J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Serangoon Road: Singaporean Intrigue with Joan Chen

If 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.

Callaghan 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.

Their 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.

The 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.

Many 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.

As 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.

During 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.

Although 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 hiring her.

Frankly, 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 Singapore—circa 1964.

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 from Acorn.

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