Forget it, Jake.
For a movie that is well over two hours long, it dispenses with one part of its premise very quickly. Qin Feng is a young man who hopes to enter the Criminal Police College. Erm…that name has troubling implications, but whatever. In any case, he is being questioned by a group of people and one of them asks him why he wants to attend the college. It is a pretty straightforward question that one would expect to get, yet he has trouble answering.
Cut to him moping in his bedroom while his grandmother tries to assure him that he can try again next year. In the meantime, she has bought him a round-trip ticket to Thailand, so he can spend a week vacationing with Tang Ren, his…uh…great-aunt’s husband’s cousin’s wife’s nephew. His third cousin, once removed. Sure. She says that he is the Number One Detective in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Those two scenes comprised a total of thirty-four seconds.
Chinatown’s Number One Detective is “singing” in a karaoke bar when he receives a call about a missing grandson. He…oh, that is the end of that scene. Okay, whatever.
Police sergeant Huang Landeng and his team are staking out a workshop in the middle of the night. Or, they were, when Huang decides that they should go in, guns out, looking for gold, only to find a dead man in a chair. Well, more cops arrive to examine the murder while the original team continue searching for the gold, unsuccessfully; it isn’t there. And if things are not bad enough, here comes sergeant Kon Tsai and his team, determined to take Huang’s case from him.
It is the middle of the day. Tang Ren is playing Mahjong…and winning. He gets a call from…well it does not matter. The Gods are aiding him on his Mahjong winning streak and he would never let their support go to waste. And so Qin Feng is left standing around at the airport.
At the police station, Huang and Kon once again fight over who gets to take the case until the Chief orders them both into the conference room. So, here is what is known. The victim is named Sompat, and was the owner of the workshop. He was a suspect in a gold robbery in Chinatown. He was killed by blunt head trauma; hit eleven times. The fingerprints on the weapons are still being processed. The front entrance was the only way in or out of the workshop. There are four cameras outside the front door, with the footage being automatically overwritten every seven days.
It is suspected that Sompat’s partners in the robbery killed him and took the gold, 101kg worth around $6 million. The gold belongs to a Mr. Yan, who has a lot of pull in the city, and even the mayor has put pressure on the chief to retrieve the gold. The chief says that whoever nabs the suspect and gets the gold back will be made deputy chief.
It is the evening and Tang Ren is STILL playing Mahjong. And losing. Finally, he answers his phone and goes to the airport. He sees Qin Feng standing in the same place that he had been for the past however many hours and embraces him. Tang offhandedly apologizing for being late, saying that he was busy with detective work. Noticing that Qin had yet to say anything during this nonstop babblefest, Tang asks him whether he is a mute. Qin stutters as he tries to answer, but Tang cuts him off, gleefully pointing out his stutter.
Tang takes Qin on his motorcycle and claims that his week in Thailand will make him forget about the college and even his grandmother. Tang takes him to a…bikini bar…dance club? Anyways, there he introduces Qin to his boss, Kon Tsai. He also notices that Qin is acting very uncomfortable around the women sitting with him. After prodding him with a few somewhat personal questions, Tang gives Qin a glass of alcohol, with some kind of drug in it. Qin secretly switches glasses with Tang and they all down there drinks. Well, it turns out that Tang had planned to give himself even more drugs than Qin, so Qin got the big dose. He ends up wandering around the street in a daze, eventually passing out and waking up the next morning in Tang’s apartment.
Qin runs to the bathroom to…vomit…and sees Tang crouching in front of a wall. He is peeping into another room through a tiny hole. Peeping what? Qin pushes him away to look, but all he gets is hot water splashed in his eye. And in walks Tang’s landlady, Xiang. Tang scolds Qin for peeping on her. Tang introduces Qin as parallel cousin, or little brother. And introduces Xiang as the most beautiful girl in Chinatown. Xiang is not amused.
Tang takes Qin out to eat and describes the itinerary. Menam River. Floating Market. Shem…erm…a show. Wat Arun. And…of course…the Grand Palace. Sidenote: I went to the Grand Palace when I was eleven years old and it was pretty sweet. But Qin says that he wants to see the Siamese Twin. The…what? From the Ellery Queen detective story. Did that story actually have anything to do with Thailand beyond the name? Well, regardless, Tang Ren tells him that those detective stories are all nonsense. If Qin wants to become a detective, then he should accompany Tang on a missing person case.
And Tang solves the case by buying a dog that looks vaguely like the client’s dog and using some of Qin’s money to give the dog a makeover before giving it to the client. She seems suspicious, but Tang manages to convince her that this dog is her Ban Ban. She is happy. Tang is happy. Qin is not happy to witness such shameless fraud. Tang tells him her happiness is more important than which dog is which, and says that he will is doing another case. This next case involves…going to a jewelry store and buying a gold necklace? With more of Qin’s money? Qin has had enough and decides to go back to China.
Tang asks Qin why he is so upset. Qin accuses Tang of lying to him, and uses some detective work of his own to deduce that the gold necklace was not for a case, but meant as a gift to Xiang on her birthday tomorrow. He also…using some Sherlock Holmes-type leaps of logic, figures out that Tang had been working on a case while Qin was waiting around at the airport all day, but playing Mahjong. And, finally, Qin expresses disbelief that Tang ever has real cases. He is about to leave with his luggage when Tang tells him that there are still six days left of vacation. Tang promises that they will go to the Grand Palace tomorrow. I mean…sure, Qin is justifiably upset…but…again, the Grand Palace is pretty sweet. So, Qin puts down his suitcase and makes Tang promise to never lie to him again.
It is the next day and Tang is getting some streetside face skin care…something. And Qin is looking on impatiently. Tang messes around with him a bit before telling him to go buy a soda. While Qin is gone, Tang receives a phone call. The caller tells him that the police are coming to arrest him for murder. He says that Tang will die if he gets caught, so he should run. Tang looks around and sees no cops…until he does. A lot of them. Under orders from Huang Landeng.
Tang runs off. It is through a lot of luck, a little help from a bewildered Qin, some very underhanded fighting tactics, and some property damage, that Tang manages to escape. Well, I guess that they are not actually going to the Grand Palace. When it seems like they are in the clear, an out-of-breath Qin asks Tang what is going on. An exhausted Tang has no idea. They think that he killed someone, but who did he kill? Both out of their minds, the two cannot properly communicate.
During a meeting at the police station, Kon Tsai scolds Huang Landeng for once again making incursions into his precinct without notifying him, especially in pursuit of his friend Tang. On what evidence? Huang recounts his case of the 101 kilograms of gold stolen from four shops in Chinatown. Yadda yadda yadda. There was a two-hour window when the murder of Sompat could have happened and the only one who was seen going into the workshop during that time was Tang Ren. Not only that, Tang’s fingerprints were all over the murder weapon. It can only be concluded that Tang Ren killed Sompat and stole the gold.
Kon responds by claiming to have nothing to do with that Tang Ren and that in no way does he run a private detective agency in Chinatown. This is immediately undercut when Tang calls him during the meeting. Kon yells at him, saying that he has six hours to turn himself in. Kon also not-so-subtly gives Tang instructions for fleeing…well, the route is nonsensical, but it is to another country. All of the other cops knew what he was doing, but it is not like they can prove that he did what he was obviously doing. And, also, the route made no sense.
Qin advises Tang to turn himself in, but Tang refuses. During their argument, they find themselves trapped in an alley by three men. Tang seems to get the better of them by…uh…employing the same fighting techniques that he used against the cops, but then one of the men points a gun at Qin.
The three men take Qin and Tang to a warehouse, where they handcuff them to some piece of machinery. The man who had brandished the gun demands to know where the gold is. Having no idea what they are talking about, Qin mentions the necklace. After some more misunderstandings and threats, a narrative emerges. The man whom the criminals call Sompat had called Tang to ask him to pick up a box and leave it by a van in the underground parking lot of Haitian Mansion, not telling him that there gold was inside. Two of the men go to retrieve the box, leaving the third to look over the captives. Well, he does not do a particularly good job of overseeing them, as they manage to escape…with the necklace.
The two are making their way back to Tang’s apartment that evening when they notice the TV news showing both of their faces. Qin is upset at Tang getting him mixed up in all of this. And they still have not seen the Grand Palace. I would be upset too if I were promised a visit to the Grand Palace by someone who failed to deliver. Tang is still determined to give Xiang the necklace and tells Qin that he will have Kon meet them there. Qin is suspicious, though. How did the gangsters know where they were? Could Kon be working with them? Tang shuts that down and calls Kon.
The two somehow make it to Xiang’s place without getting caught. She is worried for their safety and hers as well if it is discovered that she let them in. The birthday present does not exactly make her feel better. Tang insists that he is innocent and tells her that Kon is coming over. She asks whether they stole the gold, and Tang is about to answer when…well, I will just say that the meeting does not go quite as planned. Still, an exasperated Kon gives Tang some files and documents for the boat that will take him to…wherever.
While Tang and Qin wait near the port for the boat to arrive, Qin makes Tang recount the story. Sompat called him to deliver a box from the workshop to the parking lot, and was still alive when Tang left. He left the box by the van and left without trying to open the box, as the place gave him the creeps. Qin tells him that the evidence still all points to him, but is willing to look at the case himself. For fun. Tang has no patience for this and gets up as he sees the boat arriving.
They walk to the boat while Tang contemplates his future, only to see that the boat already has a bunch of passengers. Black passengers. Tang asks the captain if they are going to China. Nope. Equatorial Guinea. Well, I knew that the route that Kon gave made no sense. Tang and Qin decide…kind of racistly…to not take the boat. Qin restates his interest in solving the case. Tang tries to shut it down, saying that Qin could not even make it into the police college. But, hey, even if Tang is not the number anything detective in Chinatown, surely the two of them can crack the case, prove his innocence, and find the real culprit.
This movie is, for the most part, a combination of two types of movies: the super-detective movie and the madcap comedy. This does make sense, as it kind of leans into the ridiculousness of the super-detective story. The movie is, yes, kind of long. Yet most of that is due to the movie taking a genuine mystery and inserting it into a comedy with several set-pieces of verbal and physical humor that are throwbacks to a bygone era.
A lot of the movie rests on the two leads and Tang…is a lot. He often has no indoor voice, he even shouts when he whispers. Despite his superstitious nature, he plays fast and loose with the Confucian familial hierarchy, saying that he is Qin’s uncle or cousin depending on which he finds more beneficial to him at the time. He is that kind of overbearing “fun” character whom you might find intolerable if he does not amuse you enough. As for his being a detective…yeah, not really. Most of the detective work falls to Qin, who is a seemingly straightlaced young man with some slight social awkwardness. What he does have is a photographic memory and powers of deduction. The two bounce off each other quite well. The other characters are rather threadbare, mostly to serve the comedy.
The mystery, again, is rather ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than any Sherlock Holmes or Ellery Queen story. Qin takes inspiration from those stories and their kind of detective work. It has been years since I have seen The Bullet Vanishes and Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame, both from 2012, so I cannot really say how much influence those movies had on this one, but I can definitely see stylistic influences from both the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies and the Sherlock series. There are a couple of indulgent super-detective sequences that I find were really inspired from a stylistic sense, taking the unrealistic sequences from Sherlock and running with them. Yeah, you are hoping to solve the mystery as the movie goes along…you might be able to, but not because the movie gives you all the clues. There is quite a bit of amusement and dazzlement involved the mystery part that the rather sourly grim reveal is a bit jarring. That said, someone was murdered, which I guess is bad already.
So…why Thailand? I mean, yes, the Grand Palace is sweet, but that is not actually a huge plot point. The issue of language barrier is not as huge as it could be, and there are even a couple of characters who, from what I can tell are made Chinese for no other reason than to keep their interaction with Qin from slowing the movie’s momentum to a crawl. The issue of Qin not being able to read Thai is meant to make his remembering certain pieces of Thai script that much more impressive. The main cultural issues that I noticed were some throwaway references to…well…homosexuality and transgenderism in the Thai context. Some of those references are neutral at best and others are…slightly less than positive. There is little insight into the life of Chinese immigrants living in Thailand. So, why Thailand?
This movie came out a the same year as a movie called Lost in Hong Kong. I have not seen it, but I gather that it is about a Chinese man vacationing in Hong Kong with his wife and buffoonish in-laws and there is a murder case or something. While that movie had references to Hong Kong that Mainland Chinese would immediately pick up, I am guessing that there were fewer explicit references to Thai things in Detective Chinatown. Perhaps there was a trend of Chinese people going to places outside of the PRC and thoughtlessly wreaking havoc…in Chinese movies. In this case, Thailand was a place where they could film. And why outside of the PRC in the first place? Well, it could be due to the start of the movie when Tang took Qin on a night on the town full of girls girls girls girls girls. Certainly Chinese movies are not above using Chinese actresses for cheesecake pandering. But implying that China is a den of sin and corruption? Eh…that may be a step too far. At least, those dens of sin and corruption in China had be getting cleaned up by the end of the movie. Here…that does not really happen.
I am guessing that the real reason, though is because there was no way that the movie could get away with depicting Chinese police as vain like Huang or slovenly like Kon, and certainly not like a bunch of bickering bumblers who get knocked around and made fools of by the protagonists. Long gone are the days of The Missing Gun. This is the time when Johnnie To’s movie Drug War had to have its cops be boring machines in order for it to pass the censorship board. To be fair, cops and detectives during this time could have some minimal charm or eccentricities, but they had to be ultra-competent and dedicated to the work above all else. Foreign cops, though? Even foreign cops who are ethnically Chinese? Perfectly fine to be dopes and dupes. They are not the PRC’s problem, so the PRC doesn’t care. The movie even implies at one point that these Chinese live outside of China because they could not cut it in China, as if they were inferior or something. I mean, why else would someone leave China?
One could say that Qin is an example of a super detective, with his photographic memory and his BBC Sherlockian powers of deduction. But he is kind of whiny and anxious. He has a speech impediment and a slightly awkward personality. He does not even want to have anything to do with the case until about a third of the way through the movie. By doing his detective work in foreign lands, though, he can show up the local cops without hurting Chinese national honor. And by not having gotten into Chinese cop crime college, he can also have a flawed personality without it hurting Chinese national honor. He represents China in an overall positive manner, but only unofficially. And I guess that that is fine.
If Qin is the detective in this mystery movie, then what role does Tang serve? Well, obviously, the comedy. Yeah, his yelling and impulsiveness can be a bit much, but the tone of the movie would definitely not be the same if it were just Qin running around. One of the reasons why the movie is so long is that it loves its comedic set-pieces. They can be as simple as Tang and Qin getting into arguments where they are both so frazzled that they end up just saying the same things. It can be elaborate, like Tang’s…erm…meeting with Kon at Xiang’s place. Or it could be the various chase scenes. This movie definitely takes cues from physical comedies of old and Jackie Chan movies especially. However, since Tang does not possess nearly the amount of martial arts skill that any Jackie Chan character has, he almost always resorts to attacking his opponents eyeballs, attacking his opponents ball balls, throwing objects at them, or leading them into traps. This is absolutely puerile and some might find this exhausting, but I found it to be hilarious every time.
The movie apparently made $126 million on a $15 million budget. This success led to a sequel in 2018, set in New York City. At 121-minutes, Detective Chinatown 2 had a tighter pace. It also cut down (a bit) on the cheesecake factor while giving the female characters a little more to do. At the same time, it also amped up the gay panic of the first movie and also treating the presence of Black people as a punchline. I could sort of grimace past those moments in the first film, but it was much more difficult this time around, which made it difficult for me to enjoy. Also, it had Michael Pitt. But hey, if you want to see a somewhat bizarre jab at Trump’s anti-China attitude, then this might be the movie for you. I guess that Chinese audiences must have loved seeing the United States getting taken down a peg, as it made $544 million. Also, it introduces a mysterious figure known only as Q. I…I don’t know.
There is also a third movie that is set in…Tokyo? Well…I am curious to see how the movie handles that. It was supposed to be released this year, but…well…you know…that did not happen. Despite my issues with the second movie, I would still be interested to see Detective Chinatown 3. Supposedly, Tony Jaa is in it. He was not even in the original that was set in Thailand. Go figure.
This movie is a throwback, for good and bad. If you can get past the bad, you might enjoy it.
WTF ASIA 134: A Taxi Driver (South Korea: 2017, approx. 138 minutes)
WTF ASIA 135: Chandni Bar (India: 2001, approx. 144 minutes)