Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Happy Chinese New Year, Have Another Sequel: Detective Chinatown 2

Not quite the end of my catching the Chinese New Year films - there's still one from Hong Kong to catch up on - but it's kind of funny that I've basically been catching them in reverse order of their popularity in China: Monkey King 3 is a relatively modest success making only $100M, then Monster Hunt 2, then Operation Red Sea followed by this, with the latter two closing in on half a billion dollars of box office each. Those are numbers that amazed a friend in a conversation started by "Black Panther has made $400M and hasn't hit China yet", and it is kind of eye-popping, considering how long Americans were able to get take it for granted that Hollywood was the only place that really spawned these massive things.

It probably shouldn't be surprising - China does have three times the population of the US, so that it could have two Panther-sized hits open on what is a holiday weekend there isn't out of the realm of possibility, and folks have been building theaters like crazy over the past couple of years. Particularly, it seems, the big Imax-3D variety - I think all four of these movies were released in that format. I think they may have staggered which movie gets which screen, explaining why Operation Red Sea suddenly shot up the charts in its second week. Then again, it wouldn't surprise me if big cities like Beijing and Shanghai had enough giant screens that they could afford four wide releases on the same weekend. It would kind of fit in with modern China in general, as well as explain why the movie business has grown so explosively there: There's room for both low-end and high-end versions of the same product, a population that has not only been underserved in the past but is now enthusiastic to get Hollywood-quality releases without dubbing or subtitles, and different business models (I gather studios own a chunk of the circuits there).

Anyway - that's a pretty massive Chinese New Year, movie-wise, taking up enough space at the multiplex that we probably won't get Girls vs Gangsters here, and it appears some of them moved the needle enough in America to get a look. It's small - Detective Chinatown 2 will probably make a couple million for Warner Brothers when all is said and done, which isn't going to get these movies the Imax screen at your local multiplex except on a pretty slow week, but having a major studio presenting this as an option rather than China Lion or Chopflix is going to get more attention, and I suspect that the next thing with Donnie Yen or Jackie Chan (or something like Animal World which has Michael Douglas on the poster) might get a wider release, especially if theaters move to present more options for people with MoviePass.

Tang ren jie tang an 2 (Detective Chinatown 2)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 March 2017 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

It's been a couple of years since it came out, but I seem to remember the first Detective Chinatown just being kind of conventionally wacky, not quite the over-the-top mess that its sequel turns out to be. Sure, part of that is a matter of how the move from Bangkok to New York lets American viewers like me see more clearly when it's doing some really tacky caricature work, but it really seems like there's nothing here that's not dialed up to 11, making a murder mystery play more like a party game, a step down from a slapstick comedy that had respected the genre.

This time around, college student and crime-solving wunderkind Chin Fong (Liu Haoran) arrives in New York City under the pretense that cousin Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) is getting married, but he is instead dragged to a meeting hall filled with sleuths from around the world, where dying Chinatown elder "Uncle Seven" Wu (Kenneth Tsang) has tasked them with solving the murder of his nephew Jason, offering a five-million-dollar reward if anyone in the group can solve the crime in seven days. Uncle Seven is respected enough that NYPD detective Laura Chen Ying (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) will serve as a liaison, especially helpful when the group discovers that this may be the work of a serial killer. Evidence soon points to illegal alien Song Yi (Xiao Yang), with potentially-disinherited godson Lu Guofu (Wang Xun) enlisting American tough-guy detective Wild Bull Billy (Brett Azar) to bring him in, but Chin soon finds reason to believe Song Yi is innocent, leading to them on the run with occasional help from Hong Kong hacker Kiko (Shang Yuxian), though they'll have to break into the office of coroner James Springfield (Michael Pitt) to get some evidence.

The first Detective Chinatown was better than expected, getting Chin and Tang into both a locked-room mystery and simply embarrassing situations with equal ease, making it feel natural even if it's also heightened and kind of nuts. There's not much about the situation they find themselves in this time that particularly rings true; everything about the setup with the detective-ranking app, the lobby full of weird rivals, and the competition makes it feel more like a game than an actual mystery. Returning writer/director Chen Sicheng doesn't craft that part nearly as well this time around. It's still got plenty of funny bits, though, especially when the slapstick gets really crazy, and when the audience has kind of settled into the new mood, from goofy car chases to a spectacularly implausible setting at the end. The jokes on how China sees America and New York are a bit of a mixed bag; it's easy to laugh at the "everyone has a gun" bits even while realizing that the next few years of world cinema dunking on America for electing Donald Trump will lead to as many bad jokes as well-delivered ones. Similarly, the crossdressing gags work better than the leather/biker-bar ones, although both come off as a bit tone-deaf.

Full review on EFC

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