Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Din And Bustle

"Spoilers! Goodbye, sweetie."
Doctor Who

One of the weirdly specific memories I have of my brief visit to Yokohama's Chinatown (the largest Chinatown in Japan) was how the waiters in the restaurants there were... not as polite as the ones you usually see in restaurants in Japan. They were not actually rude, mind you, but the way they placed the dishes we ordered on the table definitely made more noise than you'd normally expect in a restaurant in Japan!

After being rejected for the police academy, Qin Feng is told by his grandmother to go to Bangkok for a week of soothing the spirit. His uncle Tang Ren is supposed to be the greatest detective in Bangkok's Chinatown, which interests young Qin Feng, who is a big fan of mystery fiction. After arriving in Bangkok though, he learns his uncle is in fact basically just an underling of the local police sergeant, doing odd jobs or finding lost pets. The Bangkok Police Force is busy working on the murder on Sompat. Sompat was a member of a gang that managed to make off with a stash of gold of a powerful gangster called Mr. Yan, with Sampat being the one watching the loot, but when the police entered Sompat's workshop after a long stake-out, they discover Sompat was murdered, and the gold gone from the workshop. Surveillance camera footage of the single entrance to the building show that the only person to enter and leave the shop around the time of the murder was in fact Tang Ren, making him the prime suspect for the Sompat murder, as well as gold theft. While fleeing for the Bangkok Police Force, the original thieves of the gold and Mr. Yan's men, Qin Feng and Tang Ren try to figure out who the true murderer and thief is, and how they managed to enter and leave the workshop without being seen in the Chinese 2015 comedy-mystery film Tang Ren Jie Tan An, which also carries the official English title of Detective Chinatown.

Detective Chinatown was mentioned by a commentator of the blog a while back as a film that had more classic mystery influences than originally expected, and the summary told me it was (basically) a locked room murder, so I decided to give a try and it turned out to be a truly pleasant surprise, as it was definitely a competent mystery film.

I said it was basically a locked room murder mystery, because as you may have noticed from my summary, it technically isn't: Police investigation shows there was only one entrance to the crime scene, and footage from four (!) seperate security cameras show nobody entered or left the crime scene before or after the murder save for Tang Ren. So obviously, the whole problem only becomes an impossible situation only if you accept that Tang Ren is innocent and that thus the real murderer must have escaped the crime scene without being seen. The "It's only a locked room mystery if you accept that one character must be innocent" premise is something not uncommon in mystery stories (Carr's The Judas Window for example), but I do always hesitate about calling it a locked room mystery, as it completely shuts out the most obvious solution ("That one character *is* guilty"), often without any real (logical) reason.

Anyway, the locked room mystery is technically the main puzzle of the story, though it sometimes get pushed to the background between all the misadventures of Qin Feng and Tang Ren. That said though, it's actually a nicely plotted mystery. The trick behind the impossible disapperance of the true murderer is admittedly not very complex, yet effective and it is very competently clued, so an attentive viewer could've connected the dots themselves to come up with the solution. I've seen more elaborate variations of the same trick before, but it worked well here (especially as it's usually harder to do really complex locked room mysteries in the video format). The identity of the murderer themselves is a bit disappointing though, as Qin Feng and Tang Ren were pretty lucky to get on their trail in the first place.

Detective Chinatown is also a comedy(-action) film by the way, so Qin Feng and Tang Ren's efforts to find the murderer are often interrupted by their run-ins with any of the parties after them, often resulting in chaotic chases around Bangkok's Chinatown. It's a lot of physical comedy (think early Jackie Chan films) and in terms of atmosphere, the film kinda reminded me of Higashigawa Tokuya's work, even if in Detective Chinatown, the comedy is not intricitly connected to the actual mystery.

Qin Feng is presented as a big fan of mystery fiction, from the classics like Ellery Queen to modern writers like Higashino Keigo. We see this in his characterization, as he sometimes makes references to famous mystery stories. Which is good, until the moment here he spoils several novels!  No real mystery fan would simply spoil the main tricks of mystery novels like that! The most prominent ones he outright spoils are Aosaki Yuugo's Taiikukan no Satsujin and Utano Shougo's short story Kyuudousha no Misshitsu (collected in Misshitsu Satsujin Game), so beware if you have not read these stories. It's interesting though he references Japanese mystery novels (and relatively recent ones too!) in a Chinese film though, as it'd mean that Japanese mystery novels are fairly well known among the target public. I mean, can you see an American mystery film suddenly making a reference to a Japanese mystery novel?

So in short, Detective Chinatown turned out to be an entertaining mystery film, with a fairly satisfying locked room murder in a setting I had never seen before (Bangkok's Chinatown). My main issue with the film, besides the spoilers, would be that the film is just too long for the plot. The chase scenes and all are really nothing but padding, stretching a plot that could've worked perfectly in ninety minutes, into something longer than two hours, and while they're entertaining, one or two of those scenes could've easily been cut out to streamline the thing a bit. But all in all, I'd say any puzzle-plot mystery fan will find something to their liking with this movie.

Original Chinese title(s): "唐人街探案"


  1. It was a pleasant surprise to see you review this movie! :) Now you know the pain I feel regarding Aosaki Yuugo's 体育館の殺人. :( The curious thing is that I can't quite remember the specifics of the solution to 'Detective Chinatown' - but I can remember what was said about 体育館の殺人. Incidentally, it's also strange that Qin Feng is portrayed as having read 体育館の殺人, when its official Chinese translation will only be released this month...

    Incidentally, on the topic of honkaku/ shin honkaku works originally published in Chinese, I recently completed Szu-Yen Lin's 'Death in the Ice Mirror Mansion'. I picked it up earlier this month as I was too impatient to wait for 'Death in the House of Rain' to be released, and thought it would be good to practise reading in Chinese. The novel reminded me very much of Ayatsuji Yukito; Szu-Yen Lin cleared enjoys the Japanese honkaku/ shin honkaku genre.

    1. Well, Aosaki writes very much in the Queen-style, so I'd argue that even (vaguely) knowing how the locked room was committed will still allow you to enjoy how the detective actually solves it, as the deduction process is of more importance than the trick itself.

      Haven't read anything by Lin yet! I'm really hopelessly behind with keeping up with the Japanese releases I want to follow, let alone other languages!

  2. Good to know that there's still enjoyment in store for me when I finally get round to reading 体育館の殺人. :)

    With regard to the movie, am I right in thinking that the disappearance of a character in the backstory was not resolved by the end - in that no indication was given as to what happened and why...?

    1. It's been almost 6 months since I saw the film, so I have to admit I can recall few of the details of the backstory ^^' (as always, there's quite some lag between me writing the post, and it actually getting posted).