I’m glad to see that Johnny To has become a recognizable, marketable name on the international film festival circuit. His trio of excellent and stylish films in 2006 (ELECTION, ELECTION 2, EXILED) generated considerable enthusiasm beyond the niche of loyal, hardcore Hong Kong film fans.
Even more exciting for me, though, was the prospect of To reuniting with former frequent colloborators Wai Ka-Fai and the great Lau Ching Wan, both of whom are still under recognized on the world cinema scene. To’s colloborations with Wai tend to be more whimsical and less straightforward than To’s solo works; they bring something out in each other that is altogether distinct and pleasurable. Though I haven’t kept up with most of Lau’s recent performances, he was nothing short of marvelous in MY NAME IS FAME. Would the reunion live up to expectations?
MAD DETECTIVE premiered last year at the Venice Film Festival and, after playing a few other fests, surprisingly was picked up for US distribution. I watched it at home, on video, and, while I was not blown away as I have been by other To/Wai/Lau pictures, the film is resonating quite nicely in my head nearly three days later.
A police procedural with an over-the-top premise, MAD DETECTIVE is above average fare. Lau Ching Wan plays Inspector Bun, a police detective who claims he can see hidden “inner personalities,” which allows him to solve a string of unsolvable cases. We meet him as he’s stabbing the carcass of a pig in front of a squad room of colleagues — Bun is also big on getting into the minds of suspects by reenacting the crimes. Newly arrived Detective On (Andy On) helps out by rolling Bun down a flight of stairs. But when Bun slices off his ear to honor his retiring boss, everybody suddenly realizes he’s mentally disturbed, and he’s quickly “retired.”
After a confusing interlude with two police detectives on a late-night stakeout in a park, we find Detective On seeking Bun’s help. Five years have passed since Bun’s forced retirement, and 18 months have elapsed since the stakeout gone bad. During the stakeout, one of the detectives was killed, and the other one lost his gun. Now a string of violent crimes have been committed using the missing gun, and the surviving detective appears to be implicated, though he vigorously proclaims his innocence.
The beauty — and the challenge to the viewer — of MAD DETECTIVE is the way that To and Wai keep things off balance. When Bun sees “inner personalities,” we don’t get ghostly CGI creations; it’s just another actor suddenly appearing in place of another. It can get confusing, especially when Bun sees someone with seven “inner personalities,” but it’s a good approximation of Bun’s state of mind.
Lau is a good enough actor to pull it off. He brings considerable emotional heft to the role. He doesn’t play Bun as a crazy guy, lost in his own loony tune world. Instead, he’s someone who badly wants to use what he considers his gift. To him, it’s perfectly normal; it’s the way he sees people and the world at large. He feels anguish, not because of how others might view him, but because he hasn’t been able to do what he’s meant to do: solve crimes and help people. That’s what’s driving him truly crazy, in his mind.
The story takes a number of clever twists, yet remains low-key in its overall tone, despite two or three well-executed action sequences that raise the adrenaline level. It’s very much a character-based drama, and benefits from Andy On’s very decent performance as a cop desperate (and humble) enough to do anything to solve his case and get some deadly bad guys off the street.
While MAD DETECTIVE won’t displace FULLTIME KILLER or RUNNING ON KARMA from the top of the list of To/Wai colloborations, it’s well worth seeking out. It’s currently playing in New York City and is available via IFC in Theaters. It’s also been available on Region 3 DVD for some time.
MAD DETECTIVE (Sun taam)
2007. Hong Kong. 89 minutes.
Directed by Johnny To and Wai Ka-Fai.
Written by Wai Ka-Fai and Au Kin-Yee.
With Lau Ching Wan, Andy On, Lam Ka Tung, Lee Kwok-Lun, Kelly Lin, Flora Chan, Lam Suet.
How seen: IFC in Theaters (video on demand service).
Date viewed: July 18, 2008
Available only in standard definition, the picture looked soft and a bit mushy on my 26-inch high-def monitor. The movie began playing moments after I clicked the appropriate buttons on my remote control, which was a big plus.
English-language subtitles were easy to read and well timed, with no spelling or grammar errors that stood out.
[ Adapted from an article originally published in Cinematical. ]