Chinese adventure hybrid Schemes in Antiques from director Derek Kwok (Immortal Demon Slayer) may feel, to American audiences, like a mash-up between National Treasure (2004) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001). It’s at times silly, serious, delicate, and violent, all while using the actual history of strife between two countries as the fertile ground from which to craft a suspenseful mystery. Adapted from Ma Bo Young’s novel Antique Bureau Central Bureau, and the second adaptation of this work (the first seems to be a 2018 television program), Schemes in Antiques appears to streamline yet, strangely, also complicate the original plot of the novel in order to create far more suspense in the film even while attempting to increase focus in the process. This strange schism runs throughout Schemes in Antiques to the point where the best thing you can do is try not to keep up and just revel in the clever puzzles our protagonist must conquer in order to solve the mystery of his father and, in concert, reclaim his personal sense of worth.
Charged with preserving the antiques of China and removing the fakes is the Plum Blossom Five, an organization whose reputation is built upon being able to recognize the difference in supposed antiques and who’s excited to take back a relic believed lost to Japan, the jade Buddha head of Wu Zetian Mingtang. The issue is that the representative from Japan will only give it back to a decedent of the person who gave it to them, a person killed as a traitor and whose family has been shunned. Reluctantly, Xu Yuan (Lei Jiayin) agrees to accept it, but only if he can lay his hands on it. However, in so doing, he realizes that neither Japan nor the Plum Blossom Five understand what they have and begins a quest to track down the truth of the jade Buddha head, trailed by the grandson of the other man to originally find the head who is determined to acquire the head before Yuan can. Thus begins a chase through China’s history that will end in historical preservation or financial glory.
Based upon the trailer for Schemes, there’s an expectation of whimsy, of a silly aloofness to the entire film. The entire trailer is edited with up-beat music and the kind of cuts that imply clever characters taking audiences for a ride, ensuring that no one knows who to trust throughout. This is where the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven comparison comes in as that grounded story balanced personal drama and comedy inside a heist film where little was as it seemed and the audience really only understood what was happening after the River was dealt. There’s some of this within Schemes and, as presented, is a fascinating and often hilariously delivered series of puzzles that the audience is invited to solve along with the characters. Sometimes the puzzles are literal, each clue leading to a puzzle that’s actually a clue for another puzzle (and so on), while others involve people and their motivations (opaque in the moment, clear soon after) with my favorite moment being when Yuan, Plum Blossom Five representative Huang Yan Yan (Xin Zhilei), and family friend Fu Gui (Ge You) enter an underground antiques market. Rival Yao Bu Ran (Li Xian) arrives just as they do, each putting into motion a different scheme in order to come away with the prize. How they go about it is similar yet different enough to show off their specific skillsets. Watching it unfold resulted in one of the bigger laughs of the film. It also leads to the tensest moment, too, offering one of the bigger pendulum swings in tone that the film had presented up to that point.
This is, of course, not so startling when set against how the film opens: a history lesson regarding the MacGuffin of the film and how it ties to Yuan. This opening includes his grandfather’s execution for being a traitor to China and Yuan’s father abandoning him. Both of these are particularly dramatic and certainly set up a more serious film that most of Schemes ends up being. In particularly, without the awareness of the geopolitical conflict between China and Japan whose tendrils feed in to the main story, set in 1992, that there’s even a fight for the Buddha head will appear confusing and potentially too dramatic. To offer some perspective, China and Japan’s first war took place from 1894-1895 as they battled for control of Korea, with their second taking place from 1937-1945, overlapping with World War II. For a period of time, Japan even occupied Hong Kong, an aspect used as part of the central conflict in Bruce Lee’s classic 1972 film Fist of Fury and whose resistance is presented in Zhang Yimou’s recent Cliff Walkers (2021). Being aware of this enables the stakes to resonant, but the film doesn’t spend any time explaining the Chinese-Japanese conflict beyond identifying Yuan’s grandfather as a traitor, so unaware audiences may struggle to understand why Yuan starts off as a drunk, why it matters that his father abandoned him, and why the film’s resolution is as much about personal victory and absolution as the reclamation of a lost artifact. Being an adaptation of a novel, it’s likely that this was properly established there and excised in the film to keep things relatively simple. It’s also something that Chinese audiences, for whom this film is made, are likely already aware of and don’t require a history lesson in a similar vein as to how National Treasure works best when you have a working knowledge of American history.
Though it’s not as light as the trailer might imply, it’s still a fun and engaging watch. The central cast of Lei, Li, and Xin manage their oscillating roles of rival and ally well, so much so that you almost root for old conflicts to be buried as their respective performances get better when they’re bouncing off of each other versus butting heads. Each actor also manages the shifting tones with relative ease, even if it’s jarring enough to take notice of and pull you from the film. Ge You has the difficult job of being a truly mercurial character, the type that shouldn’t be trusted awake or asleep, yet You’s performance is so charming that you’ll call him a scamp and forgive him, even if he’s put you in harm’s way. It’s because of these performances and the cleverness of the puzzles that Schemes results in a satisfying experience, even if a tad uneven and overloaded at times. Much like National Treasure, if a second tale can be told in order to go on another adventure with Yuan and company, I’d gladly sign back up just to go for the ride.
In theaters December 17th, 2021.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s official Schemes In Antiques website.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.