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Mad Detective

(left) Lau Ching-Wan and Andy On take aim, and (right) Lau Ching-Wan at the mirror.
Chinese: 神探
Year: 2007  
Director: Johnnie To Kei-Fung, Wai Ka-Fai
Producer: Johnnie To Kei-Fung
Writer: Wai Ka-Fai, Au Kin-Yee

Lau Ching-Wan, Andy On Chi-Kit, Kelly Lin, Gordon Lam Ka-Tung, Lau Kam-Ling, Lam Suet, Eddie Cheung Siu-Fai, Flora Chan Wai-Shan, Eddy Ko Hung, Wong Wah-Ho, Jo Koo

The Skinny: Enthralling stuff from those Milkyway boys that's probably a bit too esoteric for the less-initiated. Still, this is as interesting, entertaining, and fabulously off-beat as Hong Kong genre films get nowadays. Lai Ching-Wan is terrific as the eponymous "Mad Detective".
by Kozo:

Has it really been ten years since Johnnie To's Milkyway Image production company burst on the scene, infusing new life into Hong Kong Cinema and possibly salvaging the territory's international reputation as kings of the crime genre film? Obviously, that question is rhetorical. With a decade of good-to-sublime Hong Kong Cinema behind them, Milkyway unveils their latest creation, Mad Detective, delivered to Hong Kong Cinemas like the icing on the proverbial birthday cake. Mad Detective has Milkyway goodness oozing out of its pores, beginning with directors Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, who first teamed under the Milkyway shingle ten years ago with Too Many Ways To Be No. 1. Add appearances by a number of Milkyway regulars, some familiar themes and motifs, and a plot mixing crime thrills and wonky Milkyway musings, and you have Hong Kong's most enjoyable genre experience this year. Just make sure that your tolerance for arch wackiness is strong.

Reigning Hong Kong Film Award Best Actor Lau Ching-Wan stars as Bun, a police inspector whose methods are more than a little off-the-wall. Bun investigates crimes through bizarre role-playing, like stabbing a dead pig to simulate a bloody murder, or zipping himself into a suitcase and getting thrown down the stairs to understand the inner workings of someone who got thrown down the stairs while trapped in a suitcase. Besides being amusing and quirky to watch, the odd methods seem to work, as detailed in an opening montage of newspaper clippings celebrating Bun's success at solving crimes. However, the success train ends abruptly. Rookie detective Ho (Andy On) joins Bun on the force, but only gets to work with him for a few days because Bun hands a very strange gift to his retiring superior officer (Eddy Ko), earning himself a quick discharge from the force on the grounds that he's more than just an eccentric detective, he's also crazy one. Hence the title of the film.

The action picks up a few years later after the disappearance of a police officer. Ho is on the case, but he can't seem to crack it, and the trail has gone cold. Needing help, he turns to Bun, who he considers to be his idol. Bored of his current inactivity, Bun quickly shows a desire to help, but his harried wife (Kelly Lin) protests. Bun joins up with Ho anyway, but once Bun is back on the job, Ho starts to have a few reservations. For one thing, he learns Bun's true power: Bun can see a person's "inner personality", which takes the form of another person entirely. What this means is that Bun can see and hear people that others can't, and since he reacts to these people physically, normal people look at him like he's a total loon. After gleaming this info, Ho begins to doubt Bun, and as the case progresses, he begins to wonder if Bun's eccentricity - not to mention his increasingly erratic behavior - isn't leading him down the wrong path. And, since the suspect in the missing police officer case reportedly possesses no fewer than seven inner personalities, the stakes are raised precipitously. Is this case Bun's redemption, or has he officially gone completely bonkers?

Mad Detective received international press due to Johnnie To, but this exercise in screwy Buddhist indulgence has Wai Ka-Fai's fingerprints all over it, too. The idea that Bun can see another person's "inner personalities" is a very clever hook, and feels like the type of fantastic element Wai has injected into past To-Wai efforts. Adding to the familiarity is the fact that many of the inner personalities are essayed by Milkway regulars, such as Lam Suet and Eddie Cheung. However, the device also requires a leap by the audience, as they have to accept the ridiculous visual idea of seven people walking down the street in place of one, or seven people crammed into a small car instead of just one. The camera's perspective shifts constantly from Bun's to everyone else's, meaning characters change appearance without warning. One instant we see Lam Suet (as the gluttonous personality), the next it's Eddie Cheung (the violent personality) Lau Kam-Ling (the shrewd and calculating personality), or more in place of the actual suspect, portrayed with sweaty amorality by Gordon Lam. The switching characters and perspectives keeps the audience on their toes, and the effect is that it can either draw one in or alienate them. Mad Detective makes the audience work, and some people may throw up their hands at all the extra effort and say, "Screw this! This movie makes no sense!" They would not be entirely wrong.

Then again, movies can be effective even if they don't make logical sense, and the best of the Milkyway canon have managed to elicit unexpected emotions in the most unlikely, and even illogical of ways. Mad Detective resembles Running on Karma in that it takes the odd and frankly unexplainable and sells it not through a logical explanation, but through creative, unexpected usage. Mad Detective takes a fantastic premise - that a person can see the emotions and inner voices of others, which makes him appear mad - and uses it to explore complex emotions, as well as the moral choices people make simply to get along in the world. Even though this movie is about cops and crimes, it seems to be more concerned with who people are rather than what they will do. Bun's powers aren't used to solve cases as much as they're used to see how petty, two-faced, insecure, and awful people can be in the course of regular human lives. The result is a curious genre film where the greatest tension arises from whether or not people will overcome their own internal weakness and remain honest to themselves. This isn't your average crime thriller.

But it's a very welcome one due to its uncommon, fascinating ideas, and also because of its lead actor. Nothing says "Happy Birthday" to Milkway Image better than an appearance by Lau Ching-Wan. For most of Milkyway's ten years, Lau was the company's main performer, appearing in nearly every other Milkyway production before taking a break after My Left Eye Sees Ghosts in 2002. The embargo ends with Mad Detective, and Lau turns in a vintage performance, manic and affected, but with discernible pathos and empathy. Lau's weathered, grizzled look speaks volumes, and his character's puzzling "madness" is both charismatic and repellent. Mad Detective features compelling characters in that they seem not unlike us, with inner voices nudging them to do good or bad things, the consequences of which are unexpected and sometimes damning. The lone unconvincing character is Andy On's Ho, whose fragility seems odd considering that his character chooses to partner with an unstable ex-detective with bizarre methods. Also, On is somewhat distant in the role, though when Mad Detective finally ends, his character's purpose is clear.

Like in Election 2, the ultimate reveal in Mad Detective isn't a "wow", it's more like a "man, that kind of bites" feeling that can stick with a person long after the final frame of the film. If the audience buys in, the film is a rarity: a multi-layered genre film that grows richer upon reflection or successive viewings. Also, the film has some real-world connection, as its flawed characters and their conniving inner personalities is a concept that could strike a chord with anyone who has conflicted emotions once in a while. There's plenty to chew on in Mad Detective, and the multiple layers of the film allows for a good deal of post-viewing examination. Viewers can perceive numerous interpretations from the film's content, and there may not be a definite correct answer. Basically, cinema pseudo-intellectuals can have a field day with this one. The downside is that the whole thing can play as rather ridiculous, and Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai seldom attempt to ingratiate themselves with the audience. Many of the odd and even humorous details don't really seem necessary, and could be perceived as empty details meant to add needless quirkiness.

Not that this is a new M.O. from Milkyway; these are clever guys, and their particular brand of self-amusement has earned plenty of accepting fans. Mad Detective will obviously play best to the initiated fan who's used to the usual Milkyway signifiers of stone-faced irony, deadpan quirkiness, arch repetition, and mild misogyny. For the uninitiated, Mad Detective may be a tougher sell, as its twists and turns come with an opacity that can sometimes prove maddening to those who like things spelled out for them. Milkyway films sometimes say volumes with what isn't being said - which can lose a great many viewers, even those who love everything these guys do. Still, regardless of meaning or intent, the style and emotions that Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai elicit can be compelling and even intoxicating, such that one is entertained and enthralled even if they aren't fully sure what's happening. Sometimes, enjoying a Milkyway Image film can happen through pure instinct. I may not be able to fully explain or justify why I like Mad Detective, but my inner personality tells me it's pretty damn good. (Kozo 2007)



DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Languag
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

images courtesy of Milkyway Image Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen