In the West, a popular subgenre of detective literature and motion pictures has been the investigation and solution of crimes by a husband and wife team of investigators, who may be a combination of professional and amateur, or a pair of talented amateurs. In the U.S. there have been such notable combinations as Nick and Nora Charles, and Pam and Jerry North; British fiction has given us Jane and Dagobert Brown, Henry and Emmy Tibbett, and of course Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Other countries probably have their own such pairings. The earliest example of this sub-genre I have found in Chinese film is this 1929 production from the (real-life) husband and wife team of Zhang Huimin and Wu Suxin, whose Huaju studio specialized in martial arts action/adventures. But instead of placing their stories in some vaguely defined period of ancient China, the usual setting for the swordsman fantasies that dominated Chinese screens at the time, Huaju placed its stories in modern, contemporary settings. As a result, while their films were usually categorized as "martial arts," in retrospect they would more accurately be classified as what we today would refer to as "action/adventure" films. A point of interest about this film is the role of the wife: instead of just advising her detective husband, she takes on most of the personal risk.
The popularity and success of this production raised the possibility of a series of movies featuring this crime-busting couple, but unfortunately a depressed economy combined with political turmoil drove the Huaju studio out of business and terminated what could have become a classic series.
[left, while no individual stills from the film have survived, this collage of stills composed an advertisement for the movie. Wu Suxin can be seen in man's clothing, hands in pockets, in the center. Most interesting is the lower right corner picture, in which she appears to be dancing on a table while partying with other gang members. Click on image to enlarge.]
Zhentan zhi Qi (1929) 侦探之妻 (The Detective’s Wife)
Huaju. B&W. Silent. 9 reels. Premiered May 27, 1929 at the Palace. Direction: Zhang Huimin. Cinematography: Tang Jianting. Cast: Wu Suxin (Madame Wu), Zhang Huimin (Ji Keren), Zhou Juanhong ("The Fly").
A certain city has been terrorized for some time by a criminal organization, and while the police have had some success in reacting when a crime is committed, they have less progress in accomplishing their main objective: apprehension of the brains of the gang, a shadowy figure known only as "The Fly." The problem is complicated by the presence of mob informants within the police. The city leaders decide to go outside for help, and bring in detective Ji Keren, the top detective in another city. Ji Keren knows there is no one in the police he can trust fully, and the gang may know his every move. But unknown to the gang the detective has a covert assistant, his wife Madame Wu, who often helps him in his investigations, sometimes by going underground. While Ji Keren proceeds with what appears to be normal police procedures, Madame Wu disguises herself as a man, and succeeds in joining the gang.
After gaining their trust, she learns from other gang members the real identity of "The Fly" and where he can be found. She also learns who are the informants within the police. Armed with this information, Ji Keren has the spies arrested before they can tip off the others, then he leads a police raid that rounds up the gang and most importantly, "The Fly." The criminal mastermind is tried and sentenced to a five-year prison term, but on being taken away he vows to have revenge on the couple, aiming his strongest threats at the woman who outsmarted him and deceived his top lieutenants. The detective couple don't take the threats seriously and return to their home city to resume normal life. But one day Madame Wu receives an anonymous letter telling her that another gang will soon begin operations in their home city, and that she can stop it in the same way. The letter even tells her how to do it. But her husband advises her to use caution, so she doesn't follow up on the tip. Actually, the letter has been written by "The Fly," who in addition to seeking revenge, is also planning to rebuild his criminal organization and operate it from prison.
One day while the couple are out for a walk, they happen upon a group of thugs molesting a girl selling flowers, and he intervenes to drive them off. But the flower girl is really working for "The Fly," and the whole incident was a setup. The next day, sent by her boss, she visits the couple to express her gratitude for their help. During the visit she casually mentions her suspicion that there may be criminal activity going on at a certain temple near her flower stall. The couple go there to investigate, but too late realize they have fallen into a trap. An underground stream runs beneath the temple, and Keren jumps in. When he doesn't come up, the gang celebrates, thinking he has drowned. But Keren has actually swum away underwater, and returns with police who subdue the gang and rescue the detective's wife.