Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

While thumbing through the filmography of Chinese director Johnny To, it would appear that I’ve seen more films that this cat has helmed more than any other film director. From wire-fu flicks like ‘The Heroic Trio’ to silly romantic comedies such as ‘My Left Eye sees Ghosts’ to gritty crime movies such as my personal favorite To ‘The Mission’. Before today I had no idea I had seen so many Johnny To films and yet we have another one to add to the pile, ‘Mad Detective’, which he co-directs with Wai Ka Fai and is certainly one of the more interesting police crime drama films I’ve seen.

Lau Ching Wan, who I personally haven’t seen in a movie since ‘My left eye sees Ghosts’, is police detective Bun and as the movie suggests he is without a doubt mad, and he is a detective. He’s also the best detective that Hong Kong has to offer as he uses some rather bizarre techniques in which he assumes the role of the supposed criminal and reenacts the crime which usually gives him the identity of the culprit. Unfortunately he has no control over his insanity as we see when he cuts off his ear and presents it to his retiring police chief as a gift, a move which gets him shuttled into early retirement.

Years later a young detective named Ho (Andy On) who worked with Bun on his last case has tracked him down to ask his help on a current case that he’s working on. As we will see played out, detectives Ko (Lam Ka Tung) and Wong (Lee Kwok Lun) are on a stakeout with the pair ending up chasing an Eastern Indian man into the woods. Ko would eventually come out of the woods but his partner Wong was nowhere to be seen, and that was eighteen months ago. The suspicion is that Ko somehow had something to do with the disappearance of the detective but there is no proof to this. Completely stuck, and as the top cop in the case, inspector Ho reenlists Bun to assist him to solve the case once and for all, much to the dismay of Bun’s pretty wife May (Kelly Lin).

After letting Bun loose on the case Ho is seriously starting question whether or not this was a sound decision as Bun is clearly off his rocker. He claims that he can see the hidden personalities of people, and that this guides them into the decisions they make. What makes Ko so compelling to Bun is that he has seven different people around him at a time from a gluttonous coward, to a coolly controlling woman who steers the suspected rouge detective through whatever he has to do. Ho truly knows he made a mistake about the time he allows Bun to bury him alive and then have Bun run off with his badge, his car and his gun. But Bun is on the right track… at least we kind of think he is… but there is no questioning, crack detective or not, that the man is insane.

‘Mad Detective’ is one of those films that could use a second viewing, which I rarely do, so that you can catch what you missed the first time, since as the film starts out there’s a good chance that much of what you saw may or may not have been real. Therein lies the beauty of ‘Mad Detective’, not so much the mystery of the whodunit, because that seemed fairly obvious and wasn’t necessarily critical to the narrative, since we’re certain we know the who and we just need to know the why. The fun in the movie was in watching the story develop through the eyes of Detective Bun and Inspector Ho. We’re seeing what Bun sees, but Ho isn’t seeing any of that nonsense, and watching his increasing disillusionment with Bun and his actions and his increasing anxiety, to the point of him completely losing his cool, was a fairly remarkable transformation. The film is as much about Ho, if not more so because the character of Ho is the one who actually has to go through a transformation throughout the film, whereas Bun can’t get any crazier if he tried. There were other interesting dynamics that To set up in the movie such as the relationship, real and imagined, between Bun and his wife May, the relationship between Ho and his police detective girlfriend and the clever way he used the imagined personalities of certain characters to maximize their effect and move the narrative along.

The performances by Lau and On were very good, particularly On who has been presented as more of a matinee idol than an actor, but he certainly makes the most of this role as the detective who truly had no idea of what he was getting himself into when he chose to bring Bun on board to help him with his case. It was also refreshing to see the actresses in Kelly Lin and Karen Lee were given more to do with their roles than just look pretty, though did that pretty well too. And since this is a Johnny To co-directed joint, what would it be without a stand off with a bunch of characters pointing guns at each other?

‘Mad Detective’ is very effective, somewhat deliberately paced police drama which tells its tale in a very different way. Different isn’t always better, but in this case different is good and it’s nice to see a decent Hong Kong police thriller show up once again.

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