In “White Dragon,” new to Amazon Prime Video on Friday, the hero is a London university lecturer named Jonah Mulray. Since the show is a dark, complicated, tortured-family mystery set in Hong Kong, his name can’t help but call to mind the neo-noir touchstone “Chinatown” and its doomed Mulwrays.
The connection lurks in the back of your mind, where you think, no, they can’t really be asking for the comparison. But then in the fifth of the mini-series’s eight episodes, another character tells Jonah he needs to temper his expectations of an answer to the mystery (his wife’s murder) because, after all, “This is Hong Kong.” She doesn’t say, “Forget it, Jonah,” but we get the point.
“White Dragon,” shown on ITV in Britain last year with the supremely dull but less Orientalist title “Strangers,” is no “Chinatown.” But it has its merits: the minor but distinct pleasures of location filming in Hong Kong, and the more serious attraction of compelling casting.
The show’s emotional core is familiar — the arc of Jonah and David Chen, a disgraced ex-cop, from antagonists to reluctant buddies — but it’s made fresh by the pairing of the British actor John Simm (“Life on Mars,” “State of Play”) and the Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong (“Hard-Boiled,” “Infernal Affairs”), among the most dependable and appealing performers in their respective industries.
It’s a slight spoiler to reveal how their characters come together; if you want the surprise, watch the first 15 minutes before reading further.
All right then: Summoned to Hong Kong when his wife dies in an auto accident, Jonah encounters David at the police station and discovers that they were both married to the same woman, a real estate executive who split her time between continents and husbands.
Making the wife the culprit in a two-families scenario is a nice departure from the norm. But the rest of the story is a typical little-guy-against-the-big-machine conspiracy thriller, as the husbands try to prove their wife was murdered and locate the culprit among the various unsavory candidates: triad bosses, British diplomats, corrupt cops and the front-runner in the race for chief executive of Hong Kong.
“White Dragon” comes from the prolific British producers Harry and Jack Williams (“The Missing,” “Liar”), and like their other dramas — and much of the peak-TV landscape — it has a fluidity of execution that’s not the same as having an actual style. It’s never quite as fun or romantic as it should be, and the characters’ words and actions tend to run counter to common sense.
(And despite obvious good intentions in the prominence given to Asian characters and performers, the solution of the mystery manages to reinforce the old dual stereotype of Asian men as either sexless or sinister.)
The show does its job as gritty tourist-noir, though, with the director Paul Andrew Williams laying on the neon and the susurrating traffic and taking us to sites familiar to fans of Hong Kong’s rich cinematic history: the Lantau Island Buddha, Repulse Bay, Macau, the pier of the Jumbo floating restaurant, a silo-like atrium at the Lai Tak Suen housing blocks.
And Jonah and David are good company. Simm, the cerebral Everyman, is perfect in the role — he simultaneously gets across Jonah’s righteousness and his sense of guilt at being a righteous, entitled jerk. Wong is slightly stiff with his dialogue in a largely English-speaking part, but he’s still wonderfully expressive; his sidelong glances and numb stares bear the whole weight of the world. (Katie Leung, continuing her admirable post-Harry Potter work, matches them as David’s bitter daughter.) They’re an excellent pair of nosy fellows, and as a bonus for sensitive viewers, no one’s nose is slashed.