Wednesday 11 November 2009

Mad Detective (2007)

Directors: Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai
Stars: Lau Ching Wan and Andy On
In the offices of District Crime Kowloon West, a dead pig hangs from the ceiling and a man is stabbing it repeatedly. He's Inspector Bun, the mad detective of the title, who is working out who did the same thing to a student. As we soon discover, he's not just experimenting CSI style, he has some sort of clairvoyant talent, as rookie cop Ho finds out when he reports for duty. His first job is to push his superior, who's locked himself inside a suitcase, down a number of flights of stairs. When he climbs out at the bottom, he knows who killed someone who had suffered the same fate. We can't help wondering just how much of this is real and how much is lunacy, especially when the chief retires and as a gift to him, he cuts off half of his own ear.

Five years later, he's a civilian, presumably fired from the force because of that Vincent Van Gogh incident. He's still trying to help people though, all the while seeing things that other people don't see. And here's where we discover the other key to this story: Inspector Bun isn't just clairvoyant, he also sees people's inner personalities as if they were separate people. This device is joyous to behold but it's easy to see how it could be confusing to viewers that don't grasp the concept. It's one that could easily bring the film down because it opens up so much potential for inconsistency but it's solid throughout.

However directors Ka-Fai Wai and Johnnie To, hardly a minor name in Hong Kong cinema, cleverly establish the concept so that it's initially jarring but quickly and cleverly a part of the film. Bun shouts at a girl in a convenience store who's persuading her friend to steal. Nobody else sees her, and as he leaves with his wife, she complains about how he sees things that nobody else sees. When Ho turns up at his door to ask for help on a case he's been stuck on for six months, his wife doesn't want him to be involved. Yet, as we soon realise by watching Ho, his wife isn't there either.

Bun helps out, of course. The case has to do with a missing detective, Wong Kwok Chu, who disappeared eighteen months ago on a stakeout with his partner, Ko Chi Wai. His gun has been used since during armed robberies that end in murder, there now being four dead. At the Regional Crime Unit, where Ho begins to show him the details, he keeps getting interrupted by a nagging woman who he promptly headbutts into silence. She's actually the inner personality of a large male detective. Best of all, when Ho and Bun follow Ko Chi Wai, we find that he has no less than seven personalities, of different ages, sexes and backgrounds, including a gluttunous coward, a young enforcer and an ice cool young lady who generally controls the others.

I first discovered Johnny To when buying every release that the Made in Hong Kong label released in the UK in the mid nineties. The Heroic Trio and its sequel couldn't fail to become favourites, given that they teamed up Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui and Michelle Yeoh as the leads. My favourite though was The Bare Foot Kid, with Cheung again, along with Aaron Kwok and Hong Kong legend Ti Lung film. I've been trying to track it down in the States under another title, Young Hero. Now through Asia Extreme on the Sundance Channel I've been happy to see more recent To films, made for his Milky Way production company, like Breaking News and Fulltime Killer.

This one is even better than them, with a magnetic lead performance by Lau Ching Wan and an able supporting cast, including Andy On as Inspector Ho, even though he spends much of the film obviously wondering if he's doing the right thing by involving Inspector Bun. Now I'm looking forward to Election and Triad Election which are sitting on my DVR. Johnnie To is fast becoming an established favourite in my mind, a worthy and reliable filmmaker who chose to stay in Hong Kong to build his career after the handover to Chinese rule in 1997. While he works in varied genres, it's easy to see him as a successor to John Woo, who left for Hollywood even before the British handed over the colony.

While Johnnie To is a consistent point of excellence, he didn't have a hand in the writing here, leaving that to a couple of frequent collaborators. Kin-Yee Au has written or co-written eleven Johnnie To films, including this one. Ka-Fai Wai didn't just co-write and co-direct Mad Detective, but also partnered with To in setting up their production company. All of these filmmakers often play with the narrative for artistic reasons, giving us unreliable narrators or even switching the narrator partway through. Films like Fulltime Killer and Mad Detective are fascinating viewing because they don't just entertain us while playing, they leave us with questions that resonate long after they're finished, wondering on what the underlying truth of the films are.

I'd make a crack about Hollywood endings here, but it wouldn't be entirely fair. Big budget Hollywood movies like The Usual Suspects and Fight Club provide highly unreliable perspectives too, but while they don't cop out with their endings in the traditional manner they do at least tend to provide a solid resolution. Films like this are more akin to say, Bubba Ho-Tep, in that we're given multiple ways to read the stories and multiple perspectives in which to select one that we trust, but we're never given that answer as to which is real or true.

So here, we have to answer the question ourselves as to whether Bun really has supernatural vision or whether its a product of his delusion built by not taking his medication. Ho asks himself the same question throughout the film and the level of even his trust varies depending on circumstances. It's fascinating to watch the perspectives of the owner of a restaurant that Bun frequents, who has got used to serving him and his wife, even when his wife isn't there, but assumes she's dead and is stunned when she actually walks in for real.

While the supporting cast are excellent here, including those like Flora Chan, Suet Lam and Jay Lau who don't exist outside of Bun's visions, it's Lau Ching Wan who steals the show, perfectly cast and giving a tour de force performance as Inspector Bun. After a long and distinguished career as a character actor, he had managed to become finally established when he made Mad Detective. It was the eighth year he'd been nominated as Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and that encompasses nine films because in 1994 he was nominated twice in the same category, once for Thou Shalt Not Swear and once for Endless Love. However it took him until 2006 to win, for a film called My Name is Fame. I haven't seen many of his films, perhaps only Heroic Trio 2: Executioners, the disappointing Black Mask and Jackie Chan's Police Story 2. I'm now committed to tracking down much more of his work.

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