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)

The Monkey King 3 (西遊記女兒國, Cheang Pou-soi, 2018)

the monkey king 3 posterSun Wu Kong and his band of merry scripture seekers will face many challenges on their journey to the West, but none so dangerous as the poison of love! Aaron Kwok reprises his role as the titular Monkey King in the third of the ongoing series directed by Cheang Pou-soi (here credited as Soi Cheang) but steps back a few paces into a supporting role while noble hearted monk Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) takes centre stage to face the multifaceted dilemma of love and personal fulfilment vs the fulfilment of his quest to better the lives of all mankind. An age old problem, but one you can’t truly address until you have stake in the game.

Xuanzang, now returned and dressed in white, has a romantic destiny – something which makes him a little nervous as he happily sails along a picturesque river in the company of companions Wujing (Him Law) and Zhubajie (Xiaoshenyang) while Wu Kong (Aaron Kwok) flies along behind, apparently having mislaid his trousers somewhere along the way. All of a sudden the atmosphere darkens as the gang sail into a “demonic” area where they are attacked by a giant, whale-like river god and subsequently thrown into another dimension thanks to an intervention from the Goddess of Mercy (now played by Liu Tao in place of the series’ previous cameo from Kelly Chen).

The guys have inadvertently landed themselves in Womanland which is 100% man free. In fact men are illegal and to be executed on sight which is a bit of a problem seeing as it’s also impossible to leave. Not so much of a problem, however, as the strange moment which occurred between Xuanzang and the Queen of Womanland (Zhao Liying) as their eyes met during a near fatal fall from a cliff edge. Following the childish exuberance of the first film and the morbidly gothic horror of the second, it’s love which now threatens to derail our heroes’ quest and with it the possibility of salvation for all mankind.

Womanland was founded by a woman scorned who turned her back on faithless men forevermore, instructing her followers that men are selfish and duplicitous, that they lie to win the hearts of women which they later break in forsaking them for the next conquest. The holy scriptures of Womanland warn of the “poison of love” which is (usually, they say) spread from man to woman and leads to nothing but inescapable suffering. Foreswearing all romance (apparently there is no concept of romantic love in the all woman kingdom save the rumour that there was once a young woman who fell in love with a river she was never able to see) turns out not to be the best solution to the problem as we discover that all the ruckus in the world above is in someway caused by these repressed or denied emotions as well as by a failure to accept that sometimes feelings must be sacrificed in favour of greater responsibilities.

Whereas the second film pitted Wu Kong and Xuanzang against each other as advocates of compassion and rationality, this time Xuanzang must face a monk’s dilemma alone in deciding whether the love of one woman is equal to that of the whole of mankind. His choice is a forgone conclusion but serves to remind the monk that denying one’s true feelings is not the same as facing them and wilfully isolating oneself from possible suffering is not the same as overcoming it. The residents of Womanland discover something similar in the parallel journey of their embittered first minister (Gigi Leung) whose own unfulfilled romantic desires have made her cruel and vindictive only to be presented with another choice and find herself denying love for duty once again.

Duty, however, turns out to be warmer than it sounds – in Womanland, maternal love trumps the romantic, undercutting the otherwise progressive atmosphere of a society of women doing fine on their own with a return to maternity as central virtue of womanhood. Love is the force which threatens to undo carefully won civility (a “bourgeois affectation” as the more dogmatic definition would have it), but desire repressed rivals love scorned as a force to burn the world. Xuanzang has a choice to make, but the choice itself is not so important as the conscious act of choosing. Aside from a bizarre subplot featuring male pregnancy and forced abortion, Monkey King 3 makes a largely successful shift away from gung-ho adventuring into poignant romantic melodrama. With the gang en route to Fire Mountain, where will their journey take them next?


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion Film.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King 2 (西遊記之孫悟空三打白骨精, Cheang Pou-soi, 2016)

Monkey King 2 posterThe Monkey King returns! Again! This time it’s Aaron Kwok (who, confusingly enough, played the villain in the first film) picking up the staff of the titular hero for Cheang Pou-soi in place of martial arts star Donnie Yen but otherwise it’s business as usual for the mischievous Sun Wu Kong as he finally sets off on his journey to the west with the preliminaries already well sorted out. After 500 years trapped under a mountain, you’d think Wu Kong might have had some time to reflect on his behaviour but alas, there is still a very long journey ahead of him

So, 500 years after the end of the first film which saw Wu Kong imprisoned under Five Finger Mountain by the Goddess of Mercy, a young monk, Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng), gets himself into a sticky situation with a giant white tiger. Crawling into a crevice to hide, he finds himself face to face with Wu Kong who urges him to remove the magic tag which keeps him imprisoned. Xuanzang, little understanding what he’s letting himself in for, tugs on the tag. Wu Kong busts right out of his rocky cage and valiantly defeats the “evil demonic” tiger. Of course this is all in the grand plan envisioned by the Goddess (Kelly Chen) who has a mission for Wu Kong – escort Xuanzang to the West where he will find a set of scriptures which will unlock the truths of the world.

Monkey King 2 (西遊記之孫悟空三打白骨精) focusses on Wu Kong’s battle with the White Lady (AKA White Boned Demon, played by Gong Li) who has been nursing a deep and incurable grudge for even longer than Wu Kong was trapped under that mountain. Like Wu Kong, the White Lady was rejected by her own kind, blamed for something that wasn’t her fault and cast out as a demon to be pecked to death by vultures all alone on a rocky outcrop. You can understand why she’d be upset, but rather than an end to her suffering the White Lady wants only immortality to indulge her grudge still further. Unfortunately for Wu Kong, she has taken a fancy to Xuanzang who she thinks would make quite the tasty snack and help her live forever as a demon rather than die as a hated human – one of those who has so badly wronged her.

Wu Kong serves the Goddess of Mercy but his primary motivation in accompanying Xuanzang is to get the metal tiara he’s wearing taken off so he can misbehave again. Nevertheless, through their journey Wu Kong develops deep respect for the goodhearted monk even if they do not always see eye to eye. Wu Kong whose fiery eyes see one kind truth can recognise a “demon” when he sees one and his hardheartedness means he has no trouble killing them on sight. Xuanzang by contrast sees with his heart and is constantly troubled by Wu Kong’s desire for violence even if it’s in his name. Wu Kong sees Xuanzang’s philosophy of love and forgiveness as naive and prefers to be proactive in the face of danger (his fiery eyes do, after all, ensure he is “right” when comes to identifying demons), but Xuanzang worries that Wu Kong’s unforgiving heart creates only more suffering in a world already overflowing with negative emotions and their unfortunate effects.

It is, however, the Monkey King who is on a journey here – away from selfish mischief and towards a more responsible use of his vast powers. Wu Kong is tempted by the White Lady, seductively played by Gong Li with a strangely alluring quality of malevolence. Yet for all that (when all that sometimes means eating innocent monks and being suspected of drinking the blood children), the White Lady is not completely unsympathetic and Xuanzang’s desire to save her admirable in his commitment to lifting those in pain out of their dark places even if it comes at great personal cost to himself.

Kwok makes for a less cartoonish Monkey King than Yen, embracing the impulsivity of the unpredictable Wu Kong but also capturing something of his complicated emotional landscape as he finds himself drawing closer to Xuanzang’s way of thinking only to rebel against himself. Learning from the mistakes of the first film, Cheang ends the headache inducing sugar rush in favour of a more normal Chinese fantasy aesthetic while also ensuring the (still frequent use of) CGI is of a much better (if imperfect) quality. All in all, the second venture of the Monkey King can be counted a success which is fortunate indeed because his journey is far from over.


Original trailer (English subtitles)