Times Staff Writer

Finally, after 20 years, “Tai-Pan” (citywide) has reached the screen, but anyone who enjoyed James Clavell’s epic novel of the early China traders can only wish that it had never arrived.

So truly and consistently terrible is “Tai-Pan” that it could stand as a textbook example of how not to adapt a historical adventure-romance into a movie.

You would have thought “Tai-Pan” had everything going for it. It has the advantage of authentic period splendor provided by locales in China and abetted by Tony Masters’ stunning, carefully researched production design. It opens with a terrific display of elaborate Chinese junks, proceeds to meticulous re-creations of the foreign settlement of Canton and of the founding of Hong Kong, ranges in settings from an exotic floating brothel to the elegant new mansions of the Hong Kong British and climaxes in a lethal hurricane. But all this spectacle and grandeur, caught gorgeously by Jack Cardiff and underlined by Maurice Jarre’s heroic score, is background for a story that lapses almost immediately into a bloody bore.


At its center is the rivalry between the traders Dirk Struan (Bryan Brown) and Tyler Brock (John Stanton) to be the Tai-Pan--or head honcho--of the newborn British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, and the love story of Struan and his exquisite “China Lady,” May-May (Joan Chen). But adapters John Briley and Stanley Mann clog their narrative by introducing so many secondary characters so rapidly that we’re still trying to figure out who’s linked with whom--let alone who is dead or alive--when the lights come up. Not helping matters is the film’s uneven sound and hazy historical context and continuity: No sooner has Struan dropped anchor in barren Hong Kong than it’s a bustling Victorian city.

But where “Tai-Pan,” which is more talk than action, self-destructs conclusively is in its hoary, declamatory dialogue and utter impersonality. Its writers and director Daryl Duke proceed glumly by the numbers and never bring a contemporary perspective to their material, which involves drug-dealing on a massive scale and racism and sexism at their most virulent. That Struan deals in opium is conveniently justified by the emperor’s ban on free trade, and the master-slave relationship of Struan and May-May, so touchingly transcended by love in the novel, becomes uncomfortably ham-fisted and tasteless on the screen.

Too often, the writers substitute sexual kinkiness for characterization. Poor Tess Brock (Kyra Sedgwick), with whom Struan’s son (Tim Guinee) inevitably falls in love, elicits lethal incestuous passions not only from her villainous father but also possibly from her repulsive, sadist brother Gorth (Bill Leadbetter). And then there’s Mary, the minister’s daughter (Katy Behan), who’s unaccountably drawn to an admittedly powerful but also decidedly elderly Chinese (Chang Cheng). Upon finding the two in flagrante , Struan exclaims, to unintentionally hilarious effect, “Sweet Jesus! I’m lost! This is not the Mary Sinclair I know!”

There’s even worse: Janine Turner’s road company Scarlett O’Hara, come to vamp Struan in a gown cut so low she’s actually starting to fall out of it--and this is the 1840s! (The film’s direst fashion victim, however, is Carol Gillies, as Brock’s wife. Costume designer John Bloomfield has made her look like that portrait of W. C. Fields as Queen Victoria.)

Bryan Brown certainly has the dash and virility for Struan, but not only is he hamstrung by circumstances, he’s further hindered by a Scottish burr as phony as it is thick. The Chinese-born Chen is lovely, but her May-May is too often merely silly. “Tai-Pan” (MPAA-rated: R) is an amazingly bad job for so seasoned a directing and writing team: Duke directed “Payday” and some notable TV dramas, Briley won an Oscar for his script for “Gandhi,” and the veteran Mann has the exciting “Eye of the Needle” among his credits. The legions of James Clavell readers deserve far better than this.