Criterion Prediction #163: Mad Detective, by Alexander Miller
Title: Mad Detective
Director: Johnnie To, Wai Kai Fai
Cast: Lau Ching-wan, Gordon Lam, Kwok-Lun Lee, Choi-ning Lee, Andy On, Kelly Lin
Synopsis: A rookie cop, Ho Ka-Un (Andy On), enlists the help of former detective Chan Kwai-Bun (Lau Ching-Wan), a gifted investigator who happens to be mentally unstable. Despite his cunning ability to solve crimes, he was forced into retirement when he offered his severed ear to a superior officer. Despite Kwai-Bun’s erratic behavior, he’s endowed with the ability to see peoples inner, alternate personas; is the former cop gifted, or just losing his loose grasp on reality?
Critique: To is one of the most adventurous and prolific directors working today and, among the alumni to have emerged from the Hong Kong New Wave, he has enjoyed a consistently successful and varied career working in a multitude of genres while remaining a constant fixture in Hong Kong cinema prior to, during and after the handover period. While To’s strength as a journeyman/auteur has served nearly all of his titles with distinction, his ambition and visual bravura are bolstered when he shares a directing credited with Wai. While their shared credits are comparatively few in the scope of To’s career (My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Running on Karma, Needing You, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, to name a few) they peaked at a relative creative apex with 2001’s Fulltime Killer, a shoot em’ up bold enough to rejuvenate Hong Kong’s reputation for superlative action flicks (proving that the genre wouldn’t fade away with the departure of John Woo for Hollywood) and of course there’s the perfectly off-kilter Mad Detective. It feels like a collaborative cherry picking of To and Wai’s aesthetic strong points covertly assembled with the recognizable technical veneer that punctuated their peripheral efforts. Mad Detective carries the collective madcap blend of comedy, action, suspense, romance, and procedural intricacy that To and Wai (more so with To) have exercised so many times before but in more genre-focused avenues. Jokey diversions, flights of romance, brushes with the ethereal and stylized violence are consistent in their work but Mad Detective is the first (and perhaps only) directorial effort that keeps this juggling act not only in play but does so with the slick ease that is indicative of To’s work.
As is the case with so many recognizable filmmakers, To is a slyly manipulative artist who can seduce and hypnotize you on a sensorial level. Mad Detective arrives with an offset dizziness that seems to inhibit every facet of the movie. The framing, editing, and sound cues are almost awkward, jagged as if the film is subliminally calibrating us to the psychosis that might inhibit the titular protagonist. But the title is something of a misnomer, and the film might seem to imply a derogatory or exploitative exploration of mental illness, it’s less an allusion to the protagonist but more so his target suspect. After all, if Lau’s Kwai Bun is no longer working as an official officer of the law, does that mean he’s a “mad” detective, when in fact the main suspect of the film is an active police officer?
The film has the geometrical precision applied to its action sequences that typifies To’s work but it also carries with it an added dimension that’s tangibly supernatural, occasionally eerie and playfully surreal. To’s aesthetic is thoroughly modern, and sleek, but with this creative ascension, he proves to be an even more restless and imaginative filmmaker than anticipated.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: For the longest time, To’s work was only available to those “in the know” about the director or were fans of Hong Kong cinema; which means imported VCDs, LaserDiscs, early generation Mei Ah Entertainment DVDs (which were practically LaserDisc transfers) and, of course bootlegs, of varying quality. Which of course relegates the superior filmmaking of directors such as To, Wai, Fruit Chan, Ann Hui, and Alex Cheung to second-tier status for many, limiting the films by their lacking distribution. Had I not been fortunate enough to stumble upon a Bonzai Media Corporation DVD of Mad Detective, I would have to pony up the money for a Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release, which is restricted by region coding (whether or not you’re willing to grab a region free Blu-ray player is another conversation). But can we cross our fingers and hope that Mad Detective on Masters of Cinema is another warmup for a Criterion release.