Notoriously off-the-wall Hong Kong directors Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai reteam for a surreal swipe at police procedural movies. After tackling a number of genres, most recently with the comic adventure Running on Karma in 2003, the pair delve into the world of mental illness and schizophrenia – but in a fun way. Though Mad Detective could be considered gimmicky, To and Wai’s matter-of-fact approach means the perspective of the title character feels like cold, hard reality and Ching Wan Lau’s troubled performance makes it believable.
Lau plays the eccentric Inspector Bun, an instinctive policeman who is able to re-enact murders to learn the killer’s identity. His record is exemplary but he finds himself shunned when he cuts off his own ear in front of his retiring Chief. Five years later, an old colleague, Inspector Ho (On), needs Bun’s help in solving a series of bloody robberies possibly perpetrated by an officer who went missing along with his gun. If Bun’s special abilities weren’t weird enough, he can also see an individual’s ‘inner personalities’ and suspects the AWOL officer’s former partner, Chi Wai (Lam), who is represented by seven very different characters.
It all has the potential to be extremely confusing, but the directors keep things coherent, mostly through some simple camera work but also by concentrating on the central plot rather than getting carried away with Bun’s unique skills. The film’s early scenes are deliciously strange – witness Bun carrying out robberies with just his finger as a weapon, or urinating on one of Chi Wai’s personalities as a means of questioning – but To and Wai are wary of pushing it too far and disappearing into absurdity. This isn’t like a typical superhero movie that wallows in the dark, depressing world the cursed hero inhabits even though Bun clearly has problems, convincing himself he still has a wife until the ‘real’ one shows up to check he’s still taking his medication.
This is Ho’s story more than anything and the film is keen to contrast his method of policing with Bun’s. Ho is in awe of Bun, and tries to emulate him, but he’s shackled by the need for evidence whereas Bun is free to pursue his gut feelings. Mad Detective is about throwing away the rule book and replacing logic with emotion – even if that emotion is totally inexplicable. The story is very much about solving the case from each of these perspectives, a case that has similarities with To’s earlier PTU (2003), also concerned with tracking down a missing gun.
Mad Detective might not be as assured as To’s recent solo efforts – the harsh, backlit cinematography isn’t as polished as in Election (2005) – and the plot itself, lazily descending into the usual Mexican stand-off, doesn’t yield as many surprises as Bun’s barmy investigation, but it’s compelling to follow. Once again this is innovative, fearless filmmaking from To and Wai, who can tackle even the most bizarre of subjects – and prove there’s always method to their madness.
By the same director, see alo: Triangle