Director: Derek Kwok
Cast: Li Xian, Xin Zhi Lei, Lei Jia Yin, Ge You, Guo Tao
Runtime: 2 hrs 3 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language & Violence)
Released By: Clover Films
Opening Day: 9 December 2021
Synopsis: Despite being the descendent of a family known for its expertise on ancient relics, Xu Yuan chooses to make a simple living as the owner of an electronics shop. But when a Japanese woman named Kido announces her plan to return a Tang Dynasty Buddha head to China, Xu Yuan is pulled into an all-out war over this priceless artefact.
Like ‘National Treasure’ or ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘Schemes in Antiques’ is constructed as a fast-paced action-adventure that has its protagonist racing against time to solve a series of puzzles in order to uncover a long-lost secret.
Here, the protagonist is Xu Yuan (Lei Jiayin), an unassuming owner of a small electronics shop who hails from a family of relic experts. Xu’s ordinary life is upended when the legendary Tang Dynasty Buddha head from Empress Consort Wu’s Imperial Treasure Hall is returned to China by a Japanese family who had been in possession of it since the Sino-Japanese war; the woman Kido returning the artefact makes a curious request for it to be presented to the descendant of the man who had earlier been branded a traitor for sending it to Japan.
The re-emergence of the artefact also attracts another expert Yao Buran (Li Xian), who unlike the perpetually disheveled-looking Xu, cuts a dapper figure with neat suits, and metal-rimmed glasses. Their maiden encounter with each other sets the stage for the tone of their ensuing relationship: to prove their respective worth, Xu and Yao are pitted against each other to see which one of them can more accurately sift out fakes from amongst a collection of 20 antiques.
What follows between them is a race to track down the real Buddha head, after it is quickly established that the item in Kido’s possession is a fake. Whereas Xu sees it as an opportunity to redeem his family’s tarnished legacy, Yao has a much more personal (and selfish) ambition in mind, sparking a deepening rivalry with both hilarious and deadly serious consequences.
Spanning a little over two hours, director Derek Kwok keeps the pace fast and frenetic, packing the film with riddle after riddle without barely pausing for his audience to make sense of them. In fact, those who try to do so will probably find themselves frustrated at how cavalier the movie throws out clue after clue, exposition after exposition, twist after turn in rapid, quick-fire succession; indeed, the plotting (based on the novel by Ma Boyong and credited to six writers, no less) goes by so frenziedly that you wonder if the filmmakers were simply trying to distract you from the fact that there is not a lot of logic or coherence behind the shenanigans.
Yet to Kwok’s credit, those simply looking for an entertaining diversion will find themselves suitably engaged from start to finish. Among the memorable set-pieces are a tense foot chase around a busy railway station, where Xu has to evade Yao and a gang of ruffians he is connected with, a New Year dinner feast in a village up in the mountains where Xu and Yao reluctantly join forces to hoodwink the young chief, and a shootout amidst a fast-crumbling underground temple. In terms of scale, this is probably his biggest film to date, and Kwok manages it with flair and confidence.
That the trickeries prove so enjoyable is credit to the superb ensemble Kwok has assembled for the movie, including a roguishly charming Lei who also delivers unexpected pathos in the last act, a devilishly sly Li who reveals a surprisingly Machiavellian side, and a beguilingly enigmatic Ge You in a key supporting role as Xu’s mentor Fu Gui. Whether is it the rivalry between Xu and Yao or the fatherly bond between Xu and Fu, the chemistry among the various key players breathe life and colour into the movie.
It bears reiterating that ‘Schemes in Antiques’ is ultimately intended as a fun, light-hearted action adventure despite its subject matter, so don’t go in expecting a serious-minded history lesson, even as it does borrow from history for its plotting. Just like ‘National Treasure’ and ‘The Da Vinci Code’ therefore, it requires that you properly suspend your disbelief to embrace its escapist pleasures. We must admit that we were wary that it would yet become another thinly veiled propaganda exercise; thankfully, any nationalism is kept to a minimum here, which is all the more reason you ought to simply hop on, strap in, and enjoy the ride.
(The rare Mainland Chinese film that isn't stuffed with propaganda, 'Schemes in Antiques' is a fun, light-hearted and thoroughly entertaining action adventure)
Review by Gabriel Chong