Singapore’s acting scene is one happy family. I was led to Breakout (破天网, Pò tiān wǎng) (2010) by following the link for Jeanette Aw after watching The Dream Job (2016). As Yáng Niànqīng (杨念青) Aw plays jaded and unstable daughter of ruthless underworld figure Yáng Tiānwēi (杨天威).
Yang is played with barely contained menace by Guō Liàng (郭亮) (Guo briefly reprises this role late in The Truth Seekers (2016)). It is a powerful performance, alongside Dài Xiàngyǔ (戴向宇) as his violent but conflicted son Chris Yáng Zhènfēng (杨振锋).
Malaysian heartthrob Christopher Lee is disgraced lawyer Sītú Dōngchéng (司徒东城). Quietly intense, after being struck off the roll Dongcheng must learn to keep his emotions in check. This leads to some amusing situations when, after being goaded, Dongcheng ponders whether or not to strike his antagonist. Should he seek revenge against the Yang family and his former partner who brought him down, or will revenge just open a new can of worms? Dongcheng gradually develops a connection with Yang Nianqing, who has her own inner demon that needs taming. Perhaps they can help each other let go of the past.
Over 25 episodes Breakout ties together a number of story arcs. Tāng Yǐng (汤颖), beautifully played by Zhōu Yǐng (周颖) spends 13 years in a coma after a car accident. She awakens as a 12-year-old girl in a 25-year-old body. She is hell-bent on finding out the truth about her family, while her uncle and auntie want to get their hands on the family estate held in trust. Tang encounters Zōu Jiémíng (邹杰明) who is autistic, but not lacking in loyalty. Expressing love is another matter. Elvin Ng does a fine job portraying Jieming. It could easily have descended into caricature, but Ng is convincing throughout.
Jeanette Aw doesn’t have an easy role either. She experiences flashbacks, mental breakdowns, and slips between gangster, lover, lawyer and alcoholic. Aw and Director Chong Liung Man have done well to try and integrate these aspects of her personality. Following on from The Little Nyonya (2008) which made her into one of Singapore’s most recognisable stars, Aw and Lee’s chemistry won them most “Most favourite On-screen couple” at the 2011 Star Awards.
No betrayal, no selling out
You can’t go past Guo as the dark authoritarian gemstone smuggler Yang Tianwei. His sins are unforgivable, yet he lives with them and tries to justify them. He is the psychologist’s absolute definition of a psychopath: rational, calculating and ruthless. Tianwei demands complete loyalty. The slightest sniff of betrayal has deadly consequences. His son is following in his footsteps but there are a few chinks in Zhengfeng’s armour. Zhou Ying reminds him of his childhood sweetheart, played by Rebecca Lim in a cameo. Will Zhengfeng follow his father’s orders and kill her, wiping out the last survivor of the Tang family?
After watching The Truth Seekers I was keen for more gritty crime noir. Breakout satisfies on many levels. I thought it might be less polished than the shows which followed it – in 2010 the current crop of directors and actors were still finding their feet. But Breakout is far from amateurish. It is accomplished Asian underworld drama. Everyone has their dark past and their own delusions. Some repent. Others, having tasted blood, are on the way to hell with bad intentions.
The standout performance is the composers. Long Soo Ming and Zheng Kaihua receive composing credits while Jeff Chang wrote and performed the theme song. The music is the icing on the cake for Breakout. Like The Truth Seekers, it is well integrated into the story and there is new music throughout the series. There is no music where none is needed, then a build-up of piano, orchestra, and electronica is weaved effortlessly into the action and scene changes. The Breakout composers blend the old and the new, combining synths and guitar with more traditional techniques. No surprise that Long Soo Ming and Zheng Kaihua won Best Sound/Music design at the 2011 Star awards.
But expert composing still needs a good show. Breakout won 7 out of the 20 Star awards it was nominated for. Ang Teng Lee was unlucky not to win Best Screenplay for a gripping, tight plot. Breakout also has excellent camera work, bringing to mind the creative cinematography present in Tientsin Mystic. The slow pans and fade-ins, the slightly off angle captures, the glance over the protagonist’s shoulder. The great camerawork is one of the things that makes this show easy to watch. You’re quickly addicted without knowing why. A good director drags you in and tells a story in pictures. Chong Liung Man (张龙敏), Loh Woon Woon (罗温温) and Png Keh Hock (方傢福) are the directors. Chong Liung Man received the award for best director at 2011’s Star Awards showing how tight direction really raises the production standard. And Breakout takes the standard of Singaporean TV to new levels.
8.5/10. Great direction, powerful performances, tight plot and fantastic soundtrack combine to produce a gripping underworld drama.
Potentially useful vocabulary:
背叛: bèipàn – betray
出卖: chūmài – sell, sell out, betray
自闭症: zìbìzhèng – autism
宝石: bǎoshí – gem
破天网: pòtiānwǎng – breaking heaven’s net