How well do you figure the “National Treasure” movies played, how easily understandable were they to international audiences with even less knowledge of the arcana of American history than the average U.S. Joe?
That’s something I pondered while watching a Chinese mash-up of “National Treasure” and oh, “Antiques Roadshow,” with a smidgen of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
“Schemes in Antiques” is a history-hunting adventure about a missing jade head from a Buddha statue, a work of legend long lost after it was lopped off, then rediscovered and then abruptly sold to the hated Japanese when a member of one of the “Plum Blossom Five,” the esteemed and ancient first families of Chinese antiques dealing, made a deal.
That family fell into shame, “pariahs” for that sale, and are “Plum Blossoms” in name only in the film’s present day, 1992.
But when the Japanese heir to the fellow who bought this Tang Dynasty temple’s jade Buddha head says she wants to return it to China, her ancestor’s will decreed that a member of the family of the “traitor” who sold it be the one to receive it, thus clearing a stain from two nations and two family’s names.
That “heir” proves to be hard to find, having changed his name and what not. But he’s found, and his quick take on the diplomatically-handed-over head isn’t positive. The head she wants to hand off is a fake. T
hat sends that hapless, hustling alcoholic heir Xu yuan (Lei Jiayin) on a mad pursuit of clues left behind by his late father, while pursued by assorted gangs and the more respectable heir Yao Buran (Alan Aruna) to the other family whose ancestor helped recover the head, but wasn’t in on the secret sale to a Japanese collector long ago.
That’s a complicated set-up, so it’s no wonder that tedious voice-over narration by hustler Xu yuan (Lei) has to load down the first seven minutes with literally nothing but exposition, and the first half hour plays as prologue as our two heirs are matched in a snappy ancient Chinese artifacts and antiques authenticate-off.
That’s how they’ll decide “who” the head is handed off to. How…original.
“Schemes in Antiques” is a film, based on a poplar Chinese novel, that bogs the viewer down in dozens of dynasties, vast numbers of vases and arcane bits of Chinese historical lore wherein lie the clues as to where the “real” head is hidden. This mountain of detail isn’t really what the movie is about, and may not be an issue if you’re Chinese and viewing this. But after a brisk beginning, where our drunken anti-hero spectacularly hustles his local “fake” antiquities market, the film staggers to a near crawl.
And the light tone promised by “Drunken (Antiques) Master” sobers up and dulls down.
Xu yuan can’t fight worth a damn, which would be handy as thugs beset him. The “chairman’s” granddaughter, Yanyan (Xin Zhilei), turns out to be the classic “SHE is the martial artist in this team” switch as she assigns herself to be his sidekick.
Except the fights are few and far between.
The story stumbles from one “suspect” or “underworld figure with the next clue” to another. One is an ex partner of Xu’s dad (Ge Yu), a con artist in his own right. Another is the elusive underworld figure Lao Zhaofeng, and then there’s Lord Zheng, a shot caller and dealer of long-standing ill repute, a “Lord” who turns out to be a woman (Mei Yong).
And every so often, a clue or antique is confronted, examined in detail by each expert, with their intense gaze bringing ceramic painted dragons and the like to life, at least in their minds, as they mention the details that separate “authentic” from “fake.”
Xu, once he sobers up, has the edge in this regard thanks to his apparently-perfect recall of conversations or encounters he remembers — even from the edge of consciousness — and his apparent eidetic memory.
Unfortunately, once Xu sobers up, the movie loses most of its pop, pizazz and light touch. Without more chases, more fights and more fumbling and stumbling across “the truth,” “Schemes” outsmarts itself and simply talks and “dynasties” itself to death.
I had higher expectations for this, seeing as how history and artifacts and clue-by-clue mysteries are hard to pass up. But “Schemes” schemes itself out of ever being interesting enough to hold my attention.
Lei Jiayin’s performance loses its appeal and edge as the character dries out and cleans up. There’s no “love interest,” just more and more characters added on and endless explorations of what might be inside this bronze mirror or that cave or contained within a clockwork puzzle game of “Go.”
The stakes in this can have a deadly edge. And the elements of a better “quest” movie are present.
But without the pace or giddiness of its Hollywood antecedents, I have to say this promising Chi-Kin Kwok (“Journey to the West,” ugh) project turns more “Roadshow” than “Raiders,” and that’s just a bore.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Lei Jiayin, Xin Zhilei, Alan Aruna, Mei Yong, Qin Yan and Ge Yu
Credits: Directed by Chi-Kin Kwok, scripted by Hai Huang, Chi-Kin Kwok, Fan Wenwen and Kuan Zhu, based on a novel by Marberionius (Ma Boyong). A Well Go Entertainment release.
Running time: 2:03