Directed by: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai || Produced by: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai
Screenplay by: Wai Ka-Fai, Au Kin-Yee || Starring: Sean Lau, Lam Ka-Tung, Andy On, Kelly Lin, Flora Chan, Lee Kwok-Lun, Jo Kuk, Jay Lau, Lam Suet, Cheung Siu-fai
Music by: Xavier Jamaux || Cinematography: Cheng Siu-Keung || Edited by: Tina Baz || Country: Hong Kong || Language: Cantonese
Running Time: 90 minutes
Filmmakers Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai are the modern descendants of John Woo. Like fellow prolific Hong Kong filmmakers Andrew Lau and Wong Kar-wai, To and Wai mix and match the elegant, painstakingly crafted visuals of classic Hong Kong filmmaking with modern screenwriting sensibilities and a dry sense of humor. It’s a big reason why so many Hong Kong crime dramas feel like art-house love stories, and vice versa. Compared to their Western gangster counterparts, Hong Kong crime epics feel slicker, less blunt, more lavishly directed, and more tightly scripted. Depending on the particular story at hand, that can be a good thing or a bad thing.
To and Wai’s Mad Detective is a great example of a modern day “arthouse-gangster” film from Hong Kong. At its core, it is a crime drama about cops and robbers, criminals with devious plots and morals that are craftier still; but Mad Detective is also about the psychology of crime itself, as well as the empathy required to root out criminal behavior.
What sets this film apart from most of its Asian brethren and its Western cousins are the eccentric personality and talents of its lead character, a terrific Sean Lau as the titular “mad” detective. Through various odd exercises and reenactments of crime scenes, Lau’s protagonist is able to perceive the hidden motives and identities of the murderers he’s tasked with bringing to justice. Wai and To portray Lau’s ability to perceive other people’s hidden personalities, such that when he studies a crime scene or studies a person with whom he’s conversing, he can view their persona stretched across multiple “individuals.” In frame, various scenes cut back and forth between an outsider’s point of view (re: seeing the world as is) and Lau’s perception of it; the end result is that one character may be portrayed by their “literal” actor one moment, and then be depicted as one or more of their “inner personalities” by other actors the next.
This may sound confusing, but co-directors To and Wai film this split perspective so subtly and carefully that the first couple times it’s shown, you may not even notice it. Like Memento (2000), Shutter Island (2010), or Fight Club (1999), Mad Detective is one of those semi-cryptic mystery films that plays differently on a second or third viewing, but retains the fun personality of its introductory watch.
It’s never clear whether Lau’s ability is supernatural, psychic, or merely hyper-perceptive, but whatever its origin, his character’s portrayal and wacky behavior are seamless. To and Wai’s use of wide-angle lenses even for close-ups, often to keep each of the villain’s multiple “personalities” in focus, maintains a sense of foreboding disorientation throughout, but it’s constantly balanced by the audience’s POV-character, Andy On, a rookie inspector who seeks out Lau’s help in solving the inciting incident.
In addition to this intriguing, unique premise and memorable lead character, Mad Detective is bolstered by a strong supporting cast, a subtle yet well written soundtrack, great nighttime cinematography, and a well paced script that wraps the movie up at a lean 90 minutes. The film is efficient and to the point, yet never feels rushed or aggressively edited. Its ending is a nice thematic wraparound that leaves its emotional conflict open-ended in a satisfying manner. All things considered, Mad Detective feels as orchestrated, precise, and deliberate as the works of David Fincher or Dennis Villeneuve.
A film that opens up as many psychological, sociological, and spiritual cans of worms as this one does could never be done justice in a single review, but it’s to the film’s credit that only a brief overview can preview its many delights, while still leaving much to the cinematic imagination. Mad Detective is unique, yet its uniqueness only shines so bright because its filmmakers pay so much attention to the basics of screenwriting, cinematography, characterization, and story structure. In combination with these universal filmmaking rules and the international respect the crime drama commands regardless of cultural context, Wai Ka-Fai and Johnnie To take many visual cues and cultural subtleties from their native forebears to create a fascinating cop-and-robbers story that pays homage to Hong Kong’s fabled cinematic history.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Mad Detective is many things, but one thing it is not is derivative. Writer-directors Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai embrace their oddball premise and build multiple endearing character arcs around it, not the least of which is Sean Lau’s bravado performance. Weaved around this character-driven story is an eye-catching cinematographic package of brilliant low-key lighting, great ensemble blocking, and a fantastic ending. New life is breathed into one of the oldest genres in film.
? The ice cream man did it! The ice cream man did it! A few minor tweaks in editing and set-pieces and this story could’ve made for a great comedy film.