Because I can't bring myself to go see the Pang Brother's remake of their own movie, Bangkok Dangerous, (just seeing the trailer was painful enough) I decided to do what any rational Pang fan would do: pretend that Bangkok Dangerous redux (or Bangkok Dangerous 2.0 as they are calling in Hong Kong) did not happen and watch a different Pang movie. Fortunately, in my mountain of unwatched DVDs, I have a couple to choose from, and one that I have been meaning to get to: Oxide Pang's well received The Detective. Making good decisions is something I am working on, and in this case I have no doubt that The Detective offers more in entertainment and style than Nicolas Cage's last ten films. (And, yes, I did look that up to make sure that did not include Adaptation.)
The Pang Brothers, twins Oxide and Danny, have been making films for over ten years now. Although they were born in Hong Kong, their move to Thailand put them on the map as interesting filmmakers to watch with stylish Bangkok Dangerous in 1999. The Pangs became part of this resurgence in Thai film along with film fest hits Tears of the Black Tiger by Wisit Sasanatieng and Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Mysterious Object at Noon. Their breakout film, however, was the Hong Kong horror film The Eye in 2002 starring the Malaysian born Taiwanese pop star Angelica Lee. The Eye was to Hong Kong what The Ring was to Japan. It spawned numerous copycats and sequels and spoofs, and, of course, a US remake starring Jessica Alba. The Pangs have thrived, sometimes working independently but mostly working together, cranking out films that don't deviate too far from the action-horror niche that they had built for themselves. Failures (most notably their North American debut, The Messengers) have left them undeterred and as productive as ever.
Watching Oxide's The Detective (2007) convinces me that their best work comes from the places they call home. In the case of The Detective, home is Bangkok's Chinatown. Tam runs a private detective business amongst the Cantonese population of Bangkok. Tam's a bit of a mover-and-shaker who probably spends more time preening and listing to the radio than investigating. When elderly local drunk Fei Lung walks through his door with a wad of bills and the ludicrous request of hunting down a woman who is following him and trying to kill him, Tam has no choice but to take on the job armed with only a photo. Fei Lung's peculiar behavior should have been a clue that this would be no ordinary investigation. Needless to say, the more Tam digs, the more mysterious this scenario gets, leading him to seemingly unrelated but hard to ignore clues. Unable to let a hot lead turn cold, Tam follows his curiosity despite the fact that someone clearly wants him to stop.
Bangkok has the look and feel of Hong Kong fifteen years ago, with the aesthetics of the dark cavernous spaces of Kowloon's Walled City or Chungking Mansions, not unlike that of Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. The Detective benefits from the atmosphere and mimics the already dark palette that Oxide Pang works with throughout the film. Every corner, alley, and door offer a space that seems to be hiding a secret that we may or may not see. The perfectly framed opening scene of the beggar in a cluttered lane howling at dawn's first light sets the tone and the ambiance. The setting combined with the production values differentiates The Detective just enough to be an interesting Hong Kong-Thailand hybrid.
Although I would not have said this five years ago, but Aaron Kwok is ten times the actor that Nicolas Cage is and is pitch perfect in this film. Kwok has steadily been breaking from his pretty-boy mold into a very solid actor. First with Johnnie To's Throwdown, then with Patrick Tam's After This Our Exile and, most convincingly, with The Detective: compelling in both appearance and character as a detective of the people. Kwok, who has stared in over 30 films, is a pop star who is setting an example by making good choices, and taking his roles seriously. As Tam, Kwok plays it straight, never going over the top, and the result is pretty impressive given his very spotty resume.
I appreciate a mystery that no one has a chance of figuring out until the end, simply because I'm usually the only one unable to solve the puzzle. The Detective seems to dole out the pieces we need, keeping my rapt attention due to the fact that I was more engrossed in what would happen next than resolving to the laziness of rewinding to what I might have missed. The pace allows for no downtime, and employs more than a few unique action scenes that distract you from the details that you may have missed. In the end, it's something of a clever ploy because the clues that are given to us never get us any closer to solving the mystery than Tam.
The Detective is far from a perfect film. The heavy-handed delivery of the explanation of the crime at hand is awkward at best, and the inclusion of Tam's family drama is totally out of place. It probably won't win any awards, nor be big enough to find a new audience (although it does seem to be available in the US on DVD via Tai Seng), but as a fan of the genre, The Detective technically goes above and beyond what you might normally find is such a film. Although Hong Kong isn't producing films like it used to, films that fall in the action/thriller category seem a dime-a-dozen because they rarely extend beyond a mold that has proven to be successful. Oxide Pang and Aaron Kwok have done just enough to keep The Detective far from a throw-away film that Bangkok Dangerous (2008) is destine to be.