Schemes in Antiques (China, 2021)

Should you want to become an antique specialist for the Plum Blossom Five organization, you must be prepared to face dramatic double crossings, fist fights on trains, and dizzying camera movements in CGI. Alcoholism is acceptable, the scientific method is not. Those are the parameters of acclaimed Hong Kong director Derek Kwok’s latest feature, Schemes in Antiques, an extravagant film about the passion for history, antiques, and old-school action-adventures.

Yuan Xu (Lei Jiayin) is perhaps the best antique hunter in the world, yet he can’t practice his profession because of his last name. Many years ago, his grandfather was executed for selling a priceless Buddha’s head statue to the Japanese. His family has been living in disgrace ever since. In the present day (actually the 90s, when the film takes place), the granddaughter of the buyer wants to return the statue to its rightful owner, who by her account is Yuan Xu. There’s a problem however: the statue is a fake. Yuan’s grandfather never sold the real statue to the Japanese. Instead, he fabricated an elaborate ruse to prevent the statue from falling into the hands of black-market dealers and gangsters. Yuan must find the real statue before the gangs and before Yao Buran (Li Xian), a member of the Plum Blossom Five who wants to obtain the statue and usurp the leadership of the organization.

Schemes in Antiques, which might as well be called The Men Who Stare at Vases, is the cinematic equivalent of trying too hard. Its DNA contains nothing new: a mixture of National Treasure and Indiana Jones plus a myriad of historically minded action movies of the 80s and 90s. Historical narratives (or in this case, narratives about history) are in themselves interesting because they tap into a world that is real, yet vastly different from our own. Kwok’s film, on the other hand, shows very little faith in its subject matter and instead focuses on character melodrama and exaggerated imagery to keep the viewers’ interest alive. In their search for the statue, Yuan and Buran must follow a series of clues, the interpretation of which rely on their uncanny ability to detect fake antiques by just staring at them. Of course, an actor staring at an object is not that interesting, so the filmmakers pull all stops with unconvincing CGI and rapid-fire camera work to make the process interesting. It partially succeeds, but it also serves to strip the mystery and charm that the world of antiques otherwise entails.

Along similar lines, the characters themselves are as stereotypical as they get, with Yuan being the poster child of the never-erring troubled genius who we know from the very start is guaranteed to win the race. He is too lovable to fail. Additionally, there’s the equally-smart-but-not-quite antagonist, the straight-edge sidekick (also a potential love interest), and the obligatory parent-figure death that seems ever present in many recent high-budget Chinese action movies. That said, the film certainly knows how to best use its stereotypes, and sometimes that is good enough. For as flat as the film is in its treatment of history and archaeology, the drama effectively establishes the characters’ motivation for the entire film, enough to make you interested in their journey, however cliché it might be. Who cares if Yuan’s analysis of some vase doesn’t make sense? He’s a troubled soul who’s trying to restore the name of his family and find peace with his feelings about his deceased father. Indeed, the film’s title does it a great disservice. Ultimately, it is neither about schemes nor antiques – it is about Yuan’s journey through the past, present, and future.

Some might dismiss Schemes in Antiques as the Chinese “National Treasure,” but that is both inaccurate and unfair. While the shared elements are there, Kwok’s film has its own flair and personality, as well as its own flaws. It exists solely on a sea of established – perhaps overdone – tropes, but it nevertheless knows how to navigate those waters successfully.

Schemes in Antiques is distributed in the US by Well Go USA Entertainment.