Schemes in Antiques (Derek Kwok, 2021)
The latest film from director Derek Kwok does exactly what it says in the title: there are antiques and a lot of schemes surrounding them. An mystery adventure film that has some of the same energy as the Detective Chinatown series, Schemes in Antiques has been out for a few weeks in China, but is opening in the US this week courtesy of WellGo. It stars Lei Jiayin (A Writer’s Odyssey, Cliff Walkers) as the drunken, disheveled grandson of one of the founders of a World War II era antiquities authentication collective (the “Plum Blossom Five”). His grandfather was executed as a traitor for gifting a priceless Buddha’s head to the Japanese, and a descendant of the recipient is now attempting to repatriate the head to China. But, the head is a fake and Lei must find the real one before the ceremony, for the sake of his family’s honor and national pride.
A confounding array of obstacles stand in Lei’s path, though he is aided in his quest by Xin Zhilei (The Rescue), another descendant of the original five (one not taken seriously by her grandfather because she’s a woman). They’re in a race against yet another grandchild, one whose knowledge of antiques is rivaled only by his willingness to engage armed thugs in pursuit of winning. And the great Ge You shows up too, as an old friend of Lei’s father whose loyalties are questionable and seems to be at least one scheme ahead of the younger generation at all times.
The chase bumps along from puzzle to puzzle, and they and the various reversals and shifts in loyalty are sprightly enough to keep things moving, if not really engaging in the manner of a true mystery. All the puzzles are solved in ways we in the audience couldn’t possibly predict, in this way the film is more like the second, lesser Detective Chinatown film, rather than the classical locked-room mystery of the first. It is, however, commendable that the puzzles remain almost completely tangible, rather than relying on special effects or the supernatural, along the lines of Mojin: The Lost Legend, a recent cross-generational archeological mystery film that ultimately got swallowed up by the possibilities of cheap CGI. This particular affliction has plagued much of mainstream Mainland cinema over the last half decade, in no small part thanks to director Derek Kwok himself. His 2013 Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (co-directed with Stephen Chow) is arguably the highpoint of the effects-driven Chinese blockbuster, while his 2017 Wu Kong is one of the most egregiously nonsensical (not in a fun way) of the major recent blockbusters I’ve seen. It’s probably too much to ask him to ever return to the low-rent charms of his 2010 breakthrough Gallants, but Schemes retains a little bit of that film’s slobs vs. snobs charam, at least for a little while. More fruitful, perhaps, is Schemes guiding motif of “the real hiding within the fake”, a potent metaphor for all kinds of things, from the cinema to Chinese history and politics, and one that, in another time and another film, might have been built into more of a statement than a question.