The Detective (2007): Pang Bros Noir

The Detective (2007)

I am continually amazed and impressed by the Pang Brothers. Just when I think I’ve seen everything they’ve ever made, another gem and another genre of film pops up out of nowhere. Directed by Oxide Pang and produced/written by both the Pang Brothers, The Detective is film noir at it’s finest.

Set in the back alleys and streets of Bangkok, we follow private detective Tam (Aaron Kwok). Tam’s income as a private detective obviously leaves a lot to be desired. At the beginning of the film Tam is seated behind his desk and his fan is busily rotating back and forth. He suddenly notices that the fan may be moving but the fan blades are not.

After he turns the fan off, a man he knows from a bar comes in and hires Tam to find a woman who, he says, is trying to kill him. He wants Tam to tell her that he (Lung) had nothing to do with the other thing and that she should leave him alone. Tam doubts that Lung is serious, until he pulls a wad of cash out of his pocket and drops it on Tam’s desk. Lung tells him that it is all the money he has.

After taking Lung’s picture, Tam goes to have a bite to eat at a local cafe where he bumps into his childhood friend Chak (Kai Chi Liu) who is on the police force. Tam cannot join the police as his eyesight is very bad. He suffers from extreme short sightedness. After exchanging pleasantries with his friend he pays him back some money he owes him and tells him of his latest case.

Chak jokes that he will be there to help Tam if things get too difficult.

Tam then starts his meticulous investigation and tries to find this nameless woman. As we accompany him on his journey, we learn a lot about Tam and how he works. Pictures are taken of everyone he interviews and everyplace he visits. Not long after he starts questioning people he finds his first lead and his first dead body.

Tam follows more leads, discovers more dead bodies and relentlessly continues trying to find the woman and what her connection is to all the dead people he keeps finding.

The Pang Bros signature is on every scene and every frame of this film. Their usual combination of odd and sometimes oblique camera positions and use of natural lighting helps to sell this ‘noir’ crime story. The plot is full of twists and turns and it will keep you guessing right up until the end.

Aaron Kwok portrays Tam as a likeable and tenacious man who has scars from the disappearance of his parents when he was a child. His character makes mistakes and clearly loves solving the puzzles he encounters. Tam is  the Sam Spade of Bangkok if not in action, he definitely has the spirit of Spade in him.

The whole film shows Tam’s process of following first one clue then another and going through each step of his investigation as logically as he can. He pretends to be a policeman when this can help him in his pursuit. Despite being told off by his friend Chak for impersonating a police officer, he continues to use this ruse several times.

Inspector Chak and Tam

The list of suspects and the elusive woman who Tam has been hired to find makes for a very satisfactory mix of intrigue, mystery, danger and confusion. Despite the fact that this noir crime thriller doesn’t fall into the usual catalogue of Pang Bros films, it does follow their winning formula of good story, good characters, great cinematic moments and a very satisfying ending.

My final verdict is that this film is one to see. Put on your noir thinking cap and enjoy this twisting and turning journey.

Starfish Hotel (2006): Noir or Not to Noir

What do you get when you have a film that relies heavily on the film noir verse and then takes a sidestep into fantasy, horror and downright weirdness? You get Starfish Hotel, that’s what. I will just mention here that the giant rabbit costume worn by one of the characters actually creeped me out miles more that the one in Donny Darko. Although you can argue that the giant rabbit in Darko wasn’t in a suit.

Written and directed by John Williams (the current CEO of Tokyo‘s 100 Metre Films) in a move to presumably show that anyone can write and direct a film, Williams helmed this his third film. I am not sure that CEO’s of any company should give up their ‘day job’ if they churn out a film as confusing as Starfish Hotel.

That is not to say that Starfish is unwatchable, the reverse is actually true. I could not stop watching the film. Despite it’s meandering plot and story, it was compelling enough that I had to see it through to the end. I will be honest though and say that the main reason was the presence of Japanese actor Kôichi Satô whom I’d first seen in the superior horror film Infection (2004).

The plot revolves around Arisu (Sato) and an elicit affair he is having with another woman that he first met in the Starfish Hotel. He carries on this affair for years, each time returning to the hotel to meet his lover. The only other passion that Arisu has in his life is his enjoyment of a mystery writer’s newest stories. When they are published, Arisu rushes to get his copy.

The latest book is titled The Starfish Hotel and it appears to be about Arisu. In the meantime, Arisu’s wife goes missing and he has to find her. It turns out that she has been working in a brothel and someone has burned it down.

The noir-ish pattern of intermixing fact with fiction and fantasy does not work in this film, which is a shame. The film looks stunning. The colours create a moody and intense atmosphere and help to create a feeling of loss and confusion. But Williams introduces too many characters and lets them interact with too many people.

I found this film by accident on LOVEFILM and decided to give it a go. Like I said, it was a compelling watch. It was hard to follow and it got a little frustrating at times. It is by all means not the worst film I’ve seen this year, but it’s coming a close second or third.

You know a film hasn’t been received all that well when you cannot even find it on Wikipedia. I think honestly that the side stepping into J-noir hurt the film overall.  But again, I can only plead puzzlement over what Williams was trying to achieve with Starfish Hotel. I do know that I found it had to not watch.

It wasn’t the sort of ‘train wreck’ fascination that compelled me to stick to the end. It was more of a, ‘let’s watch just a little bit longer I’m sure it will all make sense soon.’

Unfortunately, by the time I got to the end, I was more than a little underwhelmed. All that painful interaction and subterfuge and dangling interludes just left me cold. Don’t get me wrong, I love film noir. To see how it really should be done just watch the Coen bros first effort Blood Simple (1984).

Blood Simple could be used in film schools as a template on how to make a darn near perfect noir thriller in any language. But I am wandering off topic here, somewhat like the film itself, and I wish that I could come up with an overall rating of  Starfish Hotel.  It falls into the category of interesting little film.

Just imagine that you’ve entered the local film store. As you go down the aisles looking for a film you haven’t seen yet, you spy a film hiding behind the rest of the DVD cases. Reaching back you grab the ‘hidden’ film and read the back cover. Despite the information printed on the back you decide to watch the film.

Why?

Because you found it. It wasn’t recommended by anyone, or panned, or reviewed by anyone. You just stumbled across it. That alone makes it worth watching. I found many ‘hidden gems’ this way. Sadly Starfish Hotel is not a hidden gem, but more of a curiosity as it struggles to find a genre that it belongs in.

The Coen bros show how noir should be done.