In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
DVD Review – GOD OF WAR ***
Directed by: Gordon Chan, Starring: Vincent Zhao, Sammo Hung, Yasuaki Kurata. Action/History, 2017, 128mins, Cert 15.
Released on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital in the UK by Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment on 16th October 2017.
In 16th century China, ruthless Japanese pirates (samurai and rogue rōnin in an uneasy alliance) invade the east coast, looting, pillaging and generally being far naughtier than Captain Jack Sparrow ever was. Having built themselves a seemingly impenetrable fortress (think Irontown from Studio Ghibli’s PRINCESS MONONOKE), stubborn old Chinese General Yu (Sammo Hung) still persists in marching his troops up the muddied slopes only to be repeatedly repelled by their better-armed Japanese pirate foe. The powers that be are understandably none too impressed with General Yu’s ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ approach and replace him with the younger, smarter strategist and niftier all-round solider General Qi (Vincent Zhao).
Whilst it’s undeniably impressively mounted, the rather simplistic narrative spends far too much time examining the minutiae of Chinese political shenanigans and military strategy, and even (criminally) cuts one major battle scene off in its prime.
Vincent Zhao’s fresh-faced General Qi livens proceedings up with his Rambo-like solution for penetrating the pirate’s fortified encampment and he’s also pretty nifty with those long bendy poles. Lady QI (Regina Wan), is supportive and loving one moment, but unreasonably stroppy when Qi is late home and the food’s gone cold. Yet she proves to be an accomplished and ruthless warrior herself when called upon to defend her kingdom (which isn’t even hinted at previously).
There are several incidental pleasures such as the sight of General Qi’s Ming army skimming across mudflats on wooden scooters which resemble large Dutch clogs, or the rogue Japanese pirates signalling their murderous intent by fanning themselves with light reflecting fans.
The final pirate ship showdown between the younger General Qi and Yasuaki Kurata’s elder pirate Commander Kumasawa is a splendid bloody and fiery climax (albeit one which really didn’t need the entire preceding 2 hours build-up).
Its lavish production design, sets and costumes are consistently eye-catching, and the battle scenes are visceral and not obviously CG enhanced. And whilst it didn’t quite blow me away like one of General Qi’s deadly three-eyed hand canyons, I’d take this grand scale 16th century pirate enactment over those Disney Caribbean ones any day.