REVIEW: DVD Release: Mad Detective

Film: Mad Detective
Release date: 3rd November 2008
Certificate: 18
Running time: 89 mins
Director: Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai
Starring: Lau Ching-Wan, Andy On, Lam Ka Tung, Kelly Lin, Lee Kwok-Lun Lee
Genre: Action/Crime/Thriller
Studio: Eureka!
Format: DVD
Country: Hong Kong

Prolific director Johnnie To (Election, Exiled) collaborating with Wai Ka-Fai delivers an inventive spin on the police crime thriller in the form of a raving mad detective who can see inner personalities and endures mental and physical extremes in order to solve cases in the highest grossing Hong Kong film of 2007.

It is clear from the very beginning of the film just how mad our ‘mad detective’, Bun, is. The opening scene shows him tackling a homicide in which a student was stabbed to death and stuffed into a suitcase. Bun stabs the carcass of a pig repeatedly with a knife as colleagues look on before instructing new recruit Ho to hurl him down three flights of steps in a suitcase. He then leaps out of the case and solves the crime on the spot. In the following scene, as the boss is applauded by colleagues at the police station upon his retirement, Bun slices off his own ear and offers it to him as a token.

Jump forward eighteen months, and Bun has been discharged for his crazy behaviour. The main plot of the film then revolves around the disappearance of a detective named Wong, and consequent armed robberies and murders carried-out with his gun. The main suspect is Wong’s partner, Chi-wai, who was with Wong on a stake-out the night he disappeared. The detective put in charge of the case, Ho, turns to disgraced ‘mad detective’ Bun to help him find out the truth.

While at first he admires Bun’s subversive methods, as he gets closer to the truth, Ho becomes suspicious and scared, and thinks Bun is just imagining everything and putting his career at risk. By now Bun has his teeth into the case - and refuses to let go…

Mad Detective could have so easily been just another of the formulaic police crime thrillers that Hong Kong churns out by the dozen. Instead, Bun’s ability to see inner personalities provides freshness and originality, as the audience is never quite sure what he is going to see or do next. He is a highly likable character brilliantly played by Lau Ching-Wan, who gets the delicate blend of madness and pathos just right. He wears the same grey suit in every scene, with trouser legs that come down to the top of his ankles, and sports scruffy black hair and a bandage on his head. He looks like the misfit he is. As a spectator, you can’t help but like him and pity him, while all the time thinking what a total loon he is.

Bun’s madness doesn’t end there. It transpires that Bun is able to see the inner personalities of other people, or thinks he sees them. The more complex and conflicted a person is, the more inner personalities he or she has. Bun sees seven personalities within suspect Chi-wai, including a cowardly fat man and an attractive, intelligent woman who tells Chi-wai what to say. There is a flashback seen in the film showing how these personalities affect the behaviour of the character, and this is a constant theme in the narrative.

Bun also sees and hears his former wife, argues with her at home, and takes her out for dinner at a restaurant, even though no-one else can see her. Bun is a tortured soul who appears crazy to the outside world, which is no surprise when his behaviour is about as barking mad as it gets. A shot of Bun’s reflection in a shattered bathroom mirror in a restaurant scene perfectly captures the fractured mental state of the protagonist.

Unlike a number of To’s previous films, the emphasis is less on style and more on character, and thanks to the impressive central performance this works well. That said, and as with all To’s films, Mad Detective looks stylish with first-class cinematography. There are some very effective, well thought-out shots and compositions, such as the use of shattered glass in the climatic shoot-out to show the multiple personalities. The production values are very good, as are the performances, and direction is tight and inventive. The film has a low-key aesthetic with a dominant grey tone. Music is used unobtrusively and effectively.

There is little wrong with Mad Detective. That said, it does require the audience to work, and does not spell everything out. It is a film which is thematically multi-layered and asks questions about who we are and what we will do for self preservation. This is not a criticism but it might alienate some viewers who could find it frustrating. Dramatically, the film never fully explodes and, while the ending is good, you do feel that there should have been something more in the final third to elevate the film to the classic status it very nearly reaches.

A highly original and satisfying film which deserves the success it has achieved both commercially and critically. It is rare to be surprised by this type of genre film but Mad Detective comes across as completely fresh. It is also worth seeing for the excellent performance of Lau Ching-Wan as Bun who steals the show. Recommended. LM

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