Saturday 6 March 2010

Spirit Warriors review: Chinese talent alert

Oh, I am so suggestible. I have just finished my first bacon roll in years (actually, a bagel — howzat for a fusion-cuisine atrocity?) as a direct result of watching the seventh and latest episode of CBBC's children's show, Spirit Warriors. The one that begins with our young heroes happening upon a dream setting of their favourite meals.

Crrrrrispy frrrrragrant bacon, fried tomato and ketchup on a hot toasted buttered bagel aside (getting you too, huh?), those familiar with Hansel and Gretel will recognise the universal trope in this story: kindly mother-figure, in this instance the impossibly beautiful Elizabeth Tan, who turns out to be an evil witch vamping off the youthful vigour of her child victims in the absence of botox and monkey-gland injections in this fantasy realm.

"Since the creation of Yin and Yang there has been the Spirit World filled with magic and myth, protected by five warriors," so quoth the dragon laying out the show's franchise in its opening moments. Their quest is to collect twelve jade McGuffins and save the universe along with the girls' mother, who has sent them into the other world in Episode 1. (Hmm, is the writer working out some mother stuff here?)

Production values are fantastic: lighting, costumes and design are outstanding considering the moderate budget. And it's great to see familiar faces from the decidedly-underemployed Chinese actor circuit getting some meaty roles for a change from mere noodling. From the voice of the dragon (Burt Kwouk, now being mooted as a long-overdue MBE recipient) to perpetually furious Tom Wu as Hwang, their kung-fu military antagonist, and the wonderful Benedict Wong (last seen in Danny Boyle's Sunshine) as his leader, evil Master Li — they all deliver some energised performances.

A whopping two out of the five child protagonists — count ’em, FORTY PERCENT OF THE STARRING CAST!!! — are Chinese, growing up in multicultural Britain. They include a budding Buffy-alike, Bo (Jessica Henwick), and her younger sister, Jen (Alicia Lai). Their schoolmates trapped with them in the Spirit World dimension are Vicky (Lil' Simz), Trix (Gilles Geary) and Martin (Karl Rogers).

But, best of all, the series is the creation of British Chinese writer Jo Ho, who has endeavoured to kick out the stereotypes and present her Chinese characters as part of the normal range of humanity ... and the supernatural.

There have been some criticisms that Chinese are again doing martial arts as their party trick — and there is some truth in this — but only because the almost total dearth of east Asian Pacific performers in the media and entertainment means that we are forever being associated with China as the Orient and Other. When will British casting directors apply their (round-) eyes to the reality that the Chinese are the third largest ethnic minority within these shores, and go in for some cross-racial colourblind casting, as the Americans have been doing for years?

Some of the plot points have dodgy reversals and the breathless directing allows some idiot-plotting to get through. F'rinstance, one golden rule is that you never make things easy for your protagonists. So when in episode seven our heroes fall under the spell of a rain of green flakes that makes them hate each other, it needed more than one of the boys to say, oh, by the way, I think this green stuff is responsible, and then simply shaking themselves down. Or when the witch's minion signals to Jen that she shouldn't eat the biscuit by shaking his hand over the lo-o-ongest time and she still doesn't geddit ... And perhaps post-Heroes cheerleader and after Buffy, the notion of a girl saving the world could have a tad more irony when somebody articulates it. But it's early days and they definitely deserve a second series.

I'm not bovvered by the kung-fu fantasy schlock. After all, no-one sneers at Arthurian legends as "English stereotyping". And I remember enjoying the Chinese 1970s series of "Monkey" with its mediaeval tales of everyday Buddhist folks.

This is a good start, and it enables the BBC to tick a few boxes. But it is only a beginning. Ai-yah!

Watch Spirit Warriors on iPlayer here

Elizabeth Tan


Gwei Mui said...

Yes indeed, if this goes beyond CBBC that would be even better. But I guess babysteps...

Please swing by where your Beautiful Blogger Award is waiting for you to pick up :)

splinteredsunrise said...

Looks good. Usually the only way you'll see east Asian actors on the telly is in American shows. Or there's always those Water Margin DVDs...

It's a start. But then there's the danger of a slimmed-down BBC becoming even less multicultural. Changes in attitudes at the top are what's needed, and pressure from below.

Jo said...

Hi, I'm a Chinese living in South-East Asia and I've just did a little bit of reading plus skimming here and found that this is a nice site for reading. Good blogging!

Madam Miaow said...

Welcome, Jo. I'm glad you like the blog.

Gwei Mui, thanks very much for my award. I will pick it up but snowed under at the mo.

Splinty, yes, what hope for us now that the BBC is even getting rid of its much-admired Asian Network?