A budding Chinese Sherlock Holmes meets his dumbass Watson in Bangkok and solves a locked-room murder in singer-actor-director Chen Sicheng’s “Detective Chinatown,” a carefully constructed mystery that blends screechy comedy and crazed action in high-spirited but somewhat ungainly fashion. This eclectic genre mash-up reps quite a novelty in mainland Chinese commercial cinema, and its instant success points to further opportunities for cerebral, plot-driven concepts to be injected into crowdpleasing hits. The pic fetched about $71.4 million in a week against stiff New Year holiday competition, and will likely spur local imitations.
Given its Thai setting and the casting of action-comedian Wang Baoqiang (“Kung Fu Jungle”), the film appears to encourage associations with “Lost in Thailand,” China’s second highest-grossing domestic film, which also starred Wang. In fact, this turns out to be a very different specimen, veering away from the road-movie and buddy-comedy formats in favor of a more thoughtfully plotted crime saga, with clues and twists built into a seemingly ad hoc caper. While Hong Kong helmer Lo Chi-leung’s “The Bullet Vanishes” and “The Murderer Vanishes” have set a precedent for Chinese period detective mysteries with a Holmesian touch, screenwriters Cheng Jiake, Liu Kai and Bai He seem to have hit on a different formula with “Detective Chinatown,” whose contempo foreign setting and jokey vibe will prove more palatable for mainland audiences.
Unlike “Lost in Thailand” and innumerable other Chinese films set overseas, the production doesn’t linger on touristy sights. Free from the censorship issues that come with a domestic setting, Chen burrows deep into the teeming, seamy environs of Charoen Krung Road, a world of goofy, inept cops and gender-bending sexuality.
After failing to get into police academy, mystery-novel maniac Qin Feng (Liu Haoran, who starred in Chen’s sappy debut, “Beijing Love Story”) is sent by his grandmother on a vacation to Thailand. Hungry for field experience, Qin looks up distant cousin Tang Ren (Wang), apparently a super-cop who rules Bangkok’s Chinatown. To his dismay, Tang turns out to be a dirtbag mahjong junkie renting a shoebox from foxy landlady Ah Jiao (Chen’s wife, Tong Liya, “The Taking of Tiger Mountain”). A mere underling of seedy police sergeant Kon Tai (Xiao Yang), Tang is caught in the crossfire of his boss’s rivalry with another cop, the big-headed Huang Landeng (Chen He, looking ridiculous in cowboy outfit and goatee). Worse still, when Sompat, the suspect in a gold robbery, is found murdered, forensic evidence points to Tang as the culprit.
As Qin reluctantly goes on the run with the hapless loser, their escapade triggers broad farce and clunky physical gambits. Qin being a brainiac, all theory and no experience, one would expect him to complement a streetwise veteran a la “The Heat” and other odd-couple action-adventures. Instead, the screenplay revels in presenting Tang as a half-wit who couldn’t find a clue if it slapped him in the face. He’s no good at fighting, either, unless you count jabbing his adversaries in the crotch — a vulgar gimmick that the film replays again and again. Similarly, Kon and Huang engage in rowdy slapstick that just riffs on the same gags, such as Huang getting his nose hurt in all manner of smash-ups and fisticuffs.
The gallery of distracting supporting characters is further cluttered by Sompat’s cohorts (Xiao Shenyang, Zhao Yingjun, Sang Ping) who pursue Tang in order to locate the lost gold. Like most mainland crime capers, “Detective Chinatown” channels Ning Hao’s “Crazy Stones” in portraying its villains as bumbling stooges gabbing in thick regional accents. As the bozos converge for a hide-and-seek sequence at Ah Jiao’s house, they indulge in so much yelling, stomping around and hammy acting that the tension almost comes to a standstill.
After well over an hour, the zigzagging narrative finally hits its stride as Qin digs up Sompat’s past, luring them down more rabbit holes. Only then does the film immerse itself in the atmosphere of its Thai locations, as when the protags befriend Thai-Chinese schoolgirl Snow (Zhang Zifeng) in a dingy tenement reminiscent of T-horror movies like the “Rahtree” series, or when they hear campy yet menacing Chinatown honcho (Chin Shi-chieh) belt out a ’70s Mandopop hit in his sleazy nightclub. Suspense kicks in as Qin applies his deductive powers and laser-like observation to unravel a conspiracy more sophisticated than meets the eye. Allowing for some suspension of disbelief, the various strands are tied up in a surprisingly neat way.
With his pretty alabaster face, 18-year-old Liu has carved himself a niche as the sleuth prodigy — a role deeply ingrained in Japanese manga like “Young Kindaichi” or “Detective Conan,” but still relatively unexplored in mainland cinema (“Young Detective Dee” being the closest parallel). His pitch, flat by mainland standards, provides welcome downtime from the cast’s histrionics. Flaunting a fake tan and speaking Mandarin with a pseudo-Cantonese accent, Tang is made all the more irritating by Wang, who twitches and bounces around excitably in every scene. Uighur beauty Tong looks lovely in flimsy tropical dresses but doesn’t convince as a natural flirt.
Even as it captures the town’s shabby side, Li Miao’s production design boasts a lushly desaturated retro look that may have been inspired by Oxide Pang’s’ noirish “The Detective” trilogy, which also took place in Bangkok’s Chinatown. (Despite its setting, Chen’s film shows no interest whatsoever in exploring Thai-Chinese culture.) Nathan Wong’s score is bright and brassy, cheekily referencing vintage Mandopop songs. Other craft contributions are less competent, especially Tang Hongjia and Wang Nan’s editing, which skips some crucial beats and unnecessarily prolongs others. Wu Gang’s action choreography is completely devoid of grace or visual flair.
The Chinese title means “Chinatown Crime Investigation,” echoing the title character’s nickname, “Chinatown” (as the name “Tang Ren” puns with “Chinaman”).