Tai-Pan (1986)

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Released 1-Aug-2001

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Action None
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1986
Running Time 115:26
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Daryl Duke

Beyond Home Entertainment
Starring Bryan Brown
Joan Chen
Case Amaray-Opaque
RPI $32.95 Music Maurice Jarre

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Pan & Scan English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    Tai-Pan is a film based on James Clavell's epic saga about the founding of Hong Kong. Written when James Clavell was actually residing in Hong Kong in the 1960s, the novel is a brilliant exposition of what happens when two cultures with very different value systems and beliefs meet. Arguably it was the inter-mingling of the two conflicting cultures that made Hong Kong the successful trading centre that it became and still is today. Along the way, James does a very good job describing events from a Chinese perspective as well as a European one - and even goes a long way in terms of providing insights into Chinese ways of thinking, values and motivations. James' sympathy for his Chinese characters in many ways is a precursor to modern sensibilities about multi-culturalism, and I know several Chinese friends who like to recommend the book (as well as its sequel Noble House) to their non-Chinese friends.

    James du Maresq Clavell was a successful screenwriter (credited with films such as The Fly, The Great Escape and To Sir With Love) and novelist who was actually born in Sydney, Australia to British parents. He joined the British Royal Artillery during World War II, was captured by the Japanese and became a Changi prisoner-of-war. He wrote a novel about Changi called King Rat based on his experiences and followed that with Tai-Pan. His novel Shogun was immensely successful and widely regarded as his best. It was made into a very successful 12-hour mini-series in 1980. James died in 1994 and his last novel, Escape, was published posthumously.

    The events in Tai-Pan are loosely based upon the actual historical events and personalities of the merchant traders who played a pivotal role in the founding of the British colony. There were often fierce rivalries between trading houses and the head of each trading house was colloquially referred to as the "Tai-Pan" which loosely translates as "Supreme Leader". Noble House is of course based on the Jardines conglomerate, and many people in Hong Kong still remember the days when Jardines was a powerful influence on the economy and was the real ruler and owner of Hong Kong. Last year when I visited Hong Kong for a conference, I was somewhat surprised when our tour guide took the trouble to specifically point out the mansion once owned by the comprador of Jardines (the character of Gordon Chen in the book is loosely based on this person). Unfortunately, the management of Jardines were spooked out by the transfer of Hong Kong back to China in 1997 and bailed out (the company was reincorporated in the Bahamas or Bermuda or some such) and today Jardines is but a shadow of what it was and could have been.

    So much for the book and the real-life events from which it was inspired. How did it translate to the big screen? Not very well, I am afraid. In trying to compress a dense, intricate and fairly substantial novel into just under two hours, the fascinating interplay between East and West got tossed out and what we are left with is a feud between two Tai-Pans and their children that is so soap-operaish that the plot seems to be straight out of Dallas or Dynasty. Nearly all the sub-plots have been removed or overly simplified and the story is told almost exclusively from the European perspective only (the character of Mei-Mei has been reduced to a two-dimensional cardboard cut-out and I don't know why they even bothered to retain Gordon Chen as a character as he is no more than an enigma).

    Produced by Raffaella De Laurentiis (who was also responsible for Dune), this film also suffers from many of the same critical flaws as a result of trying to shoe-horn a grand epic that is more suitably told as a mini-series into a two-hour film. Lovers of the book (such as myself) will invariably end up disappointed, and people who have not read the book will probably have difficulty understanding the subtle aspects of the storyline.

    Briefly then, the story is about Dirk Struan (played with an abominable Scottish accent by our very own Bryan Brown), a merchant trader and Tai-Pan of Noble House and his rival Tyler Brock (John Stanton). As England has developed an insatiable appetite for tea (which at that time was available only from China), merchants are keen to buy tea but the Chinese will only accept silver as payment. In desperation, the merchants have started selling opium illegally to the Chinese. When the Chinese authorities confiscate the opium and banish the merchants from Canton, Dirk manages to convince British Parliament to send in the Navy to force concessions from the Chinese which led to the establishment of Hong Kong as a colony.

    The rest of the film is about the personal feud between Dirk and Tyler. Dirk's son Culum (Tim Guinee) arrives from Scotland to be groomed to eventually succeed Dirk, and Tyler has a son called Gorth (Bill Leadbitter) who is a nasty piece of work indeed, and a lovely daughter called Tess (Kyra Sedgwick). As events would have it, Culum and Tess fall in love, leading to complications. Dirk has a Chinese mistress called Mei Mei (Joan Chen), and seems to be friends with Aristotle Quance (Norman Rodway) who is a shabby and slightly disreputable painter living in a whore-house. Shivaun Tillman (Janine Turner) is the niece of an American trader who is determined to ensnare Dirk through her heaving bosoms and as mentioned before Gordon Chen (Russell Wong) is the illegitimate half-Chinese son of Dirk who basically doesn't really do much in the film at all.

    A word of warning to those who have read the book - the ending has been altered. This fact alone may want to make you skip watching this film.

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Transfer Quality


    This is a Pan & Scan transfer taken from an analogue video source which in turn is taken from a 35mm film print with an original aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

    The reason I said the transfer is taken from an analogue video source is because of the presence of several video tape glitches around 80 minutes or so into the film. The rather washed-out colour saturation (particularly during early morning scenes) and also relatively poor black levels are also tell-tale signs of less than pristine analogue video.

    The transfer is on the soft side and seems to be around S-VHS quality. Fortunately, the film source is rather clean and free of grain. Also fortunately, there are no significant instances of MPEG artefacts.

    There are no subtitles on the disc and the disc itself only has one layer.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There is only one audio track on this disc: English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s).

    Consistent with the video transfer quality, this audio track is mediocre indeed, with no real low frequency content to speak off and rolled-off high frequencies. Needless to say, the subwoofer and rear surround speakers were not engaged.

    Although there are no audio synchronisation issues, dialogue quality is mediocre to poor, what with Bryan Brown and his Scottish accent, Joan Chen speaking in broken English and the rest of the characters mumbling through their lines.

    The music by noted French music score composer Maurice Jarre sounds clichéd.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    There are no extras present on this disc. The menu is static and features scene selection.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This title does not appear to be currently available in Region 1 (although it is available on NTSC VHS).


    Tai-Pan is a poor film adaptation of a fascinating novel about the people behind the founding of Hong Kong as a British colony. It is presented on a DVD with very mediocre audio and video transfers (Pan & Scan to boot) with no extras whatsoever. I wouldn't really recommend this unless you are a big fan of the novel and are desperate to see it as a movie, and even then I would urge caution.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Christine Tham (read my biography)
Tuesday, August 21, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-626D, using Component output
DisplaySony VPL-VW10HT LCD Projector, ScreenTechnics 16x9 matte white screen (254cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationDenon AVR-3300
SpeakersFront and rears: B&W CDM7NT; centre: B&W CDMCNT; subwoofer: B&W ASW2500

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