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James Clavell and his Hong Kong epic. Struggle for trading firm depicted in `Noble House'

James Clavell's Noble House NBC, Sunday through Wednesday, 9-11 p.m. Four-part drama based on the novel. Starring Pierce Brosnan and Deborah Raffin. ``What's that smell?'' asks Linc Bartlett, an American corporate raider arriving in Hong Kong.

``Oh, that's the smell of money,'' he's told.

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And money does prove the main ingredient of Hong Kong, a place of Rolls-Royces and glittery parties where the bellboys at the fabled Peninsula Hotel say, ``I hope you have a profitable stay.''

But more than money is involved in this eight-hour miniseries. Linc is plunging into the kind of Hong Kong pictured in a network's breathless bid for viewers during an important ``sweeps'' period. That means international intrigue, ancient vows, kidnapping, personal romance, communist spying, natural disasters, and the occasional sex scenes that seem de rigueur these days for ratings wars.

On fascinating location in Hong Kong and Macao, the series neatly mixes East and West in the often compelling, sometimes silly and clich'ed story of Struan - known as Noble House - the city's oldest and greatest trading firm, and of its leader (or ``tai-pan,'' the show's main character), a dashing executive named Dunross, who finds himself clashing with Linc over the fate of Noble House. A third figure - Quinlan Gornt, head of another Hong Kong firm - makes just the right number of players for endless variations on the theme of ``who's got Noble House'' without creating plot chaos.

During the process you never really find much about what kind of business Noble House is, but the maneuvering interweaves the ancient Chinese mysteries with modern business in a way that makes dealmaking in Hong Kong a little different. A feeling of ancient ritual and tradition gives an unearned yet often effective sense of legend to the melodramatic plot. If someone possesses a half coin that fits the half owned by the tai-pan, for instance, the latter must grant any favor. Think of the fairy-tale quality that device adds - and never mind how unlikely it sounds. It lets the story flee high finance whenever a contrasting bit of intrigue is needed.

Meanwhile, the main theme - the financial struggles over Noble House - is TV capitalism's answer to ``The Three Musketeers.'' Its characters treat big business - and life - like a personal game of dice, making huge corporate plunges on whim, all in an atmosphere of personal control and warlord power. Gornt demonstrates his power at one point by capriciously ``killing off'' a Hong Kong bank through stock-market scare tactics.

Together the episodes are a lightweight allegory of symbolic figures, dramatic chess pieces that allow for the freewheeling plot turns by which this series operates. The real corporate world of research and analysts is largely overlooked. Better the tai-pan should have a love affair with Linc's second in command (nicely played by Deborah Raffin), who happens to be a lovely blond woman fascinated and slightly bemused by this dashing British operator. Better the characters should use simplistic exposition to establish facts that would long since have been planned in detail.

But some scenes can't miss. Gornt and Linc's personal duel in the Hong Kong stock exchange - with red-coated workers scurrying around - is a tingler, even if it is cartoonish, with a hokey personal debate taking place on the floor. There is electric interplay among some of the strugglers. When Linc and Gornt - civilized but ruthless - stroll through Hong Kong plotting the downfall of Noble House, they are like strange dogs warily sniffing each other. And though sometimes the show is a corporate ``Love Boat,'' the personal romances are one way the main characters can be humanized in viewers' eyes.

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Linc manages some humane and winning scenes with a Chinese reporter, beautifully played by Julia Nickson. Ben Masters plays Linc as a Ted Turner type: smart, casual, blunt, a man Gornt calls ``a cocky American devil who needs to be taken down a peg.'' But in the story he serves as a refreshing contrast to the ceremonial Chinese way of doing cutthroat business. He's also an excellent foil for the very British tai-pan, played skillfully by Pierce Brosnan, known for his TV role as Remington Steele. His half-mumbled, cool-guy manner is breached now and then by lightning bolts of rage. He's good enough to drop the smooth fa,cade periodically without dropping the character.

And John Rhy-Davies as Gornt, who wants so much to become the Noble House tai-pan, also breaks the show's artificial smoothness by actually seeming to sweat on screen. His desperately scrambling climber works well in a series that tends to reduce characters to poses.

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