This is a series of posts of me over-analyzing The Disguiser. Last time I looked at a painting, this time it’ll be a conversation, next time it will be exactly one line. Can you guess which one?
When a sample of Nirvana in Fire 2’s script was put up by producer Hou Hongliang last week, he got so many complaints about the awkward dialogue and requests to have a co-writer to work with author Hai Yan that he deleted the post. With so many book adaptations, one of the worst aspect of many recent dramas is their inability to translate descriptive writing into scripts. Luckily, The Disguiser did not fall into that trap.
Here is a closer look into one of my favorite dialogues in The Disguiser, the reunion of Ming Lou (Jin Dong) and Wang Manchun (Wang Ou) here in episode 1. See how natural the dialogue flows while setting up the story and revealing character at the same time, and how much better it is than the lazy method of using a random bystander conversation to introduce the characters.
This scene takes place at the end of episode 1 and serves mainly to set up the story. The pair of star-crossed lovers, having been separated by a family feud, are finally reunited again. Wang is one of the heads of Number 76, and Ming Lou has returned to take up a position as the head of secret intelligence (aka as the boss of Wang). At this point, the audience already knows that Ming is a nationalist spy.
Wang Manchun runs to Ming Lou and they embrace. Ming Lou takes out a handkerchief to wipe her face free of raindrops.
Ming Lou : You’ve grown taller.
Wang Manchun: : What are you saying, stop kidding. Look at how old I am already.
Ming Lou: Then it’s we haven’t seen each other for too long.
Wang Manchun: Did you know that when I heard you were coming back over the phone earlier, I was so surprised. I thought I was dreaming.
Ming Lou: You didn’t know that I’ve returned?
Wang Manchun’s face drops, breaks eye contact, then in a pouting voice: I’m no god.
Let’s pause here and admire the last three lines. The most impressive part is how much of the information is shown rather than told to the audience. We already knew from a previous scene that Wang Manchun knows of Ming Lou’s return. Here we catch her telling a half-truth – she was surprised and probably thought she was dreaming when she heard the news, but she knew way before he called. We immediately see that she doesn’t trust him completely.
But Ming Lou’s next line clearly indicates that like the audience, he, too, knows she’s lying. The tone of the voice is not one of surprise, but questioning. Not only does the audience now know he knows, we also know that he wants her to know that he knows. Try saying that last phrase three times in a row.
Wang Manchun’s reaction then shows us that she understood. She’s flustered for a second, but only for a second, and then composes herself and quickly changes the topic. The hesitancy of her admitting that she knew Ming Lou was coming back leaves the audience room for imagination. Is she embarrassed that she was caught lying? Is she afraid he knew?
Let’s continue to the rest of the conversation.
Wang Manchun:When did you return to Shanghai?
Ming Lou: This afternoon.
Wang Manchun: You haven’t returned home?
Ming Lou: I’m temporarily living at the hotel. I haven’t called home yet.
Ming Cheng: What a strange arrangement. So you came to see me as soon as you’ve returned?
Ming Lou: Of course, your uncle told me to return to work with him for the new government in the economics department. I think working with my mentor will make things easier. But you know how my sister feels, she’s never been supportive of the Ming family entering into politics even though she knows politics and economics can’t be disconnected.
Wang Manchun: Yes, she won’t even look at those of us making our living by killing.
Ming Lou: You’re still single?
Wang Manchun: Yes.
Ming Lou: I remember you wrote last year that you found a very nice boyfriend.
Wang Manchun: Yes.
Ming Lou: Did it end again?
Wang Manchun: No, I’ve killed him. Do you want to know the details?
In two minutes, we get pretty much their entire relationship set-up. Everything they say and they way they say it tell us something about the background of the story. Here’s a summary of all that we’ve learned in a few minutes:
- Ming Lou had been abroad for a long time.
- Ming Lou had kept in contact with Wang Manchun (at the disapproval of Ming Jing).
- Wang Manchun’s uncle is Ming Lou’s professor/mentor.
- Ming Lou is returning to work for the Japanese puppet government at the economics department (although we already know this from a previous conversation.)
- Ming Jing disapproves of Ming Lou’s new position.
- Ming Jing disapproves of politics and Wang Manchun.
- Ming Lou is currently living at a hotel.
- Ming Jing doesn’t know of Ming Lou’s return yet.
- Wang Manchun is ruthless and has no qualms about killing someone.
- Wang Manchun is single, and Ming Lou is interested (or at least is pretending to be).
- Ming Lou wants Wang Manchun to know that he knows that she’s been spying on him, but also that he is considerate enough to not call her out on it directly.
- Wang Manchun now knows Ming Lou knows, but is unwilling to admit it that she’s been spying on him.
The introduction of almost each character is done the same way. Ming Jing’s introduction shows her declaring her own fearlessness through action and her disapproval of Wang Manchun by her belittling Wang. The conversation is natural and shows the audience exactly who she is. Ming Cheng and Ming Lou’s relationship were defined by a simple exchange between between Yoko Minamida and Wang Manchun that at the same time carries the story of Minamida and Wang spying on the Ming’s : “What is their relationship?” “Inseparable.”
Finally, I like how this scene in the rain comes full circle in the final day of the Ming Lou-Wang Manchun relationship, where the two hug in the rain. Except that time, Wang Manchun serves the “protector” role and holds the umbrella instead. The scene is at the same time a culmination and the end of the two’s relationship. When Wang Manchun lets go of the umbrella, she lets off her guards and is soon captured thanks to this very action.