23 Feb The Guardian | Better Man review
Better Man – TV review
Full article link: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/australia-culture-blog/2013/jul/25/better-man-sbs-review
As the opening titles of SBS’s first original drama in three years flicked onto screen, I considered what I knew about Van Tuong Nguyen, the 25-year-old Australian caught carrying heroin through Singapore, convicted of drug trafficking and executed. In 2006 I didn’t live in Australia, so didn’t follow the legal challenges to or media coverage of the Singaporean authorities’s decisions in the same way as many Australians; I had formed no view on his culpability.
That won’t have been the case for many viewers. For those less than entirely sympathetic to Nguyen’s plight, Khoa Da’s story of a reluctant drug mule caught in a perfect storm of honour, loyalty and torn emotions could perhaps prove testing. But as a piece of drama, and indeed polemic against the death penalty, Better Man is affecting and unsettling television.
That is largely down to Remy Hii’s remarkable performance as Van. Carrying essentially the whole narrative – other characters only flitting in to push the story forward – Hii shows enormous versatility and raw emotional heft: convincing as teen charmer, tourist in his own land, stressed-out kid barely keeping it together, and broken prisoner. It’s the kind of part that actors yearn for, and then get tripped up by. Not in this case.
It’s a role made all the more difficult by its real-life dimension – an issue the script never quite manages to overcome, becoming somewhat boxed-in by the linear events of this one-person story. I was entirely won over by the first half of this episode, with its incredibly spare script and beautiful, saturated visuals; Van’s trip to Vietnam an almost dreamlike interlude as he sloughs off the terrors of Cambodia and all its frightening consequences. Uncluttered by dialogue, Hii seemingly sweats the storyline straight onto screen as Van, alone and terrified, struggling to keep a lid on his panic. Despite – or maybe because of – the journey’s inevitable conclusion, that anxiety manages to seep off screen and into the viewer.
But from Nguyen’s arrest onwards, Better Man becomes a more conventional and less engaging drama. Da has to pay for an opening that is largely free from explanation, with a second half that is almost more flashback than action. I am rarely convinced by this method of storytelling: nobody looks the age they should, the sepia-ish filter is irritating, and it feels like a last resort. There must surely have been a more elegant way of telling this story than going back in time as a response to police questioning – an unsophisticated approach which detracts from both Van’s story and the tension of the interview.
As the action becomes largely expositional, so too does the dialogue: the menacing, hissed threats of the opening scenes giving way to clangers: “So that means the kid could be all alone talking himself into a death sentence?” It starts to feel like we’re racing through plot points, rather than seeing a story cleverly revealed. But perhaps that’s inevitable when dealing with a story that’s so entirely helpless – we know what happens to Van, that the reluctant policeman won’t help him, the high commissioner can’t save him, that he won’t wake up from this nightmare. When he whimpers “Can I go home now?” we know the answer.
Such reservations are, in any case arguably less important than both the profound questions this drama prompts about the death penalty, and the fruits of the director/actor relationship between Da and Hii. For 90 minutes Hii owns the screen, whether flashing easy smiles at the girls or scrabbling in terror: a young man in way over his head, and unable to find his way back out. Regardless of the dramatic licence Da takes – and I understand he sometimes does – this is an astonishing performance.
The second, and concluding part of the story next week sees Van’s legal team descend in the shape of David Wenham, Claudia Karvan and Bryan Brown. That will certainly make the storytelling a great deal easier, allowing for more interaction and conversation and less reliance on hopping back in time (I hope). But for all of the incoming cast’s star power, I doubt anyone will outshine Hii.