'Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures' hits small screen as racy medical miniseries

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
January 7, 2010

T ORONTO - Sex, alcohol addiction and long-simmering emotional trauma - such is life in the Toronto-based medical drama "Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures."

Based on the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning book by doctor/writer Vincent Lam, the racy TV miniseries picks up where Lam's collection of short stories leaves off, with its tortured characters already well into the dysfunction that marked the surprise literary hit.

Lam says it never occurred to him "in the slightest" that his book would ever end up onscreen, but the soft-spoken author says he's enjoyed being a consultant on the eight-part TV series, even though he doesn't watch much TV himself.

"I've seen 'Grey's Anatomy,' I've seen 'House,' " says Lam, noting he prefers to settle in with a good book after a long day at his east-end hospital.

"I guess the thing about 'Bloodletting' is that it's not a procedural medical drama - the drama doesn't take place necessarily in an O.R. The interesting things about this series to me take place before or after the drama of the doctors existing in a hospital as opposed to their job creating the only drama."

"It allows these characters to sort of go a little further, to be a little messier sometimes than other shows that I've seen."

In adapting the book - a series of loosely connected short stories - playwright and screenwriter Jason Sherman knits the three central characters into a much tighter orbit, with the self-destructive Fitz working alongside former classmate Chen and Chen's wife, Ming. Tensions mount when Ming turns to Fitz, her ex-boyfriend, to help her conceive a child.

Narration, dream sequences and plenty of flashbacks help ease the uninitiated into their world, with the first episode jumping back-and-forth in time to reveal a volatile romantic triangle that spans years in the book. In many ways, diving straight into these characters' emotional turmoil was the best way to stay true to their literary counterparts, says Lam.

"On one hand that's a tricky thing to do and it requires trust that the audience is interested and is paying attention, but on the other hand the payoff is that it's possible to give much more depth to the characters and to their motivations and the things that affect them," Lam says of the TV version's non-linear approach.

"Because the things that cause them problems years previous still affect them years later. That's true to the way we live our lives, that's true to what people are like - people don't have heroic revelations, tragic discoveries, heart-breaking epiphanies all within the space of 45 minutes. You actually have to play that out over a number of years."

"X-Men" actor Shawn Ashmore stars as Fitz, an alcoholic who struggles with lingering feelings for Ming, played by "ReGenesis"'s Mayko Nguyen. Ashmore, who also serves as executive producer, says he leapt at the chance to portray an addict, especially one whose raw emotions are constantly bubbling to the surface.

"That's something very rich - there's something physical to play in there, there's a lot of emotional depth to play in there," Ashmore says of portraying an alcoholic.

"I sat with a coach who had been through similar experiences in detox and drinking and we just talked about what it was like, what the experience was like to be a functioning alcoholic.... How to order a drink, to never not have a drink in front of you, (that) as soon as you have a shot you have the eye of the bartender at all times because you know you're going to need (another) one."

Byron Mann plays Chen, the character who most closely resembles Lam, although Lam is coy about acknowledging any similarities beyond the fact they're both doctors, Asian, and like to write.

Mann says his biggest challenge was in convincingly portraying an ER doctor and delivering the medical jargon that comes with the role. The Hong Kong-born actor says he turned to his eldest brother - a heart surgeon - to help decipher parts of the script.

"He explains, but he always adds: 'This would never happen, Byron.... This is so dramatic, this is like one per cent of all the cases,"' says Mann, chuckling.

"But I say, 'Hey this is TV, man.' "

At least one scene is drawn directly from real life - Nguyen notes that Lam pops up on the show about halfway through the series as a patient suffering from a minor mishap that Lam himself was faced with in the ER.

Nguyen says Lam wasn't on set too often, but when he was, it made her extremely nervous.

"There's an added pressure that this is somebody else's creation - it's not like you're making these characters up yourself, it's not like you have the freedom and you can take liberties with where you want to go," says Nguyen.

"It's actually set who these people are, so you have to do justice to that."

The weight of adapting such a successful book for the small screen was not so heavy for Ashmore, who says he embraced the project as an opportunity to take the rich tale in new directions.

"It's not as if Vincent was sitting there going, 'Nope, I don't like that,"' he says.

"As an actor, when you're changing mediums, it's your responsibility and your job to bring something new and something fresh to it - that's why they hired us, that's our job. It's not to come in and say, 'Is that what you want? Is that what you want?' It's about hopefully bringing something fresh and new."

"Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures" premieres Sunday on HBO Canada.

This article originally appeared here

© The Canadian Press 2010