‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ builds character on a strong central mystery

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The Devotion of Suspect X
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The Devotion of Suspect X is a Japanese mystery thriller novel that has since been adapted to film in Japan and Korea, and while we in the States await an Americanized version, you can catch a Chinese adaptation playing in select cinemas. Now, I personally have no experience with the source material or the other adaptations, but so far as this version is concerned, it’s an engrossing thriller that deserves its growing reputation as a staple of mystery storytelling, even if I do have some questions about whether key information has been left out in this telling.

Tang Chuan (Kai Wang) is a genius detective investigating the murder of a man found on the bank of a river with his face mutilated beyond recognition and his fingerprints burned away. However, based on the man’s clothing, the police are able to identify the corpse in begin to focus on his ex-wife, Chen Jing (Ruby Lin), as the prime suspect. In the course of the investigation, Tang Chuan discovers that a kindred intellectual from his childhood, mathematician Shi Hong (Luyi Zhang), lives next door to Chen Jing, and begins to reconnect, only to discover that perhaps his old friend may be more involved in the murder than he initially appears.

The central mystery of who the murder is actually resolved rather quickly, at least from the audience’s perspective, which at first may seem like a bit of a cheat. However, the real appeal of The Devotion of Suspect X is not in solving the mystery, but in watching the three main characters dance around one another in a constant game of second-guessing and manipulation. Tang Chuan is a cool analytical type, though his ego allows him to miss key details, while Chen Jing is perpetually nervous and obviously in way over her head. But the key performance is certainly Luyi Zhang’s Shi Hong, who walks a critical line between empathetically damaged and dangerously creepy, and the line between those two serves as the crux for a secondary mystery the film develops in its latter half.

Stylistically, director Alec Su draws heavily from the works of David Fincher, relying on muted color schemes and subtle camera movements to convey a sense of omnipresent dread. The film is much less concerned with shocking us with twists than it is in exploring the ramifications of its biggest twist, which are much more engrossing than if the story had been a simple whodunit. An unfortunate side effect, though, is that the film becomes so engrossed in its character drama that it seemingly forgets to fully develop its secondary mystery. Most mysterious threads seem resolved until the film suddenly deigns to remind you that they’re not, and there is at least one giant plot hole that is never entirely resolved by the climactic explanation.

Still, The Devotion of Suspect X is a forgivably enjoyable experience, mostly due to the fantastic character work on display. It’s a slow burn that occasionally forgets the story it’s trying to tell, but the story at its core is so interesting and the actors so committed that those faults are easy to overlook. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a certain novel I need to track down….