Crime exists everywhere, but so do detectives. When one young man fails his police exams because of an unfortunate impediment, he seeks refuge abroad only to find himself on a busman’s holiday when the relative he’s been sent to stay with turns out to be not quite so much of a big shot as he claimed and then gets himself named prime suspect in a murder. Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Tángrénjiē Tàn Àn) is one among many diaspora movies which find themselves shifting between a Chinese community existing to one side of mainland culture, and a mainland mentality. This time the setting is Bangkok but second time director Chen Sicheng is careful not to surrender to stereotype whilst also taking a subtle dig at men like uncle Tang Ren who can unironically refer to Thailand as a paradise while indulging in many of the aspects which might leave other residents with much more ambivalent emotions.
Qin (Liu Haoran), a young man with a fierce love of detective fiction, has his dreams shattered when his interview to get into the police academy is derailed by his stammer and an unwise tendency towards reckless honesty. His doting grandma who raised him suggests Qin take a holiday to take his mind off things by going to stay with his uncle who is, apparently, a hot shot detective in Bangkok – Qin might even get some valuable experience whilst thinking about a plan B. Sadly, uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) has been sending big fish stories back home for years and though he claims to be the best PI in Chinatown, he’s really a petty marketplace fixer with a bad mahjong habit and a side hustle in “finding” lost dogs. When Tang Ren accepts an errand to transport a statue from a workshop, he accidentally finds himself the prime suspect in the murder of the sculptor who is himself the prime suspect in a heist of some now very missing gold. Qin, tainted by association, vows to use his awesome detective skills to find the real killer (and the gold) to clear his uncle’s name whilst generally serving justice and protecting the innocent.
Despite the fact his secret is clearly about to be exposed, Tang Ran greets his long lost relative with immense enthusiasm (which is, as it turns out, how he does everything). Wang Baoqiang commits absolutely to Tang Ren’s cynical good humour attacking his larger than life personality with gusto though one has to wonder why Qin’s poor unsuspecting grandma thought Tang Ren would be a good guardian for her teenage grandson, especially as his first act is to take him to a strip club and spike what might actually be the first real drink of his life. Qin, quiet (that stammer) and introspective, is not a good fit for the loud and brassy world of insincerity his uncle inhabits, but forced into some very challenging situations, the two men eventually manage to combine their respective strengths into a (hilariously) efficient crime fighting team.
Meanwhile, Qin and Tang Ren are also contending with some serious political shenanigans in the local police department. Two Chinese cops are currently vying for a promotion and the job has been promised to whichever of them manages to identify the murderer and locate the missing gold. Luckily or unluckily, cop 1 – Kuntai (Xiao Yang), is a good friend of Tang Ren’s and doesn’t want to believe he is secretly some kind of criminal genius (but could well believe he killed a guy by mistake). Cop 2 (Chen He) is a hard-nosed (!) type who, for some reason, dresses like a cowboy and has a crush on Tang Ren’s landlady (Tong Liya) with whom Tang Ren is also in love. What this all amounts to is that everyone is stuck running circles around each other, trapped inside the wheel of farce, while the gold and the killer remain ever elusive.
Qin, finally beginning to overcome his stammer, puts some of his hard won detective nouse to the test and eventually figures out what’s going on but, by that point, he’s also warmed to his uncle enough to let him do the big drawing room speech. Filled with slapstick and absurd humour as it is, Detective Chinatown is also a finely constructed mystery with an internally consistent solution that offers both poignancy and a degree of unexpected darkness when the final revelations roll around. It is, however, the odd couple partnership between the sullen Qin (secretly embittered) and larger than life Tang Ren (secretly melancholy) that gives the film its winning charm, ensuring there will surely be more overseas adventures for these Chinatown detectives in years in to come…
Original trailer (English subtitles)