****Jade Dragon Mountain

Red Lantern, China

photo: Jakob Montrasio, creative commons license

By Elsa Hart – This charming debut mystery hits my personal buttons, set as it is in China, 1708, and incorporating many of the conventions of novels of Old China. Elsewhere I’ve written about my admiration of the Tang Dynasty’s quasi-historical Judge Dee, made famous by the detective novels of Dutch author Robert van Gulik.

Of course, the romantic vision of historical China in novels—A Dream of Red Mansions and those written by Westerns alike—and movies—from Raise the Red Lantern to The Assassin—bears no resemblance to China under Communism, nor to the everyday lives of poverty and privation of most Chinese of the past. The novels, even the mysteries dealing with lust, avarice, and murder are generally set among the nobility and the scholars. The tea may be poisoned, but it’s served in a translucent porcelain cup.

In Hart’s debut, exiled former librarian in the Forbidden City Li Du (already we encounter a scholar), traveling in a remote southern area, enters a town where his cousin is the magistrate to register his presence. On his arrival he learns that the Emperor of China is visiting the town in six days! He will preside over (and pretend to instigate) an eclipse of the sun. This visit accounts for the enormous bustle and elaborate preparations Li Du observes.

The town and the magistrate’s compound, including its impressive library, are evocatively described. Hart took me right to those places. For me, a delightful return. Although the Emperor’s visit will be a great honor for the magistrate and the town, it creates great risk as well. Many people, including foreigners, are anxious to influence what the Emperor sees and believes.

The magistrate, beset with difficult decisions and details, would prefer to dismiss the untimely murder of a Jesuit astronomer as simply the work of a group of Tibetans camped in the nearby mountains. But Li Du knows these men and believes them innocent. As an exile, he cannot afford to create any difficulties, yet he cannot let the false accusation rest and a murderer go free. His cousin allows him just a few days to solve the crime, as the Emperor’s visit comes ever-nearer. But is a worse crime in the making?

Hart has woven an intricate plot, drawing on real-life politics: the historical isolationism of China versus European pressure to open trade, conflicts between the Jesuits and the Dominicans, the friction inherent in the rigid Chinese class structure. These elements make the story both fascinating and subtle.

****The Shanghai Factor

Shanghai, woman

photo: Fabrizio Maestroni, creative commons license

By Charles McCarry – This Shanghai-U.S. East Coast-based spy thriller is reminiscent of the early works of John le Carré, where the question always is, Whom can you trust? And the answer: no one. At least that’s how the unnamed narrator, a new CIA recruit, chooses to operate. Paranoia 101. Throughout, it’s McCarry’s wry observations of characters and their situations that make the reading such a pleasure.

Undocumented CIA agents, like the narrator,

. . . never carry official ID. This absence of proof that they’re up to no good is their protection. Otherwise, they are warned, they’re on their own. If they get themselves into trouble, they’ll get no help. If they do well, they’ll get no thanks. That formula is, of course, catnip to romantics.

McCarry gives his protagonist a deceptive openness and surface sociability. A Chinese languages major in college, he’s been sent to Shanghai to improve his language skills and cultural acumen and to keep a lookout for potential Agency recruits.

Early in his stay, a beautiful young woman crashes her bike into his, he buys her an expensive replacement, and before long, they’re lovers. It’s a fun way to learn the language not generally endorsed by Berlitz. From the beginning, he assumes she’d been sent by the Guoanbu, the Chinese intelligence service. Other than her name, Mei, he never asks her any questions about her background—what would be the point?—except to learn she was an exchange student in Massachusetts, which accounts for her American English. Nor does she ask such questions of him—ditto. Plus, he figures she already knows.

Through Mei, he meets wealthy, upwardly mobile young Chinese, disdainful of their stodgy Communist parents. Through one of them, he meets a prominent Chinese CEO and receives an employment offer he suspects is a feeler from Guoanbu. Such a placement could be invaluable to the CIA, if highly risky to him.

McCarry creates a number of entertaining secondary characters, especially lusty Mei, the hot-and-cold Chinese spy Lin Ming, and his mother’s former crack-addict cook, Magdalena. Are any of them what and who they seem? Then there’s his handler, the eccentric CIA director of counter-intelligence Luther Burbank (to the surprise of horticulturalists everywhere), who advises him take the job.

Burbank is the only man at the Agency who knows what he’s up to, and they talk only rarely. When they do, Burbank counsels that becoming a an effective espionage agent and undermining Guoanbu, will be a long game, vulnerable to exposure at every turn. They have to be content to wait for the payoff. He does take the job and, from there, life gets complicated.

McCarry’s writing is smooth and literary, and one of my favorite authors, Alan Furst, calls him “a master of intelligent, literate spy fiction.” If you like an old-fashioned spy story dependent more on agents’ wits than electronic wizardry and body count, you may enjoy this one too.

The Assassin

Shu Qi, the Assassin, China

Shu Qi as The Assassin

This 2015 Chinese martial arts film (trailer) had one showing in Princeton last night—sold out! Thankfully, I caught it. The movie has had mostly positive reviews and garnered a “best direction” award for Hou Hsiao-Hsien at Cannes in 2015. A lot appreciation is due him for the overall beauty of the film.

In 9th century China, a young girl’s family sent her away to a convent for her protection. There she learned the martial arts and becomes a skilled assassin of corrupt local governors, although in one attempt, she instead showed mercy. Disgraced, she’s sent home with a deadly mission: to kill her cousin, the military governor of Weibo province, an assignment that also will test whether she can set her human feelings aside. As children the cousins were promised to each other, but for political reasons, the marriage did not take place.

Exactly why he’s a candidate for murder was somewhat lost on me, because the dialog and subtitles were sparse. Weibo faces other threats as well. Externally, the Emperor has been expanding his dominion, and Weibo is likely his next target; internally, the governor’s wife is playing by her own rules. Suffice it to say there’s plenty of intrigue, and if a few of the motivations are murky, the action is clear.

Shu Qi plays Yinniang, the assassin, and Chang Chen her cousin Lord Tian (Tian Ji’an). Beautiful sets and cinematography, and I wouldn’t mind having the costume budget, either. The soundtrack was spare, but compelling; no surprise that Lim Giong won a soundtrack award at Cannes.

People who appreciate the genre of period martial arts dramas like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers have come to expect exciting (and wholly unrealistic) one-sided battles. The Assassin contains fighting, too, though much less than these previous films. Nor does it depend on wires to the same extent. Yinniang is not just a killing tool; she thinks about what she’s doing and its ramifications. The most interesting and subtle battle was between Yinniang and another female assassin. Their confrontation concludes, and the two women walk away from each other. Only in the next shot do we find out what brought the fight to its decisive end.

Reviewer Alistair Harkness in The Scotsman, criticized Hou, saying he “seemingly has little energy or reverence for the form,” whereas I come down on the side of reviewers who have called the film “mesmerizing.” At its finest, this genre is a melding of cinematic beauty and heart-stopping action. Hou opted to emphasize the former, and that worked for me.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences 53% (a reflection of expectations?).