I’d be lying if I said I completely understood the wild and entertaining Chinese action film Schemes in Antiques, but I enjoyed it quite a bit nonetheless. It’s an action film about two antiques experts who compete to solve a series of obscure puzzles and riddles to unearth a priceless, long-lost jade Buddha head. The Bodhisattva head dates back to the Tang dynasty and was a national treasure for centuries until it was given to the Japanese by Xu Yicheng in the 1940s. Unsurprisingly, the consequence of this tragic event was that Xu Yicheng was executed and the entire Xu clan was dishonored and ostracized.
The film opens forty years after the fateful exchange with Japanese envoy Miss Kido (Matsumoto Lili) offering to return the Buddha head to the Plum Blossom Five group, but only if a member of the Xu clan can receive it. Fortunately, bumbling gadget repairman Xu Yuan (Tao Guo) is found and while he isn’t involved in the antiques business, he still has his family’s extraordinary ability to spot fakes and forgeries. This leads to the problem that spurs the central challenge: Upon closer examination, Xu Yuan realizes that the jade head being returned by the Japanese is a fake. He stumbles across a sequence of puzzles that might lead him to the real Buddha head, but he’s now racing to solve things before rival Yao Buran (Li Xian) finds the priceless antique first.
The problem is that Yao Buran is aligned with Lao Chaofeng, the other gang! Fortunately, Xu Yuan soon partners up with the beautiful Huangyan Yan (Xin Zhilei) and the race is on!
To fully appreciate the chaos and fun of Schemes in Antiques, you have to know that most of the action really does hinge on whether people can rapidly differentiate between real and fake antiques. It becomes a sort of antiques-based machismo test between Buran and Yuan. Recognizing fake from real is critical in the complex, extended antiquarian puzzles that Xu Yuan’s father has left for them to solve. Once they do, however, will they recover the real jade Buddha head and who will get there first?
If you’re thinking of dusty, wizened men hunched over tables with old vases and bowls, however, you’d miss the other imaginative element that makes the film work so well; each group is essentially a tough street gang like those of the classic The Warriors. One gang is the Plum Blossom Five, the original syndicate of the five biggest antique dealing families (and for whom Xu Yuan still has allegiance), while the other gang is named after its capo dei capi, Lao Chaofeng (Qin Yan).
Sound a bit nutty? It definitely is. Schemes in Antiques is wildly imaginative and quite funny in its serious treatment of these speed antique grading challenges and the race to decipher the clues. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen recently and is definitely not going to see a Hollywood remake. Which all adds up to this being a must-see if you enjoy offbeat Chinese comedy action thrillers.