Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Chen Sicheng, 2015)

detective chinatown posterCrime 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, Tángrénj 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…


Currently available to stream in the UK & US via Amazon Prime Video.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Heartfall Arises (惊天破 / 驚心破, Ken Wu Pinru, 2016)

Sean Lau Ching-wan and Nicholas Tse are together again after being denied the opportunity to reteam for a sequel to the acclaimed The Bullet Vanishes but if Heartfall Arises (Mainland China – 惊天破  / HK – 驚心破) was intended to repeat the successful buddy cop pulp of Bullet it sadly fails. A very modern tale of chess playing genius detectives, Heartfall Arises tantalises with some bizarre B-movie antics but remains intent on becoming this year’s big arthouse leaning crime thriller. Unfortunately Wu’s highly stylised approach, though often impressive, only serves to highlight the weaknesses inherent in the film’s construction.

Taking the lead this time, Tse plays snappy dresser and maverick cop John Ma who, when we first meet him, is busy giving a chess lesson to a little boy on a park bench while the rest of the Hong Kong police department is hot on the trail of a serial killer, The General (Gao Weiguang), who’s been targeting “evil” corporate big wigs. Ma wades in to save the day but, tragically, he and the killer are caught in a face-off in which both fire their guns at the same time with Ma securing a headshot only to be shot in the heart. Luckily Ma is saved by medical science thanks to a heart transplant from, you guessed it, The General.

Whilst in the hospital Ma meets police psychoanalyst, Calvin Che (Sean Lau Ching-wan), who (besides being another chess expert) has a theory about cell memory and the possibility that personality traits can be inherited through organ transplant. Ma has been relegated to desk work since returning to the police force but gets a chance to return to active duty when a spate of incidents occur eerily mimicking The General’s crime spree. Could his new heart really help them catch a killer, or will Ma too find himself crossing the line from law enforcement to vigilante avenger?

Though the personality transplant logic sets us up for a series of silly B-movie shenanigans, the idea is never treated with anything less than total seriousness. Thus when Ma realises that he suddenly likes spicy food we’re supposed to be worried – doubly so when he starts having visions of a pretty girl he doesn’t know frolicking on a romantic beach, especially as his nice doctor girlfriend has already gone out of her way to tell us she doesn’t mind very much about Ma’s new tastebuds. Figuring out the girl becomes key but, it seems, Ma is incorruptible when it comes to love making this particular drama ally a dead end.

Drama is where Heartfall Arises truly flatlines. Despite having played such a large part in the success of The Bullet Vanishes, Tse and Lau never generate the same kind of chemistry which made their previous collaboration so enjoyable. Both characters are hugely underwritten with Tse bundled into expensive looking fashionable outfits proving a mismatch with his cerebral policeman persona whereas Lau sports a scrabbly chin beard more in keeping with a hipster hacker than an uptight shrink. The cardinal sin is that Heartfall Arises actually pinches one of its central twists from The Bullet Vanishes but does it so clumsily as to completely undermine everything which has gone before.

Heartfall Arises wouldn’t be the first Hong Kong thriller to get away with a nonsensical plot but its relentless pretentiousness robs it of the possibility of escaping rigour through style. Slickly shot, Wu aims for a swanky, upscale noir from the well appointed office blocks to fancy apartments and Ma’s strangely dapper attire but the elite cops vibe remains decidedly low stakes as Ma and Che swap philosophical quotes and talk chess until the potentially explosive finale. A buggy chase in Thailand proves particularly unexciting as Wu fails to make the action scenes compensate for the weakness of the plot, and though he has some intriguing visual ideas they’re often ones which don’t serve the film. Taking itself far too seriously, Heartfall Arises would be more fun if it allowed itself to revel in the ridiculousness of its premise but becomes far too caught up looking at itself in the mirror to notice that the villain has escaped by grapple gun and taken the audience’s suspension of disbelief with him.


HK Trailer (English subtitles)