A slaughtered village, a mysterious swordsman, a middle-aged judge who undertakes her own investigation: The Man From Beijing (Original title: Der Chinese) contains the elements needed for a compelling suspense drama, but they fail to come together in a satisfying fashion.
Based on a best-selling book by Henning Mankell, the two-part, 180-minute adaptation for German television never effectively builds tension, remaining far too slack to maintain interest. The mystery is presented in a straightforward manner that appears very easy to solve, and even the novelty of historical flashbacks is handled in a clumsy manner.
On the theoretically positive side, it's refreshing to see a middle-aged woman as the protagonist. Suzanne von Borsody stars as Brigitta Roslin, a judge in Sweden whose parents are among the 19 persons slain in a rural hamlet. The authorities are keeping a tight lid on the details, so she travels there to find out what she can, in part to assuage her own guilt about her strained relationship with her parents.
It turns out that two local residents -- neither with Brigitta's family name -- survived the massacre, and she slowly realizes that she's in danger, as the killer clearly intends to wipe out the entire family. She's more of a nuisance than a help to the detective (Claudia Michelsen) in charge of the case, though, which means Brigitta is not taken seriously when she sounds the alarm bells.
As Brigitta investigates the private papers of her parents, she discovers that one of her ancestors worked in America in the 19th century as the boss of a railroad-construction crew, which included many Chinese workers. Brigitta's forefather treated the men harshly, even as he loudly proclaimed his Christian beliefs.
Meanwhile, the film intersperses the main storyline in Sweden with scenes in China, following a wealthy businessman named Ya Ru (James Taenaka) and an enigmatic woman called Qui Hong (Amy J. Cheng), as they parry back and forth with talk of revenge, honor, and vague family obligations.
Director Peter Keglevic is a television veteran, and The Man From Beijing is a handsome, sturdy production. Eventually the plot lines are pulled together, wrapped up in a bow, given a shake and a twist, and put to bed, as though the movie were a book being placed back on the shelf, never to be read again. It's not a terribly compelling viewing experience, but probably plays better if considered solely as a movie made for television, with commensurately lower expectations.
Like the movie, the Region 1 DVD from Music Box Films looks handsome on my admittedly non-state of the art A/V set-up. The colors are strong; the audio kicks in as needed.
The English subtitles are easy to read and well-timed. (Note: It's a bit disorienting to hear the Chinese actors dubbed into German.) The "making of" mini-feature is a standard promotional piece.
The Man From Beijing is now widely available. (You can also order the disc via our affiliate link to Amazon, below.) If the subject matter intrigues, a rental is recommended, but fans of Henning Mankell may find more to chew on than I did.