Two very different men square off in the race to find a precious Buddha head and reclaim their family honour in an old-fashioned tomb raiding mystery from Derek Kwok, Schemes in Antiques (古董局中局, gǔdǒng jú zhōngjú). The key to the future seems to lie in the past as the heroes approach from opposing sides, one keen to expose a truth and the other seemingly to conceal it but both otherwise unable to escape a problematic family history and be rehabilitated as a member of one of the top five antiquing families in the China of 1992.
Now a middle-aged drunkard, down on his luck Xu Yuan (Lei Jiayin) lays the blame for his present circumstances solely with his immediate forbears. A member of the Plum Blossom Five, five families who are the ultimate authorities on the authenticity of historical artefacts, Xu Yuan’s grandfather was executed as a traitor during the war for having gifted a precious Buddha head to the Japanese. In a fairly traumatic childhood, Yuan was abandoned by his his dad whom he believes to have been too badly damaged by seeing his grandfather die to be any sort of father while somehow even kids his own age called him scum in the streets because of the shame his grandfather’s transgression had placed on the family. Now running an electronics store which is in its way the opposite of antiques, Yuan has a fairly cynical view of the artefacts trade but is dragged back into it when the granddaughter of the Japanese soldier who received the Buddha head (Lili Matsumoto) insists on returning it to a direct descendent of the Xu family.
Perhaps surprisingly, the issue isn’t really with the Japanese but the current status of the Buddha head which, after a duel of detection with well dressed rival Yao Buran (Li Xian) who is also trying to redeem his family honour, Yuan quickly realises is a fake suggesting his grandfather wasn’t really a traitor after all while giving rise to the question of what actually happened to the “real” one. When it comes to the antiques trade, perhaps there’s a question mark over the degree to which “authenticity”, whatever that might mean, really matters and if all the Plum Blossom Five are really doing is attempting to assert their authority over an unruly market as the accusation that one head of family in particular has long been knowingly authenticating fakes when it suits them to do so bears out. In something of a plot hole, Yuan is revealed to be an antiques expert despite having been abandoned by his father at a young age but his ability is for some problematic even if admired by his main rival in its ability to expose the hidden truth or as the film later puts it the real within the fake.
In any case, it’s true enough that the battles of the past are still being fought by the grandchildren of those who started what they couldn’t finish. Yuan is joined in his quest by the feisty granddaughter of another Plum Blossom family (Xin Zhilei) who is also battling her grandfather’s sexism in his refusal to trust her with anything important in the antiques trade. She and Yuan end up squaring off against Yao who is largely playing his own game as they embark on a good old-fashioned treasure hunt in which they solve a series of puzzles set down by Yuan’s father to lead them towards the truth.
Discovering another father figure along the way, Yuan learns to accept his complicated legacy while redeeming his family honour and along with it his self worth in outsmarting just about everyone else to solve the final mystery. There is something refreshingly innocent in these well constructed, defiantly analogue puzzles which rely on cultural knowledge and mental acumen along with a spirit of curiosity, while there’s also a fair amount of running away from bad guys and escaping from collapsing tombs filled with artefacts that might in a sense be cursed even if not quite literally. There are definitely a lot of schemes in antiques, something of which Yuan himself takes full advantage, but they’re also in their own way pieces of a puzzle in which the fakes are less red herrings than gentle pointers towards other truths some of them buried under layers of subterfuge and obfuscation only to be dragged into the light by those with dangerously curious minds.
Schemes in Antiques streams in the US Sept. 10 – 16 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
International trailer (English subtitles)