New Pang brothers productions are not exactly as eagerly anticipated as they once were. Once the Asian cinema talk of the town, The Detective director and co-producer Oxide and co-producer and twin brother Danny started the millennium with a lot of hype that was rightfully generated by promising genre efforts such as Bangkok Dangerous (1999) and The Eye (2001). However, as the brothers’ notoriety and film budgets have risen over the decade following those releases, the quality of their films has been inconsistent at best. Exemplifying this quality drop, The Diary (2006) and their Hollywood debut, The Messengers (2007) while visually slick, were ultimately unfulfilling. In addition, their arguably superfluous sequels to The Eye (2004, 2005) and Nicholas Cage-helmed remake of Bangkok Dangerous (2008) have raised the argument that the Pang brothers are just style merchants with very little to add in the way of compelling narrative. The Detective, which is directed and co-produced by Oxide and co-produced by Danny, is not exactly a return to the grand promises of a decade ago, but is a nice little film in its own way even though it suffers from some of the same problems as other more recent films in the Pangs’ catalog.
Aaron Kwok (Storm Warriors, 2009) plays the titular detective Tam who is drawn into a murder mystery when local butcher Lung (Kenny Wong) suspects a young woman is out to kill him. When Lung has a violent physical reaction in Tam’s office, he is on the case, scouring the streets, back alleys, and slums of Bangkok in search of the elusive young woman or whomever is leaving behind the trail of dead bodies that Tam keeps following.
The Detective, as befits a hard-boiled detective tale, is incredibly simple in that the film primarily focuses on Tam. Most of the other characters in the small cast are only involved in the caseas participants (as we later find Lung is) or information depositories, as is the case with Chak (Liu Kai Chi), a police inspector who feeds Tam leads. In fact, so tightly focused is the story on Kwok’s character that he does not even get a dame in distress, a common trope of the hard-boiled detective. We do instead get many shots of Kwok, rifling through cell phones for pictures, walking the back streets looking for his next person to question, and piecing together the puzzles of the case by writing down the details on a blackboard in his office. A lot is expected of an actor who has to carry a whole film, and Kwok pulls it off well. Once a Hong Kong teen idol and still a popular pop singer, Kwok could have easily pretty-boyed up the role with even a knowingly ironic boyish grin. However, the steely, determined glare and physicality he maintains throughout the film is generally free from the boy next door persona from his idol days. That and Kwok’s ability to put just the right amount of charm and humor into the role create a detective that feels toughened, yet idiosyncratic and just a little green behind the ears, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that The Detective 2 is scheduled to be released later in 2011. Of course, his character does suffer from lack of characterization. Chak, identified as an old classmate, is the only character with some personal connection, but even though their exchanges are believable, they do not lend much insight into either. A side story involving Tam and his parents are probably meant for character depth, to explain the reason why he became a detective, but they lend the film unnecessary sentimentality that’s not explored enough.
Screenwriters Oxide and Pak-Sik Pang (no relation) keep the story fairly sleek and pacey at just under two hours. Their approach to the story has a couple of problems, though. The clues and leads that Tam follows are only complicated by the fact that the audience is effectively kept on rails; we can only see what Tam sees and very few clues are given as to who is orchestrating the entire mystery until the third and final act. Though this is not an uncommon method of storytelling, The Detective‘s structure within this framework is too tight, dragging the audience along, red herrings and all, until the story really starts to come together and kick into gear in the third act. In fact, the impact of the film’s ending is nearly ruined by a piece of the puzzle that is introduced so late that the audience knows that it must be key. However, leave it to the visually gifted Oxide Pang to make our journey worth the ride aesthetically. With its noir-ish look, The Detective takes the audience into a Bangkok that feels very real (if a bit unoccupied with people, for such a large city). Every shot fees stifling with humidity, thanks in part to the selection to shoot the film in yellowish brown hues and the layer of sweat Kwok seems to forever be covered in. The feeling of stifling heat further amplifies scenes involving corpses, garbage, and even one with a cart of durian, a particularly odoriferous tropical fruit, that get knocked over in a car chase; the film definitely makes you feel as if you are smelling what you are watching.
The original title of the film is C+ Detective, a Cantonese play on words for “private detective” and most likely a little jab at the amateurism of Tam as well. While The Detective is hardly at the head of the class, its generally strong performances, especially Kwok’s, and visuals earn it enough extra credit to be considered worth seeing.