There is no shortage of crime mystery and suspense productions in China, but most with buzz and budget of late are based on novels – and often the same ones. Criminal Minds
, Yu Zui
and Qin Ming
adaptations abound and no Nan Pai San Shu or Tianxia Bachang story is left unturned. In that sense, Chen Sicheng's blockbuster Detective Chinatown
film series stands out for being a successful original creation rather than an extension of a pre-existing IP.
Following his success with Beijing Love Story, actor-turned-director Chen Sicheng tried his hand at mystery in 2015 with the sophomore directorial effort Detective Chinatown. The film brought together the unlikely detective duo of comedy veteran Wang Baoqiang and teenaged newcomer Liu Haoran, the young actor Chen discovered for Beijing Love Story. Wang Baoqiang channeled the comical bumpkin theatrics of the Lost series and some extra as Tangren, a loud and bumbling self-proclaimed private eye based in Bangkok's Chinatown. Liu Haoran played the straight man as his nephew Qin Feng, a stuttering prodigy who pulls all the crime-solving weight to solve a murder and clear his uncle's name. Fun, fast and clever, Detective Chinatown doubled the take of Beijing Love Story with a gross of over 800 million yuan.
In 2018, Tangren and Qin Feng return to solve another murder mystery in New York's Chinatown, and this installment ended up earning over three billion yuan, putting it behind only Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea in China's all-time box office. Besides the Chinese New Year boost, it's easy to see why Detective Chinatown 2 is such a hit with general audiences. The mystery involving the murder of a Chinatown mob boss's grandson and other seemingly unrelated people is filled with twists, clues and red herrings for armchair detectives. This time, the film itself basically turns the mystery into a crime-solving game for the protagonists.
At the same time, Detective Chinatown 2 is a comedy through and through that never gets too serious, even when people are dropping dead. The buddy comedy and idiots abroad concept ensure a rapid pace and steady stream of ridiculous situations, fish-out-of-water gags and low-brow humor. One of my biggest gripes with the first Detective Chinatown was that Wang Baoqiang turned his grating comedy meter to the max, but he's toned it down a bit this time. With Liu Haoran's emergence as a star since the first film, the sequel also gives greater emphasis to his (no longer stuttering) character, which helps balance out the more farcical circumstances.
Detective Chinatown 2 isn't better than its predecessor, which had higher stakes, a darker mystery and more interesting cinematography and art direction. This film will not be winning Golden Horse trophies like the first one. However, more so than the first film, this sequel paints a bigger picture of what Detective Chinatown offers as a franchise. Detective Chinatown's simple premise of squabbling detectives solving cases in different Chinatowns lends very easily to a long-running series of light and entertaining episodic mysteries. Moreover, the series can generate side stories with different actors and even expand its universe to markets outside China. This is already happening as Chen Sicheng is formulating a web drama about other detectives that rank on the Crimaster App introduced in Detective Chinatown 2. We could well be watching Detective Chinatown entries for years to come, and I'll gladly take that over another ill-conceived Criminal Minds adaptation.