Devotion of Suspect X, The (2017)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/05/17 09:56:21
(Worth A Look)
Like Agatha Christie’s "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" and "Murder on the Orient Express", Keigo Higashino’s novel "The Devotion of Suspect X" made the jump from being one entry in a detective series to being a definitive piece of genre work, the sort whose story is immediately memorable even though a lot of mysteries can run together, although few mysteries of that sort are as memorable for their characterization as they are for the puzzles. This Chinese film is the third time the story has hit the screen - there are Japanese and Korean versions, with an Indian television series coming and an American film in development - and while I haven’t seen the others to rate this one in relation to them, it’s a quality mystery, worth a trip to whatever theater in your city shows Chinese movies.For those unfamiliar with the story, it is the latest case for Luo Miao-shen (Ye Zuxin) and Tang Chuan (Wang Kai), the former a detective in the Jiangbei police department, the latter a physicist who consults on cases suspected to involve “high-IQ offenders”. That doesn’t seem to fit Chen Jing (Ruby Lin Xin-ru), a prime suspect in the death of her lousy gambler of an ex-husband Fu Jian (Zhao Yang), but it may very well apply to Shi Hong (Zhang Luyi), who lives next door, eats at Jing’s snack bar every day and teaches math at the elementary school her daughter Xioaxin (Deng Enxi) attends. He is, however, more than he appears, a brilliant mathematician who, when they were younger, went to school with Tang, the pair challenging each other to solve increasingly difficult brain-teasers.
I don’t know how much Higashino’s “Galileo” novels function as brain-teasers versus character studies, but this Chinese adaptation slots in somewhere between those two poles, tone-wise. Su and screenwrier Xu Jia-peng reveal who killed Fu Jian fairly early, and that lets them give the focus to how the characters play off each other, letting how Tang, Shi, the Chens, and an amiable enough fellow who has long been fond of Chen Jing bounce off each other without the audience having to discount what they are seeing and thus holding their reactions at arm’s length. There are still bits to figure out - the filmmakers don’t immediately spill details that don’t necessarily matter - but they feel kind of like side-issues, things that will reflect what’s going on at the center of the story but which the audience doesn’t need to know in order to appreciate the main question of just what kind of man Shi Hong is.
Despite that focus, the film often plays like the latest puzzle-mystery for a super-sleuth, with Tang running about, squinting at the problem, explaining things to an amiable Watson while affording the audience the pleasures of facts rightly or wrongly fitting into place, although always pointing up that for all its detective's forensic acumen, this case is ultimately about psychology and motivation. Su builds a few impressive sequences, starting with the very beginning when an excellent montage shows just how quietly Shi Hong can pass through a humdrum, routine life, though he wavers a bit when he moves into more straightforward thriller territory. Mostly, Su plays the dueling expectations off each other well, letting the procedural bits create a professional tone to which the creepy tale of obsession can yield and vice versa.
Even if one is not necessarily familiar with these detectives in any of their incarnations, there’s something reassuringly familiar about the way Wang Kai plays Tang; the smirk may rub one the wrong way personally but it assures us that someone feels confident about solving difficult cases rather than feeling paralyzed by the horror of it all. Wang perhaps plays the part as more businesslike than is perhaps ideal - it’s easy to imagine takes where the detective sees himself more clearly reflected in his old friend - but he wrestles with the conflict well enough when the film lets him, and pulls the audience along the rest of the time. Ruby Lin and Deng Enxi are enjoyably effective as the mother and daughter pulled into this situation, sympathetic types who still show how frightening it must all be. But, of course, the movie will inevitably rest on Zhang Luyi as Shi Hong, and while his performance can sometimes seem as heightened as Wang’s, that provides a sort of symmetry. At his best, though, Zhang gives the audience a glimpse into the head of a man who doesn’t much like his disconnection and amorality even if he doesn’t really understand the implications of getting past it. It leads to a protagonist who grows on the viewer even if liking him is not necessarily in the cards.It's not a perfect version of the tale - I'm eager to read the book and see the Japanese and Korean films (as well as a planned American version) to see if they handle little bits that seem off better. It does seem like it’s a good one, with fine work by Zhang and Su in particular. Even if the title doesn’t ring the bells that it perhaps should, for mystery fans at least, this is a solid twist on the conventional murder mystery in its own right.
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