The police force is always a source for constant mockery and satire. Not only because it’s one of the few institutions in a modern society which can exercise violence as a mean for carrying out their work but also because the ambiguous nature of being a police, corrupted or not, is potential good comedy anywhere in the world.
At the periphery of police work and at the borders of upholding the law we have private detectives which we also find in the center of the story in Detective Chinatown. In this film the story mainly takes place in Bangkok at Yaowarat road, a home to Thai-Chinese for over 200 years, where the not so great detective Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) resides. Tang Ren, who moved to Thailand later in life, suddenly gets a visit from a young distant relative called Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) after he has failed the entry exam to the Chinese police academy. Qin Fengs mother therefore sends him to Bangkok to meet with Tang Ren so he can recuperate and maybe learn something about police work at the same time. Qins stay in Thailand becomes anything but a vacation after Tang Ren becomes the main suspect in a murder case which both of them tries to solve together.
Merely by observing the cast in Detective Chinatown one can quickly see that the appearance of both Wang Baoqiang and Xiao Shenyang in the same film – and actually also Da Peng in a very little role – will result in some form of comedy. Wang Baoqiang who usually plays the kind and innocent rural sweetheart abandons all those qualities in Detective Chinatown and instead plays a noisy, good-for-nothing loser who loves to play mahjong. This in combination with Liu Haorans stuttering and super smart Qin Feng might seem like a great combination but it’s mostly about Tang Ren kicking and hitting people in the crouch and Qin Feng doing detective work like Benedict Cumberbatchs Sherlock Holmes. Seeing that the BBC re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes was immensely popular among Chinese watchers it’s not hard to imagine that the combination of below-the-belt humor and situation comedy mixed with a plot twist, which would make Arthur Conan Doyle jealous of it, worked well with the domestic audience.
The performance between the supporting actors is far more humorous than Wang and Liu but even here there’s a lack of dynamic between the characters. The film tries to show some emotional scene where more serious matters arises but all of that becomes background noise when comedy is the keynote throughout the rest of the movie. A background story for Tang Ren is hastily retold but it hardly gives any depth to his character. Same goes for Qin Feng who’s reason for failing at the academy is because he wants to commit a perfect crime because his father was arrested when he was younger. An even darker story is buried beneath the motive of the murder who Tang Ren is accused of committing but this isn’t resolved, neither juridically-wise or morally-wise, and leaves you with ambiguous feelings towards the end result. Weirdly, the Slumdog Millionaire-esque ending with a dance scene shortly after the credit doesn’t help to clarify this.
Another problematic theme of the film is that of sino-thai relationship. The problem is not the theme itself rather it’s the lack of representation. In Detective Chinatown the most powerful symbol for Thailand seems to be the tuk-tuk and dubious gender roles. Otherwise the promotion of a national spirit unaffected by the distance to ones mother land is a good idea, especially since overseas-Chinese (华侨/海外华人) are so many, but the play on nationalistic feelings is also toned down except for a hint in the ending suggesting a sequel in another metropolis outside of China.
Adhering almost entirely to comic themes Detective Chinatown can be enjoyed by anyone who fancy the slapstick genre but because of the political nature of Chinese influence on its’ close neighbors this film leaves a bitter sweet aftertaste. Chinese speaking police officers working in Thailand? If only Gui Minhai and Lee Bo knew about this before going there they might have received some help before “disappearing”.