In MAD DETECTIVE, the second film I saw yesterday, my director hero, Johnnie To reunites with co-director Wai Ka Fai and Lau Ching Wan in a cop thriller that sort of revisits genre conventions and previous Johnnie To/ Milkyway Image films.
This film has some of the 'missing gun' plot we saw in PTU (2003), and a quirky misunderstood tragic hero who sees things that others cannot see like RUNNING ON KARMA (2003), insane shootouts in a room of mirrors like THE LONGEST NITE (1998), and some nihilism of the ELECTION films (2005 and 2006). But instead of feeling that the filmmakers were recycling their tricks ala John Woo, the original concept is executed so flawlessly that it's totally mindblowing and compelling to watch.
It's hard to write off Hong Kong cinema when, every now and then, a film as good as this can emerge from out of nowhere. Sure, for every MAD DETECTIVE, we get a shitty film like BULLETS AND BRAINS where we are exposed to lazy and inane filmmaking which, for reasons I can never comprehend, can still feature big-name stars. But MAD DETECTIVE is just as good as any good international films out there.
Detective Bun (Lau Ching Wan) is legendary in his eccentric crime-solving methods, reenacting the crime by posing as the victim (for example, when a victim was killed and stuffed into a suitcase, then pushed off the stairs, he asked the same to be done to him, or when a victim was buried alive, he would also do the same to himself) just so he can understand the minds of the killers and immediately identify them. He was fired from the force and left to live in solitude (with the voices in his head, often in the form of a woman he calls his wife, as company) after he sliced off his own ear and handed it to a retiring chief as a parting gift.
Years later, Bun is approached by Ho (Andy On) to aid him in an unsolvable case that the young cop's been following for 18 months. The case is about a missing police officer who disappeared mysteriously after he went to chase after a suspect in the forest. Only the officer's partner Chi-wai (Gordon Lam) lived to tell the tale. Since then, the missing cop's gun had been used for several armed robberies. The biggest suspect behind this is Chi-Wai, and only Bun can uncover the truth behind the mystery.
Bun has the gift of seeing people's inner personalities, their subconscious desires, mental states and emotions are all exposed to him. And the genius part of this film is that each facet of the personality is played by different actors. What Bun sees in Chi-Wai, for example, is seven other people following him. A fat guy (Lam Suet) represents Chi-Wai's cowardice and greed, a woman representing Chi-Wai's rationality, smooth-talking and manipulative nature, a scary thug (Cheung Siu Fai) is a personifaction of Chi-Wai's murderous and violent tendencies etc. Different situation is dominated by different aspects of the person's personality. (he is the fat man when eating, he is the woman when talking himself out of trouble, he is the thug when he's assaulting another)
The case gets increasingly complicated as Ho starts to question the reliability of the obviously insane detective, as Bun is confronted not only by the case but also his own mental illness.
It's good to see newly-crowned HKFA Best Actor winner Lau Ching Wan being in a film like this again after the string of rubbish comedies he starred in during the past few years. In this film, which I think has a good chance of getting him consecutive acting awards, he balances the tragic and the comic with the Bun character. His insanity is funny at times, but pitiful and sad too, I cannot think of any other actor being able to pull off what he did in the film. Neither Tony Leungs can do this, nor can Andy Lau, Francis Ng or Anthony Wong (the latter two can pull off the madness part well since they've done it in previous films, but to also bring in the right amount of sensitivity and sadness without being too melodramatically over-the-top that Lau Ching Wan brought in will seem much harder)
Even Andy On is surprisingly good in this film. Guy has been around for a few years, seldom taken seriously as he often got villainous roles in action films, but proved that he can just be a fine dramatic actor when working with the right directors.
But Gordon Lam is seriously becoming one hell of a character actor too. His crossover from TV to film had been different from most of his contemporaries. Most others would try to recapture the success they had on TV by starring in low-budget awful star vehicles that immediately end their film careers, Gordon Lam took smaller roles in ensemble films despite being one of the top TVB actors prior to his departure from TV, and just shone in one movie after another. And since the majority of the movies he appeared in were good, he just has more credibility.
Yes, it's unsurprising that one could lose hope in HK films. Directors are seldom consistent, big-name actors have ceased to be a guarantee for a film's quality (no one seems to pick their projects carefully), supposed blockbusters just don't seem to live up to their hype.
But seriously, this is the best HK film of the year.
MAD DETECTIVE trailer