Noble House (1988)

The success of Shogun in 1980 beget two further James Clavell miniseries, “Tai-Pan” in 1986 and “Noble House” in 1988, diminishing returns certainly, but”Noble House” borders on incomprehensible at times because it tries to squeeze an enormous book with oodles of plots into six hours of screen time, mostly taken up by talk of finance.  Plots start and stop at the whim of the director, so it lacks cohesion.  Perhaps James Clavell was too busy working on the musical version of “Shogun” he was preparing at the time (with the composer who did the keyboard-drenched music for “Noble House”) to give this one his full attention.
“Noble House” begins with a very ominous prologue.  It’s a terribly rainy June night and Pierce Brosnan as Ian Dunross, nostrils flaring but so handsome it’s almost unbelievable, arrives as Noble House, a family-held company for over a century.  He’s there to take over the reigns of this august Hong Kong-based company from Denholm Elliott in an ages-old ceremony that involves a will, a Bible, two witnesses and a whole heap of responsibility…oh, and a curse regarding coins split in two.  Pierce is now Tai-Pan of the company and his word is law. 

Three years later, at the company’s 150th birthday, Pierce is in a far better mood, but no less savvy an operator.  He’s gotten the company into bed with a Los Angeles-based company that he thinks will make millions, but everyone else at the party seems unsure since it’s owner, Linc Bartlett, as played by Ben Masters, is a corporate raider.

Ben arrives in Hong Kong with Deborah Raffin (the go-to girl of 80s TV movies when you wanted the rest of the cast to shine instead of the leading lady) in tow, met at the airport by Pierce’s inherited second-in-command/flunky Burt Kwouk and Superintendent Armstrong (Gordon Jackson).  Deborah goes to Ben’s hotel room in a flimsy one-piece and white stockings to tell Ben all they know about Pierce.  They fully intend to swoop in, take Noble House and swoop out just as quickly.  Ben is so sure and cocky that we know he’ll meet a bad end, no matter how long it takes to get there. 

Deborah, in another pair of white stockings, meets Pierce the next day right at the elevator bank.  Pierce tells her about feng-shui as her introduction to everything Asian.  Ben delays his meeting at Noble House by going to John Rhys-Davies’ company where the latter offers what seems a better deal and then goes on to trash the whole history of Noble House.  John (a hold-over from “Shogun” and playing basically the same character) is hell-bent on destroying Pierce and his company.  John gives us our big lesson for the twentieth time (nearly every character has so far said it in almost the same words): “We do things differently in Hong Kong.”  Ben would seem to be out of his comfort zone, but he’s not really impressed by John’s machinations.  He is, however, impressed by Julia Nickson, a local TV reporter, arriving just as he’s leaving.  Julia is instructed to make Ben fall in love with her as a distraction. 

Ben heads across the street to meet Pierce, who has already been told of his first meeting by his super-efficient secretary Nancy Kwan.  Ben’s American cowboy routine is going to get old very quickly.  Obviously the smarter of the two on the team is Deborah, whose desire to make it in a man’s world is apparently her overarching desire. 

The business propositions are put on hold when Pierce finds out Burt’s son has been kidnapped.  There are two things very upsetting about it: first, the son had arrived on the plane with Ben and Deborah as a leverage chip and second, and this is unknown to everyone, the son (Steven Leigh) has the other half of the coin that has been missing since the first scene (or probably longer, but that’s the first we saw of it).  Burt finds out that Steven has been selling out the company secrets to Ben and that he has taken the half a coin.  He curses his son to hell in the best Medea-like fashion.  Pierce’s way of dealing with the situation is to call on Khigh Dhiegh, who knows everything that goes on in Hong Kong (and who is worth $50 million, we find out a few scenes later).

Can you guess what Deborah wears to Pierce’s party that night?  Yes, white stockings.  She learns all about the company history and the reasons John Rhys-Davies and Pierce are at odds (she could have just watched “Tai-Pan”).  Ben roams the party and meets all of Hong Kong’s power players, meeting Julia again in her role as seductress.  Every mouth drops when John shows up.  Eyebrows can’t be raised higher than they are now among Hong Kong’s fey elite.  Ben tries to shove his deal down Pierce’s throat, but Pierce doesn’t agree to the terms, and Ben relents.  The only sticking point seems to be that Ben demands Pierce sign the deal with Deborah, not with him.  “A tai-pan only deals with a tai-pan,” Pierce says, but it’s not up for argument as far as Ben is concerned. 

By the very fact that he’s singing in the car, on a twisty small road means John Rhys-Davies is going to be in an accident (do you remember a 70s or 80s TV show where it doesn’t happen?).  The brakes are cut, but John survives.  John is more interested in bringing Ben into his fold and destroying Pierce, though business propositions that are not at all exciting. 

The kidnappers are a rather dimwitted gang and right before the credits roll to end the first episode, they have killed Steven and found the half coin around his neck, thinking it worthless. 

The second part opens with Pierce taking Ben and White Stockings (yes, again) to dinner.  Ben wants “Chinese food…you know, egg roll, chop suey…” and Pierce takes them for a stop first to see his gold bullion.  Ben is worried that Deborah is falling for Pierce, and warns her against it.  “Pick another guy…another time, another place,” and Deborah chirps, “you’re the boss.”  “You bet I am.”  It’s dialogue this dimwitted that makes me long for “Shogun,” where no one spoke English.  There are a few dozen characters already, and not one of them has strung two intelligent sentences together yet (there isn’t a hint of humor in “Noble House,” so everyone has to be as serious as the bankers they are playing). 

Our two villains cut a deal.  Ben fronts all the money for a corporate raid on the Noble House and John will spread rumors to get the stock to fall (as he’s done with a small bank to prove to Ben how important an operator he is).  For $4 million ($31 Hong Kong dollars) in a Swiss bank account #181819 (it was the most interesting moment of a dull conversation, that’s the only reason I remembered it), John and Ben will ruin Noble House.  Bed finally lets White Stockings (yes, another day, another pair) in on his nefarious scheme and she likes the fact of playing both sides against the other, but I think we’re all pretty sure when the chips are falling, Deborah will side with Pierce, no? 

Here comes the hail storm.  Pierce, Ben and Deborah stand watching the Hong Kong stock exchange while John dumps his Noble House stock and as the entire economy reels, Pierce buys up all the dumped stock, actually yelling above the huge din in the stock exchange and everyone stops chattering.  Pierce and John argue with everyone listening.  Now really!

Pierce goes to Khieg to borrow the money he needs to cover the losses, but Khieg wants Noble House ships to carry drugs in return.  White Stockings shows up for a drink with Pierce wearing black stockings (and a black dress, who the hell designed this?).  Ben chases Julia, asking her to be his date at a charity benefit that night where all of the players will regroup.  These people do nothing but sip champagne and gossip. 

The kidnappers get the ransom money, despite the fact that their captive is dead, but they have only about six seconds to enjoy it before Khieg’s goons burst in and find out the truth.  More bad news for Noble House. 

At the party that night, Khieg shows up with everybody’s favorite mistress (literally, she has a few sugar daddies among the banking community), Tia Carrere, as Venus Poon.  Yup, Venus Poon.  Thank goodness the world wasn’t fully PC by 1988.  She even has a tea-cup puppy.  Frankly, her few seconds of screen time are more interesting than the conversations at the party, more about runs of banks, dirty deals and everyone pretending to be friendly.  The eye game is playing with fervor.  John looking at Ben arriving with Julia, Deborah noticing then eyeing Pierce.  “This is Hong Kong, everybody…”  Yeah, yeah, you can finish that sentence.

Just when you want to duck out of yet another series of ring ’round the room advances, a fire starts in the kitchen.  Oh, I forgot to mention this party is on a floating boat.  Pierce tries to stop everyone from panicking (it’s not even his party), but no one wants a Chinese Poseidon Adventure.  It’s not a good time to be an extra.  Some jump into the river on fire, some have hefty women fall on them and some get to jump four stories into the water in sequins.  Our principals are trapped on the top floor and Deborah jumps first…but not before removing her dress to reveal the black stockings are patterned!  Why did she remove her dress and no one else did?  Next jumps Julia, who can’t swim and then Ben jumps off with a pregnant woman we’ve never met.  That leaves Pierce and John, the latter deciding to tell Pierce he still intends to sell more stock the next day.  You know Pierce Brosnan, “unflappable” is his career middle name. 

Khieg’s henchmen find the half coin on Noble House Chen Number One Son (that’s their dialogue, not mine) and the police find his body.  The Chinese Superintendent, the one who isn’t a moron, brings the news to Pierce, who reacts by asking him out for drinks later that night.

Ben goes over to Julia’s, and she’s looking sexy in shoulder pads and satin.  Ben sees a picture of her with John Rhys-Davies and Julia explains that they were a couple together, her first love.  She also reveals she’s 25, which seems rather unlikely.  As she tells the story, guess what she says?  “This is Hong Kong. I’d rather you hear it from me.”  WE KNOW!!!!!!!  Hong Kong is small and people talk.  After flirting with Ben, she stops him when he starts to kiss her.  You see, she has to be in love, and she’s not in love with him.  With anyone, she says.  If ever there were a stupid soap opera scene, this is it. 

The White Stockings are back.  She brings up Julia and Ben gets a lot defensive.  For someone so smart, he’s gone all dumb for Julia.  A true villain. 

The second episode draws to an end as the police get some baffling information and the leads have yet another financial “it’s all a game” chat. 

The third portion starts with Julia apologizing to Ben.  “I’m sorry I was such a twit.”  He’s fine with that, the lovestruck fool!  She then prattles on about the financial goings-on, only to say not to listen to anything she says.  Is this dame bipolar?

Khieg is a very bad man.  Not only does he kill the one remaining kidnapper, making sure if it’s discovered, his son will take the fall and then turns his attentions to his drug business. 

You know something?  Everyone in the movie calls him Tai-Pan, so I will try to call him Pierce-Pan from now on, for consistency with the movie.  That drink planned with the Chinese Superintendent?  Go figure, the guy isn’t there.  He’s being held in prison, subjected to every torture but waterboarding as they think he is a Chinese spy (do Chinese spies break under the use of LSD-trip music and visuals?  If so, why not just show him “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” over and over, or perhaps drone out “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” like they did with the Branch Davidians).

I’ll spare everyone the scene where Ben and Julia visit a whorehouse and Julia offers to buy any girl Ben wants and skip right to Pierce-Pan and White Stockings having a private dinner, where White Stockings (in all black since dinner is on a boat–she’s learned her lesson from the night before) spills her dull life story and continues to chatter even after Pierce-Pan has started to kiss her.  No one in this film ever gets laid!

From that romantic near-escapade, Pierce-Pan heads off to Khieg and son (pretending to be nephew).  Khieg produces half a coin and demands a favor, even though Pierce-Pan knows it’s a stolen coin as Khieg’s half coin is already accounted for (this is the coin from Noble House Chen First Son).

Pierce-Pan is without many friends.  He lowers himself to playing golf with representative from the man from Bank of China, a man who definitely seems the face of Communism, and ever has since the first scene.  He won’t put up the money, but he knows of a Chinese conglomerate who might.  Another option is one of the dud financial friends Pierce-Pan who has, but he has to go to Macao to meet him. 

Another friend list is trusty second-in-command Phillip.  He admits to Pierce-Pan that his son had been working for Ben and had all their secrets.  That is one Pissed Pierce-Pan.

White Stockings (in her first pair of  pants) is swept off to Macao by Pierce-Pan.  See, he can be ruthless and romantic at the same time.  Of course, they spend the trip discussing plans to outwit Ben, so romance is hard to manage when White Stockings spends the boat ride sounding like a useless middle page of The Wall Street Journal. 

Proving once again that “Noble House” has no sense of place, Ben and Julia waste an entire good beach walk by hearing Julia’s history (which he’s heard from John already). 

After a 20-second tour of Macao, Pierce-Pan and his ally there sit down for a (zzzzzzz) financial discussion.  Pierce-Pan and White Stockings go gambling where, of course, White Stockings, who professes to always lose, wins big.  Then we get the standard 1980s bed scene: woman wrapped tight in a sheet, rests head on hairy hunk’s chest during muted-tone discussion. 

In an otherwise useless scene, Kheig does come up with a good line speaking of Pierce-Pan and White Stockings in bed: “I am pleased that one American is doing what the other is trying to do to him.”

A lot is riding on the races, a miniature version of the financial dealings, so John tells his jockey he either beats Pierce-Pan’s horse or he never works again.  Someone has tampered with Pierce-Pan’s horse to make it even touchier.  Our whole cast goes off to the races, which enchants White Stockings, mainly because she thrills to the pricey sky box Pierce-Pan owns.  John makes a very strange offer to White Stockings to take her on a boat ride the next day, despite a meteorological chance of rain.  Everyone is at the races.  Both of Virgin Poon’s elderly suitors included.  When one sees her with the other, he levels this classic oath: “May the gods curse you both.  Even with all the techniques I’ve taught her, you can’t make a wet noodle dance.”  Of course, that’s immediately followed by another financial scheme I’m too dumb to understand and the third portion ends.  Not a moment too soon, frankly, but so far, Part 3 is the dullest.  Where is the Clavell action?

In Part 4 is the answer.  Back at the races, Pierce-Pan invites a “strange group” of people to his box for some news later and the Victoria Bank acquires the Ho Pak Bank, the one John made to under to prove to Ben how unscrupulous he could be.  Pierce-Pan let’s a man who has to be the world’s biggest jokey win.  Price-Pan tells the gang that he’s has made some fancy deal, proving that Noble House may be down, but not out yet!

Then the big race comes.  John and Pierce-Pan’s horses are the only ones that matter and everyone is tense watching them.  John’s jockey, no better than his boss, smacks Pierce-Pan’s jokey with his crop, not only throwing him from his horse, but killing him.  John fully approves.

The Bank of China won’t help Pierce-Pan, but a conglomerate from The Middle King will on his recommendation.  He has to go to Beijing in secret.  That causes much consternation from White Stockings, who makes it a reason for a fight.  Sex the night before must have been that good and if she can’t get it again tonight, she might as well get all pissy.

The head of the conglomerate is an old friend of Pierce-Pan’s.  They haven’t seen each other in 25 years.  His friend puts a bunch of business terms on it, and also an extra one: get the Superintendent out of jail. 

Every time Julia has appeared on screen, she gets porn music played behind her, but now that she and Ben are in love, it’s arch romance.  She wants to be with him in one sentence and in the next, she says she can’t.  Again, the dialogue is so vapid even daytime soaps wouldn’t use it.  In their next scene, they have sex and the porn music is back.

John takes White Stockings (in pants again, and all dressed up) on a boat ride.  She goes along hoping to learn something about his intentions for Noble House, but he’s far too smart to let anything important slip.  And then it gets ugly.  John puts the moves on White Stockings, and it’s obvious she wouldn’t stand a chance if he really wanted to do it because he’s about 200 pounds larger.  The script gives White Stockings an opportunity to prove how truly lacking she is upstairs.  Indignant, she begs to be let out of the locked room.  “Turn the handle the other way,” John says.  She didn’t even think to try that?  And this is a woman managing a multi-billion dollar company?  When he lets her off the boat, he’s still laughing nefariously. 

Pierce-Pan races to the Governor (John Houseman, looking about 176 years old) to ask his help in the release of the arrested Superintendent.  The Commissioner is also there, arguing the case on the opposite.  Pierce-Pan argues that without Chinese support, Hong Kong business will die.  “It is not blackmail…it is survival,” he roars, surprising the Governor and Commissioner. 

Finally, 45 minutes before the end, we get a patented bit of Clavell-ex-machina (he likes storms, earthquakes and the like) when a landslide destroys a gigantic building.  It happens to be the building in which Khieg is playing with Venus Poon and Ben is resting after Julia went out to buy some food.  As she and White Stockings watch in horror, Pierce-Pan jumps in to help and even John agrees to help since Ben is in there.  The script makes John so utterly reprehensible that he accuses Pierce-Pan of going in to find him simply for the upcoming deal.  Ben is trapped, but alive, and able to discuss business.  Not so lucky is Khieg.  Hi son finds his body and takes the half coin from it. 

“How tough is it to get married in Hong Kong?” Ben asks, just seconds before another landslide drowns him.  Awwwwwww.

John had heard Pierce-Pan telling Ben that Noble House was going to be saved by the Chinese conglomerate and that news ruins all plans John had. 

For absolutely no reason at all but to prove herself, White Stockings (wearing none this time) fires her next-in-line when he pisses her off (this is the first time we’ve even met him).  She’s an 80s-style bitch now.

Kiegh’s son comes to Pierce-Pan, showing him the coin and demanding his favor.  Actually, he makes a bunch of demands, and the only one Pierce-Pan is hesitant about is to help him get in on the Macao gambling.  Just as that meeting ends, Pearl Cream Queen Nancy Kwan tells him the release of his friend the Superintendent is happening.  Pierce-Pan is there to watch him cross the boarder.  He does so and Noble House is saved. 

White Stockings, who has been suspicious of Julia all along, pays her a visit.  Julia goes full Camille portraying a grief-stricken “widow.”  White Stockings invites Julia to return to America with her and they both hope they can be friends.  At least that’s wrapped up too!  That was a far more important plo…oh, hell, no one ever cared about it. 

Pierce-Pan wants White Stockings-Pan (she’s the head of Ben’s company now) to stay in Hong Kong, but she has to go back to the US.  “I bet you’ve never kissed a Tai-Pan before,” she says.  “Not in the lobby of this hotel,” Pierce-Pan coos back. 

Now it only remains to finish off John, but with a twist.  John would be ruined if Pierce-Pan opens the stock market with a planned high price for Noble House stock, but he allows John to buy in cheaper because the two know they can’t play the game without each other. 

Pierce-Pan and White Stockings-Pan have a kiss-off at the end, but she says she’ll be back.  I’m sure all of Hong Kong is hoping otherwise.  The Tai-Pan can do better, even if Venus Poon is dead. 

The energy and adventure of of “Shogun” is long gone by the time “Noble House” even starts.  Perhaps because this is technically a piece about the undramatic topic of finance, or because massive chunks of Clavell’s book have disappeared to keep this to a viable length or perhaps because the acting, save the deadpan honesty of Pierce Brosnan and the gleefully nastiness of John Rhys-Davies, is plain bad, this piece speaks of a dying art form, the miniseries in decline, going for glitz with nothing much to back it up.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries

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