the boy from Empire of the Sun, grew
up to be a hardboiled private detective, he would be a lot like Sam Callaghan.
The Aussie expat is still haunted by his childhood experiences in a Japanese
internment camp, but he toughened up considerably through his Malaya military
service. He used to lend a hand to the late Winston Cheng on a freelance basis,
but he reluctantly agrees to a more regular arrangement when his widow Patricia
decides to keep the agency open. Thanks to the Secret Societies, terrorist
bombings, and all sorts of garden variety smuggling, they will find no shortage
of business in Serangoon Road (promo here), HBO Asia’s first
original series production, which releases today on DVD from Acorn.
sort of blames himself for Cheng’s death, but the elegant Mrs. Cheng plays the
guilt card with restraint. Although she is from a “mainline” establishment
Peranakan Chinese family, the childless widow still needs the agency as a means
of support. With the help of Sam and her progressive niece Su Ling, she also
hopes to catch her husband’s murderer.
first case seems to be a one-off with little long term implications, but it
will introduce the large cast of characters. Fresh-faced CIA recruit Conrad
Harrison and his shadowy boss “Wild Bill” need the Cheng Agency to track down
an African American sailor accused of murdering his best mate. It is probably
the series’ least flattering depiction of American spooks and servicemen, but
at least Harrison, one of those “best and brightest,” seems to care about right
and wrong. He is also very interested in Su Ling, but she initially wants
nothing to do with a Yankee government employee.
past will directly haunt the present in subsequent episodes, as when the Cheng
Agency takes on an illegal refugee’s case in the second episode. Forced to take
flight during the Japanese invasion, Ms. Feng has returned (undocumented) in
search of the husband she left behind. The case looks pretty cold until Ms.
Feng is mysteriously poisoned. As she clings to life, Callaghan scrambles to
trace her beloved husband, empathizing with her deep sense of loss. He will become
even more personally involved with a case later in the season, when the
Aboriginal soldier who watched over him during the darkest hour of the war is
accused of murdering an aspiring journalist.
of the Cheng Agency cases lead back to Kay Song, the heir apparent of
Singapore’s most feared secret society (a gang primarily involved in crimes of
sin). For some reason, the sinister gangster has it in for Kang, Callaghan’s
compulsive gambling partner in a barely legal shipping operation. It is hard to
see why he bothers, given Kang’s multitude of self-destructive flaws. Frankly,
Kang subplots will become a tiresome distraction as the series progresses.
befits a good period noir, everyone in Serangoon
is compromised to some extent, particularly Callaghan, who is rather openly
carrying on an affair with Claire Simpson, the wife of a junior executive assigned
to a powerful western trading company’s Singapore office. Conveniently, Frank
Simpson is often required to travel throughout Southeast Asia. Rather
awkwardly, Callaghan is even hired to investigate his rival when Simpson is
anonymously sullied with rumors of corruption.
the course of the first season, the Cheng Agency will also deal with a
mysterious foundling, a suspicious business leader with political aspirations,
his nearly as suspicious trade unionist brother, two kidnapped Australian
tourists, and a massive race riot that the bad guys will opportunistically
exploit to the fullest. Structurally, each episode is reasonably
self-contained, but they fit together to form a wider overall narrative arc.
many of the mid-sixties Singaporean details are quite intriguing, it is the
strong ensemble cast that really distinguishes Serangoon. Even though he sometimes overdoes the heartsick
brooding, Don Hany’s Callaghan still has an appropriately manly yet world weary
screen presence. Of course Joan Chen adds plenty of class and sophistication as
Patricia Cheng. It is easy to see why western bureaucrats would have confidence
the real discovery is Pamelyn Chee (who maybe a handful of people saw in Wayne
Wang’s Princess of Nebraska), stealing
scene after scene with Su Ling’s wry sarcasm and slightly deceptive elegance.
Chin Han chews the scenery like he enjoys the taste as the villainous Kay Song
(just as he did in Marco Polo).
Somewhat frustratingly, Indonesian superstar Ario Bayu does not get a lot of
fun things to do this time around, but there is room for his character,
Inspector Amran, to grow. However, Maeve Dermody’s hopelessly vanilla Simpson
falls somewhat short in the scandalous femme fatale department. It is hard to
get why Callaghan is so hung up on her. Maybe you just have to be there—in
Regardless, there is more than enough mystery,
betrayal, and colorful supporting characters to keep viewers engaged and
increasingly invested. Frankly, it seems strange the American HBO did not pick
it up to fill a slow spot in their calendar. In terms of production quality, it
holds its own with most limited-event cable series and should equally satisfy
Joan Chen fans who know her either from Twin
Peaks or Xiao Hua (The Little Flower).
Recommended for anyone who enjoys humid noir in serial form, Serangoon Road is now available on DVD
Labels: DVD, HBO Asia, Joan Chen