"Noble House" warrants royal welcome. NBC's eight-hour mini-series, from the James Clavell novel set among pooh-bahs and panjandra of contemporary Hong Kong, is a tremendously engrossing good view, the most satisfying fit of lavishness a network has had in years.
The film airs in four parts, tonight through Wednesday, at 9 on Channel 4. Once the story gets a good grip on you, and it's a gripping good story, "Noble House" proves hard to turn off. Considering the attractiveness of the continuing Winter Olympics on ABC, it's safe to say VCRs were made for nights like these.
Like Clavell's "Shogun," telecast in 1980, "Noble House" resonates with exotic atmospherics. Exteriors were shot in Hong Kong and Macao, with additional filming at the De Laurentiis studios in Wilmington, N.C. Clavell himself was executive producer. Eric Bercovici's script, smartly done, keeps a tantalizing if not precisely lovable assortment of characters in provocative disarray.
Pierce Brosnan, leaving frivolous "Remington Steele" roots behind, hangs tough in the central role, that of dashing and determined Ian Dunross, chief executive of Struan and Co., a giant Hong Kong trading firm also known as Noble House. Dunross' title is tai-pan, which is Cantonese, we are told, for "supreme leader." Brosnan is first-rate. With gray streaks added to his hair, he's even adult.
After a dark and stormy prologue in which Dunross takes control, the narrative covers only about one week in November (of an unspecified year), but it's a highly eventful week. Corporate raider Linc Bartlett (Ben Masters) and vice president Casey Tcholok (Deborah Raffin, bringing a touch of Grace Kelly to the part) arrive from the States with the dire intent of taking Struan's away from Dunross and tai-panning it up themselves.
Their ally, they think, is Dunross' devoted and lifelong adversary, Quillan Gornt, head of a rival company. Gornt is played by John Rhys-Davies, master thief of scene stealers, and another veteran of "Shogun." The raiders run into complications. Bartlett didn't bargain on falling in love with Orlanda (Julia Nickson, certified knockout), an elegant vamp hired by Gornt to seduce him, and Tcholok didn't reckon she'd take such a fancy to the tai-pan's pan.
Nobody planned on the spectacular fire aboard a floating restaurant that poops a Struan's party and sends the well-dressed guests leaping for their lives into Hong Kong harbor. Oh but there's more. Clavell sends along a landslide in Part 4, and when it crumbles a high-rise apartment building, two major characters are -- perhaps too conveniently -- killed off.
Under Gary Nelson's direction, the story roars along at dauntless full tilt; the twists and turns are worth the ride. Eight hours proves not really a minute too long. Well maybe a minute. But not 25 or 30. There are fewer expendable redundancies and padded scenes than one usually encounters in this sort of thing.
Many of the best performances are by Asian actors, some of whose faces are familiar. Burt Kwouk, outstanding as Phillip Chen -- a Struan executive whose son disgraces him -- played the lunatic martial artist Cato to Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau in all the "Pink Panther" pictures. Nancy Kwan, who plays Dunross' executive secretary, was long ago "Suzie Wong" in the movies, and is no less beautiful than she was then.
Khigh Dhiegh, having a field day as the boisterous and sinister Four Finger Wu, prominent criminal and financier, once was archvillain Wo Fat in the series "Hawaii Five-O." He can also be seen in the recently revived theatrical feature "The Manchurian Candidate." In Part 2, when a kidnaper falls into his clutches, Wu's instructions are simple: "Cut off his ears."
There are new faces in the cast, too, like that of Tia Carrere, who plays the mistress of two men. She has been given the lascivious moniker of Venus Poon, and she gets one of the film's blunter lines when she barks at one of her patrons, "Where's my mink coat? Probably on your wife's back!"
Denholm Elliott, featured in the credits every night, appears only in the brief prologue, and prominently billed John Houseman's contribution consists of a five-minute scene in Part 4. He plays the governor of Hong Kong.
"Noble House" is, thankfully, more than another lode of chicaneries and skullduggeries among the megarich. There are themes and textures and a riot of interlocking culture clashes at play: past and present, East and West, youth and age, Communist and capitalist, class and no class.
Hong Kong itself, magnificently photogenic, looks to be a city to get lost in, and is itself a character in the film -- one the other characters cannot stop discussing. "Here in Hong Kong, profit is our pleasure," says Gornt. "This is Hong Kong," says tai-pan Dunross. "Here the strong survive and the weak perish."
Whether some of the observations are xenophobic or xenophilic is open to argument. "The Chinese are the most patient and secretive people on earth," it is remarked. Orlanda says, "The Chinese are at their best eating -- like the Italians." And then there are innocuous asides like "This is China. Lots of curious things happen in China."
Yes, and in Rockville, too.
The movers and shakers move and shake under the shadow of impending, potentially cataclysmic, change. In 1997, as Clavell and Bercovici keep reminding everybody, Hong Kong leaves what's left of the British Empire and the domain reverts to China. The ominousness is palpable.
While the fire and landslide are the big set-piece scenes, "Noble House" is an entertainment with an excess of everything, including ancestral curses and midnight treacheries. Bundles of opium bob in the bay, and a suspected spy is mercilessly interrogated in an all-red room. The old bit about finding the missing half of an ancient mystic coin is resurrected, as is the hackneyed device of the unethical jockey winning the race with a well-placed whip crack in his opponent's face.
As the prelude to a tryst, the luxurious Orlanda whispers into Bartlett's eager ear words to make any man pant. "All I want," she says, "is to be your tai-tai." For Bartlett, however, it will soon be ta-ta. And that's no pu-pu.
Even hard-driving entrepreneurs know that all work and no play makes for a dull mini-series. Bartlett is shocked when Orlanda offers him a present of "pillowing" (shades of "Shogun") with a gorgeous call girl. "This is Asia," she explains. "Here, sex is not Anglo-Saxon guilt. It is pleasure to be sought after like great food or great wine."
Memo to travel agents: Expect boom in trips to Far East.
"Everything happens faster here," observes a suave Frenchman named Jacques. Around the sixth or seventh hour of the mini-series, some viewers may wish to quibble. But for the most part, it's consistently compelling. Jacques also says, "Americans are dreadfully susceptible to temptation," and if so, "Noble House" is a temptation to which one can surrender with relish. East meets West with a bang.