Not Just Another Sherlock Holmes, DETECTIVE L 绅探 Is A Visually-Stunning Spectacle of a Web Series
Shanghai in the 1930s is a bustling city full of decadence and lawlessness. Qin Xiao Man, a young graduate from the police academy, finds herself working together with renowned detective and police consultant Luo Fei as they slowly become embroiled in the crimes of the city.
Director: Deng Ke
Cast: Bai Yu, You Jing Ru, Ji Chen, He Yong Sheng, Dong Wei Jia, Chen Meng Qi
Runtime: 24 episodes x 40 minutes
Who here has seen or read Sherlock Holmes? How about a Chinese Sherlock Holmes? Well, here you go.
Detective L is a crime investigation web series that follows a team of detectives who have to work together to solve crime. This team includes Qin Xiao Man (You Jing Ru), an enthusiastic fresh graduate from the police academy; Luo Fei (Bai Yu), a talented detective who helps the police as a consultant; Ben Jie Ming / Benjamin (Ji Chen), a socially awkward forensic doctor; and Dr. Huo Wen Si (Chen Meng Qi), an enigmatic psychiatrist who occasionally offers them advice.
On first impression, Detective L’s similarities to Sherlock Holmes are striking: it’s set somewhere in the past; its titular character Luo Fei uses sharp observations and shrewd deductions to uncover the truth; and its music, quirky and folksy with a slight jazz influence, gives off similar vibes to Han Zimmer’s soundtrack in the 2009 film. However, negating the whole series because of a few superficial similarities would be doing the drama injustice.
Firstly, the visuals of the web series are absolutely stunning. The set looks gorgeous, while the wardrobe — tailored and carefully styled to the era’s ideals of fashion — is authentic and delightful to look at. In terms of colour, the cold, inhospitality of the blues and grays of the city streets juxtaposed with the warm yellows and lush oranges of 1930s Shanghai’s staggering opulence sets an artistic tone that establishes the class disparity common in that era.
It also looks and feels just like a film — every frame is exquisitely shot and impeccably made, and this is especially evident in the scenes where Luo Fei is theorising in his head. As he moves around the crime scene and begins his deductions, the scene warps from reality to his imagination of what really took place, sometimes even done seemingly in one take. It is extremely satisfying to watch, and also gives a visual aid to how Luo Fei conceives his ideas and evaluates a crime scene.
Story-wise, it does follow the same vein as Sherlock Holmes in that it’s formatted like a whodunit. Three episodes is dedicated to the solving of each case, and while individually these cases seem unrelated, they actually weave together a picture of a greater ploy at play, one that has haunted Luo Fei throughout his 10-year career as a detective. While there are certain impossibilities that take place and tropes that drag down the story, these are dramatisations and clichés common to the genre — and the series’ plot, for the most part, is well-executed.
Nothing is as it seems, and most of the time, there are layers to the truth that slowly unravel throughout the series, even beyond the three-episodes of each case. Gaps in deductions that disguise themselves as plot holes and irrelevant observations come together to form the outline of a bigger picture, which makes the eventual fall-out all the more satisfying and entertaining to watch.
It is not all dark and serious either. Off the top of my mind, I can think of a few hilarious scenes and even slapstick comedy that breaks up the tension of the series, namely Ben Jie Ming’s attempts to steal a corpse and Xiao Man and Luo Fei’s tendency to re-enact crime scenes in front of potential tenants, to their landlord’s horror. These light-hearted antics that is scattered throughout the series gives the audience time to breathe, and allows us to connect with the characters in a way that would otherwise have been difficult.
With regards to comparisons to Sherlock Holmes, aside from his impeccable deduction skills, Luo Fei is hardly similar to his British counterpart. Bai Yu’s portrayal of the detective is funny and witty, glib-tongued yet kind-hearted; and there’s sincerity behind his often flippant exterior. Most notably, Luo Fei is not an egomaniac who’s assured of his victory or intelligence — he accepts his mistakes and seeks help when necessary, which makes him all the more human and all the more likeable.
Xiao Man’s character, on the other hand, has certain inconsistencies that make her a little more difficult to like. Her intellect varies according to what is needed for the plot, and sometimes the lines she’s made to say are so senseless it makes me want to reach out through the screen and grab her shoulders in frustration.
However, You Jing Ru plays up her tenacity and earnestness in a way that’s almost charming, and while she’s not as smart as Luo Fei, she’s determined and resilient. Unlike other Chinese dramas, she’s not at all a damsel in distress — she makes up for her limited intelligence in terms of physical capabilities, which is a nice balance to Luo Fei’s intellect.
While it has its shortcomings, Detective L is a beautiful web series that looks like it’s made for the big screen, and despite its familiar premise, it manages to weave together something refreshing and original that makes it markedly different from other stories in its genre.
P.S.: At the end of every case (i.e. every three episodes) is a little tidbit of story that takes place after the next case’s preview! If humour is your thing, be sure to stay tuned for it!
Detective L can be watched here. Meanwhile, this is the trailer (don’t worry, there are english subtitles in the actual series):