[24 October 2012]
Long, dark winter nights that stretch on relentlessly for months, a pristine landscape preserved in snow and a silence borne as defense against the cold, ceaseless whipping winds. These are some of the clichés written as explanations for the international success Scandinavian crime fiction has enjoyed over the last decade or so. It was the early 2000s when the phenomenon was finally declared but the sensation of Nordic noir began long before. Some will (rightly) argue that the tradition goes all the way back to the Sagas, but its more modern day resurgence can be dated to 1991.
Before Stieg Larsson gifted the world with Lisbeth Salander and her iconic dragon tattoo in The Millennium series and Jo Nesbø brought us Harry Hole there was Henning Mankell, quietly introducing us to the rumpled Kurt Wallander. Over the course of ten novels (and various appearances in other Mankell stories), Kurt Wallander became one of the most enigmatic, engaging and iconic detectives of crime fiction.
Misanthropic, depressed, reclusive, emotionally distant, overworked, physically exhausted and exhibiting a host of destructive and thoughtless habits, Wallander established a distinct fictional prototype. From Reykjavik and Oslo over to Stockholm and Copenhagen the brooding, obsessive and existentially fraught police detective has become Scandinavia’s greatest cultural export of late.
Whether you call it Scandinavian crime fiction or Nordic Noir, this genre is unmistakable. It’s methodical, morally ambiguous, exceptionally violent and unafraid to address divisions within Scandinavian society that belie the pristine image of beauty, equanimity and social justice. It’s a highly stylized and seductively beautiful look into humanity’s abyss.
The Man from Beijing is a departure, of sorts, for Mankell. It’s still a work of genre fiction that never veers too far from the strict rules of a crime drama. Yet, it’s more expansive in geography, history and the crimes committed on a personal and societal level. Mankell’s world may be a bit wider here, but The Man from Beijing is a lesser example of this author’s work. Working from this material adds an additional layer of difficulty when filmmakers are tasked to adapt the story for the screen.
The Man from Beijing was originally adapted as a two-part German television series and has been edited to create a 180 minute film. Much like the original Swedish adaptations of the Dragon Tattoo movie trilogy, this film is very faithful to its source. Method is especially important in a crime thriller, but the pace of a film can easily drag from such precision.
The film adaptation of The Man from Beijing wastes little time in introducing the savagely violent crimes central to story’s plot. The story begins with the discovery of 19 people brutally murdered in their homes in a tiny outpost village in rural Sweden. The scattered bodies and bloodstains are potently horrific, but the greater horror is in the fear left by an act of such merciless intent.
The local police are overwhelmed and have little to go on in terms of a suspect, but arrest a hapless man who lived in one of the houses and was unrelated to any of the victims. A Stockholm-based judge, Brigitta Roslin (Suzanne von Borsody), learns of the crime and it is revealed that all of the victims were extended members of her family. Although long estranged Judge Roslin is stunned, angry and scared by these horrific crimes.
Frustrated with the local police, Judge Roslin sets out to investigate the crimes on her own. As she continues to search for the killer the mystery deepens and her investigations lead her back through time and across several continents. She learns that one of her ancestors worked as a railroad construction supervisor in Nevada during the 19th century. Her forefather was brutal and physically punishing to his workers (mostly Chinese immigrants) while espousing his goodness as a believer of Christ.
The story moves to China where we meet Ya Ru (James Taenaka) a wealthy, ruthless businessman and his mysterious, beautiful companion (Amy Cheng). There’s little exposition, but they are clearly individuals bound by familial traditions that prize honor and reward revenge.
Roslin’s investigation and journey through her family’s history is arduous and slow and leaves the viewer taxed and impatient. Brigitta is no Wallander and von Borsody struggles to raise her character to any level of great interest. Her performance is fine but that is really all you can say about it. Actually, fine is probably the best descriptor for the The Man from Beijing.
For all the movement between time and place the story moves very slowly. Little is offered in the way of true revelations, insights or intent. The plot thickens but it’s only a result of being overfed. The Man from Beijing swells with themes about family, loyalty, revenge, violence, racism, geopolitics and global labor. It is a lot to cram into a crime drama and the story breaks apart from the weight of its own convoluted sub-plots.
However fair a claim it may be, it’s too easy to assert that by moving the story of The Man from Beijing (partially) outside Sweden’s windswept peninsula Mankell lost the plot. The story moves between modern day Sweden and China with detours back in history to 19th century Guangzhou and Nevada before finally making its return flight, complete with two layovers in Africa, back to the 21st century. It is not the travels to foreign lands but the idle and circuitous route of the mapped plot that wears out the story and tires the viewer into disinterest.
Allow me a brief side note. Although it’s a common practice, it has always bothered me when “foreign” movies are not spoken in their native language. The reasons are obvious, but it always feels like an unnecessary barrier of entry into this “different” world. We’re in Sweden, China, America and Africa, but everyone is speaking German. What sense does that make? It doesn’t. It is very odd and very distracting.
The DVD release of The Man from Beijing comes with little in the way of extras. There is the standard making-of featurette that includes interviews with the filmmakers and Henning Mankell. A few behind-the-scenes clips are provided and lastly, a preview of the Wallander series is thrown in. It’s a standard promotional supplement, but it feels more like a tacit admission that The Man from Beijing does not stand up to the quality, intrigue and addictively engaging stories of the Wallander series.
The Man from Beijing is a watchable movie, but it can hardly be called a thriller.