Proving conclusively, as with “Diary,” that Oxide Pang can deliver a much better mix of style and substance when not helming in tandem with his brother Danny, “The Detective” is a quirky neo-noir that pretty much goes the distance until a wobbly final reel. Held together by a strong perf from Aaron Kwok as the C-grade flatfoot of the (Chinese) title, pic is unlikely to make much impression in Western ancillary due to its relative shortage of splashy action. Released late last year in Hong Kong, it’s more atmospheric, semi-arty fare for festival sidebars.
Hong Kong pin-up Kwok, who’s rapidly become a “serious” actor since starring in Patrick Tam’s “After This Our Exile,” shows a nice blend of toughness and puzzlement as Tam, a down-at-heel private dick in Bangkok’s Chinatown. After being hired by Lung (Sing Fui-on) to find a young woman, Sum (Natthasinee Pinyopiyavid), whom Lung claims wants to kill him, Tam finds the body of a businessman swinging from the ceiling in an apartment Sum once occupied.
With help from local Thai cop Chak (Liu Kai-chi), Tam follows a fuzzy trail via the businessman’s wife (Kiki Sheung) and one of his lovers (Jo Koo) to a group of mahjong players involved in a stock-buying ring. But as the corpses mount, a by now very confused Tam finds himself also a target.
The central joke of the movie is that Tam, despite taking his job very seriously, is not actually a very good detective, stumbling through the case and generally causing his cop friend a lot of grief.
Neither Pang nor Kwok treat Tam as an overtly comic figure, though there’s a strain of black humor in the way he seems blissfully unaware of the boxes he’s opening in his dogged investigation (even narrowly avoiding a falling refrigerator in one almost Tati-esque sequence). Most of the plot, in fact, is revealed through flashback or directly to the audience at the end, rather than, in true noir style, via the main character’s deductions or integrated scripting.
Though pic is relatively low-key for a Pang production, fancy editing jazzes up several sequences and cranked-up music is used at key moments of action or fear. Final reels, which try to blend in a traumatic development from Tam’s childhood, and also stray into a ghost story, do jump the rails.
Bleached colors and an overall green-brown hue give the pic an abstract feel, divorced from modern-day Bangkok, that’s impressive. For the record, pic may be the first to feature a car chase in which an elephant plays a key role.