|Who wants to play it safe? Not Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, apparently. To and Wai reunite with stars Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau for the crime comedy Blind Detective, which should have been an easy-to-please commercial laffer. After all, the pair starred in the To-Wai (letís call them ToWai) romcoms Love on a Diet and Needing You, which were Milkyway Imageís biggest commercial hits and are exceptionally beloved by Hong Kong audiences. The pairís third Milkyway Image film, Yesterday Once More, featured more irony, a clever but not very happy ending, and a much smaller box office take. Conventional wisdom suggests regression for the fourth ToWai-Andy-Sammi collaboration, but Blind Detective instead offers an extreme mishmash of familiar Milkyway Image ideas delivered with in-your-face Cantonese comedy execution. The result is intriguing but divisive, entertaining but ugly, and the textbook definition of a mixed bag. Given that Blind Detective could have been a repeat of ToWaiís romcoms, itís admirable that something this ambitious and unwieldy was even attempted.
The premise: blind detective Johnston (Andy Lau) used to be a cop but since losing his sight he now earns a living solving cold cases and collecting bounties. However, Johnston is still renowned for his keen investigation skills, which involve the unusual technique of emotionally reenacting crime scenes to determine motive and deduce events. Johnston is hired by cop Ho Ka-Tung (Sammi Cheng) to school her in investigation and also help her solve a years-old mystery: the whereabouts of Hoís childhood friend Minnie, who hasnít been seen since secondary school. Hoís pleas — and her acceptance of his excessive one million HK dollar price tag — convinces Johnston to begin teaching Ho his unique methods in hopes of finding Minnie. Plus, if they solve a few of his outstanding cases along the way, he might be able to collect some bounties and pay for the expensive wines and dinners he favors so much. Also: romance.
Blind Detective initially comes across like the sort of crimer that appeals to Milkyway Imageís international fans, but ToWai slant the film towards broad comedy rather than dark quirkiness. The edgy stuff has familiar power; the crimes feature grisly, sometimes disturbing details that recall Running on Karma, while Johnstonís investigation-via-pantomime is only a shade removed from the self-mutilating crime-solving practiced by Bun (Lau Ching-Wan) in Mad Detective. Johnston even experiences visions, just like the protagonists of both films. One case, involving the serial murders of broken-hearted women, reaches an abrupt, unsettling climax complete with a brief gunplay flourish that should please genre fans. Visual style is also familiar, mixing the cool Milkyway Image visual aesthetic with garish lighting and filtered visuals for imagined sequences. The repeated ideas and motifs mark the film as a ToWai product for sure, though the recycling gets so pervasive that it ultimately becomes something of a double-edged sword. New things are always nice.
The greatest hits vibe extends to the comedy, with the caveat being that these are not the greatest hits that everyone (particularly international audiences) will enjoy. Both Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng perform in exceptionally broad strokes, overacting both physically and verbally to such an extent that audiences may feel assaulted. Comic violence, exaggerated cuteness from Cheng, posing and shouting from Lau — this is fairly common behavior from both in ToWai films, but itís usually in comedies like Love on a Diet, where Lau and Cheng overdid the histrionics while wearing fat suits. This stuff is love-it-or-hate-it; HK entertainment fans may giggle at the Sammi-isms and Andy-isms, while self-proclaimed cultured cineastes may ask ďWhy all the damn screeching?Ē This is an issue where audiences will have to agree to disagree, and despite being somewhat irritating, Lau and Cheng do share a comfortable chemistry. An Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng pairing engenders certain expectations, so having the two engage in familiar star-driven behavior makes sense.
The problem then is that ToWai donít handle Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng as effectively as they previously did. As in the first two ToWai-Andy-Sammi films, the filmmakers employ Andy-isms and Sammi-isms for fan service, but the visual development of their relationship is missing. In Needing You you could see Lauís character fall in love with Cheng, and you could also see why. Here, love is voiced overtly and not gradually discovered — the antithesis of what a good ToWai romance accomplishes. Also, Johnston comes off poorly, appearing as an arrogant and superficial snob who loudly demands an attractive wife to show off to his sight-enabled friends. Sammi Cheng is much more likable here than Andy Lau, but her trademark romcom mannerisms, which include babytalk and other too-cute expressions, are not as charming as they once were. To and Cheng would have been smart to update Chengís image for her age (sheís now in her early forties) rather than repeat stuff she did over a decade ago.
The good: well, thereís actually a surprising amount. The films comedic riff on Mad Detective provides plenty of overacting opportunities, but some of the deduction that occurs is genuinely smart. An early sequence, where Johnston and Ho attempt to solve a murder in a morgue, alternates between manic and revelatory, as the repeated pantomime uncovers surprising holes in the case. Thereís also creativity present in the filmís karmic circle, which ties generations of murderers together through key plot details. As Johnstonís dance teacher dream girl, Gao Yuanyuan is striking in the scant screentime that she receives, and Guo Tao is convincingly dopey and cool as Johnstonís former partner. Also, a number of familiar Milkyway Image players show up in supporting roles. There are even rewards found in the overacting. One scene features Sammi Cheng chain-smoking and spitting out endless profanities and it does amuse in that loud Canto-comedy way. Yes, itís not for everyone, but those who dig it should be in stiches.
At two-plus hours, Blind Detective is somewhat of a chore to get through, but enough surprise exists to make it a solid curiosity for Milkyway Image fans who are genuinely interested in everything they produce, and not just the crime films fawned over by film geeks. Unlike Johnnie Toís original fanboy valentine Exiled, Blind Detective draws from a wider range of Milkyway Image films, leading to a rich, overstuffed and occasionally unfathomable beast. Thereís great stuff here, like the crime scene re-enactment (which is basically a meta-riff on method acting), the darker twists (some crimes are genuinely chilling), and just the sight of Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau together again. This one is for the fans — that is, all the fans and probably even Johnnie To himself. Why else would the film include the over-the-top, near-gluttonous fixation on food besides it being a reflection of Toís real-life passion for eating? Blind Detective is Milkyway Image overindulgence supreme and will tickle some of their fans some of the time. But all their fans all of the time? Much less likely. (Kozo, 6/2013)