very good as Dirk Struan; I'm not Scottish, so I couldn't tell that his accent was as fake as many others seem to think it. Tyler and Gorth Brock (and Quance, Culum, Mary, etc) were exactly as I'd imagined them, and Joan Chen was not half bad as May-may.
I was genuinely moved by some scenes which proved Leonard Maltin's comment about 'sledgehammer subtlety' wrong. **MILD SPOILER HERE** And though I had my reservations initially about how they were going to pull off the episode where May-may makes the mistake of dressing incongrously in European fashion and all that follows, I thought it was handled very well.
I can see how those who haven't read the book would find it laughable, though, because due to the compression of the plot you don't really get to know the characters and understand their motivations from scratch. Some of Clavell's magnificent dialogue from the book might sound weird in the show, or lacking in punch, for those without a prior acquaintance of the book, because of this lack of emotional set-up. That's why I think it's best for those who have read the book, who already know the characters and can watch them fully-fledged, so to speak, as the show doesn't spend time introducing the audience to the characters.
Perhaps the reason that fans of James Clavell's books are so vociferous in their criticism of this show, sometimes, is because they are acclimatised to splendid, detailed and heartfelt adaptations of so many of his other books - the Shogun mini-series, the Noble House mini-series and the King Rat film. Why, Clavell fans are really so fortunate already when it comes to screen adaptations! :) If we lowered our expectations a little, we'd see that Tai-Pan, too, is not that bad a treatment of the book at all!
Tai-Pan was probably too ambitious an undertaking for a film as short
as just over 2 hours. Maybe a mini-series would have been the answer,
but Tai-Pan certainly had the potential to be an oriental Gone With The
Unrealized potential though it is. The screenplay made many references to previous events in the novel that are not shown here. We do know there's one nasty rivalry going on between Bryan Brown and John Stanton who both rose to wealth in the China trade like the protagonists in an Edna Ferber novel.
Bryan Brown is the Far East version of Rhett Butler. He's built the family fortune on legal trade and illegal trade in opium. Not that opium was unknown before the British and other European powers got there, but they did turn it into a thriving business. When the Chinese government objected, the European powers took nibbles out of a prostrate and weakened state.
One of those nibbles the British took was Hong Kong, spoils from the Opium War of 1841. Brown like Margaret Mitchell's Rhett Butler or the hero of many Edna Ferber books is the guy who builds what became one of the busiest trading centers on the globe.
Unlike his rival Stanton, Brown's wife left him and took their small son back to the United Kingdom. Brown didn't mourn he took up with some Chinese women, they were pawns in various business negotiations. He got a son, Russell Wong, from one of them.
Things get interesting when his other son arrives from Great Britain played by Tim Guinee. He's a rather uptight Victorian youth who is not pleased with the debauchery he finds and his father's part in it.
Tai-Pan is exquisitely photographed with the climatic typhoon scene very well done indeed. A better screenplay would have been needed to tell this epic story.
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 (J-D-C Scope)
Sound format: Dolby Stereo
1840's China: Thrown off the mainland because of his opium dealings, a western merchant (Bryan Brown) sets up home on the island of Hong Kong where he faces conflict from friend and foe alike in the lead-up to colonization.
Hugely derided at the time of its release, this handsome production - based on the novel by James Clavell, and directed by TV specialist Daryl Duke (THE THORN BIRDS) - plays to the gallery at every turn, embracing the book's labyrinthine plot and outrageous melodrama with unashamed fervour, an approach which appears to have sealed its fate at the box-office. The movie opens a little too abruptly, indicating a troubled post-production, but John Briley's busy screenplay (co-written with Stanley Mann) unfolds against a colorful historical backdrop and includes just enough nudity and violence to keep boredom at bay. Brown's performance is compromised by an unconvincing Scottish accent, and he's upstaged by Joan Chen (THE LAST EMPEROR) as the Chinese girl who loves him regardless of his failings, while handsome Tim Guinee (HOW TO MAKE AN American QUILT) is achingly sincere as Brown's naive young son, led astray by villainous merchants plotting his family's downfall. Also starring John Stanton, Russell Wong, Norman Rodway, Kyra Sedgwick and Bert Remsen in supporting roles. Production values strive to capture an epic feel and are largely successful, though no one's ever going to mistake this for "Lawrence of Hong Kong"! Italian makeup maestro Giannetto de Rossi (a regular contributor to the films of Lucio Fulci) provides some occasional flashes of gore, including a brief - but realistic - decapitation near the beginning of the picture.
Some films take so long to get made that by the time they finally reach
the screen, the audience has completely lost interest or, in the case
of Tai-Pan, quite possibly died of old age. MGM and director Michael
Anderson had originally intended to bring James Clavell's epic saga to
the screen in 1969 before their operating losses and a massive downturn
in movie-going that hit the whole industry hard led to the picture
being postponed indefinitely. In the late 70s Steve McQueen signed up
for the lead for a record $10m salary but when the producers were
unable to come up with a second payment walked away with the $1m
advance they'd paid him. In 1980 Roger Moore was lined up to replace
him and even started growing a beard for the part only for that
proposed version to sink without trace until, in the wake of Shogun's
success, Dino De Laurentiis finally came up with a script that would
satisfy the Chinese authorities (but no-one else) and made it with an
almost heroically miscast Bryan Brown and Joan Chen in 1986. He
shouldn't have bothered: it's awful. Not just ordinary awful but really
irredeemably bloody awful, a real pig's ear of a picture that could and
should have been much better, especially for an epic saga about the
founding of Hong Kong and the trading dynasty that Clavell would return
to in Noble House that's just crying out for the kind of unashamedly
old fashioned epic screen treatment that the film's much more
impressive poster seemed to promise. It's no surprise this unseaworthy
vessel was such a massive flop (limping to only $4m on a $25m budget in
the US) that it went straight to video in most countries and barely
shifted any copies there either.
The constant censorship changes the Chinese government insisted on to allow filming (it was the first US picture to shoot there) and the nightmarish amount of red tape during the shoot didn't help, nor did heavy prerelease cutting (De Laurentiis also prepared a longer TV miniseries version that never seems to have seen the light of day), but John Briley and Stanley Mann's script is such a dreary and truncated mess that makes so little sense to anyone who hasn't read the novel that it's no great surprise that veteran TV director Daryl Duke couldn't inject any life into it. There's no excuse for the truly awful performances, though, with both Bryan Brown and Joan Chen sporting atrocious Groundskeeper Willie Scottish accents that make it impossible to keep a straight face when our hero utters lines like "Tha Emparah ov Chynner haze Neva scene tha guns ov a Britisshhh man o'wurr!" or "When yew meek dung ye'll weep year arse wiv paypah" while her romantic scenes, delivered in the pidgin-Scottish learned from her lover, become pure comedy. Even the Russian ambassador's accent hails not from Georgia, Russia, but Georgia, USA for some bizarre reason, making you wonder if the whole thing is a failed send up.
The first quarter of an hour or so isn't too bad, but it doesn't take long for the colony of Hong Kong to be established and from then on it's just tiresome business rivalry between Brown and John Stanton's hammy melodrama villain with the usual romantic complications as their children fall in love, none of which plays remotely convincingly or above the level of a cheap daytime soap opera. Even the climax during a typhoon that sees the two antagonists finally having their much-delayed fight to the death doesn't liven things up so flatly are the proceedings staged: you just get the feeling that everyone just wants to get through it all as quickly as they can so they can go home and forget about it, which at least puts them on the same plain as the audience.
Amazingly even the great Jack Cardiff's scope photography doesn't add much colour or grandeur to proceedings after the opening sequences in China, with much of the film looking like a flat TV show that someone accidentally shot in widescreen, so Maurice Jarre's superb score is doubly welcome. It's something of a tradition that really bad films often have exceptionally good scores, and this is no exception, with Jarre seemingly scoring a much grander and more spectacular film that exists only in his head, even coming up with a gorgeous, unashamedly romantic and sweeping love theme that's one of the finest things he ever wrote. If only the film were worthy of it
It's worth pointing out that I came to this film having read James
Clavell's excellent novel, TAI-PAN, on which this is based. If I hadn't
read the book beforehand, I probably would have enjoyed this adaptation
a lot more.
Sadly, I was left feeling that the filmed TAI-PAN is a crushing disappointment, purely because it cuts so very much out of the story. The whole background is missing, the Triad stuff, the politics, the trade with the Chinese. The story is reduced to the human relationships and particularly the family rivalries between the main characters, but there was so much more to it than that.
I do understand that films are very different to books and that adaptations have to cut material out, but TAI-PAN has a two hour running time and a lot of it is slow-paced. If it had told events at a much faster pace, it would have been able to include a lot more of the details and subtleties that are missing here. As it is, there are elements of greatness - plus the novelty of seeing Bryan Brown in a leading role - but it could have been so much more. A miniseries would suffice better, I think.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An 18th century merchant is involved in the establishment of Hong Kong
as a trading outpost.
In between the miniseries adaptations of Shogun and Noble House, James Clavell saw a big screen adaptation of his novel Taipan. While it is not a complete disaster, it has some grievous faults. These include:
1. Trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot - there is a reason why the other books are miniseries. There is far too much story for a single feature film.
2. No names. The film needed a big box office draw to pull people into cinemas. It got Bryan Brown.
3. Some bad casting. The Brocks are pretty badly cast, but Bryan Brown has to be the worst. If they were going to cast someone who wasn't a box office draw, why didn't they go with a Scotsman to play a Scotsman, rather than an Australian? There are some real rubbish Scots accents here.
4. There are also some fairly dodgy effects, especially travelling mattes. Having said that, they are fairly standard for the time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Okay, so it was very late, and I was very tired, but I did find this
entertaining, and in the end, that's all I was looking for when I was
channel surfing last night.
I admit that some of the accents were poor, but not any worse than Tom Cruise's 'Oirish' in Far and Away, and many other Hollywood attempts I can't be bothered to list at the moment. And though not Oscarworthy, this certainly wasn't the worst acting I've seen. I may have enjoyed it far more than it deserved, because I'm feeling really homesick for HK at the mo, and all the little things like the materials used for some of the men's waistcoats and even the skyline (wow, how much things have changed since they filmed that!) made me smile. What also made me smile was the way *SPOILER*Dirk always seemed to get wounded in the same arm....you'd think after a few fights he'd be all 'What are you doing with that gun? Watch my arm. Watch my arm. Oh, not again!' */SPOILER*
I have to confess, I didn't catch all of it - only about an hour and a half - from about 5mins before *SPOILER* the fight on the boat*/SPOILER* to the end, but what I did see kept me up and wanting to see more until the end, and isn't that what filmmakers want us to do?
Not the best film I've ever seen, but certainly not the worst.
Poor acting from most and the director seemed so insistent of being true to the book there was very little excitement and a lot of needless dialogue. Who wrote the screenplay and did they ever work again. It is the worst I've ever seen Bryan Brown do. I couldn't get past his Scottish accent which was too thick when he remembered it and not at all when he didn't. Janine Turner cannot do a Southern States American accent either. It was painful to sit through. When you work from a best seller than a mini series on TV would give it more depth. To pack it in to 90 minutes of movie then you have to sacrifice a lot of the book to do the film justice - as with the Godfather for example. I might watch it again and pretend it's a comedy.......... no not enough laughs 1/10
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