Mad Detective Review

The Film

Part of this review is a reprint of my earlier cinema review

Throughout the marvellous TV series Monk, the obsessive compulsive detective, is forever saying that his "gift", his ability for detecting crimes, is also his curse. In that character's case he can see through people and appearances and get to the truth of what has really happened no matter what concealment or sophistry is used. Such an ability renders Monk the perfect theoretical detective, but the ticks of his condition make him a complete outsider. Perceiving things differently, perhaps more intensely and seemingly more truthfully is something that makes many people outsiders, and those with the condition of schizophrenia know this only too well.

Mad Detective is the tale of a man, Bun, whose ability to see through circumstances and pretences makes him a threat to the people around him. The extremes he will go to in order to divine the truth are at once awe inspiring and frightening. Employed as a detective, by the Hong Kong police force he will have himself thrown down several flights of stairs in a suitcase so he can understand the victim of a murder and resolve the question of the identity of a killer. Furthermore when his boss retires the only present he can offer is to give him his right ear as an earnest and bloody tribute, freshly cut from his head. Soon perceiving things becomes seeing things and hearing things, and then divorce, the sack and illness become Bun's lot in life.

Several years later, Bun finds his help asked for by Ho, a younger detective, in the disappearance of a cop whose gun has been used for several robberies. At first Bun is Ho's mentor, and he soon informs Ho that the the missing cop's partner is a man with seven personalities and starts attempting to re-create the crime he imagines has taken place. Ho tolerates his hallucinations, his embarrassing behaviour and his imaginary ex-wife until he becomes scared that Bun will land him in serious trouble rather than solve the case for him.

Incredibly short for such a complex set of ideas, Mad Detective offers the thought that the truly honest and incorruptible are friendless, mad and isolated by the world's horror and fear at them. Rather than adopt the same awkward comic approach that you will find to mental illness in even classic HK films like God of Gamblers, Johnny To and Wai Ka Fai place Bun as an innocent whose insight exacts a painful price on his happiness. Bun will see the corruption and calculation of the sane world, he will see embodiments of people's gluttony, their intelligence, their anger and he will see how the real world loses its own identity because of who it chooses to be.

Like his film Exiled, this new release from Johnny To again bends a genre, that of a crime thriller, to make something that is intelligent and spiritual. The film's literacy is proved by the final showdown which occurs in a room of mirrors much like Welles' The Lady From Shanghai. But the directors twist the idea of mirrors and ghosts to include the multiple personalities that Bun sees, and they even suggest how this fractured person may have come about in a very inventive twist. Similarly the film's belief is represented in Bun and his perception of messages from God affirming his intuitions - if Exiled surrendered its characters on the toss of a coin, Mad Detective offers a form of cracked divination and dangerous empathy to explain the world around its titular leading character.

Currently, I don't believe that there could be too better a combination of actor and director as Lau Ching Wan and Johnny To. Lau is an instinctive actor who inhabits his roles with a sublime ease, and when other stars phone in a performance as a lead in a thriller, he seems to make his part live and breathe. His previous work for Ringo Lam and his fantastic performance in Clarence Ford's HK Triad leave me wondering why he doesn't get more and better parts. Here he is a perfect balance of doomed naivety, rare intelligence and lost dignity. He makes Bun shabby, perceptive and weighed down by the knowledge of the evil that men do.

As for To, I do realise that he co-directed this film with Wai Ka-Fai who co-wrote the script, but he is enjoying a run of work which has rarely been equalled within his country's cinema for the life it gives a seemingly redundant genre of movies. After Woo's hyperbolic brothers in crime movies and Ringo Lam's more conventionally dramatic "fire" films, crime thrillers from Hong Kong have been little more than exercises in empty morality and machismo, with the clear exception of the Infernal Affairs trilogy. When many were looking to declare such films out for the count, To has spun crime movies into areas of social comment on the media, Buddhism, politics and spirituality. Like Jean Pierre Melville, he has found a vehicle for more than just stories of good guys and bad guys, and I for one can't wait to see what he will make of that director's Le Cercle Rouge.

Mad Detective is highly inventive, and as intuitive as its hero. With it, Johnny To has proved that he is the key home-grown film-maker from Hong Kong at this moment. John Woo, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark and now Wong Kar Wai, have all lost their bearings after looking towards Hollywood, but To is delivering with every film he makes. Mad Detective is the best of his collaborations with Wai Ka Fai and carries some of the greatness of last year's Exiled. Forget the caped crusader and those who quibble that To is no Master, this is a contender for movie of the year.

Transfer and Sound

Masters of Cinema give Mad Detective an MPEG-4 encoded transfer on an all region disc. The transfer possesses excellent contrast and little if no edge enhancement, and any boosting of the image is undetectable by my eye. The picture is sharp throughout with good detail, away from the screen's centre the image is less sharp but this seems to be the way the film is intended to look. It is a transfer that seems less vibrant than my existing R3 copy and this is definitely a more appropriate colour balance for the muted look of the movie.

A 1920 by 1080 screenshot can be accessed here

The disc comes with two HD options for sound along with an original stereo track. The True HD 5.1 track down mixed on my system but still had plenty of bottom to the mix, whilst the DTS master audio track offered more clarity overall. Both HD options are terrific and an old fashioned stereo even allows those without the right sound equipment to enjoy a wonderful package. The subtitles offered here are a huge improvement on the R3 disc with better choice of translation and more complete sense in the English on show.

Discs and Special Features

The extras served up come mainly from French sources with To speaking before and after a retrospective of his works at the Cinematheque Francais and answering questions from assorted journalists in an office setting as well. In the Q&A, To talks about how he came to make his film The Mission and how his method was dictated by having little money and virtually no script. He talks about the relative rareness of women in his work, setting up his Milkyway production company and cheerfully admits he can't write dialogue! Interestingly, he explains that despite being the subject of many of his films he hates triads, and has called the police on them when they have disrupted shoots of his.

In the interview, To covers some of the same ground again but seems to enjoy holding forth whilst chomping on his cigar. He explicitly discusses his unsuccessful experience with Tsui Hark on The Big Heat, and even starts to ruminate on the recent Edison Chen scandal. To discusses his very fluid way of shooting when the ideas are flowing, meaning some films are very quick but others like PTU can take years.

The cut together interview with cast members in Udine is far less worth your time with Lau Ching Wan being quite charming but sphinx-like in his meaningless responses to questions about his acting method and his personal similarity to his role. Occasionally, Lam Suet gives more winning responses but this extra is really like eavesdropping on a rather flat conversation.

My favourite special feature was David Bordwell's essay. After reading this insightful and well written piece and hearing his excellent commentary on An Autumn Afternoon, I say to Criterion and MOC we need more David Bordwell please...


Masters of Cinema's first foray into hi-def is a success and a steal at only a couple of quid more than the standard edition. Lovely transfer, excellent audio and a great essay, one of the films of the year is given one of the best treatments.

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