Blind (2022) Strange Tales of Tang Dynasty (2022) Shadow Detective (2022) Under the Queen's Umbrella : Reviews and First Impressions
Sigh. What a colossal waste of so much potential. Blind wasn’t bad to the point of unwatchable but it was a waste of a good premise. Wasted, dare I say, on gimmickry (a de facto mystery box) so that in the end the narrative focus shifted from where it should have been — on the survivors of human rights abuses to the present-day murders and original villains from the Hope Welfare Centre running interference. The last half hour or so of the series was a decent wrap but not enough to save the rest of the package for me at least. It’s a shame really because the show had the opportunity to do something of substance with regards to exploring the egregious of human rights violations at the centre of the narrative but instead pandered to all the worst excesses of a K drama crime show. Corrupt cops going from bad to worse to cover their rear ends. Corrupt bureaucrats who don't see the error of their ways. Tight-lipped witnesses who have some "compelling reason" to stay mum. Over eager cops rushing headlong into situations for which they are unprepared. Incompetent cops floundering around causing problems or being designated comic relief. With a couple of exceptions, the characters are cardboard stand-ins for the usual stereotypes. And frankly, not every K drama has to have an serial killing angle to it. It doesn’t always enhance a show. In this case it does almost nothing except create moral confusion about which characters to root for. Moreover the fixation to turn this into a jigsaw puzzle about who the mastermind behind the present day murders are made it hard to connect with any of the characters.
The actors should get their due for powering through this and throwing themselves into this over convoluted script. This has got to be one of the worst revenge plots I’ve ever seen especially considering the competing goals of the conspirators. The so-called “mastermind” lost control of the scheme very early on which led to more of a blood bath than was intended. Count of Monte Cristo this certainly is not. It’s not even on par with the far more straightforward Taxi Driver. All throughout the script gave a very superficial impression that this was a much more complex story than it really was. In reality, putting aside all the unwanted (and clumsy) interventions, the list of suspects was always fairly short. Only a handful of individuals could be party to the conspiracy to avenge. Moreover, the jury tampering for the first trial so that everyone’s in the same place on hindsight seem like an unnecessary complication. Plus I’m none the wiser as to how that was so easily achieved. (Perhaps it’s another thing to blame on the corrupt judicial system)
On some level I don’t think it’s a problem to be over using red herrings per se if the red herrings have another purpose apart from putting the breaks on plot progression. I’m not a fan of suspense for suspense sake especially when it’s rather obvious even before the final act who the perpetrators are.
16 episodes is too long for a familiar plot like this. (Especially when it aired around the same time period as May It Please the Court) The pacing is a problem. There’s a great deal of intensity in the early episodes and then it falters, picks up a little and then slows down before the big reveals in the finale. Episode 13 saw me hitting the roof especially the latter part because it demonstrated how the conspirators could have achieved their revenge in a far more efficient fashion while revealing to the world what was done to the children in the welfare centre. All of that without tainting their cause and undermining whatever moral credibility that they had as victims of an unjust system. This show could have easily been achieved in under 10 episodes easily. And the messaging would not be as compromised as it ended up being.
In a year when I’m getting far more out of C dramas than K ones, Strange Tales of Tang Dynasty still manages to be a standout. It’s been hailed an underrated treasure in the usual places and indeed, I don’t disagree. While the title and cast might not inspire hordes of viewers to take a peek, it is a worthwhile entry into the crime genre. What makes this series shine ever so brightly is the meticulous and painstaking world building. Of course the show wouldn’t be quite as entertaining without the core male characters, Lu Lingfeng, Su Wuming and Fei Ji Shi who are wonderfully penned to be as alike as chalk and cheese. There are female characters too but are relegated to support roles and love interests. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they aren’t needed because they do have significant parts to play especially those within the investigative team, the joy of watching this 36-episode drama is not found in their exploits.
The world where all these crimes are staged bears a strong resemblance to the Tang dynasty probably during the second reign of Emperor Ruizong due to the presence of the powerful Princess Taiping and her equally powerful nephew, the crown prince Li Longji. The politics matter quite a bit as it influences how the lead characters navigate their way around key crimes involving nobles and the royals in Chang’an, Nanzhou and Luoyang. After cracking a major case involving the sale of a tea with dubious ingredients in the capital city, Lu Lingfeng and Su Wuming are banished for their good work to the south. One has the feeling that it’s done in part so that Lu Lingfeng can get his delightful growth arc and for the two men to do some much needed cleaning up in these places.
Both men are observant and intelligent but the advantage that Su Wuming has over Lu Lingfeng is the passage of years — wisdom and experience and the privilege of being the only apprentice of the great Di Renjie, the great Tang statesman. It becomes increasingly evident that the older man is meant to instruct the younger in the error of his ways and turn him into a law enforcement officer worth his salt. Lu Lingfeng, who begins his career as a martial arts pugilist, embarks literally and metaphorically on a journey that sees him go from being a rigid arrogant hothead to a far more circumspect, methodical and adaptable detective. To further assist him in that goal is the persistent Pei Xujin, his love interest who is an accomplished artist in her own right. While the two don’t have the type of chemistry which raises the temperature in the room, some of his character building (on hindsight) does depend on having her hanging around especially when she has her young family retainer Xue Huan in tow.
Along for the ride is the obligatory physician Fei Ji Shi whose greatest pleasure in life is boozing and chomping on chicken. Despite his bedraggled appearance he has real skills and useful medical/scientific knowledge that comes in handy in various cases. He is entirely his own man, wandering in and out of the narrative largely at his own convenience.
Strange Tales is unabashedly a classic detective story modelled after the golden age era. The quirky Su Wuming has the shrewdness of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and the self-deprecation of Peter Falk’s Columbo. He is certain the man to have around when the bodies pile up and the culprits are nowhere to be found. What distinguishes this show from others in the genre are the science-fiction/ fantasy elements. The weapons used to perpetrate these murders are often tools of another world although the investigation process is grounded in the familiar strictures of the genre.
What keeps the show from being deadly serious and unerringly enjoyable is the humour. It is a funny show and the show does have fun at the characters’ expense. But the dialogue is for the most part witty and there are genuinely hilarious moments that emerge from an intelligent script. It’s certainly and easily one of the best things I’ve seen this year.
Under the Queen’s Umbrella isn’t something that I would immediately classify as a must-watch. For someone who likes historical dramas a lot more serious, the surprising thing that I conclude from the first two episodes is how much I prefer the humorous side of it dealing with the princes’ antics rather than the switch to the more serious side of harem politics which feels more like a contrivance to generate conflict where there’s none. In fact the show feels more like The Sound of Music or even a homage to To Sir with Love with a Joseon makeover which could be potentially quite fun. The Queen Dowager’s motivations in rocking the boat don’t entirely ring true to me. Maybe I’m jumping the gun here but her machinations feel like a solution in search of a problem. The collapse of the crown prince is convenient. Maybe that’s the point… that she’s bored with a mundane life of drinking tea and donning ornamental robes that she really wants to be the one who calls the shots. Despite her stated intentions that it’s about consolidating the king’s rule, it feels like there’s another agenda going on.
What the show really has going for it is the sibling dynamic which I absolutely adore. I think the ragtag group of Grand Princes (and the crown prince) are really lovely lads who care about each other and are more capable than they seem at first glance. From a casual observer’s point of view Seongnam is a stand out. From the first day he walked into Jonghak in tardy fashion, I knew he was special. If I were to continue watching this, I would do it for those lads.
Shadow Detective is very good right out of the blocks. Lee Sung-min is fantastic and it’s always great to see the veterans take centre stage in this one. The set-up is tight and smart. The tone is moody and raw. Lee Sung-min’s male lead is an experienced dogged detective with 30 years under his belt. He becomes quickly chief suspect of a colleague’s murder — a colleague who had promised to reveal all about some cover-up that he was involved in. The second episode sees the start of a cat and mouse game between Kim Taek-rok and the perpetrator who threatens to kill another person if Taek-rok were to act outside the script that has been prepared for him. As a result Taek-rok has to use all of his wits and expertise as a detective to stay one step ahead of his suspicious colleagues and keep up with the mysterious caller who is toying with him. More than a police procedural, this has the added advantage of being a profoundly moving portrait of a man who hasn’t had a smooth-sailing life because he’s been living by his principles taking the much harder road.
Two episodes in and already I anticipate great things for this series.
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