REVIEW: DVD Release: The Detective

Film: The Detective
Release date: 11th April 2011
Certificate: 15
Running time: 109 mins
Director: Oxide Pang
Starring: Aaron Kwok, Liu Kai-chi, Wong Tak-bun, Lau Siu-ming, Lai Yiu-cheung
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Studio: Terracotta
Format: DVD
Country: Hong Kong

We’re used to seeing the fruits of the Pang brothers’ combined labours - notably with 2002’s acclaimed The Eye - but in this psychological thriller about a private detective drawn into a murder mystery, only production duties are shared. Danny steps aside for his twin Oxide to take the directorial reins and guide Aaron Kwok through the sleazy backstreets of Thailand on the trail of a suspected killer.

Kwok stars as Tam, a private investigator who is persuaded to track down a young woman after his friend, Lung (Shing Fui-on) bursts into his office in a state of panic before claiming that she is trying to kill him.

A wad of notes convinces Tam to pursue the case and, although he has nothing but a photograph with which to begin his investigation, he soon uncovers a web of intrigue and a whole world of trouble. While another friend, Inspector Fung Chak (Liu Kai-chi) attempts to warn him off, Tam vows to solve the mystery. But as the body count steadily rises, so does the danger to his own life…

The Detective is flawed, but it does look great. The Pang brothers have waxed lyrical in the past about their devotion to cinematography, editing and sound, and this movie delivers in that sphere. It swept the board at the 27th Hong Kong Film Awards in the technical department, scooping prizes for sound design and visual effects among others – and deservedly so. Aesthetically this is a minor treat, right down to the grimy depiction of Thailand’s backstreets, where you can almost smell the food and squalor.

The score, courtesy of Payont Permsith and Jadet Chawang, was also recognised at that ceremony. Overblown, like so much of the film, it helps ratchet up the tension when Oxide Pang deploys shock tactics to keep the plot ticking over and the audience attentive. That in itself is hardly a crime, and no surprise from a director at home in the horror genre, but for all the ingenuity of Pang’s flourishes - a sudden rush of blood from a nose or foam from a mouth - the fact the audience learns to expect a shock every dozen minutes or so rather detracts from the surprise when it comes along.

There is menace here, and not just from the soundtrack’s booming drums: dark, sleazy characters lurk in the shadows and Tam is genuinely threatened. We are regularly treated to close ups of the detective in full shocked mode – mouth wide, eyes bulging – so much so that you wonder why he chose investigating as a profession at all. Tam clearly does not have the stomach for it and probably not the brains for it either. He’s not from the Inspector Clouseau school of detectives, but, equally, Tam is hardly the sharpest knife in the drawer. Foxed by office equipment in the opening scenes, he looks out of his depth much of the time.

We do learn why Tam operates alone and, indeed, why he still persists in this line of work despite his flaws. His failing eyesight denied him his chance of official police status, and his failure to find his missing parents many years ago drives him on professionally. Tam clearly has something to prove to himself and breaking a major case would bring him redemption, hence his willingness to imperil himself.

Unfortunately, Pang’s use of Tam’s short-sightedness as a plot device is, well, short-sighted. At times, he appears to have extraordinary vision, identifying a stranger 50 yards away in a darkened car as the man of whom he caught a fleeting glimpse on a staircase hours before. And yet, at other times, he can barely see the ground in front of him. Tam atones for his lack of vision by photographing anything that seems significant like a snap-happy tourist. It’s a method that echoes Christopher Nolan’s Memento in which Guy Pearce’s character takes pictures to counteract his own deficiency, in this case memory loss.

Tam’s flaws do make him endearing, though. Oxide Pang’s sympathetic portrayal of the detective and Kwok’s winning performance gets the audience on his side and into his character’s shoes. Tam’s inner struggle is theirs, too, and that connection is one of the movie’s saving graces.

Tam spends much of the film scratching his head or chasing his tail but Kwok plays incredulous rather well and pretty much holds the whole movie together with a watchable – if occasionally hackneyed – performance. His pop star looks help significantly (Kwok made his name in dance and music before acting) and he is Pang’s trump card in the acting department. He certainly outshines Fung Chak (Liu Kai-chi), the Inspector and friend who tolerates Tam’s na├»ve investigative methods like a parent would allow a child to help in the kitchen as long as they didn’t touch the oven or use the knives.

While Kwok’s performance as Tam gets better and better as the film unfolds, Liu’s Chak is a rather ludicrous character who arrives at every crime scene to berate his old pal (“Call yourself a detective?!”) and then leave him to once more pursue his maverick ways. Shing Fui-on as Lung is just as entertaining – and even more bizarre – while Lai Yiu-cheung (as Sai Wing) and Kenny Wong (as Kwong Chi-hung) offer further uninspired support. But Kwok is the main draw here – he’s barely off-screen and that works fine.

A clunky script does not help Kwok and partly explains the others’ one-track performances but Oxide Pang does a decent job of tying up the loose ends. That said, the director does run the risk of losing his audience before he cleverly unravels the mystery.

Oxide Pang has delivered a stylish movie, sprinkled with head-turning flourishes and camera tricks that show off his TV commercial background, while Aaron Kwok produces a solid performance as Tam. But this is a triumph for style over substance as a workmanlike script and less-than-shocking shock tactics relegate this film from a decent effort into a mediocre one. Whether Detective 2, released in 2011, is an improvement remains to be seen. On the evidence of the sequels to The Eye, not to mention its Hollywood remake, Oxide Pang will be hard pushed to maintain what freshness there is in this project. CH

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