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Review: Detective Chinatown (2015)

Detective Chinatown

唐人街探案

China, 2015, colour, 2.35:1, 134 mins.

Director: Chen Sicheng 陈思诚.

Rating: 8/10.

Cleverly plotted, comic whodunit set in Bangkok with a rich variety of manic types.

detectivechinatownSTORY

Bangkok, Apr 2015. After unsuccessfully trying to get into police academy, the shy, stuttering Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) – who has a photographic memory and obsession with detective fiction – has been sent by his grandmother (Yang Chunhui) on a week’s holiday to Thailand, to stay with Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang), a third cousin once removed who’s reputed to be the no. 1 detective in Chinatown. In fact, as Qin Feng rapidly discovers, Tang Ren is a sleazy, manic, one-man detective agency who’s addicted to partying and majiang. Meanwhile, the police are investigated a locked-room mystery in which Sompat (Eakachai Thamma), the chief suspect in a robbery of 101 kilos of gold from Chinatown godfather Yan (Jin Shijie), was found murdered in his workshop. The local police chief (Chalee Immak) has told his two rival detectives – super-gungho Huang Landeng (Chen He) and super-sleazy Kuntai (Xiao Yang) – that the first one to find the killer will be promoted to deputy section head. Huang Landeng suspects Tang Ren is the killer, as his fingerprints are all over the murder weapon (an iron vajra) and CCTV footage shows he was the only person to enter the workshop around the time of the murder. Kuntai, however, is a pal of Tang Ren, so is not so convinced. After escaping from the police, Tang Ren and Qin Feng are captured by Yan’s men, led by The Northerner (Xiao Shen Yang), who think Tang Ren has stolen the gold. The pair manage to escape and take refuge in the house of Xiang (Tong Liya), Tang Ren’s landlady, but are discovered there by Yan’s men as well as by Huang Landeng and Kuntai. After escaping again, Tang Ren tells Qin Feng that, on the night of the murder, he got a call from someone to collect a box from Sompat’s workshop and to leave it next to a white van in an underground car park; he didn’t know what was in it, and Sompat was still alive when he gave him the box. Qin Feng promises Tang Ren he will solve the mystery, which turns out to be far more complicated than anyone imagines.

REVIEW

After his vignette-ish Valentine’s Day movie, Beijing Love Story 北京爱情故事 (2014), actor-singer-writer-director Chen Sicheng 陈思诚, 38, makes a 90-degree turn with his second feature, Detective Chinatown 唐人街探案, a corkscrew-plotted locked-room mystery overlaid with a thick topping of manic comedy on the streets of Bangkok. With Wang Baoqiang 王宝强 in hyper-goofball mode, and the rest of the cast not far behind, this could easily be mistaken for another wacko outing of Chinese behaving badly abroad, a kind of Lost in Thailand 2. In fact, it’s a long way from that, though it has to be said that what writer-director Xu Zheng 徐峥 got so badly wrong in his recent Lost in Hong Kong 港囧 (2015) – plotting, screen chemistry, real belly-laughs – Chen gets strikingly right in Chinatown. Despite its cartoony style, the film works first and foremost as a cleverly plotted whodunit, with the bonus of likeable characters underneath all the mugging.

The gold-digging crime comedy has become a sub-genre of its own in Mainland cinema during the past decade, and Chinatown is basically a subset of it, framed within a traditional, western-style locked-room mystery. The script throws in passing references to other crime-puzzle writers – from Arthur Conan Doyle and Ellery Queen to the lesser-known Jacques Futrelle and Shogo Utano 歌野晶午 – and one of the leads is a young detective-fiction fan with a photographic memory. But apart from that it doesn’t obsess about the plot-solving mechanics to an extent that they get in the way of the characters. Most important for a whodunit, the story does make sense by the end, and in a way that’s also emotionally satisfying, going down some unexpectedly dark alleyways.

The basic plot is simple. After failing to get into the police academy, a shy young fan of detective fiction is sent on holiday to Bangkok, to stay with a distant cousin who’s reputed to be the top detective in Chinatown. In fact, he’s a dissolute scumbag running a dodgy one-man detective agency; but as soon as he arrives, the young guy becomes involved in a mysterious murder involving some stolen gold in which the cousin is actually the chief suspect.

From his first scene, as he meets the shy Qin Feng (Liu Haoran 刘浩然, the high-school lover in Beijing Love Story) at the airport and takes him straight to a girly bar, Wang is full on as the sleazy, giggly, hyperactive Tang Ren, with a spot-on impersonation of the Cantonese accent of Hong Kong comedian Zeng Zhiwei 曾志伟 [Eric Tsang] that will automatically resonate with Mainland audiences. Sensibly, Wang keeps the idea fresh by dropping or modifying it at key moments, in the same way as Tang Ren’s manic nature.

A character actor rather than a leading man, Wang is at his best when he’s part of a strong ensemble rather than having to carry a film on his own. Basically a straight man for Wang’s chatter-patter, Liu is bland as the young cousin, only developing some personality near the end. But Wang has plenty of extrovert performances he can bounce off of. Chief among them is Chen He 陈赫 (the writer in Love on the Cloud 微爱之渐入佳境, 2014; the youngest son in Everybody’s Fine 一切都好, 2016) as a gung-ho police detective in cowboy attire who’s obsessed with finding the killer before his sleazy colleague (actor-director Xiao Yang 肖央, as a Thai Chinese). Also in the frame are a glammed-down Tong Liya 佟丽娅 (Chen’s actress wife) as Tang Ren’s no-nonsense landlady and partly disguised comedian Xiao Shen Yang 小沈阳 as a gangster’s heavy. In one wittily choreographed scene, Taiwan veteran Jin Shijie 金士杰 shows up as a ruthless Chinatown boss from whom the gold was stolen. And in a late-developing, more serious thread, 15-year-old Zhang Zifeng 张子枫 (the female lead’s younger self in My Old Classmate 同桌的妳, 2014) makes an impression.

As he shuffles his oversized characters around, Chen isn’t afraid to go for a good old-fashioned belly-laugh, and the action has a goofy, cartoony quality that isn’t reliant on high-tech effects. (In fact, it’s so low-tech that Tang Ren’s habit of grabbing characters’ testicles instead of really fighting them becomes a running joke, neatly playing on the audience’s knowledge that actor Wang is actually a skilful martial artist.) But after all the running around has finished, Chinatown remains an actors’ and writers’ film, with the fruity dialogue relished by the cast, characters allowed to evolve over time, and the location’s street-life seeping into the performances.

The saturated colours by d.p. Du Jie 杜杰 – whose work has always has a realistic edge – parallel the richly ambient soundtrack of street sounds. Scoring by American Chinese composer Wang Zongxian 王宗贤 [Nathan Wang] is always spot-on, whether jokey, dramatic or actionful. And when visual effects are employed they have a distinct purpose – as in a clever sequence, 85 minutes in, when Qin Feng walks Tang Ren through what really happened the night of the murder.

At almost two-and-a-quarter hours, the film could lose 20 minutes overall; but thanks to the slick, on-the-beat editing by Hong Kong’s Chen Zhiwei [Andy Chan] (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons 西游  降魔篇, 2013; So Young 致我们终将逝去的青春, 2013), the momentum never stalls and it’s always good fun. A follow-up, reportedly set in the US, is already in the works for release at the end of 2016, and Chen Sicheng has the story for a third film set in Japan.

CREDITS

Presented by Wanda Media (CN), Shanghai Shine Asia Film Culture Media (CN). Produced by Wanda Media (CN), Shanghai Shine Asia Film Culture Media (CN).

Script: Chen Sicheng, Cheng Jiake, Liu Kai, Bai He. Photography: Du Jie. Editing: Chen Zhiwei [Andy Chan]. Music: Wang Zongxian [Nathan Wang]. Production design: Li Miao. Art direction: Xu Xiaolong. Costume design: Luo Peisha. Styling: Zhang Shijie [Stanley Cheung]. Sound: Dong Xu, Zhang Jia. Action: Wu Gang. Car stunts: Wu Haitang. Visual effects: Kim Seong-tae (Mofac & Alfred). Executive direction: Qiu Zhongwei.

Cast: Wang Baoqiang (Tang Ren), Liu Haoran (Qin Feng), Chen He (Huang Landeng, police detective), Tong Liya (Xiang, Tang Ren’s landlady), Xiao Yang (Kuntai/Kon Tai, police detective), Xiao Shen Yang (The Northerner, Yan’s enforcer), Pan Yueming (Li, Snow’s stepfather), Ma Yuke (Tony, Huang Landeng’s sidekick), Zhao Yingjun (The Vietnamese, Yan’s enforcer), Zhang Zifeng (Snow, Li’s stepdaughter), Sang Ping (King Kong, Yan’s enforcer), Jin Shijie (Yan), Da Peng (police academy male interviewer), Zhang Guoqiang (Qin Feng’s father), Chen Zhixi (police academy female interviewer), Pan Binlong (dentist), Zhang Dada (coffee-house waiter), Yang Chunhui (Qin Feng’s grandmother), Li Gaoji, Chao Kun (Kon Tai’s assistants), Jiang Shiyou, Zhang Yukun, Li Mingze (Huang Landeng’s asssistants), Wang Kun, Wu Lei, Yang Yuhong (big guys), Dai Mo (groom), Ye Qing (bride), Lin Muran (young Qin Feng), Cheng Jiake (forensic scientist), Chalee Immak (police chief), Eakachai Thamma (Sompat), Wattana Koomkrong (Wang, grandma), Thanakit Saimaya (sailor).

Release: China, 31 Dec 2015.