Preternaturally gifted detectives are a dime a dozen in TV land these days, but not all of them live at 221B Baker Street. The new 12-part series Detective Chinatown presents us with an intriguing new contender for the deerstalker crown in the form of Lin Mo (Taiwanese actor Roy Qiu), chemistry teacher turned sleuth who tackles seemingly impossible cases in Bangkok’s Chinese enclave with the help of rookie police officer Sa Sha (Yishang Zhang).
The Detective Chinatown expanded universe
Originally released in 2020, Detective Chinatown the series is part of the same universe as the wildly popular Detective Chinatown film franchise – in point of fact the series takes place at the same time as the events of 2018’s Detective Chinatown 2.
Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the source – the connections are thin enough that newcomers will have no trouble plugging into what’s going on. Our hero, Lin Mo, is the apprentice of Detective Chinatown’s hero, Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang), and when the events of Detective Chinatown 2 see Tang Ren and his nephew, Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) fly off to New York City on a case, it falls to Lin Mo to solve the crimes the Bangkok police put in the Too Hard Basket.
Man of mystery
Lin Mo makes for a fascinating protagonist. He’s a mysterious figure who straddles the line between criminal and detective. A high school chemistry teacher before he turned private eye, he’s actually a (semi) reformed street scavenger whose main job was tidying up crime scenes for a Thai crime boss. After a botched job saw his mentor murdered by someone further up the criminal food chain, Lin Mo reinvented himself – and that’s where we come in.
When we meet him, he’s a gifted investigator with Sherlock-level observational skills and an extremely keen sense of smell, quickly deducing that a senior police officer has recently been to temple from a variety of tiny clues and the scent of incense on his clothes before taking over the investigation of a seemingly supernatural murder. His new partner Sa Sha, however, seems to know something about our hero’s shady backstory, telling him he was once good at making homicides look like suicides – a thread which is followed up later in the season.
Detective Chinatown excels at blurring the line between cop and criminal, hero and villain, the straight world and the underworld, and while we’re always firmly on Lin Mo’s side thanks to Roy Qiu’s charismatic performance, we’re not always where he stands in the bigger picture.
Three stories for the price of one
Unusually for a police procedural, Detective Chinatown is broken into three four-episode story arcs, rather than the usual crime-an-episode or season-long narrative models.
The first, ‘Four-Faced Buddha’, sees Lin Mo delving into a seemingly supernatural curse stalking four women who all went to school together, methodically stripping away layers of deception and superstition to reveal the truth of the matter. The second, ‘The Name of the Rose’, is a prequel to the first, delving into Lin Mo’s criminal past as we see him framed for the murder of a writer and targeted for revenge by his widow, Ivy (Janine Chang). The third arc, ‘Ghost Invitational’, actually leaves Lin Mo behind to further expand the Detective Chinatown universe, following Yetian Hao’er (Chen Zheyuan), nephew to the movies’ Yetian Hao, to Tokyo for an invitational video game tournament where he’s forced to solve the murder of an e-sports champion.
This approach lets each storyline breathe, allowing the viewer to really sink into the tangled web of lies and red herrings each case presents. Yet while Detective Chinatown presents plenty of challenges for the mind, it’s not a slow-burn snooze. The series is visually sumptuous and cinematically ambitious in its staging, using rapid editing, CGI and the rich backdrops of both Bangkok and Tokyo to excellent effect. Think CSI meets Sherlock with an Asian action movie aesthetic and you’re on the right track.
Detective Chinatown draws from a variety of influences, but it is absolutely its own thing. The main milieu of Bangkok’s Chinatown is deeply evocative not just in terms of its strong visual identity but in the culture presented. The series isn’t an urban fantasy or even what we might term magical realism, but it deals with Chinese and Thai religion, folklore, superstition and customs in interesting and engaging ways.
At one point Lin Mo has a vision of a deceased victim whose murder he vows to solve. Are we meant to take this literally or is it visualisation of our hero’s thought processes? The series is coy, avoiding concrete answers here while still presenting us with knowable mysteries to solve. This makes Detective Chinatown unlike any other crime series currently doing the rounds. So, if you’ve got an adventurous palate for police procedurals, by all means head straight for Chinatown.
See Detective Chinatown Tuesdays at 11.40pm on SBS VICELAND. The full series is also streaming at SBS On Demand.