The most high-profile Chinese screen adaptation of a foreign novel in years, “The Devotion of Suspect X” by bestselling Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino is given a diligent, if a tad colorless treatment by Taiwanese actor-turned-director Alec Su. Nevertheless, the plot of how a math geek devises the perfect cover-up to clear his loved one of murder is so ingenious, it will impress anyone who doesn’t already know the source material.
Higashino is arguably the most popular Japanese writer in China, and the release of this remake comes at the peak of China’s unprecedented buying spree of Japanese novels and manga content. Its box office performance serves as an indicator of how future remakes may fare in the domestic market. Upon opening, the film instantly led the pack among weak domestic titles, grossing nearly $44.4 million in just over a week.
“The Devotion of Suspect X” is part of Higashino’s “Galileo” series, featuring Manabe Yukawa, a physics professor who solves crimes using arcane scientific theories (though the character was inexplicably cut from the 2012 Korean adaptation, “Perfect Number”). Before that misstep, “Galileo” spawned a successful TV series whose director, Hiroshi Nishitani, also helmed a standalone feature version called “Suspect X” in 2008. Now, working from a script by Li Jiayi, Huang Hai, Chang Jiang, Wang Chao, and Chi Hai, Taiwanese director Su succeeds in delivering an effective, tightly structured new take on the material, even as he falls short of both Nishitani’s attention to detail and the sensitivity of his own debut, “The Left Ear.”
A body washes up on the river bank of Jiangbei, a town in the Northeastern city of Harbin. Though some effort was made to obscure the victim’s face and fingerprints, he’s quickly identified as deadbeat Fu Jian (Zhao Yang). Even though his ex-wife Jing (Ruby Lin) and her teenage daughter Xiaoxin (Deng Enxi) have alibis to prove their innocence, a hunch leads Det. Luo Miao (Ye Zuxin) to consider Jing as the prime suspect.
The film is less a whodunit than a “how-to-undo-it,” as it’s revealed right off the bat that Jing and Xiaoxin have indeed killed Fu, albeit by accident. When their neighbor — and reclusive math teacher — Shi Hong (Zhang Yilu) overhears the commotion, he offers to help them get out of the mess. Staying true to the book, Su suggests that Shi is acting out of a repressed infatuation with Jing, though the character’s shyness is culturally at odds with the new Chinese setting, rendering this melancholy subplot less effective than it might have been.
Tang Chuan (Wang Kai), a professor at the local police academy, takes an interest in the investigation when he learns by chance that the lead suspect’s neighbor was an old junior high classmate of his. Cue flashbacks to their school days, which reveal how their friendship developed over a spirit of mathematical sparring — though it was a mistake to cast two annoyingly narcissistic teen-idol wannabes (Neo and Yan Xujia) as the protagonists’ younger, nerdy selves.
A number of changes to the source material, including the elimination of the professor’s bickering love interest, deprives the Chinese remake of a light-hearted counterpoint to Shi’s gloomy, repressed longing and Jing’s tormented past. In the climactic scene, when Tang and Shi go on a hike, the change of location from a mountain in the thick of a blizzard (in the Japanese film) to a stroll through a pretty grove greatly reduces tension and the latent menace Shi may harbor.
Ultimately, the film’s elaborately-mapped plots are unraveled in a blow-by-blow account that doesn’t give the brain much of a workout, but makes it suitably accessible for a wider audience. Veteran Hong Kong editor Wenders Li maintains tight pacing while still leaving room for psychological layers.
The production ups the game in the final act with a car chase that strengthens its thriller element. However, in the film’s most shattering scene, which screams out for a tour de force performance, Zhang’s frozen expression falls short of the gut-wrenching pathos he’s expected to deliver. Higashino’s paradoxical motif of how love makes a person most ruthless when he or she is being most sacrificial doesn’t reverberate strongly.
Zhang’s leering eyes and hunched gait recalls Cru from “Despicable Me” and borders on comical. To satisfy China’s screening criteria, which disapproves police being portrayed as any less than omniscient, Tang’s role has been modified from a pure academic who assists the often clueless police in solving cases to an official police employee himself.
The script also shapes Chen Miao into a smarter, more capable detective who proactively made breakthroughs in the investigation. This actually makes the film more ‘realistic’ for local audiences, but the geeky, antisocial traits that make Yukawa so endearing are lost in Tang’s character, whose dull straight-arrow image is exacerbated by Wang’s robotic expressions and arrogant air. Lin, who co-starred with Su in the ’90s Asian mega-hit drama “My Fair Princess,” is the only one who infuses her role with some soul, evincing fragility as well as determination to protect her daughter.
Craft contributions, from Zhang Dayong’s moodily prowling camerawork to Michiru Oshima’s affectingly rueful score, are well-attuned to the small-town atmosphere.