Mad Detective

Mad Detective


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Mad Detective is a Hong Kong police thriller with an edge, a clever and insightful film. It's well written, directed, acted, and finely balanced between the psychological and supernatural, an excellent piece of work. Sadly, it's probably only a matter of time before it's remade by Hollywood as with so many other films before it, but audiences will be rewarded by seeing this film rather than waiting.

Inspector Ho of the Regional Crime Unit (Andy On) is investigating the disappearance of a fellow officer 18 months before. The missing policeman vanished in some woods chasing a suspect, and his gun was lost at the same time. The gun has been connected with a series of murders and Ho is on the trail. However, the case is at an impasse, stalled for a lack of leads. Ho turns to the enigmatic Bun, the titular mad detective. We see the brief period where the two worked together before Bun's stunning fall from sanity.

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His methods are genius, a mixture of method acting as victim or killer, paired with his unique ability, to see others' "inner personalities". These manifest as other actors, walking lockstep or interacting with their hosts. It immediately recalls The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, but despite Lau Ching Wan's intensity, perhaps because of it, it holds together at least as well if not more. Bun is tormented by his ability - it seems more curse than gift. It's an old story, but it's a good one, and well told here. This is a process of madness, madness as process, a useful monkey on a suffering back. There are scenes that might be dreams, or more accurately fugues, in the sense that it is a composition with multiple voices, complex and musical.

Writing partners Wai Ka-Fai and Au Kin-Yee are no strangers to each other, and their work here is crisp. The demands of Hong Kong cinema are such that the script has to work in Cantonese and Mandarin, as well as with English subtitles, and it does. Director Johnny To is perhaps most known for his work on gangster succession film Election (and its sequel), and he does a similarly excellent job here. Lau Ching Wan is brilliant as Bun, not studied, not mannered, just there. He inhabits the role with a solidity, working among the inner personalities around him (and not around him) seamlessly.

The inner personalities are well worked, well cast, well played, and as we see more of them from more people, well developed. It's only really in the last couple of scenes that a coincidence becomes clear as a trend, a realisation that's somewhat lost in the power of the rest of the scene.

The denoument, a tense standoff in a hall of mirrors, with the inner personalities reflected and not as we shift from one view to another is amazing. Mirrors aside, Bun's perspective is skewed enough that one person is cast twice, his wife May - played by both Kelly Lin and Flora Chan, both of whom portray the differences in how a person is and is seen subtly and ably. It isn't a large cast, many of the roles are miniscule, but every actor in every role works.

There are other nice touches. The score almost always verges on discord, the titles and credits are askew, and to be honest the Cantonese (or Mandarin, depending) subtitles produce some offset. The version Eye For Film reviewed was the Singapore release DVD, rated NC16, and the BBFC have passed it as a 15 with no cuts for some moments of "strong bloody violence". The film has an unflinching gaze, even for oddities, and that extends to its brief moments of brutality.

Bun isn't the first Mad Detective, neither in film nor in television. He joins luminaries like Tony Shalhoub and Jeff Goldblum in the murky netherworld of demented detection and possible ghost seeing. That said, Goldblum only managed seven episodes of Raines before it got cancelled. Mad Detective succeeds on similar ground in part because suspension of disbelief is often enhanced by the language barrier, but also because television detective shows have much more competition. That, and its brevity. Mad Detective doesn't have to bear the weight of continuing drama, of keeping its central conceit rolling along. It sets out its stall, makes its case, tells its story and succeeds. It asks questions, creates mystery, and entertains. This is a film that mixes power, paranoia, perspective and passion into a heady brew that never becomes too complicated, that does, as they say, exactly what it says on the tin.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2008
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A young cop on the trail of a serial killer teams up with a retired detective who can see people's souls.
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Director: Johnny To, Wai Ka-Fai

Writer: Wai Ka-Fai, Au Kin-Yee

Starring: Ching Wan Lau, Andy On, Ka Tung Lam, Kelly Lin, Lee Kwok-Lun, Lee Choi-ning, Flora Chan, Cheung Siu-Fai, Lam Suet, Jay Lau

Year: 2007

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Hong Kong


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