Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai's directorial collaborations are often less satisfying than their solo efforts, and Mad Detective is no exception. One of those films that's both a lot smarter than it initially appears and at the same time not nearly as satisfying as you'd like, at times its intriguing premise doesn't feel quite as well thought through or smoothly delivered as it could be. In a riff on To's earlier (and rather better) Running On Karma, in which Andy Lau's pumped up bodybuilder could see the past lives that dictated people's fate in this life, Lau Ching Wan's disturbed cop has the ability to see people's inner personalities, be they male, female, fat, thin or, in the case of one suspect, all that or more. Not that that's his only quirk: he solves crimes by putting himself in the place of either killer or victim, which can mean slashing a pig carcass with a craving knife, being buried alive or thrown down several flights of stairs in a suitcase. Not that he's an Asian version of Monk - Tony Shaloub never cut off his own ear and gave it to his boss as a leaving present. Literally damaged goods, he may have a unique gift for solving crimes but it's one that leaves him unable to cope with a normal life, as his deceptively complex relationship with his wife - who may or may not be dead or a figment of his imagination - underlines. Called back in by his one-time protégé to solve a series of robberies carried out with a missing cop's gun, he finds out that the chief suspect (and his conflicting seven inner personalities) is even more mixed up than he is...
With his bad haircut and face that's not only lived in but condemned for demolition as soon as they can get the squatters out, Johnnie To regular Lau Ching Wan's hangdog expression does a lot of the work for him in the title role (think Hong Kong's answer to Randall and Hopkirk: Deceased's Mike Pratt), which is just as well considering how much of the film his character spends in a state of denial. He doesn't overtly play for sympathy either, which helps the film avoid some of the more clinging sentimentality or stereotyping that Hong Kong films often overdo when dealing with mental illness, making his character as maddening one minute as he is empathetic the next. The film's structure mirrors his psyche perfectly, which can be a problem. Moving between his impressions and what those around him see, the film is built on constantly shifting sands and can certainly be tricky to keep track of at times - this is one film that definitely benefits from a second viewing or at the very least a substantial use of the rewind button to catch your bearings. But if it's not always as accessible as you'd like on a first viewing, there are still plenty of striking moments to keep you hooked, be it a conversation with the lost personality of a killer in the woods, a double date at a restaurant that only involves three `real' people and one character's subtle confusion at how to cover up the evidence after the final shootout that takes place, appropriately enough, in a room filled with mirrors that reveal both cop and killer's true personalities. Three-and-a-half stars.
As with their DVD release (also included in the dual format edition), Eureka's first Blu-ray title is a rather impressive package with a good 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, though both the sound mixes are a bit low, and plentiful extras, including lengthy French interviews with Johnnie To, Italian interviews with Lau Ching Wan and Lam Suet (the latter a permanent fixture in To's films), UK trailer and booklet.
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Mad Detective isn't an easy film to get to grips with. Throughout the investigation we aren't sure whose perspective is correct: whether the mad detective himself is simply having visions and he is wrong, or whether his insights form a true representation of what is going on in the world. You don't find out until the final shoot-out scene, and then it becomes horribly obvious which is true.
Without the 'I see inside people' supernatural/insane aspect, this film is a very straightforward Hong Kong police procedural. But the fact that it centres around an ex-policeman so bonkers he cut off his own ear makes it convoluted and intriguing. Just like the Sixth Sense, much of the Mad Detective makes much more sense on second viewing. But unlike the Sixth Sense it is devoid of Hollywood's flourishes and over-statement, so instead the beauty of the film comes across from the nuances of the actors' performances. The scenes with the mad detective's wife are especially heart-rending -- their final goodbye in particular. There are parts of the Mad Detective which are bloody, startlingly violent, unspeakably sad, and just plain confused. The sub-titling isn't bad but we needed to pause now and then to work out what was happening. However, for the majority of the movie we were carried along with the plot, entranced by the possibility that the detective might not actually be as mad as he seems. In some ways I was reminded of Angel Heart; another dark detective story poised on the edge of the unknown. The special features were about average; the Q&A with the director would make more sense if you'd seen his other movies. We gave up halfway through the cast interviews as they weren't adding much to the overall experience.
So a film well worth renting if you like oddball mysteries. Not one to go for if you prefer high-kicking shoot-em-up action films. Definitely one to absorb and mull over. 8/10
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