Television Review

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The Independent Culture
SHANGHAI VICE (C4) sounds like a clone of Miami Vice. Of course, that was trashy, mildly exploitative Eighties fiction, and this is a serious and humane Nineties documentary, but Phil Agland's new series is not quite so far away from the world of Crockett and Tubbs as you might expect. Like Miami Vice, Shanghai Vice is set in a gateway city, and concentrates on the way that a huge influx of people and money brings with it a new scale of problems with drugs and violence. And while Agland's style is less brashly colourful than Michael Mann's, as his camera glides through the Shanghai evening it is still the light and the colour, the glittering greens and golds, that you notice first.

With a less skilled film-maker, the sheer gloss - the lighting is often suspiciously perfect - might distract you from the substance; but here, it is a device for seducing you into it. It is a journalistic cliche to portray China in terms of ancient clashing with modern, Western indulgence rubbing up against oriental wisdom. Agland, who made the breathtaking Beyond the Clouds, could surely explode that cliche if he thought it was appropriate; instead he gives it new life. Sunday night's opening episode was less about the work of the Shanghai police than about the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, particularly Mrs Feng, an attractive sixtysomething landlady in a quandary over whether to marry her boyfriend, Professor Wang. I can't think of a more memorable or bizarre illustration of modern China than the scene in a restaurant when, having chuckled over the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Mrs Feng and her friends started to sing their favourite songs, culminating with one man's, mellow word-perfect rendition of Nat "King" Cole's "Mona Lisa".

While this was going on, detectives of the Criminal Intelligence Unit had begun the process of persuading Ding, a known drug-dealer, to inform on his wife's sisters and their supplier in Canton. Last night's follow-up saw Ding and Detective Zhu, posing as a buyer, off to Canton to set up a sting. Again, followers of Miami Vice will have recognised the storyline. The reluctant grass, intimidated into agreeing to do what the policeman wants; the elaborately choreographed operation; the suspicious villain having to be convinced that all is above board.

But, this being real life, after the carefully executed set-up, the denouement was all a bit messy - no drama, no shootings, and most of the criminals fading away, leaving Ding with a credibility problem and no offers of help from the police.

The series is, as you would expect, painstakingly constructed and marvellous to look at. There is one reservation though: Agland can't resist smuggling in an artistic flourish. Ding's story was intercut with rehearsals at the Children's Opera School for what is termed a "betrayal" opera, and these first two episodes were given the collective title "Betrayal". There's an implied thematic unity here that is totally fabricated - the opera's story, about a wronged wife whose husband goes off with the emperor's daughter, had little to do with a criminal shopping his sisters-in-law. It's a series with substance; but some of the substance is illicit.