Mad Detective Review

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by Chris McEneany Jul 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    Mad Detective Review
    Mad Detective opens only at selected cinemas on the 18th July, and this directorial collaboration between Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai (who first worked together on 1997's Too Many Ways To Be No.1) has moments of quirky grandeur, some clever nuances, an intricately-wrought plot and an engagingly odd-ball lead in Lau Ching-wan's whacked-out Insp. Bun, the loon-cake cop of the title, but there are still a few inconsistencies that derail the movie before it arrives at the cult-station that its makers had so obviously strived to reach.

    “No-one sees what you see.”

    “But I have a gift.”

    “People think you're crazy ...”

    “But I want to help people.”

    Whilst Mad Detective is, ostensibly, just another Hong Kong police thriller that enjoys taking the convoluted and intensely stylised route of so many others before it - the plot see-saws, characters do the most inexplicable of things, allegiances are made and broken and trust is never something to be found in copious amounts - it also plays some truly exquisite mindgames of a manner that many may find bewildering and borderline supernatural. It centres around the completely unothordox investigation into a missing cop, a series of armed robberies and the pursuit of a highly corrupt and dangerous fellow officer. But what makes the film so special is the madcap relationship between the two leads and that trait that is most unique to Asian cinema - the blissful and complete ignorance of conventional narrative.

    As bizarre as they come, Insp. Bun is nevertheless responsible for solving many otherwise baffling crimes with some marvelous skills that it is plainly obvious the police academy didn't equip him with. Although its genesis is never adequately made clear (which could, of course, be a plus point from certain perspectives), Bun's astounding level of psychic intuition for cracking cases involves methods that Sherlock Holmes would certainly not have indulged in - such as zipping himself into a suitcase in order to be thrown thrown down a flight of stairs or hacking a pig's carcass to pieces, or even burying himself in a grave. But these renegade escapades are designed with the aim of gleaning the last details from a victim's mind about the circumstances of their deaths and point Bun in the direction of those who killed them. But, beyond even this “Pushing Daisies”-ish shtick, he can actually “see” people's inner selves, and “hear” the internal voices that drive and coerce them to dark deeds. However, despite his obvious and numerous successes - the newspaper clippings of which form the neat opening credit montage - Bun has some serious mental issues of his own to contend with. During his chief's retirement party, amidst the cards and the platitudes, Bun happily slices off his own right ear and proffers it as a leaving gift. As you do, eh? Sometimes a golden handshake just isn't enough. Five years after being booted off the force for this barely explained Van Gogh stunt, Bun is contacted by his former partner Ho (Andy On) to help with a case that has so far proved mysterious and elusive - that of the afore-mentioned missing cop. Although he hasn't been seen for eighteen months, the cop's gun has been used in a series of vicious armed raids, resulting in four deaths. His partner, who was with him the night he vanished, as the pair were chasing a suspected thief into the woods, has come under the suspicion of Ho, but only a talented screwball like Bun has the ability to actually fathom out what is really going on.

    The film's clever conceit is that Bun's innate sensitivity to the hidden selves of those around him results in some jarring playfulness as they are revealed. For one thing, it doesn't always follow that a person has only one inner self. The lead suspect, Chi-wai (played by Lam Ka-tung), actually has seven distinct personalities incorporated into his being, all vying for supremacy at any given time. And the way that Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai handle this chop 'n' change of persona is deliberately employed to fox, bamboozle and pull the rug out from under you. The sheer spontaneity of these inner-self flare-ups is something that can seriously keep you on your toes. Whilst Ho only sees one person, Bun may see all these disparate identities loitering around in a huddle like maleovent shades. Further adding to the confusion is the way that these different pieces of the same person can assume control from shot to shot, or even appear to whisper in the ear of the main “external” persona. This effect is both disorienting and disconcerting. Check out the classic moment when Bun confronts the rogue cop at the urinal and, to incite him, pees all over him. In an utterly crazy image, we get to see the man's dominant female side standing there relieving her/himself at the toilet and the juxtaposition is actually quite alarming. It is a demented scene, all right.

    It is also a terrifically eerie sight to see the crisis of conscience that someone has over whether or not shoot Bun become a virtual tussle between the several diverse personalities that form his single identity, a huge, blurry smudge of hands groping for the weapon.

    However, despite a great and unpredictable performance from Lau Ching-wan, Bun is merely an accumulation of foibles and antics, as embarrassing to be around as Inspector Clouseau and as intense and unhinged as the original Martin Riggs - you simply have no idea what he'll do next. Shambling about with no socks on, ill-fitting clothes and a bandage around his head resulting from a beating that removes his new plastic ear, Bun looks just like a prototype Old Boy - part down-and-out, part mental ward escapee. His various antics appear to have no motive, no rhyme or reason and poor Ho is left running about picking up the pieces and trying to extricate his nutjob buddy from potentially life-threatening encounters. Bun's prviate life is no less complicated. Totally in love with his wife - who no-one else can see, of course - Bun becomes the Charlie Chaplin-esque figure of both buffoonery and tragedy, his own inner turmoil sliding from comical excess and absurdity to pathos and sadness in one fell swoop. As Bun, himself, states when Ho wonders how he sees such things, “It isn't easy being me.” Rather like the Haley Joel Osment's outcast-tyke from The Sixth Sense, Bun's life is a series of visitations, both welcome and unpleasant. His own reputation often brings out the worst in people, and even a trip to the cornershop can result in ugly confrontations in front of confused and bewildered onlookers. But the relationship he has with his wife, played by Kelly Lin, is wonderfully touching as well as seriously odd, and hats off to the scene when Ho and his own girlfriend are forced to acknowledge and even converse with what, to them, looks like an empty chair at the table for four at Bun's favourite restuarent.

    Andy On is good as Ho, yet he, most of all, is the hardest character to fully empathise with - really just a cypher for the audience. Much better value is Lam Ka-tung, who brings a depth to his villainous rozzer that is apparent even without his multiple personalities bumbling about all over the place. He, like Lau as Bun, gets to play-act and to manipulate and, as such, has a more commanding presence. The ladies, however, seem to have nothing to do other than shout and it is mainly down to Lau's performance that we actually care about them.

    A bizarre, yet beautiful pattern emerges as the film progresses, the bond between Bun and Ho coming to resemble an earlier fateful partnership. Yet it is here where the film sort of comes apart. Just when things appear to have a neat symmetry, events conspire to blast it open again, too many instances having a kind of forced abstraction that may feel emotionally resonant, but really don't make any sense at all and often only serve to undermine the flow and bog things down a bit. One encounter by the side of a not-so-shallow grave really doesn't add up at all and it may take a couple of viewings to wade through some of the other clue-gathering sessions that Bun indulges in to see if they actually hold any thematic water. But, by and large, Mad Detective is a compellingly produced and very effective genre-bender that never outstays its welcome and supplies a steady stream of visually arresting vignettes. A tense shootout in a hall of mirrors may smack of John Woo - even down to the multiple gun standoff - but the neat trick here is that half of the people holding guns can only be seen by one person and aren't actually there. Other than this, Mad Detective is actually quite light on action, although the film still feels packed with incident and activity. It also benefits from intriguing camerawork from Cheng Siu-keung, especially in the wooded sequences - the early chase scene features some lovely roving pans through the foliage - and a great, quasi-ambient score that, again, lifts the film out of the norm.

    Avid Asian movie aficionados will no doubt be aware that the film is already available on HK region-free DVD, but they may also like to know that a UK BD release is scheduled for October 20th from Eureka. Personally, I'd love to see it again. It doesn't have longevity and there isn't enough bite for it to really make an impact, but there are enough ideas here to satisfy and you simply can't beat the devil-may-care attitude that Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai have with structure, linear narrative and motivation. Even if they don't all care for it, I'm sure at least one of your inner selves will enjoy Mad Detective.


    Mad Detective is presented with a 2.35:1 ratio that mixes up its shots with lots of snarly close-ups of Bun's mush and a few off-kilter longer views of streets and, especially, the forest. In fact, the scenes set in the woods - be they the build-up to the incident that kick-starts the whole thing or Bun and Ho's subsequent investigations deep within them - are quite gloriously filmed and will undoubtedly offer some cool test material for depth and detail in a 1080p transfer.

    The film did not seem particularly colourful to me, although reds were quite vivid and the image does present some intriguing midnight blues. In places, it looked pretty dour and there are lots of moody, ill-lit interiors that should show up how well the forthcoming BD edition holds up with blacks and shadow play.


    A flurry of gunplay and shattering glass in the hall of mirrors may well prove to be the audio highlight of Mad Detective when it arrives on Blu-ray. But, throughout, there are myriad little instances of effective surround, such as impacts, babble, natural ambience in the wooded scenes and the quirkily evocative score weaves some moody magic, also. The rainstorm that Bun takes to be a sign from God is also quite immersive and the roar of Ho's motorcycle provides a bit of oomph. Oh, and don't forget to savour the deliciously solid cracks of a couple of good head-butts, too.


    If you like Asian genre cinema then Mad Detective has ample delights on offer. Once again, the conventions of the cop thriller are thrown to the wind and liberally interspersed with witty tricks, visual panache and a left-field approach that pulls the rug from beneath traditional narrative. With performances that are assured and always interesting and a central idea that is novel and daft enough to engage, it is a shame that the script so willingly skips over its internal logic. Leaving the audience behind and wrong-footing them is something that works well in some things - House Of Flying Daggers, for example - but can prove to be alienating in others. Sadly, Mad Detective ditches coherence a little too early on and never quite regains it. But this does nothing to ruin the engagingly goofy atmosphere of Bun's detective work and the film does hammer home a nicely poignant realisation that, in the right frame of mind, can be quite jolting. Throw in the often clever use of the multiple inner workings of people and a top notch final shootout and you have a movie that is never boring and never plays by the rules. Eminently enjoyable hokum from people that take delight in just making the films that they want to make. Here's one that surely won't get the American remake treatment. Hopefully.

    Worth seeking out.

    The Rundown

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