Elly McDonald

Writer


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K-drama. I’m not addicted. It’s because…

Ever had that moment, that pseudo-intimate moment, when you give your heart to an actor, sincerely and fully, when you say (out loud) “I LIKE YOU”– then discover your discovery has a fan club numbering in the millions?

It happened to me. This may (or may not) shock those of you who know me. And Cho Seung-woo, I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it can work out between us. Us and those millions others. Even if time travel could make me 20 years younger.

I have become addicted to K-drama. It happened abruptly – not the drama part, I’ve been a drama addict life-long: the ‘K’ part. I have become a Korean TV series tragic.

K-drama_not_addicted

In a time-space continuum so short I’m embarrassed to admit it (okay, about 5 months), I have watched all or some of 47 Korean TV series and films. TV series completed: 22 (most K-dramas have a 16 episode run, but one went 50). TV series sampled: 18 (a couple I might revisit). Korean-language films viewed on Netflix: 7

그러므로 Therefore, despite not speaking Korean – yet, beyond the essentials (“Shit”, “Gosh”, “Thank you”, “I’m sorry”, “I like you”, ”Do you want to die?”, a few food items) – I feel qualified to bestow the Inaugural McDonald Korean Netflix Television & Film Awards. Even if not qualified, I intend to do so.

My first challenge is deciding award categories. A hallmark of K-drama is that series transgress genres. My sister, a K-drama novice, was watching what she thought was a comedy with me yesterday when the tone plummeted dark. “Suddenly we’re watching Gaslight?” she squeaked, alarmed. I nodded knowingly, in my best K-drama Big Boss mode.

I see via Google that most lists of Best K-dramas lean heavy on romance. Declaration of Non-Interest: Almost every K-drama features a romance, some more insistently than others, some more charmingly than others. The lovers are quite extraordinarily good-looking, blindingly good-looking. I did know some good-looking men men I was young, but they tended to be the type who’d force you to do hand-jobs in public places. The closest I got to K-drama style romance was my good-looking boss who tried to give me a CD of torch songs and nudged it into his desk-bin when I demurred; and the pop star who kissed me in the street. But that’s another story, or two, and only two. Generally K-drama romances cause me acute longing and make me grumpy.

k-drama_ridiculously-good-looking

Chaebols – the kind of filthy rich good-looking that forces hand-jobs in public

 

⭐ I like it

👎 Not for me

blank = no strong opinion unless otherwise annotated

Here are the categories I came up with, showing titles Viewed or Partially Viewed, with winners, annotated:

SAGEUK – historical costume drama
NB Does not include costume drama assigned to a different primary genre e.g. Comedy, Supernatural.
Titles listed roughly in historical chronological order.
Spoiler: Not all historical dramas are credible history.

Hwarang (P/V) 👎 – Let’s create a crack combat squad and let’s select warriors based on their good looks. Only in Goreyo/Korea.

CATEGORY WINNER: Six Flying Dragons (V x2) ⭐ – This is the one that started me, ended me. Obsessed. Charts the overthrow of the Woo kings of Goreyo and the founding of Joseon by the Yi clan. Great exploration of the mechanisms of power and politics, relative historical veracity (I said RELATIVE), with romance that got the tear ducts working. “This series is a GEM,” sobbed my sister. “This is the ending GoT failed.” Honorable mention to Yoo Ah-in as Yi Bang-won but really, cast is flawless.

My Country (V) – Covers the same historical events as Six Flying Dragons, with relative veracity stretched. Honorable mention for the fiercely sexy Jang Hyuk ⭐as a convincing Yi Bang-won. Fast forward and only watch sequences with Jang Hyuk. Priority to face-offs between Bang-won and his dad Yi Seung-gye (Kim Yeong-cheol). Also worth watching the always reliable Ahn Nae-sang, as the villain.

Deep Rooted Tree a.k.a. Tree With Deep Roots (V) ⭐ – Jang Hyuk again [big smile]. The Joseon dynasty’s finest hour: I give you King Sejong (not Jang Hyuk, the king is Han Suk-kyu, and excellent he is).

The Rebel (V) ⭐– Honourable mention, especially for final credits sequence. Structure and tone odd for those not familiar with Hong Gil-dong folk tales source material. Those unfamiliar with recent Korean politics might not get analogies.

The Empress Ki (P/V)👎 – Yeah right love triangle between Chinese emperor, Joseon king and transvestite concubine. The historical empress also known as Empress Gi.

The Royal Gambler (P/V)👎 – Might have to go back and watch throughout because it’s CHOI MIN-SOO [awestruck face]. How did a dark hairy bloke get to be a K-drama lead? (Answer: charisma. Sheer talent.) A royal scandal that’s been told and retold many different ways.

Love In The Moonlight (P/V) 👎Oh these transvestite girls-dressed-as-boys. Shakespearean. But not.

Mr Sunshine (P/V) – Very likely will resume and watch throughout, despite the lead actor’s extramarital scandal and the misery of Shinmeyangyo (“Western disturbance in the Shinmi Year”, 1871). Ain’t no sunshine…

K-drama_bromance

THE SUPERNATURAL: zombies, ghosts, ghouls, gumiho

Arthdal Chronicles (P/V)– It’s pronounced Arse? Really? Watch the UK series Britannia instead, if you must, for Bronze Age weirdness.

Diary Of A Night Watchman (P/V) 👎– Special effects bombast.

Kingdom (V) ⭐– High production-value zombie horrors and Bae Doo-na [hearts emoticon for Doo-na]. Magnificent opening sequence Ep1. Unusually, there’s a S2.

The Scholar Who Walks The Night (V) ⭐– Phenomenally camp, a live action webtoon. The hero is a vampire. The villain is a vampire. Lee Soo-hyuk (villain) is the bomb and if he’s messed with his nose or eyes it’s a crime. Lee Soo-hyuk’s nose and eyes are works of art.

Arang and The Magistrate a.k. The Tale of Arang (V) ⭐– Oh the Grim Reaper! Take me, take me! Funny and fey and hits the spot, despite the lead actor’s makeup.

CATEGORY WINNER: My Girlfriend Is A Five-Tailed Gumiho (V)⭐– Delightful in every way. A strong contender in my Best Comedy category, and maybe in my Best Romance too – for the older couple, not the kid and the gumiho. Fabulous ensemble: Korea’s favourite little brother Lee Seung-gi loves my girl Shin Min-a; Sung Dong-il loves Yoon Yoo-Sun (and Chow Yun-Fat).

Hotel Del Luna (P/V) – 9th highest rating K-drama in cable TV history so might resume watching, if only for Seo Yi-sook, my fave Korean female character actor.

Black (P/V) 👎– OMG even by K-drama standards this plot is convoluted and implausible (best not go near plausibility as a K-drama criterion).

k-drama_Things_I_Learned

FEMINISM in a velvet glove:

CATEGORY WINNER: Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (V x2) ⭐– costume drama, with THE most beautiful costumes ever. Sly and funny take on women entering male work domains. Political commentary on free speech and a free press. Female lead Shin Se-Kyung, who was wonderful as Bun-i in Six Flying Dragons. With Cha Eun-woo, perfectly cast.

Ms Hammurabi (V) ⭐– The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. The toolbox is full of tools. Very funny, nice romance, well-written drama. Go Ara has golden eyes and so do I. But I admit she’s prettier than me [wink]. My three faves in this category are all strong, hard to choose winner.

My ID Is Gangnam Beauty (V) ⭐– I didn’t expect to like this but loved it. Feminist critique of beauty obsession, wrapped up in a college romance. Did I mention it stars Cha Eun-woo, that one-man spawn pond of beauty obsession? Another live action webtoon adaptation.

Judge Vs Judge (P/V) – I can’t take it when girl characters screech.

K-drama_Dowon_Rookie_Historian

Cha Eun-woo as Do-won in Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung – pardon me objectifying but gotta admit he’s cute

 

ROMANCE:

Her Private Life (V) – She’s scared her new boss will find out she’s a stalker fangirl. Her new boss, the art gallery director, thinks her secret is she’s gay. Somewhere in here, a pop idol collects pop art. Some terrific screwball comedy, particularly in the earlier episodes, some interesting and oddly realistic insights into the art world, albeit caricatured (I speak as one who worked at an art gallery for six years), but fizzled out into unalloyed soap opera then saccharine with a very questionable takeaway.

CATEGORY WINNER: Chocolate (P/V) – Very likely will resume watching, just wasn’t in the mood. Wins category without being viewed simply for its title. Chocolate, mon amour

Beauty Inside (P/V) – Looks gorgeous, chance might resume watching

Any and all titles listed above and below

K-drama_I_like_you

 

ACTION:

Healer (V) ⭐– Gave it a second chance based on the amount of online love it receives, was worth persisting despite implausible ending (see previous comment re plausibility). Heavy on romance but this romance is sweet. One where I thought at first they definitely DO have sex. Not till near the very end, and they start under the doona wearing heavy winter outdoor clothes then wake up in white underwear (singlet, t-shirt), but was pretty sure It Happened. Apparently I was wrong.

Man To Man (P/V) – Too much man.

Vagabond (V) – Terrible prologue, terrible last episode. Everything in between entertaining and, again, quite sweet.

CATEGORY WINNER: Memories of the Alhambra (V) ⭐– Special award for best drama about Augmented Reality and gaming, and worst case of “Gosh I wish I had NOT killed that person” [horror face]. Stars Korea’s top-paid male star 2019, Hyun Bin (who immediately moved on to the popular romantic drama Crash Landing On You, not yet seen by me). Barrier to entry: a drawn-out sequence checking into a seedy hostel and the foulest clogged toilet ever shown on TV. After that it takes off 🏹  (After-thought: If you want feel-good, go with Healer.)

K-drama_holding_hands

TIME TRAVEL:

CATEGORY WINNER: Signal (V) ⭐– Outstanding. Based on the Hwaseong serial killings that began in 1986, ended 1994 and were only solved end 2019 (before this TV drama was made). Koreans must have wanted that c* I mean crim held to account so bad. Also the subject of an award-winning film, Memories of Murder (2003), by director Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite, Snowpiercer, The Host). And at least half a dozen other films and TV. Signal was remade in a Japanese version. Where Signal really scores is its innovative writing. There are popular tropes used and reused in K-drama, and time travel is one of them. This manages an original spin. It also packs a syrup-free emotional wallop, especially episodes where female lead Cha Soo-hyun is the focus. Don’t be put off by the opening episodes. Signal is worth it.

Tunnel (V) ⭐– More time travelling Korean cops, working to ‘solve’ the same real-life serial killings as the cops in Signal. This is essentially a more palatable rewriting of Signal: easier to follow, more conventional in every respect, often funny, more optimistic. Was that a spoiler?

Live Up To Your Name a.k.a. Worthy Of The Name (V) ⭐ – A time travel costume drama that hits all the right notes. Extremely funny. Touching romance. Some lovely, witty writing.

 

K-drama_Inadvertent_Time _TravelDRAMA:

CATEGORY WINNER: Stranger a.k.a. Secret Forest a.k.a. Forest of Secrets (V) ⭐ – Directed by Ahn Gil-ho, brilliantly. Stars Cho Seung-woo and Bae Doo-na, with exceptional support from a talented cast, not least Lee Joon-hyuk as a prosecutor more like malevolent feline. The ‘My head hurts’ stuff might not be neurologically plausible but the noir plot – more corruption, in politics and the prosecutors’ offices – is gripping.

Life (V) ⭐ – Same writer who wrote my fave series Stranger: Lee Soo-yeon. Similar themes of institutional corruption, this time a major teaching hospital and a corporation. Several same lead actors (Cho Seung-woo, Yoo Jae-myung, Moon Sung-geun, Lee Kyu-hyung). Great team 💚 Honorable mention to Moon So-ri as Director Oh. She fires all directions, like Brother Mark in that John Woo classic 💥

Pride and Prejudice (V) ⭐– At first I thought this might be a kind of sex comedy with humour that does not translate, then I thought maybe an office satire with humour that does not translate. I wondered why Netflix labels it “Dark. Unsettling”. By Ep4 I understood. A bravura turn by Choi Min-soo.

The Lies Within (P/V)👎– Nope, lead actress lost me.

Remember (P/V) – Revenge drama. From a kpopmap review: “Yoo Seung-ho’s crying and pitiful acting left viewers’ hearts in pain”. Never mind, I liked him as the Jade Emperor of Heaven in The Tale of Arang.

Distorted a.k.a. Falsified (P/V) – highly rated by Koreans who recognise the media-gagging scandal this refers to so chance might resume watching. See comment above about cannot stand the screeching. [UPDATE: I did go back. I’m still only a few episodes in but am hooked. The off-putting elements I saw as puerile fantasist stuff have given way to a more serious tale of investigative and tabloid journalism challenging corruption.]

Designated Survivor: 60 Days (V)⭐ – Remake of U.S. drama works better in Korean context. Highly polished, highly professional. Lead actor Ji Jin Hee is appealing.

Chief Of Staff (P/V) – Politics as soap opera. Again.

Suits (P/V) – Remake of U.S. drama, not needed in my life.

K-drama_Cho_Seung-woo

Cho Seung-woo breaking my heart

 

SPECIAL AWARD for Uncategorisable Brilliance:

Unchallenged Winner: Misaeng ⭐– live action adaptation of a webtoon. You can view it as workplace satire, comedy, feminist commentary, inspiration (yeah well not sure about that last). Just disregard completely the prologue and the final episode. Or view them as absurdist.

K-drama_aish

FEATURE FILMS:

The Great Battle (V) – I learned a lot about siege defence.

War of Arrows (V) – I learned a lot about archer technology.

The Proxy Soldiers (V) – I learned about the Imjin Invasions.

Rampant (V) – I was reminded about zombies.

The Fortress (V) ⭐– I learned about the later Qing invasion.

Inspector K and the Virtuous Widow (V)⭐ – Laughed.

Inspector K and the Living Dead (V) ⭐ – Laughed more.

CATEGORY WINNER: Train to Busan (V)⭐– Zombies. They’re BACK.

K-drama_favourite_character

 


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Mystify: Michael Hutchence – a documentary by Richard Lowenstein

Today I attended a Melbourne media preview for Mystify, director Richard Lowenstein’s documentary about his friend Michael Hutchence, lead singer of the band INXS, who died by suicide in 1997.

Michael was my friend once, too. We were a year apart in age and we met not long after we both moved to Sydney in 1979. Back then, I was an Australian rock music writer.

As a rock writer, I wrote a number of articles about Michael and about INXS. More recently, I’ve written two memoir pieces about Michael as I knew him [links at bottom]. Today, I was fortunate to attend the preview as the guest of my friend Jen Jewel Brown, a prominent Australian rock music writer (writing as Jenny Hunter Brown or Jenny Brown), who also knew Michael back in the day, and who co-wrote the 2018 Michael Hutchence biography Michael: My brother, lost boy of INXS, with Michael’s sister Tina Hutchence.

At the end of Mystify, Jen and I sat transfixed. Afterwards, we talked for hours.

I sincerely hope Richard Lowenstein’s sensitive, intimate portrait of Michael as recalled by the people closest to him reaches its audience.

It would be a travesty if Mystify got lost in the wake of the many previous accounts of Michael’s life.

In addition to Tina and Jen’s book last year, published biographies include: Toby Creswell’s Shine Like It Does: the life of Michael Hutchence (2017); Michael In Pictures – A Celebration of the Life of Michael Hutchence by Richard Simpkin (2015); Total XS by Michael’s brother Rhett Hutchence (2004); Paula, Michael and Bob: Everything you know is wrong by Gerry Agar (2003); Michael Hutchence: Just A Man: the real Michael Hutchence by Tina Hutchence and Michael’s mother Patricia Glassop (2000); Michael Hutchence: The Devil Inside by Vincent Lovegrove (1999); and The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence by Mike Gee (1998), also released as The Final Days of Michael Hutchence.

There have been TV dramatisations and documentaries: The Day the Rock Star Died (2019); The Last Rock Star (2017); the mini-series Never Tear Us Apart: The untold story of INXS (2014); Autopsy – The last hours of Michael Hutchence (2014); The Life and Death of Michael Hutchence (2014); Behind The Music Remastered (2010); True Hollywood Story – Michael Hutchence (2004); True Hollywood Story – Rocked To Death: Michael Hutchence (1999).

Some of these accounts are outright exploitation. Others are attempts by people who knew Michael to tell his story as they understood it, or as they want the public to perceive it. Michael’s story is highly contested: it’s been told many different ways.

In Mystify, Richard Lowenstein presents Michael through footage filmed by friends and family, and outtakes from live performance and music video shoots. His friends, lovers and bandmates provide commentary superimposed on images from the time.

Some of the footage, photos and mementoes are breathtakingly personal. Kudos to the women with whom Michael had significant relationships who have chosen to speak honestly and insightfully, and who gave permission for private mementoes to be featured.

That they do this from love, not from any self-serving motive, is abundantly evident.

Kudos to the band members and fellow musicians who speak about Michael as they knew him, for better and for worse.

Kudos to Lowenstein (director of numerous INXS videos, Michael’s director in the feature film Dogs In Space), whose voice is not heard but whose commentary is expressed through his editing choices and the narrative structure.

A few things are brutally clear. Michael’s life was irrevocably altered by Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). He acquired brain injury in 1992 when a Danish taxi driver knocked him down on a cobblestone street in Copenhagen. His partner at the time, Danish supermodel Helena Christensen, recalls blood coming from his ears and his mouth. She recalls him insisting on leaving hospital, being nursed by her at home for the following month. He kept the extent of his injury from others. Perhaps he never fully recognized the extent to which head injury damaged him. But the brain scans exist: Michael had frontal lobe damage, which will have affected his emotional regulation and behaviours. He lost the sensory perceptions of taste and smell, which, for a sensualist like Michael, was tantamount to losing who he was.

In truth, the Michael I see in footage from the last years of his life is not the Michael I knew. His bandmates say it isn’t Michael as they knew him, either.

The Michael presented in those final years is panicking, desperate, lost, humiliated.

For those of us who cared for him, it’s hard to watch.

Afterwards, I felt like I’d been hit by a cannonball. “I feel sick,” I said to Jen. She felt sick, too.

I told Jen the last time I saw Michael was during the recording of their mega-album Kick, in 1987. He was walking up William Street in Sydney, towards Kings Cross. I was walking downwards, towards him. He was wearing a long loose beige coat. I was wearing red. He invited me to join him at Rhinoceros Studios, to help him fill in time between takes, chatting.

Or maybe it was that time when he stopped by my table in a crowded restaurant, and everyone in that room craned to check out who he’d deigned to talk to, strained their ears to hear what we talked about.

But actually, that wasn’t the last time I saw Michael. The very last time was New Year’s Eve 1988, when we were both at the same party at a fancy harborside mansion. He arrived trailing his model of the moment, an Amazon with sky-high cheekbones. We nodded. But by then INXS were major international stars, and I turned away without speaking to him.

Michael Hutchence was a real person, very real. I’ve heard him dismissed as a poser, a wally, a twat. For me, he was a sensitive, talented, inquiring young man, entranced by glamour, dreaming big. For years I thought the life he lived after that New Year’s Eve epitomized success: Michael living happily ever after, in the sunshine of the south of France.

I was disabused of that belief when Michael died.

In Mystify, I now see those years presented as a drawn-out descent into exhaustion and eventual dehumanization, as the tabloids chewed him up.

In one of the Mystify reviews I’ve read, it’s suggested Michael made a Faustian pact: “success”, at the cost of a life worth living.

I’m not sure who it’s implied is the Devil in this pact. I don’t think it’s “the devil inside” (to quote the song).

I do know fame’s a bitch.

 

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Link to my blog tribute to Michael Hutchence, with personal reminiscences – Someone Famous, With Girl (2014) https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2014/06/05/someone-famous-with-girl-for-michael-hutchence/
  2. Excerpt from my blog post W for War (2017). In its totality, this piece is not about Michael and there is some repetition with my Mystify blog post and my blog post Someone Famous, With Girl, above. W for War is, I suppose, about my own personal disillusion with previously held notions of “success” and “glamour”. It’s quite naked and wasn’t really written to be read (true confession!):Let’s begin with Michael Hutchence’s death. That’s a cynical place to begin, because of course it – any “it” – began much earlier. But this is a cynical tale, so let’s start where Michael ended.

    One morning late in 1997 I arrived at my Knightsbridge [London] workplace – the office with W emblazoned above the reception desk – and the tabloids on the foyer table screamed that Michael Hutchence was dead. Found hanged behind a hotel room door. I don’t remember much of that day but I do remember getting home at about 7.30pm and crying hysterically for two hours.

    Michael had been an acquaintance, possibly a friend, of mine. He was a year or so older than me and we’d arrived in Sydney at much the same time. In my first week in Sydney I saw Michael and his band, INXS, play at the bottom of a four-band bill at the Stagedoor Tavern. I say “saw”, but the Stagedoor was so crowded, so dark, I couldn’t see the stage.

    I became a rock music writer, Michael became a rock star. I interviewed him when the band were unknowns, then when they achieved national fame; I hung out with him while INXS recorded their international breakthrough album Kick, I met up with him occasionally and we nattered.

    I wrote him a poem, at his request:

    stops at the sound of
    his name called by
    a stranger – then
    recalls
    who she is and forgets
    himself: it’s you
    he smiles (he always means it)
    he laughs (and feels abashed)
    her eyes mirror his
    she is his (they always are)
    they are both young
    veterans
    they both can
    remember
    moments of belief, of the only kind
    he’ll know
    all strangers
    his kind. He is
    kind, or he could be, this singled out
    outsider
    he takes her
    camera and asks
    Am I in there?

    Someone Famous, With Girl (1985)

    In 2014 I wrote a blog about Michael that stops at that poem and bears its title.

    The last time I saw Michael was New Year’s Eve 1988. I was at a party at a Sydney harborside mansion. Michael was there, with model-actress Virginia Hey. I was femme’d up – stiletto heels, a satin bubble skirt, ‘80s long hair – and we exchanged formal nods. My heels sank into the lawn and mosquitoes bit my shins.

    As INXS conquered the U.S. charts, and as stories about Michael’s jet-setting lifestyle cluttered the tabloids, I came to see Michael as symbolic of “success”: Michael was the one who’d made it. I envied him his home in the south of France, his London pad, his famous friends. I envied him the Good Life with the Beautiful People. Even when paparazzi ambushed him and Paula Yates that notorious Sunday morning on their weekend ‘getaway’ (as if), even as I grew anxious for his well-being, I still saw Michael as representing success, and I still saw success as luxury and celebrity.

    That night, after Michael’s death, I had a nightmare that another of my rock star acquaintance-friends, a peer of Michael’s, Marc Hunter, had hanged himself too. (Marc died a few months later, of throat cancer; I didn’t know he was ill). I wore black to work the next day, and a small cross, and Liza Minnelli sad eyes, and I told my boss and another workmate about my nightmare. Michael’s death was all over the papers, or should I say, the papers were all over Michael’s death. I worked at a media planning agency, with 50 young men, two young female media planners, and four admin support staff (all female). Almost all staff were aged under 30. There were jokes about rock star deaths.

    Rock star deaths proved such a hit that our Xmas Party Social Committee decided to make that the Xmas party theme: Dead Pop Stars. The 33 year old who headed up the committee announced his intention to go as Michael Hutchence, in blue face, with a rope around his neck. I said that if Dead Pop Stars was the theme, I – the marketing director – would not attend the Xmas party. The theme was amended simply to Pop Stars.

    My boss told me other staff complained I was making something out of nothing. They didn’t believe I’d known Michael Hutchence. My boss told me to buck up. I decided to use the shock of Michael’s death to make changes in my life. I took to jogging around the Serpentine in Hyde Park during my lunch break, a short-lived practice.

    On about my second run I emerged from the lift and stepped into the office foyer as my boss was waiting to take the lift down. I glared at him; I was embarrassed at being seen in lycra shorts.

    My boss asked, “You look at me as if you hate me. But I’m the only friend you have around here.”

    That, I think, is a truer beginning.


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Female sociopaths on TV: Luther (2010), Killing Eve (2018), Sherlock (2016), Elementary (2013), Atomic Blonde (2017)

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Killing Eve’s Villanelle (Jodie Comer)

Today, as I write, the second season of Killing Eve debuts on American television.

A Variety article online warns “a brutal killing changes our obsession with Villanelle”, the whimsical assassin played by Jodie Comer.

What could change our love for Villanelle? What could counter her playfulness, her venom, her charisma?

Villanelle is without question the best thing Killing Eve has going, and Killing Eve Season 1 is a cornucopia of good things.

Yesterday, nine years after its debut in 2010, I binge-watched Season 1 of the UK TV crime thriller Luther. Luther stars Idris Elba, who has had me in the palm of his hand (I wish!) since he co-starred in the 1998 UK 10-parter Ultraviolet, where we met him as a Desert Storm veteran hunting vampires in ‘90s London.

Idris Elba is a good thing. But the Luther character I love, my obsession, is Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan. Like Villanelle, Alice is a sociopath. She executes her parents and the family dog. And that’s just for starters.

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Alice is at it again – Ruth Wilson in Luther

The female sociopath on TV is compelling and unabashedly entertaining. She’s the female unconstrained by social convention, the disinhibited Id. She charms, she flirts, but she does not make nice. She’ll kill as readily as smile. She’s the female without fear, the female who turns the tables on men. The female who rejects expectations of kindness, courtesy, forgiveness, gentleness.

In the first episode of Luther Season 2, Abby, a beautiful young art school student out and about in London’s famed Petticoat Lane, is taking photos for an art assignment. Abby is accosted by a young man who persists in trying to monopolise her attention. At first he’s an interruption, then an irritation, then he’s harassing her: she wants him to desist but she cannot say outright “Stop. Go away.” And if she did, he – and any witnesses – would consider that an overreaction, an unnecessary aggression. So he keeps being in her face till she turns away, strides away, retreats to a quiet recess. Where he reappears and kills her.

Alice would not be caught dead that way.

Alice would entrap him. And gut him.

Be like Alice, we think, we women watching.

Like Season 1 Killing Eve, Season 1 Luther is sublime. It works as a brilliant ensemble piece – not only Ruth Wilson and Idris Elba, but Indira Varma, Paul McGann, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves – and also as a contemporary reworking of Othello, with plot twists. It takes the familiar tale, with its emotionally volatile hero and his doe-eyed wife who ends up dead, and turns our expectations inside out. And it adds in Alice. Perfect.

After Season 1, in my opinion Luther lost the plot. There is no storyline as compelling as the false friend and the slain wife to drive the narrative forward. There remains only increasingly pointless “psychosexual” nastinesses and, infrequently, Alice. Not enough Alice. And even Alice seems adrift.

Luther’s creator and showrunner, Neil Cross, has said he sees Luther as having a touch of the Sherlocks. That’s interesting, though arguably C21st television features a surfeit of Sherlocks. Obviously, there is Benedict Cumberbatch’s eponymous Sherlock, which offers a version of the female sociopath: Lara Pulver as “the woman”, Irene Adler. Then there’s Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary, where ‘Irene Adler’ is uncovered as Sherlock’s traditional archenemy Moriarty, recast as Natalie Dormer. Most recently the Cumberbatch Sherlock has been revealed to have a sociopath sister, more brilliant than the Holmes brothers Sherlock and Mycroft: the evil genius Eurus, played by Sian Brooke.

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Irene Adler, “The Woman” – Lara Pulver in Sherlock

Eurus seems to me in direct line from Luther’s Alice Morgan. Eurus was a freakish intelligence from the outset, terrifying in her freakness. She has the ability to manipulate almost anyone into doing almost anything. Alice was a child prodigy, at Oxford by age 13, at 18 a PhD in the astrophysics of dark matter. Alice explains to Luther she is fascinated by Black Holes:

This is a black hole. It consumes matter, sucks it in, and crushes it beyond existence. When I first heard that, I thought that’s evil in its most pure. Something that drags you in, crushes you, makes you nothing.

It doesn’t take a “psychosexual” expert to figure that a “black hole” is a metaphor for woman. For Alice, her definition of a “black hole” is almost a mission statement. (Reminding me of the wonderful British columnist Lynne Truss, who in the ‘90s referred to a character in the long-running BBC radio soapie The Archers as “Jolene Rogers, not so much a name as a mission statement”.)

One of the promo straplines for Luther is a quote from Season 1, “What if you were on the Devil’s side without knowing it?”

Alice is, arguably, the devil in female form. She’s seductive, beautiful. She’s charismatic. She charms Luther, and they form an alliance. But Luther believes in the value of life, and in love. Alice’s modus operandi is to take what matters and crush it to nothing.

Luther is all stamping bull, stomping forwards, foregrounded. Alice is absence, negative space.

Eurus, likewise, is an absence, physically “missing” from Sherlock’s life, erased from his psyche.

Villanelle is a kind of absence in that she is the mystery Eve seeks to expose. Eve’s job is to trace her, to track her, to entrap her.

I saw a film on TV this week centred on a female assassin and briefly I wondered where she sat in relation to Alice, Eurus, Villanelle, Adler and Dormer’s Moriarity. The film was Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron as a triple agent in a comic strip (graphic novel) version of Cold War Berlin. Theron is wonderful to watch, with her action goddess physicality. But the character is intentionally all surface. There’s no mystery there. Face it, a M16 superagent named “Lorraine” lacks all credibility. We know this Atomic Blonde is American, a male fantasy, Debbie Harry as action figure toy. She doesn’t charm, she does not delight, there is no real intrigue.

The Theron character operates through force, not manipulation. She lacks the black hole power to suck us in.

Once we’re truly sucked in, it’s hard to imagine what fictional misdeed could change our obsession, our crush.

The female sociopath crushes it.

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Eurus Holmes (Sian Brooke) in Sherlock


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Review: Counterpart Season 2 (TV series, 2018) – 24 February 2019

I don’t usually like Season 2 of a TV series better than Season 1. GoT, Vikings… but often I feel as if a series explored its key themes adequately in the first episodes and left itself nowhere as interesting to go.

Counterpart S1 was a terrific series. IMHO, Counterpart S2 is better.

Episode 6 is a stand-alone episode providing back-story. It’s the pivot episode, midway through the 10-part season. It states the main themes explicitly.

In Counterpart, we visit parallel worlds linked by a derelict tunnel called ‘The Crossing’. The Crossing is a closely-guarded state secret on both sides. Most of the inhabitants of the two worlds are unaware there is a counterpart world, and counterpart selves, a phenomenon that occurred in an instant 30 years previous.

At first the two worlds continued on much the same trajectory. Then a flu pandemic killed hundreds of millions in one of the worlds, traumatizing its inhabitants and wreaking havoc with its economy and politics.

Episode 6 shows us how the split occurred, why the two worlds developed differently, and the origins of the flu virus. This sets the viewer up to better understand how we reach where we are: a grey grim world, a prosperous world, a spy state, a terrorist movement.

There’s an allegory here about our contemporary real world, as there always is in Sci-fi. How do we manage difference? How do we address historical wrongs? How to make reparation for ongoing grievances? Can it work to build walls? Is it safe to integrate?

These are obvious questions in a post-colonial, post-Imperial world. There are obvious historical parallels: post-War Germany; Israel and Palestine; Fortress Europe; Australia and its so-called ‘boat people’; the United States and Central America… to name just some.

At the heart of these issues is the question, can we ever embrace the Other, or is the Other always, irredeemably, a threat?

In an unfair universe, where advantage and disadvantage persist, and where one people’s advantage is very often built on another’s disadvantage, can the disadvantaged overlook the happy state of the more advantaged? Or will envy and a sense of injustice always result in retribution?

For that matter, can the advantaged be humble in their privilege and engage with the less advantaged in ways that don’t exacerbate the wounds and that seek to redress harms done?

These are questions that play out at the state level, at the socio-economic level and at the individual level. If I met someone who was just like me – in Counterpart, if I met my own personal Other, the Other with identical DNA, born into identical circumstances, the Other with whom I was One until that fateful split – and if my Other was faring much, much better than me, could I bear that? Who could I blame? What would it mean about me – both of me?

Counterpart S2 asks, if I met my Other, would there not be aspects of my Other’s life that I envied so fiercely, coveted so bitterly, that I might cross all moral boundaries to reclaim that for my self?

Can we share?

Can we play fair?

Counterpart S2 suggests the future of humanity depends on it.

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Samuel Roukin as Yanek (when young) in Counterpart Season 2 Episode 6, ‘Twin Cities’. James Cromwell plays Yanek aged.


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I Know Who You Are (Se Quien Eres, Spanish TV series 2017) Episodes 1-10 – 9 February 2019

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A man lurches down a road. Blood streams down his face. Something awful has happened, but he can’t remember.

The 10-part Spanish TV series I Know Who You Are (Se Quien Eres) is clever, alarming and moving, with beautifully scripted – and acted – dialogue between parents and children, siblings and cousins, lovers, colleagues. Let’s get that out of the road (so to speak): watch this series if you can.

For my purposes, the interest lies in its themes.

Can we ever truly “know” who another person ‘is’? If so, do we ‘know’ instinctively, or through long experience? Is love the gateway to ‘knowing’?

On a pragmatic level, in this scenario, is the amnesia feigned? If not, is it possible that losing memory can in effect re-set a man’s ethics? Can a bad man who can’t remember who he is, become good?

Was Elias a “bad” man? Or was he a reasonable man who did the best he could with his circumstances, in a compromised world?

Is human nature essentially “good”, or are we born wired to different moral frequencies?

Are we born innocent, the famed tabula rasa (blank slate) of philosophy? If experience is erased, do we recover innocence?

If we recover our memories, do we reclaim our guilt?

Elias’s most immediate problem is that his crashed car contains his niece’s cellphone and traces of her blood. And his niece is missing.

Under the Spanish investigative and legal system (which is unlike the legal systems I’ve encountered), he is immediately charged with her murder.

Almost every person in this series is a lawyer, ranging from Elias himself to high court judges (Elias’s wife) to law students (including the missing girl). A given in this moral universe is that lawyers are despicable.

Some law firms are corrupt (but successful and high profile), others start relatively idealistic (but shambolic, a joke, out of their depths).

So at another level, I Know Who You Are is an indictment of Spanish institutions, the Spanish establishment, and of the privileged classes.

Is it just white privileged people who are, arguably, born bad? Hard to say, as no ethnicities appear other than white Spaniards, and the poor are all but invisible (glancing glimpses in late episodes).

The family in Spanish culture is an obvious metaphor for various ties that bind.

We have groups of affiliation, the strongest and most traditional being the family. (Others being social class, gender, ethnicity, profession…) Does ‘for the family’ justify any action? What does it mean to say, “I know who my family is?”

It is not a shock to hear at one point a reference likening family to “mafia”. Or to see a jailed family member behave like a mafia don. It’s not a shock that this family’s home looks and functions like a bunker.

On a literal level, does ‘family’ extend to blended families? Are step-siblings our brothers and sisters? Are step-cousins even relatives? What are our obligations to those not of our blood within the extended ‘family’?

It’s no coincidence the character who symbolizes innocence in this scenario is an orphan.

Family becomes a metaphor for community, and for society more broadly. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She meant, ‘There are only individuals making choices in their self-interest as best they see it in their circumstances.’

I Know Who You Are is an acting out of Thatcherite philosophy.

It asks the questions, What are our obligations to those outside our affiliation groups? To human beings broadly?

Do we have an obligation to behave like a decent human being, even if we suspect we are not?

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Alex Monner as Pol, the extraordinary Blanca Portillo as Alicia, Noa Fontanals as Julieta, Francesc Garrido as Elias

There is a Series 2.

UPDATE: In Australia, I Know Who You Are went out in two parts – Episodes 1-10, then, later, Episodes 11-16. So it wasn’t two series, just one longer series, broken into two parts.

IMHO the platform, SBS On Demand, was wise to break this 16-part series in two. The first 10 episodes focus on one specific crime (though other crimes are committed), with one lead detective, and a tight focus on the existential questions I’ve spelled out above.

Episodes 11-16 shift focus to a different crime (though the crime that launched others is still critical), with a different lead detective (though the initial detective is still active), and really homes in on privilege and corruption. I say “homes” in, because ‘family’ continues to be the prime metaphor for corruption and entrenched privilege in Spain. The action becomes increasingly heated, melodramatic, an allegory of Hell.

In the end, it’s a very dark satire: Lucifer at home, with family.


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So Frenchy, so… je ne sais pas: Juste Un Regard (Just One Look) and Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne)

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Tell No One / Ne le dis à personne – intimate times

Harlan Coben is an American crime writer whose novels include Just One Look and Tell No One. Both novels have been adapted by French filmmakers: Just One Look as Juste Un Regard, a six-part TV series (2017), and Tell No One as a film, Ne le dis à personne (2008).

In some respects the two narratives mirror each other.

In Tell No One (which I’ll refer to by its English-language title), one moment a man and his adored wife are enjoying intimate time together, then abruptly she disappears, abducted, ostensibly murdered, till a cryptic email with photo shows up eight years later suggesting the possibility she’s alive. The man pursues a trail of leads, engages in a fierce chase, to find the truth of his marriage.

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Marie-Josée Croze and Francois Cluzet in Tell No One

In Just One Look (for consistency, I’ll stay English title here too), a woman and her adored husband enjoy domestic intimacy one moment, then a photo appears suddenly, and he, too, abruptly disappears, ostensibly deserting the family he loves, till a coded text arrives suggesting he’s been abducted. The woman pursues a trail of lead, engages in fierce chases, to find the truth of her marriage.

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Just One Look / Juste Un Regard – Virginie Ledoyen and Thiérry Neuvic find that troubling photo

The French film adaptation of Tell No One changes Harlan Coben’s original ending. The novelist agrees the French ending is superior, and it is, but I find it amusing that both French adaptations conclude with the recognition that in both cases the wife, on the face of it a paragon, is in fact deeply, Eve-like guilty. The angel is in truth a fallen woman, no matter how sympathetically we might view her circumstances. Cherchez la femme.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the angelic wife in Juste Un Regard is named Eva; in the novel, the character had a different but also arguably symbolic name, Grace, and her married name, the name her husband carries, is ‘Lawson’ – “the law’s son”. In the TV series, the family name, the name Eva married, is ‘Beaufils’ – “beautiful son”. “Beau” (strictly speaking, ‘handsome’) is also the generic first name recruits to the French Foreign Legion traditionally take to preserve their anonymity in their incarnations as colonial military, as in ‘Beau Geste’. This is definitely not coincidence.

Both the film and the TV series are highly watchable, largely thanks to appealing casting. In Just One Look, Eva is played by the delectable Virginie Ledoyen, Everywoman as Everywoman wishes she were. Her husband is Thiérry Neuvic, who I wouldn’t trust at 20 paces. The villain-as-ally is Thiérry Fremont, a French actor also seen in the 2017 French TV series Transferts (Transfer), where he is equally brilliant – my new fave face of evil. The villain-as-villain is Jimmy Jean-Louis, a large menacing Haitian, casting I wasn’t sure about – racial stereotype? – but which works well. (The villain-ally played by red-haired Fremont is written as Chinese in the novel, by the way.)

In Tell No One, the hero is Francois Cluzet, Everyman as Every French Man wishes he were, and the missing wife is an elegant Marie-Josée Croze. (A hitman who in the novel is male and Chinese is in the film female and apparently butch.)

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Virginie Ledoyen and Thiérry Neuvic again, still. Would you trust that man as a husband?

Both films had central premises that made me laugh, an entertained, indulgent laugh. In Just One Look, the plot hinges on a commercial dispute (I’m trying to write that spoiler-free – the nature of the dispute is one I am all too familiar with in my personal history, but which rarely surfaces as the basis for a crime mystery.)

In Tell No One, the plot depends on accepting that husband and wife had been childhood sweethearts, from their first kiss, at primary school age; that there never was or could be anyone else, for either of them; and that after eight years, with his wife’s body ostensibly identified and buried, the husband was still in perpetual mourning.

I’ve known a few French men. I like them very much. I get that the French are romantic and sentimental. It is also the case, without wishing to plunge too far into national stereotypes, that the French men I have known are entirely capable of being romantically in love with one woman while concurrently sexually involved with other women. But that would make for a very different film.

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Francois Cluzet. Chasing the truth.


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Preachy-creepy – slaughter and social conscience in Nordic Noir

Midnight Sun / Midnattssol / Jour Polaire (Swedish-French 2016), Modus Season 1 (Swedish 2015), The Bridge Season 4 (Bron / Broen, Danish-Swedish 2017), Spring Tide Season 1 (Springfloden, Swedish 2016), Before We Die (Innan Vi Dör, Swedish 2017)

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Kjell Bergqvist and Julia Ragnarsson in Spring Tide

We surely have to wonder why it is that so much of our prime-time TV entertainment is stories about serial killers and repulsive murders, fictional and ‘true life’.

I’m not going there here and now. There’s a book, or a thesis, or both, in that inquiry.

Suffice to say for many years I’ve tried to avoid the serial killer thriller genre. Recently however I’ve been out of sorts. It’s been cold and I’ve been angry. It’s felt timely to check out a few TV offerings on the darker side.

I’ve blogged about TV sci-fi thrillers Transfer (Transferts, French 2017) and Counterpart (US 2018) – ‘Losing My Religion: Two short TV reviews’. I’ve blogged about the morality of the Norwegian series Monster (2017) – ‘Review: TV series – Monster’. I’ve blogged about terrorist thrillers Greyzone (Gråzon, Danish-Swedish-German 2018), Blue Eyes (Blå ögen, Swedish 2014), Below the Surface (Gidseltagningen, Danish 2017) and Next of Kin (UK 2018) – ‘The TV Terrorist in Western Europe – a short review’.

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Here, some oddments: Midnight Sun (Midnattssol / Jour Polaire, Swedish-French 2016), Modus, the first season (Swedish 2015), and Spring Tide (Springfloden, Swedish 2016), linked by that insistence on inventively gruesome killings, and by a strange – to my mind – preachiness.

My problem with these TV series is that I’m not sure setting fictional murders against the backdrops of worthy social issues makes up for exploiting voyeuristic appetites for sadistic slaughter.

Midnight Sun takes place in and around a mining town in northern Sweden. It’s a tale about the awful consequences that ensue when corporations and communities disregard, despise, an Indigenous culture, in this case the Sami peoples of far north Sweden. It’s a plea for greater awareness and understanding of surviving Indigenous cultures.

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Jakob Hultcrantz Hansson and Leila Bekhti in Midnight Sun

Modus is, I assume, short for ‘modus operandi’ (Latin, “way of operating”), its lead character being a crime suspect profiler. Season 1 is a tale about the awful consequences when an insular culture overseas, in this case in America, demonises a society whose values it abhors, in this case that society being Sweden, and the despised value being tolerance. It’s a plea to unite against homophobia.

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Marek Oravec in Modus

Spring Tide starts with an horrific sadistic killing, which does lead to other killings, but doesn’t fit the template of the one-sadistic-killing-piled-on-another narrative. It’s a tale of more awful consequences of international corporations behaving unethically (another mining company). It’s a plea for inclusivity, a fable about valuing the contributions of those who might be seen as outsiders: the homeless, the petty crims and prostitutes, the alcoholics, drug abusers, the mentally ill, the very young, and those still in training. The investigative team in Spring Tide could not crack this cold case without the input of people on the margins.

I watched these three series along with another so-called Nordic Noir series: The Bridge Season 4 (Bron / Broen, Danish-Swedish co-production 2018).

The Bridge S4 shares with Midnight Sun and Modus S1 a similar narrative structure: a sequence of exceptionally horrific, sadistic killings. But it is not built on a social agenda e.g. Indigenous rights, LGBTQI rights. (I assume readers are aware the lead investigator in The Bridge series is a woman with Neuraldiversity autism. I do not see the agenda of The Bridge S4 as a plea for awareness and understanding of Neuraldivergent persons.)

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Sofia Helin and Thure Lindhardt in The Bridge S4

If The Bridge S4 has a social message, it’s as broad as Parents, love and protect your kids. Oh – and cults. As with Modus S1, there’s a takeaway here – beware of cults. I enjoyed The Bridge S4 significantly more than the other series discussed here so far. I found it more emotionally affecting. It rang more true to me.

I did like aspects of Spring Tide. I like that it rejects the usual Nordic Noir visual palette of overcast greys in favour of a spring aesthetic: pinks (magenta, fuchsia) and greens. I enjoyed the fresh appearance of the young lead actress, Julia Ragnarsson.

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Julia Ragnarsson in Spring Tide

Midnight Sun? Not a lot I liked (oh ok, Gustav Hammarsten as investigator Anders Harnesk). Modus S1? I liked the evolving partnership of the lead investigators. I liked it even better in Modus S2 (which has the added drawcards of Kim Cattrall playing the USA’s first female president, and English actor Greg Wise playing a nightmare abusive ex-lover).

In point of fact perhaps my favourite recent Nordic Noir was Before We Die (Innan Vi Dör, Swedish 2017), which doesn’t feature freaky grotesque staged murders at all but is instead a family drama-crime ring infiltrator thriller where people are shot and people are knifed in frankly routine ways.

But the plot worked.

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Alexej Manvelov and Adam Palsson in Before We Die