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Detective Chinatown
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by Jay Seaver

"Big trouble in a different little China."
4 stars

"Detective Chinatown" inevitably runs head-on into the biggest problem screwball mysteries face - it is extremely difficult to take both your slapstick comedy and murder investigation seriously in the same story - but manages to be impressively entertaining on the way. It's got some issues, but it's a good buddy comedy whose maker seems to like the mystery elements more than most.

It starts by introducing the audience to Qin Feng (Liu Haoran), a young man whose application to the police academy in Shanghai is denied when he appears to choke during his final interview. The grandmother who raised him suggests a week in Bangkok, where he can observe his third cousin twice removed Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang), supposedly a top detective in the city's Chinatown, but actually a low-rent P.I./con artist more interested in playing Mahjongg and peeping on his pretty landlord Xiang (Tong Liya) than solving cases. He may not have much choice but to get to the bottom of a mystery when he's implicated in both the theft of 100kg of gold and the murder of one of the crew members involved, with two police detectives ("Michael" Chen He & Xiao Yang) vying to catch Yang first and secure a promotion.

Wang Baoqiang became one of China's biggest stars on the strength of characters much like Tang Ren, although that sort of frantic dim-bulb character can become irritating when promoted to a lead role. That makes seeing this one up as a buddy comedy a good idea, as Liu Haoran's depressive, stammering, upright Qin Feng is an obvious counter to Wang's frantic Tang. Liu gives Wang room to mug and be wacky until it's time to do the Sherlock Holmes stuff, rolling his eyes on the audiences behalf. They arguably split "protagonist" and "star" duties, giving the movie a nice sort of back-and-forth energy so that writer/director Chen Sicheng can give a good chunk of time to both the comedy and mystery parts of the film without anything feeling shortchanged or the whole thing being stretched.

Part of what keeps the film moving is that the spring cast is funny all around as well. Xiao Yang and "Michael" Chen He are equally ridiculous as the slick and slobby detectives, with the former getting a lot of the best material with his cowboy accouterments and repeated slapstick bits that must leave the character's nose comedy flat by the end of the movie. The crooks played by Xiao Shengyang, Sang Ping, and Zhao Yingjun bicker well and also play well as part of some amusing door-slamming farce, with Tong Liya enough of an asset on that count that one can almost see the filmmakers working hard to find more ways to include her. Chen does well to make sure that almost every character in a comedy has a chance to make the audience laugh, although some - notably Zhang Zifeng as a teenage girl who fits into the story somehow and Chalee Immak as the chief of police (and about the only Thai character beside the victim of any note in this Bangkok-set movie) - mostly do it by riffing on movie tropes.

They riff with respect, though - while many movies like Detective Chinatown are looking to spoof the mystery genre, Chen seems genuinely fine of it. He'll have a character note that they've got a locked-room mystery to solve and then put together a good locked-room mystery rather than goof on how it's often a silly subgenre. He winks at the audience a bit by citing his sources toward the end, but they're such a broad international group (including Japanese, French, and Eastern European authors) that mystery fans might be more apt to Google the names dropped rather than just nod along. Sherlock Holmes, specifically the BBC's modernized series Sherlock, is obviously a big influence, but Chen handles the bits where Qin is searching his mind and making connections well; it's fun to watch.

Of course, combining a murder mystery with a slapstick comedy means that there are inevitable moments when they don't mix, and the last act has a fair number of scenes that will likely have viewers raising their eyebrows and thinking that things certainly got dark in a hurry (especially since Chen keeps going down that path even when the film could be done). There are also a few action bits that are pretty good but could perhaps have been a bit better, though to be fair I was watching from a second row that is really too close. And as much as I like the idea for potential sequels that the epilogue hints at, it's also one of the more gratuitous examples of in-film advertising you'll see.

That aside, I would like to see these guys solving more mysteries in other Chinatowns around the world; Liu and Wang are a fun pairing and Chen really seems to be having a lot of fun with the genre. That I came out thinking along those lines marks the movie as a success, whether or not It was a big enough hit in China for that to happen.

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originally posted: 01/19/16 14:21:30
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  15-Jan-2015 (15)

  15-Jan-2016 (M)

Directed by
  Sicheng Chen

Written by
  Sicheng Chen

  Baoqiang Wang
  Haoran Liu
  He Chen
  Liya Tong
  Yang Xiao

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