Mad Detective Review
It's with a blistering confidence that Johnnie To and his collaborator Wai Ka Fai could make such a skilled film as Mad Detective while never totally abandoning To's genre-informed template. More than just economic filmmaking, the hour and a half noirish cop film/character study barely explains much less re-explains anything and lets the audience linger on the possibility of unreliable flashbacks. What was once a single character suddenly balloons to seven. A man is a woman then a man and back again. If that sounds confusing, it's only because To and Wai trust the viewer enough to provide part of the puzzle while you quickly fill in the rest yourself. This is nothing new with To, whose popular films like Election and Exiled have implicitly allowed those who dislike being spoonfed their exposition in repeated doses to revel in fairly complex and layered storytelling.
To has been remarkably prolific as a director for the past twenty years, amassing a staggering 46 credits since 1988. This decade in particular has found To as Hong Kong cinema's number one export and he seems intent on continuing that notability with a planned remake of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le cercle rouge. Such an output can threaten a director's level of respect in this day and age when most auteur village residents are lucky to send out smoke signals every two or three years. The idea, I guess, is that you must suffer for your art and repeatedly churning out product makes it all seem too easy or repetitive. Mad Detective is a little different, though. It was a huge commercial success in Hong Kong and bears To's stamp of masculine turmoil. But there's a warmth, however distant, in the portrayal of the protagonist, a brilliant detective whose mental deficiencies both inspire and deter his unique job performance. The epic type of filmmaking that was nonetheless fleeting in some of To's Triad films is entirely absent here and the movie often feels conflicted itself whether it'd prefer being an unorthodox procedural or an eccentric character study.
The unstable policeman of the title, Bun (played with staggering empathy and teddy bear pain by Lau Ching Wan) is propped up as troubled but determined in the film's earliest scenes. He solves crimes no one else can because he goes to lengths no one else is capable of approaching. Some of it is dedication, even more is his apparent ability to see deep inside the souls of others, all the way to their inner personalities. Where you and I might look at a guy and see just a regular nondescript person, Bun is able to look deeper and see the essence of his subjects, the competing forces that struggle to influence the ultimate actions of the individual. Visually, this is portrayed as frequent cuts between the normal perception and how Bun sees it. So when another cop whose partner has been missing for 18 months is seen by Bun, he's perceived as 7 different people to form the collective personality. To and Wai portray this without cues to the viewer or handholding. It's initially disarming, but completely effective.
Bun's curse/gift collapses soon after the initial sequence in the film, when he slices off a portion of his ear to give his retiring chief. Aside from the obvious inappropriateness of such a present, and for that matter its total lack of usefulness, the indication is that it's the last straw in his tenure with the police. He's next seen getting an in-home visit from Ho, another detective, after the unsolved disappearance of fellow cop Wong. Ho believes Bun can help with the case, and the younger cop has developed an adulation of the troubled Bun's success. As the investigation progresses, Ho first tolerates Bun's eccentricities, then decides he's more crazy than gifted. Bun's wife goes from being imaginary and possibly dead to thorny and fed up. This seeming chance of redemption for our cranially wounded protagonist becomes something darker entirely. His life is not merely fixable via another solved murder. These are problems that run deeper than successful results.
From the viewer's perspective, the initial assumption is that Bun's methods lead to accuracy, that he's disturbed, but justified by the ends. Yet, part of the film's quiet accomplishment is in the shift this opinion takes on a first viewing. To and Wai inject an unexpectedly strong sense of pathos onto the character. If he ever was, Bun is no longer the oddly lovable sufferer of unnamed mental disorders. When the topic of his wife is introduced, Bun then becomes a sad and sympathetic figure who clearly doesn't have this condition even remotely under control. The later revelation that not only is his wife still alive, but she left him precisely because of his refusal to control his condition, takes on ominously uneasy tones. The hero has inadvertently played us just as he played Ho, who by now has abandoned the idea that Bun could be his salvation in the Wong case.
Where all this leads seems to be the inevitable Johnnie To climax in a film otherwise conspicuously lacking in gunfire. A de facto house of mirrors where the reflections reveal Bun's perceptions bursts with inventive excitement despite bringing to mind the dissimilar setpiece in The Lady from Shanghai. It's a memorable, somewhat insane finale that, as pointed out in David Bordwell's spot-on essay in the included booklet, merely builds on the film's inherent ambiguity. The position the viewer involuntarily takes of not being able to form his or her own judgment eventually cycles back around to confusion, which is now pure and intended. What we can see in the conclusion is entirely lucid, but the lurking interest we still have in Bun gets discarded without any rebuttal. To and Wai, ever playful in their dark humour, seem to be intentionally leaving the viewer with the conflict of major closure versus minor loose ends, splitting the compulsive need to know how it all turns out in the face of ascertaining the idea that we've been given enough and it's time to move on.
It was a bit of a surprise when Eureka!'s Masters of Cinema label announced it would be releasing Mad Detective, even letting the film be its initial Blu-ray release (with identical extras to the DVD). Previously making a name for itself by providing essential releases of films by the likes of Lang, Murnau and Mizoguchi, Masters of Cinema has expanded into more recent territory by adding Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai to the stable. If Edmund Goulding and Barbet Schroeder qualify for inclusion, Johnnie To surely merits at least the same respect. Thus, Mad Detective is spine number 71 in the MoC line and receives a comprehensive release.
The DVD edition is actually both region-free and NTSC. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is progressive and nigh-on flawless. I spotted a bit of digital noise, but everything else looks quite impressive. The colour scheme of the film is drab and smoky, with the transfer retaining a light touch of grain. Detail is rendered adequately sharp, if not extremely so. There are many scenes which are set at night or simply darkly lit, and these too are presented without complaint. The source print is completely free from marks or damage of any sort. Obviously, the Blu-ray will improve in these areas, but the standard definition release is very good in its own right.
The dual-layered disc's audio can be played in either Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1, with or without English subtitles. The Cantonese tracks are not as different as you might expect. The DD 2.0 has inherent limitations, but even the multi-channel track doesn't use the rear speakers with great frequency. The biggest contrast may be in a few ambient sound effects and the pleasingly modest score, and, especially, the final, bullet-riddled scene. It should be stressed that Mad Detective isn't a shoot 'em up kind of film and the audio mix is more subtle than aggressive. As such, the DD 5.1 track is the preference, but both options are effective. The white-coloured subtitles are clear and free from mistakes.
On the disc, a few pertinent, informative supplements can be found. I've always been particularly fond of the MoC releases' insistence on including running times of the extras on the menu screen. The Johnnie To Q & A (33:07) taped in Paris in March of this year is well-edited, eliminating the needless translation bumps, and finds To discussing his career and, specifically, his breakthrough film The Mission. Mad Detective only briefly comes up and isn't really talked about at any length here. Similarly, a cigar smoking To sits comfortably as he's questioned by a room full of French reporters in a separate interview (20:56) from around the same time. To once again discusses his career - past, present, and future - and Mad Detective is barely mentioned.
Billed as "cast interviews" (15:57) from April of this year, another extra feature lets Lau Ching Wan and Lam Suet discuss their approaches to acting and skims across Mad Detective. Lau does the majority of the talking and seems entertaining, if a little disingenuous. The film's UK theatrical trailer (2:15) is also included, as is a sixteen-page booklet that features an insightful essay from David Bordwell best read after viewing the film.