Director: Alec Su
Cast: Wang Kai, Ruby Lin, Zhang Luyi
Runtime: 1 hr 52 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Opening Day: 20 April 2017
Synopsis: In the gripping thriller, DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X, Shi Hong is a teacher who enjoys the company of his beautiful neighbor, divorcee Chen Jing and her young daughter. When Fu Jian, Chen Jing’s abusive ex-husband, suddenly shows up trying to extort money from Chen Jing, threatening both her and her daughter, the situation spirals out of control and Fu Jian is killed. Shi Hong offers to help Chen Jing and her daughter cover up the crime, but when his former classmate and police consultant, Tang Chuan, becomes involved in investigating the murder, Shi Hong must betray his friend’s trust and involve himself in a dangerous cat-and-mouse game that reveals the depths of his feelings for Chen Jing and her daughter.
If you’ve seen the 2008 Japanese adaptation ‘Suspect X’, then this made-for-China version of the same Keigo Higashino thriller probably holds little surprises. As its synopsis already reads, ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ tells of a reunion between two brilliant minds who were once classmates – criminologist Prof Tang Chuan (Wang Kai) and secondary school Mathematics teacher Shi Hong (Zhang Luyi) – when a gruesome murder is committed that ensnares Shi Hong’s next-door neighbor Chen Jing (Ruby Lin) and her teenage daughter Xiaoxin. Though the lead detective Luo Mao is suspicious of Chen Jing and her somewhat too-perfect alibi, Prof Tang believes that his former intellectual equal Shi Hong is somehow implicated in the case – and true enough, the latter had not only assisted Chen Jing in covering up the accidental death of her ex-husband, but will also be instrumental in coming up with a Plan B as Detective Luo’s investigative noose slowly tightens around Chen Jing.
Whereas Hiroshi Nishitani’s film turned that premise into a battle-of-wits, sophomore director Alec Su dials down the tension between the protagonists in favour of a more affecting observation of Shi Hong and the circumstances surrounding his misplaced altruism. Why would someone whom Prof Tang first proclaims to be interested only in Mathematics and not in money or relationships go out of his way in order to help someone who is at best an acquaintance? What drives the middle-aged Shi Hong now, whose shyness has now turned into detachment, disappointment and worse disillusionment? And therefore, how far would Shi Hong go to help Chen Jing, even to the extent of shouldering the murder rap? Bit by bit, Su peels back the layers to reveal an intimate portrait of Shi Hong, a Mathematics prodigy now wasting his time teaching inattentive adolescents in school and left despondent that his life has now become utterly meaningless.
That emphasis on Shi Hong inevitably comes at the expense of Prof Tang, whose purpose in the movie is confined to drawing out Shi Hong’s motivations, figuring out Shi Hong’s role in the case, and by extension push the plot-driven narrative forward. Aside from his astute criminal mind and familiarity with Shi Hong, there is little else that defines Prof Tang. Unlike Shi Hong therefore, we know not what drives him to engage in the investigation, whether is it because he relishes the challenge itself or whether it is borne of his firm belief in the pursuit of the truth. That in turn constrains how far we believe and empathize with his crisis of conscience that he faces at the end after finally uncovering the facts of the case – what good is the truth if its revelation ultimately causes the parties involved, sans the police, even more pain? That is what left Prof Tang’s equivalent distraught with at the close of ‘Suspect X’ and the conundrum that its viewers were meant to ponder, but which are both regrettably glossed over here.
It isn’t just Prof Tang’s part that is diminished, but also the dynamic between Prof Tang and Shi Hong. A series of flashbacks early on tells of the stimulation of intellectual sparring when they were classmates, with each taking turns to come up with IQ questions that the other must solve. That same simulation is apparently what makes Prof Tang excited about reconnecting with Shi Hong after so many years, who brings the latter a paper disproofing the Riemann hypothesis for him to validate on the occasion of their first reunion. And yet, subsequent scenes between the two male leads fail to reinforce this, their banter heavy on ambiguity but little else. Unlike the novel and the previous Japanese big-screen iteration of it therefore, their relationship feels more of two old friends reconnecting after a long while apart than of two equally clever minds facing off with each other, which in turn makes it seem slightly perplexing why Prof Tang would continue assisting the investigation especially knowing fair well that it would invariably push Shi Hong into a corner.
Compared to Masuharu Fukuyama and Shinichi Tsutsumi, Wang Kai and Zhang Luyi are simply not as compelling. The former cuts a suave, sharp figure as Prof Tang, but is constrained by the limits of his character in relation to the story. The latter, on the other hand, captures the reclusive, introverted nature of Shi Hong, but not his inner brilliance or his profound sense of attachment towards Chen Jing and Xiaoxin, which arguably is crucial to understanding why he would go to such lengths to protect both mother and daughter against their abusive and degenerate father. Indeed, Zhang Luyi’s performance consists quite one-dimensionally of hunching his soldiers, looking forlorn and smiling on occasion when his character gets the opportunity to share a tender moment with either Chen Jing or Xiaoxin. The two female actresses playing Chen Jing and Xiaoxin inject sufficient vulnerability and warmth into their respective roles, but the film rests on its two male leads and needed to have a stronger complement than Zhang Luyi.
To be fair, ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ is perfectly watchable, and a major step-up from Su’s flat-footed first film ‘My Left Foot’. Unfortunately, after a superior Japanese adaptation and another well-reviewed Korean one, Su’s faithful but unremarkable version somehow comes off underwhelming. For those unfamiliar with the story, this will probably do fine; but for those (and we suspect there will be many) who are already familiar with the twists and turns, there needs to be a more compelling reason to be invested in this version, not just for the fact that it is set in China’s Jiangnan and stars a bunch of Chinese actors. Without strong character development (and we mean both Prof Tang and Shi Hong, not just one or the other) as well as equally robust acting, there is not enough to distinguish this from its predecessors – and that is, even with recruiting author Higashino as one of its six screenwriters no less.
(An assured, faithful, but ultimately unremarkable, adaptation of the Keigo Higashino novel that will do fine for those unfamiliar with the tale, but offer little for those who already know its twists and turns)
Review by Gabriel Chong