review: ‘blood and water’ [no spoilers]

scene-from-blood-and-water

As a Chinese-Canadian hypersensitive to (under)representation of all sorts, I was stoked to hear about Blood and Water, a Canadian crime drama with almost exclusively Chinese-Canadian characters.

In a nutshell, it’s the underdeveloped lovechild of New Zealand’s Top of the Lake and Denmark/Sweden’s The Bridge. The opening theme song is an out-of-place hipster acoustic guitar piece. The visuals are dark, brooding, moody and heavy.  The police station is perpetually underlit. With sweeping panoramas of the North Shore – including Squamish and Cleveland Dam, and a port I couldn’t identify – as well as close-ups of TransLink buses and East Van housing, Vancouver appears to be a chilly inner city ghetto where bad things happen. Which was perhaps intended, as bad things do indeed take place in the show. Very bad things.

In terms of storytelling, Blood and Water is a classic Chinese family drama dressed as a cop show. This is evident in the detective’s – and the storyline’s – focus on the social, psychological and interpersonal aspects of the murder case she has been assigned, rather than forensic evidence or any actual facts of the murder.

It is hard not to watch the whole eight-episode season in one go; each of the episodes is barely 20 minutes long and ends abruptly, with no sense of wrapping up. The story pushes onward despite episode breaks, making it feel like one long movie.

I have three main criticisms.

Language

From a purely technical perspective, it’s impressive that the show weaves between three languages: Mandarin, English and Cantonese, in that order of dominance. But are the switches as flawless as it appears to the untrained ear? And, more importantly, to what end? In my own family, we speak Cantonese and English – which language we use depends on where we are, what we’re saying, and whom we’re speaking to. There is a logic to our choice. The language changes in Blood and Water, however, are illogical. A Chinese-speaker, especially one in a multilingual family, will quickly notice this.

For example: In one of the opening scenes in the police station, Anna speaks with Theresa in Canto. As Anna is not a native Canto speaker, their language choice is probably because they don’t want the police to understand their conversation. Fine. But they continue to speak stilted Canto with each other in private, despite both being far more fluent in English. (I am not sure whether Theresa’s poor Canto is intended or limited by the actor’s own ability; we know for sure that Anna is a native Mando speaker, because of her family.)

In another scene where Detective Bradley interrogates Anna, the detective begins in English before switching to Mando, despite her Mando being so awful that she mixes in English words and phrases, leading me to believe that her poor Mando is intentional. But why does she do this? It’s not as if Anna doesn’t speak English fluently. The detective’s choice of Mando despite barely being able to express herself hinders her ability to do her job – a highly unprofessional decision, not to mention a humiliating experience that I can’t fathom anyone choosing willingly.

Finally, Charlie speaks to his siblings in heavily accented Mando. They all speak fluent English. Normally, if your accent and language ability are as bad as Charlie’s, you would speak in English.

Some of these inconsistencies can be chalked up to the actors’ language skills. If the actor’s ability doesn’t match their character’s ability, it sounds bizarre. It’s totally normal for Chinese-Canadians to switch between Manto/Canto/Eng, so to a non-Chinese ear, all the changes would seem unproblematic. To a Chinese ear, however, some of the show’s choices of when to switch – and to which language – simply doesn’t make sense or reflect the reality of multilingual communication. That makes me think that a non-Chinese speaker made these calls.

Culture

Which leads me to my next point: some of the characters’ behaviour – especially of the parents – are not Chinese at all. Without giving the story away, there are traits like ‘losing face’ and ‘family honour’ that are brought up in one scene and then abandoned the next. There are also things that the father does that no wealthy property tycoon would ever do. Also, no Chinese person would ever put rice in the bowls before cooking the vegetables. All leading me to correctly suspect that none of the screenwriters are Chinese.

Representation

Inconsistencies aside, we should celebrate the on-screen representation and normalisation of Chinese-Canadians. Not only were most of the characters Chinese(-Canadian), they had depth; they were real people with real problems. They have complicated backstories that are rarely explored on TV in general. This is extremely refreshing – and perhaps the show’s most laudable trait. However, what was missing was the placing of these characters in Vancouver, Canada, and the ‘Canadian’ part of ‘Chinese-Canadian’. There were only one or two minor scenes or points that connected this story to Canada. As this is supposed to be about Chinese-Canadians – and not just ‘Chinese’ – it would’ve been nice to have… more. I don’t necessarily need the family’s entire migration story (although it would definitely help place the kids in terms of whether they’re first or second generation, and thus their language preferences), but the show is quite bare of Canadian-ness, apart from three rather minor Caucasian characters, the physical location, and the occasional use of English. Does this still count as Chinese-Canadian representation?

Conclusion

Despite my criticisms, Blood and Water is an intriguing whodunnit (or rather, whydunnit) story with advanced visuals both rich and bleak. The acting is average, though some of the blame must be placed on whoever wrote the sometimes awkward dialogue. All in all, a valiant stab at noir and the biggest TV breakthrough for Chinese-Canadians probably ever. In addition, it features a complex and independent female protagonist and passes the Bechdel test. You will definitely enjoy it more if you don’t understand Mando or Canto! 7.5/10

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